It’s important, I think, for kids to read about people who lived to a ripe old age. They can get a sense of a journey instead of a need to achieve one goal. Some books try a bit too hard to turn a life story into a smooth, straight narrative of divine inspiration as a child into immediate success as an adult. The real intrigue lies in exploring how a person found their own curvy path, around many obstacles, to a full life well lived.
Many people who would make interesting subjects for biographies could be considered late bloomers. It’s not their childhoods that are necessarily so interesting but how they developed later on. Churchill, for example, did not become Prime Minister until he was 65 years old—a senior citizen. I once interviewed an artist named Harry Lieberman who didn’t start painting until he was 76 years old. For the next 27 years he was quite prolific. Recently, the New York Times had a fascinating article on a New Yorker by the name of Ruth Proskauer Smith, currently 100 years old, who upon retiring began taking a bus and train downtown every day to teach a course on the Supreme Court. What kid wouldn’t admire her?
Kids certainly do need role models. So it’s encouraging to see Indiana Jones still fighting the good fight well into his 60s. A youngin’ could learn a thing or two from a guy like that. And if they could read books about real life senior citizen super heroes, even better.
Historians, however, must face the harsh reality that the next best thing to a live super hero is a recently deceased one. As many researchers will tell you, obituaries make the most fascinating reading. Especially today, when an entire generation of people who lived through a remarkable period in American history are beginning to die off. The pages of the obituaries have recently been including all too many holocaust survivors, World War II veterans, and people who actually knew Franklin D. Roosevelt as their President.
As a writer grows older, it becomes easier to relate to how complex a person’s life can be and how rich the details that can be shared in a book. Pete Seeger, who himself turned 90 this year (and, I’m happy to say, is the subject of a forthcoming pb biography by an esteemed nonfiction writer), has a great "traditional" song that includes a line about perusing the obituaries.
"I get up each morning and dust off my wits
Open the paper and read the obits
If I'm not there, I know I'm not dead
So I eat a good breakfast and go back to bed"