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.