Wednesday, September 25, 2013


This month INK bloggers are discussing favorite books from the past and present. First a present favorite…..

Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction: Stories and advice from a lifetime of writing and editing by Tracy Kidder & Richard Todd. Kidder is one of my favorite authors; writers’ creative processes fascinate me; and learning how writers and editors work together is my version of People magazine. They had me at Good.

Kidder and Todd have a relationship that most writers can only fantasize about. They work together from vague idea through countless drafts to polished manuscript.  Each takes a turn in Good Prose to describe how that works. 

Kidder describes his problems with story, point of view, structure, and more, in his own books -- and his ways out of them. (His Vietnam memoir My Detachment, took him fifteen years to complete.) I noted dozens and dozens of quotes to use for this blog, but there’s too much good stuff to choose even one. Nonfiction writers and fans of Tracy Kidder: READ THIS BOOK!

Though I was an insatiable reader as a child, I mostly read fiction. The only nonfiction books I remember devouring were the orange-covered biographies, “The Childhood of Famous American Series” from Bobbs-Merrill. Today these would be called historical fiction, with their invented incidents and dialogue.

In the last few years I’ve found two rather shabby volumes at library book sales and I reread them this morning with some trepidation. But I did enjoy them and their striking silhouette illustrations, lo these many decades later. Abe Lincoln: Frontier Boy wasn’t too over-the-top-hagiographic, and Eli Whitney: Boy Mechanic included moral dilemmas, mistakes, and a dogged determination to “find a way.”

Footnote: Bobbs-Merrill is long gone, but after many mergers and buyouts, “The Childhood of Famous American Series” is still published by Simon & Schuster, with new and old titles.

Perhaps those orange biographies did leave their mark. In the biographies I write, I try to include as many childhood experiences as possible.  I was lucky with Jeannette Rankin: Political Pioneer, because she gave long interviews to the Women’s Oral History Project at UC Berkeley, telling many stories of her growing-up years. 

I had much less information on Mercy Otis Warren’s girlhood, but I used what I had – her love of learning, reading, and writing – as the narrative arc for Write On Mercy! The Secret Life of Mercy Otis Warren.


Picture book biographies are enjoying a Golden Age right now – long may they reign!  Many recent ones show how the child is mother/father to the woman/man.

• Perhaps my favorite is The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind  by the boy himself, William Kamkwamba, and Bryan Mealer. This is a contemporary story of an impoverished African boy who curiosity and perseverance brought remarkable achievements. There's a YA version as well.

• Deborah Heligman: The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos. Words, numbers, and illustrations unite to tell a remarkable story.

• Deborah Hopkinson’s A Boy Called Dickens. The author invites us to follow her through the streets of London looking for little Charles. 

• Patrick McDonnell, Me…Jane. A brilliant example of the genre, for very young children. 

• Tanya Lee Stone: Who Says Women Can’t be Doctors?: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell  and Elizabeth Leads the Way: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Right to Vote. Stone draws readers into the stories by asking  “What would you do?.... Who says?

A few months ago I confessed my love of the OED [Oxford English Dictionary] on this blog. And so I was glued to my headphones this summer listening to David Crystal read his recent book, The Story of English in 100 Words. 

Much more than a traditional Latin-Saxon-Danish-Norman story of English, Crystal uses individual words (100 of them,) to dissect the influence of empire, social class, dialects, spelling, literature, technology, pop culture, etc. etc. etc. on our endlessly evolving language. Go forth, dear writers, and use it with panache!*

*OED: 1. A tuft or plume of feathers, esp. for a headdress or as a decoration for a helmet, hat, or cap.
2. fig. Flamboyant confidence of style or manner; dashing display; swagger 

1 comment:

Deborah Heiligman said...

Thank you for a great post and for the shout-out for my BOY.