Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Pierre de Coubertin

This week, January 1st, we celebrate the 148th anniversary of the birth of Baron Pierre de Coubertin.

I freely admit I am an Olympics junkie. This is very odd, considering I generally do not like sports. I don't watch football, can't tell you how the local teams are doing, and am apathetic about the whole Yankees/Red Sox thing. But every four years I become a temporary expert on all things Olympic. I watch every game and competition, read all about the athletes, and memorize all the stats. Want to know the rules of beach volleyball or who's favored in the 100 meter freestyle? Just ask me.

And I owe it all to Pierre de Coubertin. At 5'3", 100 pounds, no one would have mistaken the little man with the big mustache for an athlete. But no man was more important to the modern Olympics. He almost singlehandedly brought the Olympics back to life after more than 1500 years.

Inspired by the English system of encouraging athletics in schools, Coubertin set out to bring sports to French schools. He had little success at first. He began to travel to other countries to study the application of athletics to education. Gradually, his dream grew. He decided he wanted to revive the greatest sports competition in history--the ancient Olympics.

He travelled the world, speaking about the Olympic Games and gaining support for its revival. By 1894 he had enough people interested to arrange an international conference. Seventy-nine delegates from twelve countries voted to revive the Olympics. The first game would be held in Athens, Greece, the birthplace of the ancient Olympics. On April 5, 1896, the first Olympic Games in 1500 years were opened.

Baron de Coubertin became the face of the modern Olympics. When he died in 1937, his heart was buried at Olympia, the site of the ancient Olympics.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Margaret Hamilton

This week (December 9) we celebrate the 108th anniversary of the birth of Margaret Hamilton.

Admit it, you shivered a bit when you read that name didn't you? Hamiliton was a gifted stage and screen character actress. Apparently that's what they call you when you're not pretty enough to play the romantic lead. Her looks were charitably called "plain." She had a sharp prow of a nose and eyes as piercing as a hawk's. Her voice, with its crisp diction, would curdle milk. That made her the go-to actress when they needed a spinster or a school-marm type.

But there is only one role for which she is known. She so inhabited the role of the Wicked Witch of the West, that she gave generations of children nightmares. It is hard to imagine anyone else playing the part. In 1979, forty years after "The Wizard of Oz" was filmed, when she visited the University of Connecticut as a guest speaker, she was greeted with a treat of Dunkin Donuts Munchkins.

She knew the effect the role had on children. My favorite story: when she visited older children in schools, she was often asked to do her witch laugh. She did, letting the cackle ring out through the auditorium. There was applause, of course, but only after a second or two of terrified silence. In those few seconds, she knew, everyone in the audience was a little child again, feeling the horror of seeing that frightful green face turn to the screen and hearing that cackling evil laugh. She had connected with her audience, and the power of it must have surprised even them.

How delightfully satisfying that must have been!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Walt Disney

This weekend (December 5) marks the 109th anniversary of the birthday of Walt Disney.

I once gave a talk to a group of second graders in which I mentioned that I'd done a biography of Walt Disney. One little voice piped up, "You mean that was a real person?" Apparently the child knew the name only as that of the entertainment empire. All that just seemed too big for one man. Perhaps that is a testament to all that Walt accomplished.

But yes, kids, there was a real Walt Disney. To me and others of my generation, he was very real, and we invited him into our homes every Sunday night when we watched his TV show. Before each show he talked to us lovingly and patiently, and never ever condescendingly. Not for nothing was he known as "Uncle Walt."

When we look at the huge entertainment corporation that bears his name, it's hard to believe that for many years Walt was a failure. Oh sure, he had big dreams, but it took a while for those dreams to catch fire. When he left Kansas City for California in 1923, he was nearly penniless and homeless. Even after he'd made a name for himself with his own studio, he lost his star cartoon character--Oswald the Lucky Rabbit--to a crafty business associate. He had to start all over again and come up with a whole new character.

Walt would have been forgiven if he'd given up on his dreams then. Probably there were those who advised him to do just that. There always seems to be some well-meaning family member ready to tell dreamers to get a real job in a factory or a grocery store. But that wasn't Walt. He kept on dreaming and creating. And children today know his name because he did.

Oh, that new cartoon character he came up with? It was a little mouse.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from George S. Patton

Today, November 11, marks the 125th anniversary of the birth of General George S. Patton.

I know what you're thinking. Patton? Old "Blood and Guts?" That weird guy who loved battle, swore like a pirate, and slapped some poor frightened soldier?

Yeah, that's the one. Not really a likeable fellow at first glance, is he? How do you take someone like that and write about him--for children? I know we're supposed to be illuminating our subjects warts and all, but really!

I had already written a few biographies when I was asked to write about Patton. I'd done early reader books on Amelia Earhart, Paul Revere, Helen Keller. These were easy, obvious titles for kids. I was able to convey who these people were and what they accomplished without much difficulty. Sure, there were warts but not many. And then came Patton.

With every biography I try to get inside my subject, to see with their eyes and feel what they feel. It's the only way to write honestly about their motivation. I thought I'd done that with Patton. I couldn't pull any punches. I had to write about the slapping incident, but I laid out why he'd done it, how he saw the whole thing. I wanted to make him understandable. Then I read my draft to my writers' critique group. They congratulated me on a job well done. "But I still don't like him," one fellow writer said, shaking her head.

That bothered me. But was it important? Was it my job to make him likeable? Should I even try? Still, I couldn't help feeling that I'd failed my subject somehow. I was convinced that if I'd succeeded in truly making him understandable, Joan never would have said what she had. So I went back to my draft.

Instead of seeing with Patton's eyes, I looked at the general through the eyes of his men. They didn't really like him either. But they saw him for what he was: a great general who'd do whatever it took to make them great soldiers. They knew him as no one else did and they had nothing but respect for him. At his death, one wrote: "Last night one of the greatest men that ever lived died....The men that served under him know him as a soldier's leader. I am proud to say that I have served under him." That was like meeting George S. Patton for the first time. That's when I really got what his greatest achievement was.

I dedicated my book "For those who were lucky enough to say 'I fought with Patton.'" Today is not only Patton's birthday it is also Veteran's Day. To all our military men and woman I dedicate this week's blog post.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from John Adams

This week, October 30th, we celebrate the 275th anniversary of the birth of president and patriot John Adams.

When I do school author visits I’m nearly always asked which of my books is my favorite. It’s probably the hardest question I’m asked and I often answer that it’s a bit like asking a parent to choose a favorite child. Then too, my choice can vary with my mood. But my students want an answer and so I force myself to make a choice. And most often I find myself answering "John Adams".

The reason is simple: Adams was a man of words. He kept a diary most of his life and contributed to it often. He wrote letters: lofty, spirited ones to fellow patriots, intimate ones to his wife, Abigail. He wrote speeches, articles, documents. His words reveal his every fear and hope for his new country and especially his feelings of inadequacy for the task at hand. ("We have not men fit for the times," he wrote once. "I feel unutterable anxiety.") His words made it easy for me as a biographer to stand in his skin, to see what he saw, and feel what he felt. In short, he made it easy to get close to who he was.

And if I’m going to tell a subject’s story, I’d better get close to him. That, I tell my students, is the single best way to write a good biography and I stress it constantly in my author talks. Find your subject's words and you'll find the person. His words will lead you to the story you want to tell.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Doris Miller

This week (October 12) we celebrate the 91st anniversary of the birth of Doris Miller.

Don't know that name? It's not one you encounter often in the history books. And that's too bad. Because Dorie Miller was one of the very first American heroes of World War II and the first African American to be awarded the Navy Cross.

Doris (Dorie) Miller joined the Navy in 1939. As an African American sailor, he was restricted to only the most menial of jobs. He began his career as a waiter and eventually became a cook on the battleship USS West Virginia, stationed at Pearl Harbor.

On December 7, 1941, Miller was collecting laundry shortly before 8 am when Japanese planes suddenly filled the sky. Explosions rocked the West Virginia, knocking Miller off his feet. The ship was badly damaged. Water was flooding in below decks and sailors lay all around, wounded and dying. Miller began carrying the wounded to safer parts of the ship. Among the wounded was the captain of the ship. Miller hoisted him up and tried to carry him to safety, but the captain refused to leave his post.

And still the Japanese planes kept coming. Miller had never received training in operating an anti-aircraft gun. So he was ordered only to help load. Instead, he grabbed the gun and began firing at the enemy planes. He kept at it until he was out of ammunition. Miller was credited with downing three Japanese planes that morning. He explained later that he had hunted squirrels back home in Texas and had used guns before. And besides, he pointed out, he had watched white sailors use the guns. "It wasn't hard. I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine," he said.

On May 27, 1942, Admiral Chester Nimitz awarded Miller the Navy Cross, one of the highest military awards for courage. Eighteen months later, Miller was dead. He had given his last full measure for the Navy he had already served so well.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from John Lennon

This week, October 9th, we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the birth of Beatle John Lennon. (70? Really? Yikes!)

About ten or twelve years ago I attended an SCBWI conference for writers who felt they were "on the cusp" of being published. I was not yet a published author, but I was a writer who took what I did seriously. I had received some "good" rejections from editors (you really have to be a writer to appreciate what that means)and encouragement from my much-valued critique group. It WAS going to happen. I could feel it.

That weekend being with other writers also on the cusp was a wonderful experience. But one woman stood out in my mind. The talk turned to how disciplined we all had to be to get our writing time in. She sighed and said, "Yes, but then you have to be in the mood." I knew immediately that she wasn't going to make it.

You see, she was waiting for her writing to come to her. It doesn't work that way. Oh, I know, sometimes writing can be a chore. And the fear that your mind will draw that dreaded blank is ever-present. But, mood or not, what carries most of us through is simply that we love to write. We sit, we begin, and somehow, the clouds part, the weight lifts, and the words come. Over and over, we rediscover just how much we love what we do. John Lennon knew this. "All you need is love," he wrote. It's that love that entices us to sit and get the job done, no matter the mood.

That's what you need to be a writer. All you need is love.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Groucho Marx

This week, October 2nd, we celebrate the 120th anniversary of the birth of Groucho Marx.

I recall reading that Groucho (his real name was Julius) became a performer at his mother's insistence. He and his brothers left school at an early age to become first singers and later comedians on the vaudeville stage. Julius felt the lack of education keenly and compensated for it by becoming a voracious reader. My favorite Grouch0 quote: "Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog it is too dark to read."

I didn't have a dog when I was growing up, but I sure did have books. I had a local library that I could have found my way around blindfolded. (To this day, I remember just where the biographies were.) I also had a set of "classic " children's books at home: fairy tales, LITTLE WOMEN, THE WIZARD OF OZ, and the like. When I'd read all of those--and I read them all several times--I started in on the encyclopedias. I'd sit with my back against the bookcase and just thumb through a volume or two, the old fashioned version of Wiki-surfing I guess.

If you're reading this, I'm betting you recognize yourself in what I've just written. We writers began as readers and we readers are addicts. We aren't happy unless we have something to read nearby. We crave words like chocolate and delight in savoring a particularly satisfying phrase. We know each other without speaking. We are the ones toting a book or a Nook or a Kindle to the dentist's office or the kids' little league games. I'm embarrassed to admit I took a book on my first date (well it WAS the beach).

Groucho's not around any more. But it's nice to know that under the wisecracks and the double entendres and the funny mustache, there was a reader like me. I wonder what he liked to read.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Michelangelo's David

This week (September 8), marks the 506th anniversary of the unveiling of the magnificent David by Michelangelo.

There are certain moments in history which I would give the pinky of my writing hand to have witnessed: the signing of the Declaration of Independence, for example, or Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech. But unquestionably at the top of my list is the first appearance of Michelangelo's masterpiece in the Piazza della Signoria on September 8, 1504. What must it have been like to stand elbow to elbow with the Florentines as they held their breath, waiting for the first sight of their David?

For it was their David after all, as much as it was the artist's. They had been waiting for it for forty years, longer than Michelangelo had been alive. The stone had been selected. Artist after artist had been offered the project. One or two had even begun to cut into the marble. But because the block was tall and narrow and half-started, they gave up and left it unfinished. Only Michelangelo could see what they didn't: the glorious potential waiting within the raw marble.

I've often felt, and I've written here, that writing nonfiction is much like sculpture. We begin with a block of material, as inert as stone. It's up to us to see the story within the research and to cut away what doesn't belong to reveal that story. It takes vision. It is not easy. It is even harder when others have left the job unfinished, and try to persuade us that there is no story there to tell. I try to remember Michelangelo and his vision at those times.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from J. R. R. Tolkien

This week (September 2)) marks the 37th anniversary of the death of J. R. R. Tolkien.

For those of us children's writers who every Thanksgiving have to endure well-meaning relatives who ask if we're still writing "just" children's books (not my relatives, of course), Tolkien is the name with which to counter. THE HOBBIT after all was "just" a children's book. But it was so immensely succssful that its author was asked to write a sequel. The result, of course, written over the next 12 years, was the fantasy epic THE LORD OF THE RINGS.

As writers we all know how important it is to create fully fleshed out characters, and I've written before about creating place and time. Tolkien took the art to unheard-of heights. He created an entire alternate world and peopled it with not just realistic characters, but with highly detailed new species. His world was complete with maps, calendars, and family trees. And it was so real for so many that, according to the Tolkien Society, the author would get calls in the middle of the night from fans demanding to know, for example, if balrogs had wings. To escape he was forced to move and change his phone number.

Come to think of it, maybe I'll stick with my fan letters written in pencil.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Abigail Adams

This week (August 26th) we celebrate the ninetieth anniversary of the passing of the nineteenth amendment, which gave women the right to vote.

Hard to believe, isn't it--that for most of the country's history women were denied the right to vote? That women should vote along with men seems so simple and self-evident now, but less than a century ago, it was the stuff of rallies, protests, and bitter debates in kitchens and bedrooms. Many men failed to understand that women were simply demanding that most basic of rights--the right to have one's voice heard.

Abigail Adams understood this. On March 31, 1776, she wrote to her husband John, then attending the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. "And by the way," she wrote, "in the new code of laws...I desire you would remember the ladies." She implored him to allow women a voice in the new government. John's response was rather predictable for the time: "I cannot but laugh." Over a century later, "Remember the ladies!" became a familiar cry at Votes for Women rallies.

Abigail's thoughtful letters are now part of history; they are her legacy. As a writer she understood the glorious freedom of self-expression. As a writer, I can't imagine anything more suffocating than having one's voice suppressed. I hope I never take that hard-won right for granted.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Gene Roddenberry

This week (August 19) we celebrate the 89th anniversary of the birth of STAR TREK creator and visionary Gene Roddenberry.

“To boldly go…” OK, split infinitive aside (oh, yeah, I’m THAT kind of person), discovering new worlds is the whole reason I became a nonfiction writer. Through the books I’ve researched, I’ve had the privilege of listening to John Adams as he argued for the Declaration of Independence. I’ve stood with Sacagawea as she saw the great Pacific Ocean for the first time. I’ve explored the fields and woodlands of Vinci, Italy with a young Leonardo da Vinci. I’ve been there with the citizens of Florence as the newly sculpted David was revealed. I’ve found that the worlds of the past are no less exotic and enticing than any alien planet Roddenberry ever envisoned.

But that’s just the “go” part. Have I gone there “boldly?” Have I embraced those worlds wholeheartedly and placed myself within them? Have I done my research so thoroughly that I can smell the tang of the Pacific’s salt, feel the Vinci sunshine on my bare arms, or hear the collective gasp of the Florentines at the incomparable beauty of the David? That was Roddenberry’s gift. He created new worlds and made them real and then shared them with all of us. How bold is that?

For me, that is a work in progress.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Alfred Hitchcock

This week (August 13) we celebrate the 111th birthday of director Alfred Hitchcock.

My favorite Hitchcock quote:"There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it." Ah, tension, the essential element of drama. I remember the first time I saw THE BIRDS on TV as a kid. The scene of Tippi Hedren being attacked by the pecking birds was jaw-droppingly horrifying. But it was the scenes of the waiting, watching birds that made my heart speed up and the skin on my arms prickle with dread. That was just plain scary, and for a long time I couldn't see a bird on a telephone line without walking a little faster.

Now you may think that tension like that has no place in nonfiction. Wrong! Biography of course is just the story of someone's life, and no story should be without drama and therefore without tension. The story of any athlete, any politician, any inventor has tension at its core. Will my subject succeed? The better I am at making my reader feel that tension, at making that heart beat faster, the more interesting my biography will be. I owe that not only to my readers but to my subjects.

So yes, go ahead and include the bang. That's a part of your subject's story. But never forget to let your reader feel the anticipation of that bang. Your subject did.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Amelia Earhart

This week (July 24) we celebrate the 113th anniversary of the birth of Amelia Earhart.

Above my writing desk is a black and white poster, a print of a photo taken of Amelia's famous Lockheed Electra as it soared over the Golden Gate Bridge westward toward the Pacific Ocean on March 17, 1937. It was the dawn of the first day of her round-the-world flight, and the morning sunlight is just illuminating the leading edges of her wings. "Amelia Earhart in Flight," the caption reads. Beauty, solitude, and confidence--they're all there in that one image.

But I know a secret. The expedition that began on that March morning was Amelia's first round-the-world attempt, and not the one that ended in mystery and headlines. The journey ended only three days later, in Hawaii, when she damaged the Electra on a bad takeoff. Being Amelia, she refused to give up. The repairs took nearly three months and by that time world weather had changed. So when she began her expedition a second time, on June 1, 1937, she was forced to head in the other direction. She took off from Miami and headed east out over the Atlantic. You know the rest of that story.

False starts aren't uncommon in writing, as in flying. I've got a whole drawer of rejections and half finished pieces that just aren't good enough, dammit, to attest to that. But when I encounter a roadblock, I just look up at Amelia's gleaming Electra. And I head in a new direction and try again.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Chester McCormick

Last night, July 9, 2010, my dad, Chester McCormick, died.

From my dad I got my short stature, Irish temper, and compulsive need for clean floors. My sisters and brothers got the good hair, although I have to take this on faith. By the time children came along, the wavy auburn hair was gone. We never met that guy. Our dad was bald, and short, and wore glasses, and when I was growing up I knew that my Daddy was the handsomest man in the world.

It is sounds that come to mind when I think of my dad: the singular scuff of his shoes as he came in from the garage after work, waking up to the staccato click-click-clunk of an adding machine on a Saturday morning when he'd brought work home for the weekend. Each year on the first day of school, as I sat scowling at the breakfast table, he'd sing "School days, school days." The fact that I found this deeply annoying didn't stop me from continuing the tradition when my own boys went off to school. And they found it annoying, too.

As we all sat around his bedside the past week listening to him work hard at simply breathing, my sister Mary Anne remarked that he'd been such a hard worker. Every head nodded in agreement. Yes, he was. He said goodbye in the morning while we were all in pajamas and came home after we'd had dinner. I hope he knew that we knew why he did it. He did it for us. Every January for sixteen years he sat at the kitchen table and sweated over those hated FAFSA forms, creating a way for all of us to go to college. The harvest: six college educations, four master's degrees, one law degree. We are teachers, a lawyer, a speech-language pathologist, an audiologist, and a business-owner. You did it, Dad.

At my sister Eileen's wedding, he looked around at family members old and new. "This is what it's all about," he told Eileen's new father-in-law, "family. It's all about family." And he'd cupped his hands together as if to hold us all inside. It's all about family. That was my dad.

When I was six, I got my first library card. Now they pretty much give those away in utero, but in those days it was a rite of passage. Every Friday after that, my dad took me to the library when he got home from work. I was always waiting impatiently, the previous week's book in one hand, my library card in the other. But no matter how tired he was, or what kind of day he'd had, he always made the time. When I became a children's writer, I dedicated one of my first books to him. "For my dad, Chester McCormick, who always had time to take me to the library," it read.

I was so proud when I sent that book off to him. Sure enough I got a call from my mom a few days later saying how much they'd both loved the book. But that was all. "Did you read it all?" I asked. She assured me they had.

"Every page?" I was fishing now. Well, not the one with the numbers and small type. "Read it now," I pleaded.

When they both had, my dad got on the phone. He thanked me and we had a good laugh that he and my mom had almost missed the dedication and he made me promise that the next time I did something like that I'd send the book with a sticky note with an arrow pointing them to the pertinent parts. But then he said something I didn't expect. There was a long pause and he said, "When did I ever bring you to the library? I don't remember that."

As parents we do so many little things for our children and never stop to think that we are planting small seeds. I will never be able to count or even know the ways in which my dad led me and my brothers and sisters to where we are today. Maybe it's enough that we are there.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from John Adams and Thomas Jefferson

This week (July 4) marks the anniversary not only of the birth of a new nation, but also of the death of two of that nation's founders, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

I knew I had to write about John Adams when I researched the Boston Massacre for my Paul Revere biography. Adams was well-known as one of Boston's leading patriots. He wrote fiery articles and spoke out eloquently against the British crown and especially against the presence of the hated "lobsterbacks" in Boston. Yet, after the massacre when the British soldiers and captain were tried for murder, it was Adams who defended them because he felt everyone--even the redcoats--deserved a fair trial. You have to admire a man with such a high regard for the law.

Adams' clear ideas and spirited writing brought him to the attention of the Continental Congress when it was time to write the Declaration of Independence. It must have been tempting to him, to write the words that would announce to the world the colonies' independence. Yet he argued that Thomas Jefferson should write it instead. His argument to his friend was simple: "You can write ten times better than I can." You have to admire a man who recognizes his limits as a writer.

I'd like to say that Adams and Jefferson remained lifelong friends. They didn't. They became bitter political rivals. Only as old men did they grudgingly set aside their feud.

On July 4th, 1826, John Adams died. His last words were, "Thomas Jefferson survives." But he was wrong. Jefferson had died a few hours earlier. It was the fiftieth anniversary of the country for which they both had fought so hard and of the document they both signed, the Declaration of Independence.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Babe Didrikson

This week marks the 99th birthday of Babe Didrikson Zaharias (June 26, 1911- September 27, 1956).

Babe was not only a superb athlete, she was also intensely competitive, with a fierce drive to win. Coming in second was never good enough for Babe. She had to be the best. And most of the time, she was. She is considered by many to be the greatest female athlete of the twentieth century.

She was also what my Dad used to call "a character." She had a wry humor and a plain, direct way of speaking and writing. That made her popular with the press in her day, although not everything she said was fit to print. (Once, when she played on the House of David baseball team alongside her bearded male teammates, she was asked where her whiskers were. I'll let you figure out the answer.)

I had a great time researching Babe's life for my 2000 biography. Babe was fun and funny, and I liked her even though I am certainly no athlete. Babe had passion, and that was enough for me. How can you not respect someone who practiced golf swings until her hands were bleeding and she "had tape all over her hands and blood all over the tape?" For anyone with a dream, Babe set the bar high.

Once Babe was asked how she managed to hit a ball so far. Her answer: "You've got to loosen your girdle and really let the ball have it."

Good advice for us all.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Jospeh Warren

This week marks the 235th anniversary of the death of American patriot Joseph Warren (June 11, 1741- June 17, 1775).

As a native New Englander, I grew up learning the names of the great Boston patriots: Sam Adams, Paul Revere, John Hancock. But I admit I didn't know much about Dr. Warren until I began researching my book on Revere. Warren was a well-educated and respected physician. He was also an ardent patriot and a fiery writer. His newspaper articles championing the patriots' cause helped stir up unrest and infuriated the British. He became a leader of the Sons of Liberty, and in fact, it was Warren who dispatched Revere on his famous "Midnight Ride" to warn surrounding towns that "The Regulars are out."

In the first important battle of the Revolution, Bunker (or Breed's) Hill, he was asked to serve as a commander. Instead, Warren volunteered to fight as a private. He held off advancing troops to give the militia time to escape, and was killed by a British musket ball. His death was a hard blow to the patriots.

I've been tempted to apply the word hero to many of the subjects of my biographies, from politicians to singers to sports figures. And the word seems to come pretty cheap these days. I hope I shall always remember Dr. Warren when I am so tempted. Take a moment today to think about a true hero, who risked all in the defense of liberty.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Maurice Sendak

Quick, when I say "Maurice Sendak," what's the first thing you think of? I'm betting it's WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. Mr. Sendak wrote and/or illustrated a great many children's books, among them IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN, CHICKEN SOUP WITH RICE, and the LITTLE BEAR books by Else Holmelund Minarik. But he will forever be remembered as the creator of Max and those great furry wild things.

Now, I could stop this blog right here. As a writer and presenter at schools, I am often asked what it's like to be famous. My standard answer is that I'm not, nor do I ever want to be. I do, however, want my books to be famous, well-loved, and read often. To have one of my books achieve the kind of immortality that WILD THINGS has done, and to have my name forever associated with it--well, that's a dream as wild as anything Max dreamed up, and I don't expect there's a hot meal waiting for me at the end of it either.

But I always wondered just where those wild things came from. Why do they connect with us so well? Mr. Sendak admitted he based them somewhat on his much-dreaded Brooklyn relatives. As a child, he was frightened by these large aunts and uncles who pinched his cheeks and said stupid-adult things like, "Oh, you're so cute I could eat you up," though he knew they never would. He tapped into that frightening/loving persona for his wild things. And thereby tapped into a classic childhood fear. Because don't all children have some kind of wild thing in their lives?

This week (June 10) marks the 82nd birthday of Maurice Sendak. Happy birthday, Mr. Sendak. And may the wild rumpus start.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Helen Keller

This week (June 1st) marks the 42nd anniversary of the death of Helen Keller (June 27, 1880--June 1, 1968).

The name Helen Keller has again and again proven to be one of the most recognized of our time. (It's no coincidence that I've written not one but two biographies of her.) So most of us know the story of Helen and how she was robbed of her sight and hearing as a toddler. We know that, as a child, she was wild and uncontrollable, attacking her family and gobbling her food like an animal. She was clearly a child in anguish.

But her anguish did not stem from her inability to see or hear. It was her inability to communicate which drove her nearly mad. Helen needed words like she needed oxygen, and she had none. No words to express her most basic needs, no names for the people and things in her life. Helen was hungry for words, and she was starving.

And then came Annie Sullivan. Annie gave her words and opened a path to communication for her. Helen later said, "That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free." No writer has ever said it better.

On her death in 1968, Helen was interred at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, next to the remains of Annie Sullivan, the woman who had unlocked her life with words.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Jim Thorpe

This week ((May 18) marks the 122nd birthday of Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe.

The title "World's Greatest" something or other is heard pretty regularly these days and its meaning has cheapened with its overuse. But Jim Thorpe was the real deal. He was one of the most versatile athletes ever seen, having played professional football, baseball, and basketball, and competed in track and field at the Olympic level. In 1950 he was named the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century, and came close to being named top athlete of the entire century.

He first won international attention in 1912 when he competed in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, where he won gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon. In the fifteen combined events in which he competed, he placed first in eight of them. His point total in the decathlon set an Olympic record which stood for two decades.

His outstanding accomplishment impressed no less than King Gustav of Sweden who, as he presented the medals to Thorpe, told the athlete, "You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world." Thorpe's answer has become part of his legend: "Thanks, King."

But really, what more was there to say? Ah, to have the courage to be so succinct in my own writing!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Dolley Madison

This week (May 20) is the 242nd birthday of First Lady Dolley Madison.

If it weren't for the War of 1812, I wouldn't give Dolley another thought. Sure she was a highly popular first lady in her time. But, at least to my mind, for all the wrong reasons. She was pretty, she was lively, and she gave great parties. Ugh! I'm used to writing about strong women, women of wit and intellect. Give me an Abigail Adams or a Hillary Clinton any day. Those are the women I want to write about. Not someone who comes across as the Paris Hilton of her day.

And then...she went and proved me wrong. Dolley was the first lady during the War of 1812. In August of that year, British soldiers invaded Washington DC and laid siege to the city. President Madison left to join his generals, leaving Dolley behind. Through a "spyglass" she watched the activities of the soldiers. She listened to the booming of the cannons as they got closer. At last she was forced to abandon the White House--but not before she had made sure that important Cabinet papers were safely secured in her carriage. Then, she famously made a pest of herself. She insisted on saving--not her own precious possessions--but the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington. With others urging her to hurry and getting "in a very bad humor with me" at her stubbornness, she had the portrait's frame broken and the canvas removed. Only when it was safe would she agree to leave. When she was a safe distance away, British soldiers arrived and burned the White House.

Dolley's story is well-known and in fact has come to define her. Her actions ensured that history remembers her for her bravery and patriotism, not just her stylish parties. Attagirl, Dolley, you showed me!

Some people's lives have only one story worth telling. But what a story!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Sacagawea

Sacagawea joined the Lewis and Clark expedition in the winter of 1804-1805. She was hired as a translator. Although she was living among the Hidatsa, she was a Shoshone, and was therefore fluent in the Shoshone language. The captains knew they would have to trade with the Shoshone for horses to cross the mountains on their way to the Pacific, and they were most relieved to have her along to aid in the negotiations.

They would have been excused, though, if they were also a little apprehensive about adding her to the team. She was, after all, the only woman, the only teenager, and a mother with her newborn son on her back. Since they did not speak either Shoshone or Hidatsa, and she spoke no English, they could not communicate with her directly.

But on this date, May 14, 1805, Sacagawea proved herself a valuable member of the expedition. While Lewis and Clark walked on shore, she was traveling in one of the pirogues. The captains' important papers, tools, and medicines, were packed in the same boat. Sacagawea's husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, was at the tiller. Charbonneau was described by Clark as a "timid waterman," and actually comes across in the captains' journals as a bit of a buffoon. A sudden wind struck the boat, tipping it nearly over. Water began to pour in. Charbonneau panicked and could only wail in fear. Sacagawea, with her baby on her back, simply reached out and began scooping up all the expedition's precious cargo which was in danger of sinking to the botton of the Missouri River. The boat was eventually righted, but the captains were much impressed with Sacagawea's calm presence of mind. They made a point of describing the rescue in their journals, and a week later named a river in her honor. For two hundred years, readers of the journals have been impressed in the same way. Sacagawea's place in history was secured.

So many times, in our lives as writers, we encounter difficult times. We weather the storms of rejection and uncertainty. We feel pulled in opposite directions by the demands of family, and of day jobs, and our love of writing. When hard times rock our little boats, remember that wailing does no good. Instead, we must simply keep our eyes on what is important and hold on tight to it. We must rescue whatever it is that will keep us going on our journey.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from THE SCREAM

This week (May 7) marks the 16th anniversary of the day THE SCREAM was recovered, three months after it was stolen. The painting, by Edvard Munch, is actually one of several versions of the same screaming figure on a bridge. Another version was stolen in 2004.

It's probably safe to say that THE SCREAM is one of the most recognized paintings in the world. It's even been mocked in pop cluture, by such figures as Homer Simpson, no less. Why? It's a rather odd painting, with its blood red sky and two distant figures on the bridge. It's hard to know just what the artist intended when he painted it.

Maybe none of that matters. Maybe it's not important to understand anything other than the anguish of the figure in the forefront. Maybe it's the depiction of that raw emotion, front and center, that strikes a chord. We connect with that figure on the bridge at a primitive level. As artists, that connection is what we all pray for.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned From Harper Lee

This week (April 28) marks the 84th birthday of Harper Lee.

I recall reading a brief biography of Lee back in 2007 I think, when she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I already knew that she was a childhhod friend of Truman Capote, and that the character of Scout in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was somewhat based on her own childhood. But then I read that as a young writer she once received a year's wages as a Christmas gift, so that she could take a year off to write whatever she pleased. MOCKINGBIRD was the result.

Eegads! That bit of information took my breath away (it still does) and turned me pea green with envy (it still does). What writer has not dreamed of such a gift and promised himself that he could be a great writer if he only had such a gift of time. It's as cliche as a T-shirt: So many ideas, so little time.

But once I regained my breath, I realized two things. Most great writers don't have a year given to them to write. They make do with odd bits of time, with weekends and evenings and late, late nights. And they manage to turn out outstanding works of literature just the same. Maybe you just learn to keep a little bit of space in your mind always creating, so that when the time is there, you are ready with the right words.

And those writers who wish for more time? How many of them would waste the time given to them if they had it? It is so easy to fritter away a day or a weekend or a week with e-mails and Facebook and Twitter. A gift of a year is not without it's own pressure. How many people would spend the year paralyzed with fear staring at the blank screen?

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is unquestionably one of the great books of American literature. Lee's triumph is that she knew just where she wanted to go in that year and had the guts to go there.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from John Muir

This week marks the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day (April 22). It also marks the 172nd birthday of naturalist and writer John Muir (April 21, 1838-December 24, 1914).

Muir has been called the patron saint of the American wilderness and the father of the American national park system. He was also a wanderer. Drawn by his fierce love of wild nature, he walked thousands of miles exploring mountains, forests, deserts, and glaciers. His wandering took him through the Appalachians and the Sierra, to Alaska, Siberia, South America, and Africa.

Most Americans would never travel to the places he did. But his eloquent words painted for them what he saw. His words helped them see in a new way the majesty of a tree, the wonder of a sunrise, and the soaring joy of a mountain top view. Muir's writing changed forever the way people saw the world around them. Isn't that the highest goal of any writer?

"Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strenth to body and soul." --John Muir

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Leonardo da Vinci

This week (April 15th) marks the 558th birthday of Leonardo da Vinci.

I have to admit, I always found Leonardo da Vinci a bit intimidating. Just the sheer genius of the man made him seem cool and unapproachable, not exactly the kind of guy I'd invite to a family picnic. How do you connect with someone who excels at everything? And, as a writer, how do I help my young readers feel that connection?

A few years ago I stumbled across a great Leonardo anecdote in a sixteenth century biography. It concerned a monster painting that Leonardo had supposedly done as a teenager. The monster was so lifelike, the story goes, that his own father was frightened upon first seeing it. I thought it would make a unique picture book. But there was that stumbling block--that larger-than-life figure standing in my way. In the old biography, he was described as being talented at math and science as well as art, as being a gifted musician, strong, handsome, and popular. In short, he came across as the kind of teacher's pet I hated to sit next to in class. What was I to do with him?

I decided to use humor to humanize my subject. I acknowledged that this boy was an over-the-top "pretty unusual" kid and found the humor in that. I looked at his glowing accomplishments and mined those for some humor. ("Making your teacher quit is pretty unusual.") As the chuckles came, I felt my subject begin to thaw. The writing began to flow.

Humor is like sunshine: it will both illuminate and warm your subject.

Please look for my picture book, LEONARDO'S MONSTER, out Fall 2010 from Pelican Publishing.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Blanche Stuart Scott

This week, April 8, marks the 121st birthday of early aviator Blanche Stuart Scott (April 8, 1889-January 12, 1970).

You've probably seen those T-shirts and bumper stickers, the ones that say, "Well-behaved women seldom make history." (Credit to Laurel Thatch Ulrich.) Blanche Stuart Scott never saw those words. But she lived them.

I fell in love with Blanche's story when I researched a picture book on her (THE DAY BLANCHE WENT FLYING, available). Blanche grew up in an era when "well-behaved" pretty much summed up all a girl was expected to be. And she was anything but. As a child she loved to perform tricks on her bike just as the boys in the neighborhood did, and she held nothing back. She crashed seven bikes in practice, prompting her father to refuse to buy her another. Instead, when she was thirteen, he bought her a car. She proceeded to scandalize the neighborhood with her less-than-well-behaved driving.

She challenged tradition when, as an adult, she became the first woman car salesperson in the United States. She challenged aviation great Glenn Curtiss by foiling his attempts to keep her on the ground and becoming the first woman in the U.S. to fly an airplane (though she never obtained her license). Later, she became the first woman stunt pilot, the first woman test pilot, and the first American woman to ride in a jet. She raised eyebrows every time.

Blanche knew first hand that if you want to be a daredevil, first you have to dare.

Gotta go misbehave.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Hans Christian Andersen

This week marks the 205th birthday of Hans Christian Andersen (April 2, 1805--August 4, 1875).

Before I became addicted to biographies as a child, I read fairy tales. I always found the Brothers Grimm a bit, ahem, grim. But I couldn't get enough of Andersen's sunny stories. I read then over and over.

Andersen's childhood was anything but sunny, however. He was mercilessly teased and mocked as a child for his appearance. He was older and bigger than his classmates. To make matters worse, he was tall, lanky, and rather odd looking, with a long thin beak of a nose. All his life he considered himself ugly. Later on, when he had become a writer celebrated throughout Europe, he was asked whether he might write his autobiography. He already had, he answered. It was called "The Ugly Duckling."

How many generations of children have seen themselves in that little duckling? Andersen had clearly tapped into a universal fear of children, of being an outsider longing to belong. It's that universal appeal that has made "The Ugly Duckling" popular around the world for so many years, and in both print and cartoon format.

This is the charge given to us as writers: to look to our own experiences and share the fears and joys we find there. Those things will never change for children. After all, blackboards may evolve into whiteboards and in turn into smart boards. But the feelings of a child stepping into a classroom on the first day of school will never change.

"It does not matter in the least having been born in a duckyard, if only you come out of a swan's egg!"

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Aretha Franklin

Today, March 25th, is the 68th birthday of Aretha Franklin.

I freely admit I'm one of those people who loves to sing along with the radio in the car. Loudly. (Luckily I do this ONLY in the car.) My favorite Aretha song to belt out is "Chain of Fools." There's something about shouting out that "Chain chain chai-ai-n" that just feels so good. But the song that really speaks to me is "Respect."

Who doesn't feel they deserve more respect than they get in life? But as a writer of biographies I know that to get respect as a writer, I have to give it. All writers have a responsibility to their readers. Nonfiction writers have an extra measure: everything we present to our readers must be accurate to the best of our ability. Biography writers have a responsibity not just to our readers, but also to our subjects. My subjects are or were real people. Their story is in my hands and I owe it to them to treat that story yes, with accuracy, but also with respect. For me that means striving to present not just the facts of that subject's life, but also his or her point of view. I want to understand and have my readers understand not just what that person did, but why.

That isn't always easy, or even appreciated. A number of years ago I wrote a biography of George S. Patton (Lerner Publishing Group, 2005). Not exactly a subject to give anyone the warm fuzzies. But for all his blood and guts persona, I felt I had to tell why he was the way he was. I didn't need to make him likable, but I damn well had to make him understandable. I respected him enough to feel that I owed him that.

I explained it this way to a friend once: someday, if there is an afterlife, I will get there and meet all the people I've written about. I need to be able to look them all in the eye.

All they're askin'
Is for a little respect.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Little Women

Not long ago I was asked to name my favorite book from childhood, and whether I remembered a specific line from that book.

The first is not an atypical question for a writer to get, and you'd think it would be easy to answer. But, like most writers, books played a huge role in my childhood. I was a voracious reader, so--a favorite?--I had many: CADDY WOODLAWN, THE WIZARD OF OZ, and endless numbers of ghost stories, fairy tales, and biographies--lots of biographies.

But there was one book which I turned to over and over. I read and reread LITTLE WOMEN usually about once a year, until the cover fell off and the spine was broken. So when I was asked to recall a line from the book, it's no surprise that the words came easily: "...on the bosom where she had drawn her first breath, she quietly drew her last." The description of Beth's death managed to say so much about family, about motherhood, about the link between birth and death, about peace, in such a few words. I was in awe. That was when I was introduced to the power of words.

I remember an interview with Amy Tan in which she complained, "They [readers] never ask about the words." It's true. No one ever asks us how we feel about words. And yet, we all fell in love with words and their power at some point. It's a heady experience to harness those little powerhouses to tell a story. To quote Rush Limbaugh (and I promise it's the only time I'll ever do THAT), "Words mean things." Choose the wrong word and you don't say what you mean. You've squandered that power.

If we're good, we choose the right words, the ones that say exactly what they mean. If we're great, we choose words that say even more. We choose words that speak of love and life and death as simply as describing a breath.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Frankenstein

In the summer of 1816 a group of friends went on vacation together. Among them were poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, and Shelley's young wife Mary. The weather was awful. In fact, that year is often referred to as "the year without a summer." Rain forced the friends to spend much of their time indoors. They amused each other by reading ghost stories aloud (the Romantic version of a pizza and DVD night, I guess).

They must have gotten bored with that, because before long there was a challenge. They should each write a ghost story of their own to share with the group. Mary concocted a frightening tale of a reanimated corpse, the result of "unhallowed arts." She said later it was based on something she'd seen in a dream. The others quickly forgot their stories. Mary continued to work on hers. Her novel was published two years later. This week (March 11) marks the 192nd anniversary of the debut of her masterpiece, FRANKENSTEIN, OR THE MODERN PROMETHEUS.

FRANKENSTEIN is still regarded as a classic of Gothic literature as well as a truly creepy read. It was published when Mary Shelley was only twenty years old. Because she finished it.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned From Michelangelo's David

This week (March 6) marks the 535th birthday of Michelangelo Buonarroti.

I was privileged to see Michelangelo's David on a trip to Florence with my husband a few years ago. There have only been a few times in my life that I have felt transfixed by what I was seeing. Holding my newborn sons, for example. This was like that. I could only stand and stare stupidly, awed by the beauty I saw.

Of course I wasn't alone. The tour group looked like a bunch of sheep, all gawping in the same direction. The tour guide asked us two simple--and I thought very wise-- questions. "Do you like David?" she asked. And, "What do you like about David?"

She got the expected: the beauty, the perfection of male form. For me, though, it was David's face. There was story in that face, more story than I thought was possible to get out of eyes and brow and mouth. And certainly more story than I ever would have thought possible to get from stone. I knew I would have to write about that face and that story some day.

When Michelangelo first saw the giant block of stone that would become his David, he knew that David was already there within it. All he had to do was to remove what didn't belong. I've always thought that writing nonfiction is like that. I start with a great amount of research and I know that my story is somewhere in those stacks of books and notes. All I have to do is leave out whatever does not reveal the story I want to tell. But I can never add; I can only take away.

When a lesser sculptor made a mistake and took away more than intended, he used a bit of wax mixed with stone dust to fix the void. A sculptor who had made no such mistakes could advertise his sculpture as "without wax"--or SINE CERE. From that we get the word "sincere." So a sincere work of art is one to which nothing that does not belong has been added.

My writing may never approach the beauty of the story I saw in David's face. But I hope at least that my nonfiction will always be sincere.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Pierre-Auguste Renoir

This week (February 25) marks the 169th birthday of Pierre-August Renoir.

Now I freely admit I am not an illustrator or an artist. I am frankly in awe of anyone who can make his hand transfer to canvas what his mind's eye sees. Mine simply does not comply, and it is a sad kind of dumbness. I've always been particularly in awe of the impressionist painters. To be able not just to portray a scene but to subtly suggest it through splashes of colors has always intrigued me.

But it is something that Renoir said rather than something he painted which truly speaks to me. "When I've painted a woman's bottom so that I want to touch it, then [the painting] is finished," he once said. Ah, now this is something I understand.

True, I will probably never have call to write the words "woman's bottom" again. I AM a chilren's writer after all. But I fully understand the desire to create so faithful an illusion that it rivals reality. In writing, this is the "you are there" goal. With every biography I write, I strive to build an image of a very real place and time using words as my paint. Then I invite my readers in.

In my biography of Babe Didrikson, for example (BABE DIDRIKSON ZAHARIAS: ALL-AROUND ATHLETE, Lerner, 2000), I described the ticker-tape parade Babe was given after winning three medals at the 1932 Olympics. I described the car covered in roses, the sound of the cheering crowd, and Babe's thrill at being honored. "Even though it was a hot day, her arms had goosebumps." Every time I read that line, I get goosebumps myself.

I guess Babe's goosebumps are for me what Renoir's lady bottoms were for him.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Huckleberry Finn

This week (February 18) marks the 125th anniversary of the American debut of Mark Twain's ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN.

I read the book for the first time as a kid, maybe nine or ten. I'd already read THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER and loved it. Tom was just the kind of rebellious troublemaking kid that I wasn't, and I wanted more. So I went looking for it in Huck Finn. The book was supposed to be a sequel, wasn't it?

Well, yes and no. It didn't take me long to discover that this book was different, it was more. And probably more than I was ready for. I really didn't fully appreciate the book until I read it as a high schooler.

But I wasn't alone in thinking that HUCK FINN would just lead off where TOM SAWYER had ended. I recall reading that Twain had originally envisioned the book the same way. He started writing it as a sequel. But at some point, he paused and took a second look at where the book was going. He set the manuscript aside for a few years. When he was ready, he took it up again. The reult was an American classic and a masterpiece of fiction.

I have to wonder how hard it was for Twain to wait. How many of us slog on with manuscripts that aren't really ready, aren't quite "there" yet, just out of the misguided notion that we have to keep working? It takes real strength to admit that we are not yet the writer equal to our subject.

I probably would have been happier as a nine year old if HUCK FINN had been the book I wanted. But I would have been the poorer for it.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from John Deere

This week (February 7) marks the 206th birthday of John Deere.

You know the name. At least if you're a farmer like me you do. It's one of those household names, like Hershey, that's become so ubiquitous that it's easy to forget there was a real man, and a real story, behind it.

The real John Deere--or as one friend referred to him, "the tractor guy--" built one of the oldest companies in the United States, dating back to before the Civil War. When he died at the age of 82, he was a wealthy, respected, and successful business man. His funeral was the largest the town of Moline, Illinois, had ever seen.

But that's the end of the story. In the beginning, Deere was anything but a success. He was a failure, and a rather spectacular one at that. As a young man in Vermont he became a blacksmith. His first blacksmith shop burned to the ground. He built another one. That shop burned, too. (At this point his story sounds like the one about the castle built in the swamp in MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL). He was broke, with a growing family, and he owed money. He did what made sense to him. He left his family and skipped out on the debt.

Things could only get better for him in Illinois, and they did. He built a nice life. No one would have blamed him if he had played it safe and stuck with his blacksmth shop. Instead he bet everything on a new kind of steel plow. Even as his plow business grew, he was never satisfied. His plows had to be the best. "Good enough" was never good enough for Deere, no matter the cost.

And so, in the end, his story is the story of the American dream. It's the story of a man with a dream who wouldn't let go no matter how many times fate tried to loosen his grasp. It's the story of a man who made the dream come true with plain hard work and uncompromising standards.

It's the story of a man who deserves to be remembered when we turn the key of the big green machine with the nine yellow letters.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Ronald Reagan

This week (February 6) marks the 99th birthday of Ronald Reagan. (Also the 48th birthday of Axl Rose. This is probably the best argument I know against the validity of astrology.)

I met a biography author once who told me she "writes to quotes." I write to anecdotes. I let a few well-chosen anecdotes reveal the story behind my subject's life. And, let me tell you, Reagan's story was rich with great anecdotes. Some of my favorites:

Once, when he was traveling with his college football team, a hotel manager refused to give rooms to the black players on the team. Reagan's parents lived not far away. So Reagan invited his teammates to stay with his family.

As president, he traveled to Geneva to meet with Mikhail Gorbachev. He and Nancy stayed in a private home in a room normally occupied by the family's children. While the children had moved out for the occasion, their goldfish had not, and Reagan was expected to feed the fish. Maybe he forgot, but for whatever reason, one of the fish died. Reagan had a staff member replace the fish and left the children a note explaining what had happened.

On his famous visit to the Berlin Wall ("Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!")he was advised to be careful what he said at a meeting not far from the wall itself. The fear was that his words could be monitored from the other side. So Reagan took the opportunity to go out on a landing to get even closer to the wall and begin "sounding off" on what he thought about a government that penned its people in "like farm animals."

In the greater scheme of things, these were not important events in Reagan's life. Such anecdotes will never be the main focus of a biography. It's the whos and wheres and whens that will always be the skeleton of a biography. But it's stories such as these that give biographies their flesh and blood. They reveal our subject in a way that a who or a where or a when can't.

So mine those sources. Look for the great anecdotes. Let your subject live and breathe.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Lewis Carroll

This week (January 27) marks the 178th birthday of Charles Dodgson, better known as author Lewis Carroll (1832-1898).

With the new movie adaptaion of his ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND due out soon, there will no doubt be more interest in Mr. Carroll. I wonder what he would think of that. I wonder what he would think of the movie. I can't help thinking that he and Tim Burton would find lots to talk about.

The Alice story was born "on a golden afternoon," to amuse three little girls. Dodgson and three young sisters, Lorina, Alice, and Edith Liddell, took a boat trip on a river one day. Dodgson made up the story of Alice, the White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter, and the others to pass the time and to delight the girls. It was Alice Liddell, the star of the story, who begged him to write it down. After some prodding, he did, and it was published under his pen name, Lewis Carroll. The book was an instant hit with both children and adults. It made the name Lewis Carroll famous. Even Queen Victoria was a fan.

But Dodgson never forgot that the story had been written, not for the world, but for his young friends. The book actually begins with a poem about that "golden afternoon" on the river, when three little girls giggled and gasped and begged him to tell them more. In other words, the story was written just for fun. As the best stories often are.

"Thus grew the tale of Wonderland:
Thus slowly, one by one,
Its quaint events were hammered out-
And now the tale is done,
And home we steer, a merry crew,
Beneath the setting sun."

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Barack Obama

This week marks the first anniversary of one of the most historic days in recent memory, the inauguration of Barack Obama (January 20, 2009).

I was one of the millions who watched on TV that day, transfixed as our first African American president took the oath of office. With me were other hospital employees on their lunch break, silently chewing and watching history unfold before us. As the Obamas made their first appearance on the Capitol steps, I heard a gasp behind me, and then, "Oh, my God." I turned and saw an African American nurse, smiling and crying at the same time. She shook her head in apology and said, "I never thought I'd see it." She didn't have to tell me what "it" was.

I was moved by her words. And I was terrified. I had just signed a contract to write an early-reader biography of Obama. His election meant so much to so many people. How was I going to adequately convey that to my young readers? How could my poor words do justice to such a momentous occasion?

I have to say this crisis of confidence happens to me with every new project. And then I begin writing. The flow of words never fails to thaw my apprehension.

This time it occurred to me that what I had to do was get out of the way of history and let the story tell itself, not through my words, but through those of Obama and those around him. The story was all there in the research I had already done. All I had to do was to choose wisely.

The story was in words such as, "There's not a black America and white America....There's the United States of America." It was in words such as, "Daddy, are you going to be president?" And in words such as, "Many of my ancestors have been waiting for this change, and I'm glad that I can be part of it." Those were the words that mattered.

And so I began to write.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Stephen Ambrose

This week marks what would have been the seventy-fourth birthday of historian and biographer Stephen Ambrose (January 10, 1936-October 13, 2002).

I really can't tell you when I first encountered Mr. Ambrose through his writing. I'd always been a reader of history and biographies, so I guess it was only natural that I read this most popular of non-fiction writers. And once I started, I was hooked. This man combined rigorous research and well-chosen anecdotes with the art of a storyteller. I'd never encountered such wit and sparkle in history before. He didn't just make history real for me. He made it matter.

When I was researching my early reader biography of Sacagawea (SACAGAWEA, Lerner Books, 2009), it was Ambrose's UNDAUNTED COURAGE I turned to again and again. If you've ever tried to slog your way through the original Lewis and Clark journals, you know that they can be, ahem, dense. The spelling and punctuation are irregular, the phrasing antique, the meaning frequently just out of my eager grasp. It was Dr. Ambrose who sorted out the tangled threads of the narrative for me and rewove them into that most wonderful of creations, a story. For that is what the journals were above all, a fascinating story of adventure, heroism, and drama. I only needed help to see it. That is what I wish for my own readers, that I can help sort out for them the details of a life and find the essential story that is biography.

What was Dr. Ambrose's secret? What made him America's favorite historical storyteller? I think the key is found in his own life. It seems that he entered college as a pre-med major. But his first college-level class in American history changed his mind. "I went to the registrar that afternoon and changed my major, and never looked back," he said later. Ambrose had found his passion.

And that is what I wish for us all.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Paul Revere

This week marks the 276th birthday of Paul Revere. So it is probably fitting that it also marks the debut of this blog about biographies. I've written about Paul Revere more than any other subject--to date one book, two magazine articles, and two one-act plays. And I can't tell you the number of biographies I've read about the man, for both adults and children, some endlessly fascinating, others not so much.

Just what is it that makes Mr. Revere so interesting, at least to me? Yes, the word hero comes to mind. Revere was certainly that. He was the colonists' go-to man when they needed a message passed along fast. The sound of his galloping hoofbeats was a well known one in the towns between Boston and Philadelphia.

But it's that midnight ride that really thrills us, isn't it? Thanks to the Longfellow poem it's a story we all know well. At least we think we do. The way I learned it, Paul asked a friend to signal to him how the British were coming by hanging a light in the tower of the North Church: one if by land and two if by sea. On spotting the signal he tore across the land shouting, "The Bristish are coming! The British are coming!" He was the one who alerted the colonists and lit the fuse that became the Revolutionary War.

Right? Wrong! No disrespect to Longfellow, but the version we've all come to "know" is all wet. The lanterns were a signal not to Revere but from him. He never cried "The British are coming." Why would he? He was a British subject, too. The call was "The Regulars are out!" And he was not the only one out that night alerting the Minutemen. His was one voice among several.

And there is what I've found so intriguing about the Paul Revere story. How much fun is it to do the research and find that what I thought I knew has been turned on its head? It's just plain cool to peel away all that much-loved fiction to find the real man waiting beneath. The only thing cooler is knowing that it's my responsibility with everything I write to get the story straight. Telling the real story of Paul Revere goes right to the heart of what it means to be a biographer.

So here's to the biographer as truth-teller. In this blog I'll be telling a few more truths about what it means to write biography for kids. We'll celebrate a few more birthdays and explore some more fascinating people, some living, some gone. Oh, and in the interest of full disclosure, I must tell you I'm a fan of post grunge/metal music and I can't guarantee that some of my enthusiasm won't spill over into this blog.

Should keep things interesting.