In his post entitled, History: What's the Point? Don Brown points out that many kids are bored when they study history in school because, basically, the presentation stinks. The world of children's nonfiction still has a long way to go in figuring out how to write and present information in a way that truly appeals to kids.
There are some bright spots to be sure. A couple of weeks ago I had the giddy- with- excitement treat of hearing a talk at the New York Public Library with two writers who are rock stars at making history interesting for kids.
Their names: James Cross Giblin and Russell Freedman.
That's Mr. Giblin on the left, Mr. Freedman on the right.
They don't look like rock stars at first glance? Well, apparently they've been friends since 1960 (they described each other as their oldest publishing friend) so they must have learned how to go incognito by now.
I thought I'd share some of what they talked about with the hope that we can all better understand how it is possible-- albeit time consuming, strenuous, and far from straightforward-- to make history a great read that can appeal to a wide variety of kids.
Here’s a bit of what they had to say. Questions were posed by John Peters of the Donnell Library Center of the New York Public Library.
How did you come to write about history?
JCG: When he started writing, he was already an editor. This gave him the luxury to write what he was interested in. He was a child of WWII and became interested in history that way.
RF: He was a history buff as a kid and read two books that taught him how interesting history could be.(The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Van Loon and This Believing World by Louis Browne). They both showed him the possibility of language and how well a nonfiction book could be written. He learned that it was impossible to tell the story without getting into the mind of characters (the beginning of his interest in biography). In addition, he learned that history lends itself to a narrative thread.
How do you approach biography?
JCG: He believes it always starts with character: getting to know them, what they did, etc. Out of that comes the narrative line. Then you find the character’s action line, in a similar way to a playwright.
RF: His philosophy: writing biography is like being married. He usually spends a year or longer on a book. He consciously chooses not to live with someone he thinks is despicable so he likes all the people he writes about.
JCG: He doesn’t mind writing about people he doesn’t like (for example, Adolph Hitler). He finds these kind of people complicated, sometimes contradictory, and thus good subjects for biography.
How do you approach your writing?
JCG: To begin researching, he reads as much as he can. He outlines a lot, overall and then chapter by chapter. He’s a very slow writer. Every sentence and paragraph must sound right before he goes on. Usually this produces one major draft,then touch ups, and then he's finished.
RF: He spends 3 or 4 months reading and researching before attempting to start writing. His first draft includes everything he can think of. He usually writes six or seven drafts. He feels a book is never really finished. He never achieves the ideal image of the book he had in mind when he started.
How did you become involved with photo biography?
JCG: RF claims JCG first mentioned the term to him years ago. RF then said the first subject should be Lincoln because he was the first President to be photographed. RF: He believes photos are an enhancement. The language must evoke the world and the person or else you are lost.
Best rock star advice in a nutshell for writers of history for kids:
When asked how they make their writing appropriate for children, RF responded, "You don't simplify, you distill."
A few examples of their work that has led to their well deserved rock star status:
James Cross Giblin:
The Life and Death of Adolph Hitler
Good Brother, Bad Brother.The Story of Edwin Booth and John Wilkes Booth
The Many Rides of Paul Revere
Lincoln: A Photobiography
Who Was First? Discovering the Americas