Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Live Chat Starts NOW!

Many of us INK writers have a passion for biography. We thought it might be fun to have an open dialogue about cool biographies for kids--the how and why of who we choose to write about, how we discover the voice we need for any given topic, and what angle, perspective, or format we decide upon when embarking on a new biography. I've been asked to start, but we'll be open for discussion for a full hour, live, until 1 pm EST, so please jump in with any questions or comments you like to either expand on something we say, or take the conversation in a new, related direction.

This past November, I wrote an article for SLJ about picture book biographies and looked at several fantastic books by authors I inferred were extremely passionate about their subjects. For me, passion is a necessary ingredient. But what other factors inform a writer’s decision-making process? A small gem of information or an interesting angle often piques my interest, or a person who I know to be extraordinary but who seems to have escaped getting his or her fair share of attention for whatever reason. For example, and I admit the evidence for this is purely anecdotal--if you ask a random person who Elizabeth Cady Stanton is, chances are you will get a slightly embarrassed, incomplete response. But they will most certainly know who Susan B. Anthony is from her famous portrait on her coin. This has always irked me. No disrespect intended to Ms. Anthony who was extremely important, but without Stanton, Anthony would likely not have blossomed into the full mover and shaker she became. Stanton was the force behind the first Seneca Falls convention; Stanton was the first one to act on the idea that women should have the right to vote. My disappointment with her seeming lack of notoriety sparked the inspiration that became Elizabeth Leads the Way. This same sense of exasperation fueled my desire to write about the so-called Mercury 13 women who took all the same astronaut testing as our original Mercury 7 astronauts, but NASA would not admit women into the space program. Yet even self-proclaimed space buffs are often amazed that they have never heard of these pioneering women. With any luck, my forthcoming Almost Astronauts book will help change that.

And now, let the conversation begin! As a reader, what do you think of these approaches? As a writer? What other burning questions do you have? What do YOU want to talk about?


Donna McDine said...

Hi...thrilled that you are hosting this open forum today and glad that it isn't an April Fools joke - LOL. That's my feable attempt at humor. Now to my question:

When a magazine works off a theme list and they provide the title of the theme (i.e., Catherine the Great)…what is the best way to approach the query letter and outline? Should it focus on one interesting fact of the individual? (i.e., 14-year-old German Princess is betrothed to be the bridge of Grand Duke Peter via letter from Empress Elizabeth of Russia to her parents).

Looking forward to your respnose.

Warm regards,

Liz said...

Hi Tanya!

I agree that there has to be some passion and maybe an angle or slant that the author can find to bring out about the person.

Anna M. Lewis said...

Hi Tanya!
I am looking forward to Sandy's Circus coming out this Fall! I was wondering why you chose to write about Calder? I think he is wonderful and I am so glad he is going to shine in this beautiful book.
Blue Balliett's new book, Calder's Game, coming out in May. I love how biography trends just seem to happen.

Also, I HAVE to add:
Happy Birthday, Kelly!
(If she is hare!)

Liz said...

Do you think that writing a biography has helped you write about your characters and their story - in your fiction pieces?

I ask because 'the character. . .' has been commented on by editors for some of my PB and novel manuscripts.

Tanya Lee Stone said...

Hi Donna,

I'm not familiar with magazine writing, so hopefully we will hear from someone who is well versed in this.

Hi Liz,

Yes, passion is key--always!

Hi Anna,

I've been enamored with Calder's work since I was a little kid and write a bit about that in my author's note for Sandy's Circus. His art was so colorful and bold and happy--it really made the idea of art come alive for me, a kid who was not as intrigued with other kinds of art as much as my sister was. Calder gave me a way into art that I hadn't felt with other artists.

Anna M. Lewis said...

Okay, I meant to type 'If she is here'!!

Linda Salzman said...

How difficult was it to convince an editor that Calder was a marketable topic? Was that an issue you discussed? Or will an editor give you leeway to go with an idea that you find interesting?

Linda Salzman said...

That question was for Kathleen and Gretchen, too, if you guys are around.

How do you convince an editor that someone you find fascinating, well-known or not, is worthy of a place on their list?

Tanya Lee Stone said...

Hi Linda,

It depends on the editor, as well as your approach to a topic. There are obscure topics that do well because a writer executes it so well, such as Patience Goodspeed. My editor of Calder, Catherine Frank of Viking says, "If a story is well written, that's what matters." We never actually discussed the marketability of Calder. And, she reminds me, the circus angle makes it more approachable as a picture book, as it's not a full-length biography.

Anna M. Lewis said...

Linda, great question!

Tanya, Sandy's Circus is illustrated by Boris Kulikov and so is Kathleen's new book, Fartiste.
They are going to be beautiful!
I know they say that authors don't pick their illustrators but did either of you have a say in these books? Is this OT? (Sorry)

Tanya, I love Kandinsky because of his strong colors. Great story. So your sister is an arist?

Tanya Lee Stone said...

Liz asked: Do you think that writing a biography has helped you write about your characters and their story - in your fiction pieces?

I would actually answer that writing fiction has helped me write more fully developed nonfiction profiles of real people. Once I started writing fiction, I allowed myself to be more immersed in setting, scene, and nuance than I think I had previously in nonfiction.

I'd love to hear what Kathleen, Gretchen, and others think.

Kathleen Krull said...

Hi everyone -
Passion is key - Tanya hit it exactly right. For many reasons - most of all because that's how we write the best book we can. But also because the process of publishing a book is a slog, an uphill battle, no April Fools joke... one of the toughest parts is convincing the editor that your subject really is worthy. For that part you have to have all kinds of passion.

For a slight change of topic, and if it's any consolation - here's why the work we do is important - one of many articles lately about ignorance in America, but this one is especially specific & blunt -
"With a Few More Brains ..."

Linda Salzman said...


Have you found that has changed over time. I've heard many editors say they would not consider a book on a topic that could not be easily tided to the curriculum. They expect the writer to do the research first and explain how the topic does indeed tie in. Does this change as you become more established in the field?

Tanya Lee Stone said...

Linda said: I've heard many editors say they would not consider a book on a topic that could not be easily tided to the curriculum.

There are a lot of topics that can be tied to the curriculum with a little creative thinking. Calder may not scream "curriculum tie-in" but he used found materials, so teachers can do all kinds of interesting recycling and environmental projects while learning about a great American artist! I think it's all in how you look at it.

Gretchen Woelfle said...

I'm here! The blog wouldn't let me in for the longest time!

I agree with Tanya that passion is a key. You'll be spending months, even years, with your subject and learning more than you thought you wanted to know about his/her hometown, family, friends, employers -- not to mention the historical era in which s/he lived!

I recently published JEANNETTE RANKIN: POLITICAL PIONEER. JR lived from 1880-1973 which meant I had to research most of the major issues and events of 20th century history! those long-lived heroes may well do you in!

Writing about writers means that you have to do all that research, PLUS read all their writing, so you'd better like their writing too. I'm in the midst of one such writer biography now. My next subject is a fascinating woman who was illiterate.

Another key point to many biographies is on-the- spot research. Walking the streets/fields/hallways where your subject walked can put you in touch with inklings you might otherwise not get.

I visited Haydn houses in Austrian towns and villages, a palace in Hungary, as well as Vienna. (By the time we reached Vienna my traveling companion had seen enough. She went to the Beethoven house instead!) Envisioning his life in the actual settings helped me write the book.

Tanya, I hope you went to Paris to research Calder's Circus!

Anna M. Lewis said...

I noticed that you have a biography on Hillary coming out in September. THAT must have been interesting to work on/write.
Any comments you can share?

Tanya Lee Stone said...

Kathleen, thanks for sharing that link. So interesting.

Hi Gretchen! I would like to take this opportunity to say that I am soooo glad a bio of Rankin is coming out--I can't wait to read it!

Gretchen Woelfle said...

About magazine queries for biography subjects: I know that the Cobblestone magazines want overviews as well as quirky details/anecdotes. I'd say that if you haven't done all the research for a full biography, go for the quirky anecdote. If you'd already done all the research, you can give them three or four possible subjects.

Linda Salzman said...

I've notice a lot of pb biographies recently focusing on the childhood of famous Americans. Do you think this is a case of trying to find a new hook or angle on an old subject. Or is it a new way to approach a subject that makes them more appealable to kids?

Catherine Frank said...

Tanya asked me to chime in as her editor for Sandy's Circus!

As far as whether Tanya had a voice in choosing Boris Kulikov as the illustrator, she and I had certainly discussed the kind of illustrations we'd like the book to have, and we had thrown some artists' names back and forth. Boris actually became involved in the project in a sort of "happy accident" manner--and we're all absolutely thrilled with the results.

Tanya Lee Stone said...

Unless those books you refer to are all coming from the same publisher, I would hazard a guess that this is less of an intentional trend than that of the collective consciousness. I'm always fascinated by how certain approaches or topics seem to come in clumps. There is truth to that "ideas are in the air" saying. I never pay attention to trends. I write about what fascinates me. So if a gem of information that intrigues me happens to fall in line with such a trend, I might not even know it until publication time.

Donna McDine said...

Gretchen..thanks for your advice..appreciate it!


Tanya Lee Stone said...

Catherine said "and we're all absolutely thrilled with the results."

Shouting in happy agreement! Boris's artwork is incredible. Truly.

Gretchen Woelfle said...

I'm thrilled about the ever-expanding genre of picture book biography.

I'd also like to say how much I admire Kathleen Krull's chapter book series on Giants of Science (Viking.) She does a superb job integrating personal details with difficult scientific information. Her conversational voice is just perfect to accomplish this difficult task.

Voice is crucial in biography, as well as fiction. We all remember the encyclopedic drone of past nonfiction books, including biography. Bringing a subject to life depends so much on the narrative voice, especially since you can't invent scenes and dialogue to express the emotional life of your subject. Look at Kathleen's books for an effective model.

Kathleen Krull said...

After finally figuring out what OT means - Boris Kulikov RULES. (Or as I overheard kids at the museum saying yesterday, he's really "tight" - the new term for "awesome"?) Can't wait to see Tanya's new book. No, I had no say over the artist. We had hoped my husband Paul Brewer would illustrate FARTISTE, but the publisher chose Boris. So it was a case of bad news/good news - but we couldn't be happier with the humorous heights Boris reached.

So, I think Hillary RULES as well. (NOW we'll get some comments.) Her life story consists of encountering one barrier after another. This ties in with Tanya's new ALMOST ASTRONAUTS. Hillary's first goal was to be an astronaut, at a time when NASA didn't accept women. So my book is all about daring to fly, it's subtitled DREAMS TAKING FLIGHT, I'm really proud of it, and I thank you for noticing it!

Tanya Lee Stone said...

Oh-ho, Kathleen, perhaps we should chat later about putting together some useful resources for both our books that will provide teachers and librarians with something extra that could be great.

Linda Salzman said...

Do you really think writers can set the standard by just writing what they are passionate about?

What are some barriers you've faced in the past in writing about a somewhat obscure subject and then subsequently selling your idea/manuscript?

Liz said...

any tips on getting the 'voice' and making the biography appeal to teens?

Tanya Lee Stone said...


I'd love to hear what the others have to say about this. For me, the short truth is that you can bet that in addition to the books of mine you see (i.e. the ones that are published) there are others biding their time. Some I will go to bat for more than once because I believe in my passion for a topic even though I have yet to convince an editor. Some of those may become books. Other battles I will lose. So I guess, in short, the barrier is the fact that regardless of my passions, I have manuscripts that may never become books.

Gretchen Woelfle said...

so many things to say about biographies.....

About obscure subjects: I've had editors say that if they haven't heard of the person, there's no market for a biography. Catch 22 or what? Without a bio.....

Focusing on the childhood of subjects will naturally appeal to kids. Don Browns' pb bio of Mark Twain, An American Childhood, used anecdotes that clearly relate to his later writing. I think this is an important point. The childhood should relate to the adult accomplishments of your subject.

About tweaking the truth: there are "biographies" out there that never happened, or that distort the truth. Don't get me started....
However "fictionalized" accounts that stick tight to what happened (with some dialogue or interior monologue thrown in) or what is likely to have happened are just fine by me. I'm thinking of two stellar examples: Action Jackson by Greenberg/Jordan/Parker and Henry's Freedom Box by Levine/Nelson.

Anna M. Lewis said...

Kathleen, that's a fantastic perspective for Hillary's bio... can't wait to read it. Kind of interesting what may happen by the time it is published. (Sorry about the OT. Also, my son is 13 so tight has been around here for a while.)

Tanya, interesting comment about tying book into the curriculum. After teaching Art Appreciation classes for the last 9+ years, I can tie Art in like nobody's business! I'm already jumping on Calder for next year!

Tanya Lee Stone said...

Liz said: any tips on getting the 'voice' and making the biography appeal to teens?

I would first immerse yourself in the teen nonfiction shelves at your local bookstore or library and see what kinds of voices you find there. Raw, honest, and true are the words that come to mind for me.

Liz said...

Thanks Tanya!

Anna M. Lewis said...

I just have to add that my 13YO son loves rock musician biographies the best.

Doesn't get more raw than that!

Linda Salzman said...

It's after 1:00 so we're going to have to let Gretchen and Kathleen go get some breakfast and Tanya must be hungry for lunch by now.

Many thanks to our great INK writers for making themselves available. And thanks to everyone else for their comments. Feel free to add to the comments in the future.

Kathleen Krull said...

Assuming we can still chime in after the deadline---

As a vast generalization, I think "not tied in to curriculum" is one of the excuses editors use when they're just not in love with a ms. They have to feel passionate, too.... The only solution is to persist.

I'm all ears! As you probably know, most kids have no concept of hurdles women have jumped....

Thank you so much. I should mention that my sweetie Boris Kulikov also illustrated "Giants of Science" - I feel fortunate in that respect, but not so much in another, in that these books make my head explode.

Anonymous said...

I am so upset I had to miss this chat event today. I so wanted to be here to participate and to share thoughts and ideas.

Please consider doing this again.

Yours in truth and fiction,

Alison Ashley Formento said...

I missed it, too, but really enjoyed reading the discussion. Hope you try this again sometime.