Due to personal circumstances, Kidsbiographer is taking a short break. Expect more reviews and interviews by January, at the latest.
September 25, 2013
Linda Glaser has written books about nature, immigration, and Jewish history for picture-book and middle-grade readers alike. In 2010, she published Emma’s Poem, a picture-book biography of poet Emma Lazarus, who wrote “The New Colossus,” a sonnet for the Statue of Liberty. Emma’s Poem is out in paperback this year, and this week, Linda Glaser chatted with Kidsbiographer about Lazarus’s social conscience and her own admiration for the poet-advocate.
Kidsbiographer: What sort of research did you to write about Emma Lazarus and “The New Colossus?”
Linda Glaser: I read the books listed in my “suggested readings” on the copyright page of Emma’s Poem as well as some others that are not listed. I also contacted an expert, Bette Roth Young, to double-check the facts of my manuscript. She was extremely helpful and encouraging. I also contacted a couple people at the Statue of Liberty museum to make sure all of the facts about the statue and the placement of the plaque were correct. In addition, I conducted a great deal of online research, visiting many websites where, among other treasures, I found some very old NY Times articles with vivid details of the fundraising gala for the pedestal. However, the initial seeds for writing the book were planted when I first visited the Statue of Liberty as a child and then returned, years later, with my own children.
Kidsbiographer: I particularly liked how your narrative contrasted Lazarus’s comfortable, even elegant world with the poverty and oppression endured by so many immigrants. How did you decide to structure Emma’s Poem this way?
Linda Glaser: I don’t remember ever consciously making that decision. From the start, the contrast was part of the story that struck me as particularly meaningful and important to share with young readers.
Kidsbiographer: One of the picture-book biography’s themes is Lazarus’s willingness to not only help new immigrants, but to defy social expectations of her class and gender to advocate for them. During your research, did you encounter any anecdotes about or examples of the disapprobation she faced from her own social circle as a result of her activism?
Linda Glaser: Emma Lazarus was not constrained by social norms—which is something I particularly admire about her. I did not find any mention of disapproval from her own circle. I vaguely remember reading a comment attributed to Emma Lazarus that she found it amusing that women in her social circle would be shocked if they knew what she was doing. I believe I also read that after she died, her sisters did not want those particular activities of Emma’s publicized. But she was very much her own person, and during her short life, she followed her own heart and conscience.
Kidsbiographer: Emma’s Poem is a biography of both poet and poem. The last portion of the narrative describes the poem’s ascent into the American canon, and the book concludes with the Statue of Liberty “reciting” the poem’s most famous lines. How did you decide to write Emma’s Poem as a dual biography?
Linda Glaser: Again, it wasn’t a conscious decision. In my mind, the two are inseparable. When I visited the Statue of Liberty as a child, I learned those famous lines, “Give me your tired, your poor…” At the time, I also learned that it was a young Jewish woman who wrote the poem. I, too, was Jewish. And I loved to write poetry. So it greatly inspired me that a Jewish woman had written such stirring lines. In addition, all four of my grandparents were immigrants. So I found the poem particularly meaningful. Being a “budding writer” I was always keenly aware that it wasn’t simply “a poem.” It was a poem written by a woman who cared deeply about immigrants. I still find both the poem and the writer tremendously inspiring.
Kidsbiographer: What do you hope children will take away from Emma’s Poem?
Linda Glaser: I have been very pleased to hear from teachers, librarians, and parents that children take away a great deal from Emma’s Poem. I’ve actually written a Teacher’s Guide that covers all the things I would hope or imagine a child might take away after reading the book. You can find it on my website.
Here’s what I hope may inspire children who read Emma’s Poem: the power of one person to make a difference, the power of one poem to have great influence, the importance of seeing beyond ourselves and caring about other people, and the inherent value of welcoming the “poor stranger.”
Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?
Linda Glaser: I’d like to mention that Spoken Arts has created an outstanding DVD of Emma’s Poem, The Voice of The Statue of Liberty. It’s a “special appearance video” in which I say a few words at the beginning—a “cameo appearance” in an extremely well-executed and awe-inspiring DVD that actually brought tears to my eyes when I first saw it.
As for my own work, I’m pleased to report that I have a Passover book coming out this spring. It takes place in Chelm, the Jewish fictional village of fools. Stone Soup With Matzoh Balls: A Passover Tale in Chelm, is a light playful story with some added “take home value.” In that small but significant way, it is actually similar to Emma’s Poem. Both have the underlining message of welcoming the poor stranger.
September 18, 2013
Claire A. Nivola has been illustrating children’s books since the 1970′s. In 2012, she wrote and illustrated Life in the Ocean, a picture-book biography of oceanographer Sylvia Earle. This year, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt released a paperback edition of Emma’s Poem, a picture-book biography of poet Emma Lazarus that Nivola illustrated. This week, Kidsbiographer caught up with Nivola about her research into late 19th century American life and Lazarus’s legacy of social activism.
Kidsbiographer: What sort of historical and biographical research did you do to illustrate Emma’s Poem?
Claire A. Nivola: I worked on the illustrations for Emma’s Poem in 2008. In five years, one forgets what one did, but luckily I keep a folder with bits from the process I went through for each book and I was impressed at how much research went into that book. I am talking about visual research. If you think about it, in order to draw a scene from a different period in history, you need to learn how everything looked: streets, houses inside and out, people (in this case, rich and poor and the immigrants from other countries) their clothes, the means of transportation – everything down to the smallest detail.
My approach is to create for myself a visual dictionary of all these components: Xeroxes and print-outs from books, from the internet, sometimes from verbal descriptions. I made a file each, for instance, on immigrants, on interiors of wealthy houses, on fashions. I used the library, and the web or phone contact resources from The Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, the American Jewish Historical Society, the National Park Service for the Statue of Liberty National Monument, among others. Most moving and inspiring were the photographs of the period (not of Emma’s childhood – too early – but once photography began to be used widely, in time for the immigrants that she wrote her poem about). These early, black and white photographs and those of the Statue of Liberty being erected are so eloquent that for many of my illustrations I drew heavily on actual photographs.
Kidsbiographer: My favorite illustrations are the ones that show groups of immigrants on ship, on the New York docks, and in the community center where Emma Lazarus assists them. What I like most about these images is that they depict individuals with distinct attire, features, moods, and expressions. Can you explain how you composed these remarkable group portraits?
Claire A. Nivola: Among the illustrations that draw directly on this remarkable photographic documentation are the spot painting on the dedication page, the illustration of the Statue in Paris (this one more from a painting by Victor Dargaud), the pedestal of the Statue with the crated sculpture pieces. The illustrations you particularly like are also inspired by photographs, some sticking very closely to an image (the two ship deck images) and some as composites of photographs documenting individual immigrants (the dock scene with Emma visiting, and the job training scene). Looking at the photographs of newly arriving immigrants, it seemed to me that each individual was deeply imbued with a life story so that depicting them with distinct “features, moods, and expressions” came naturally to me.
Kidsbiographer: Which of the book’s illustrations did you find most challenging to compose and why?
Claire A. Nivola: I don’t know that I found any one illustration challenging, though certainly those for which a photograph presented me with a basic composition where easiest. Perhaps the auction scene was the trickiest because I had to make up the scene mainly from verbal descriptions with a few etchings showing related events. I even, in some cases and for my own entertainment, painted copies of actual paintings in the exhibition frames, making sure that they didn’t come chronologically after the exhibition event! In every book I have done, I have one painting I am least happy with. In this one, it is the scene of Emma composing her famous poem. I feel that I never resolved well the view out her windows, and filling them in with black night seems stark and unfinished to me.
Kidsbiographer: How did you develop Emma Lazarus as a visual character?
Claire A. Nivola: I had photos of Emma Lazarus and members of her family to work from for Emma. They were portraits, not casual family scenes, but I was able to get a sense – who knows how accurate – of her face and personality from the very few images I had to work with.
Kidsbiographer: What do you hope kids – and adults – will take away from Emma’s Poem?
Claire A. Nivola: Emma’s Poem is an invitation to big-heartedness towards those who come to our country. In that sense, it is about immigration – inclusiveness, generosity, respect for others, tolerance. But as the gap widens alarmingly in this country between rich and poor, my hope is that it may also serve – through the example of Emma’s life – to awaken in readers a desire for justice, fairness, and inclusiveness in the economic and social sense too and within our own borders.
Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?
Claire A. Nivola: Since I illustrated Emma’s Poem, two books that I both wrote and illustrated have been published, Orani (autobiographical) and Life in the Ocean (non-fiction). Another one, named Star Child (fable-like), is due out this coming spring. I am working on a proposal now for another book, but it’s too soon to tell whether or not it will fly!
September 6, 2013
Emma’s Poem: The Voice of Liberty
By Linda Glaser
Illustrated by Claire A. Nivola
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010, Paperback Edition 2013, Boston, $6.99)
“Give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” proclaims “The New Colossus,” a poem written to raise money for the construction of the State of Liberty in 1883. Poet Emma Lazarus was not among the huddled masses; she grew up in a wealthy New York family. However, she felt great sympathy for the immigrants pouring into the city in the late nineteenth century, many of whom had escaped oppression in Europe and hoped for a better life in the United States.
In Emma’s Poem, Linda Glaser and Claire A. Nivola tell the story of Lazarus, her poem, and the Statue herself. In simple, straightforward prose, Glaser contrasts the writer’s comfortable life with that of many immigrants and describes Lazarus’s efforts to illuminate their plight. She does not shy away from the ugliness that led many to immigrate, matter-of-factly describing the anti-Semitism and persecution Jews faced in Eastern Europe. Fittingly, Glaser concludes the narrative with the poem’s most famous lines, allowing Lazarus to address the reader – and presumably, new Americans – through the Statue. Nivola’s watercolors capture both the warm elegance of the poet’s life and the immigrants’ desperation. In one spread, two families pass each other on the sidewalk outside the Lazarus’s family home; one is affluent, the other destitute, and, in an upstairs window, the poet, with her foot in two worlds, writes at her desk. Particularly striking are Nivola’s dignified paintings of the new immigrants. In one illustration, people of different ages wait on a dock. Some walk, others hold their children very close, and one man reads. A woman, who may be sleeping, wears an eye-catching beige shawl with tan stripes and black dots. These people may be impoverished, anxious, and exhausted, but they are individuals with distinct faces.
Emma’s Poem does more than celebrate Lazarus’s life, her poem, the Statue of Liberty, or even America’s history of welcoming the oppressed. The picture-book biography encourages young readers, like Lazarus herself, to use their talents and privileges to help others.
-Dorothy A. Dahm
August 29, 2013
Roberta Baxter has written books about chemistry and biographies of scientists for young people as well as children’s books about American and British history . Recently, she published John Dalton and the Development of Atomic Theory, a young adult biography of English scientist John Dalton. This week, she chatted with Kidsbiographer about John Dalton’s humility and the challenges of seeing science through the lens of an earlier era.
Kidsbiographer: What sort of research did you do to write about John Dalton’s life and work?
Roberta Baxter: I read any biographies of him that I could find, including an early one written in 1895. Through interlibrary loans, I got copies of his books. There is a wealth of information about him on the University of Manchester’s website and on websites about the history of chemistry. I also read chemistry textbooks to see how his Atomic Theory is presented.
Kidsbiographer: What was the most surprising fact or anecdote you uncovered during your research?
Roberta Baxter: There are two incidents that surprised me and I always like to add those to a book because they might surprise others. Both of these relate to the fact that Dalton was colorblind. No one knew what that meant until he studied and identified the condition. It started when he bought his Quaker mother a pair of stockings for her birthday. Quakers do not wear bright colors, so she was amazed that he bought bright red ones. He told her that to him they were blue. His brother also saw them as blue, so Dalton’s curiosity was aroused. He designed an experiment to find out if others saw colors as he did and eventually found that many boys and men had the same vision. He concluded that his vision was different and he wondered if his eye had a different liquid in it that made him see that way. So he asked that after his death, his eyes would be examined. He would never know the result of the experiment, but it might help other scientists determine what caused colorblindness. His eyes were examined and looked normal, but it was years before scientists knew about rods and cones in the eye that impact how we see colors.
Kidsbiographer: Much of John Dalton and the Development of Atomic Theory concerns Dalton’s forays into meteorology, chemistry, and other sciences. You present his experiments and resulting theories with current information about each topic. What was the most challenging aspect of writing about science in this way for this book in particular and young adults in general?
Roberta Baxter: The biggest challenge is putting yourself into the level of understanding of your subject. For example, we take the idea of atoms and how they combine into molecules in distinct ratios for granted. With scanning tunneling microscopes, we can even “see” atoms. But in Dalton’s time, that was not understood. Scientists thought that some undefined matter changed into each known substance. Through Dalton’s thinking and experimenting, he began to think of atoms in a concrete way, and his work convinced others. To him, atoms were so real that he asked a friend to make some wooden ball models which he used in classes. One of his biographers wrote, “Atoms are round bits of wood invented by Mr. Dalton.”
Kidsbiographer: You’ve penned young adult biographies of other scientific pioneers. What is your background in science, and how did you come to write about scientific history for young people?
Roberta Baxter: I have a degree in chemistry and learned about some of these people and their theories in my classes. I was always intrigued by Dalton and so I proposed a biography about him to Morgan Reynolds because they specialize in biographies. As it turned out, the book about Dalton was the fifth book I wrote for them because we started with scientists who lived before him. My favorite topics to write about are science and history, so biographies of scientists fit both passions.
Kidsbiographer: What do you hope readers will take away from John Dalton and the Development of Atomic Theory?
Roberta Baxter: John Dalton faced great challenges, but accomplished great work. He was not rich or powerful enough to attend the best schools, so he taught himself. His great curiosity led him to explore so many topics—color blindness, aurora borealis, atoms, weather, etc. He spent his entire career as a teacher, doing his weather observations and science experiments on his own time. Even after he became famous, he was humble enough to see himself as a teacher. As the start of my book shows, a Frenchman came looking for the famous Mr. Dalton and thought he would find him surrounded by important people. Instead he found Dalton with one small boy. When the man asked to speak to him, Dalton said yes, once he set the boy right with his arithmetic.
Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?
Roberta Baxter: Another science biography, Ernest Rutherford and the Birth of the Atomic Age, came out from Morgan Reynolds at the same time as the Dalton book. They also will publish one I wrote about Linus Pauling sometime next year. I don’t have any other biographies in the works right now although there are other scientists who would be great subjects. In a departure from my usual projects, I have recently written two books that combine two of my favorite things—science and mysteries. The Vicious Case of the Viral Vaccine and The Harrowing Case of the Hackensack Hacker are published by Tumblehome Learning, and they include short biographies of scientists who are visited by the main characters as they travel through time solving a mystery.
August 26, 2013
Marc Tyler Nobleman is the author of over seventy books, including Boys of Steel, a picture-book biography of Superman’s co-creators, which was recently released in paperback to commemorate the 75th’s anniversary of Superman’s debut. This week, Nobleman chatted with Kidsbiographer about his own lifelong enthusiasm for the Man of Steel and the lessons Superman’s creators can teach young readers.
Kidsbiographer: How did you decide to write a picture-book biography of Superman’s creators?
MTN: Being a lifelong Superman fan who turned into an author of nonfiction children’s books made it almost inevitable. But I would not have gotten far if the story lacked drama. The fact that no one else had written a stand-alone biography (in any format!) of writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster also appealed to me.
Kidsbiographer: What sort of research did you do to write Boys of Steel, and what was the most surprising fact or anecdote you uncovered during that process?
MTN: Jerry and Joe both passed away in the 1990s, so I could not speak with either directly. Jerry’s family does not talk to press or writers of any kind due to ongoing litigation with DC Comics. So I relied heavily on the various interviews Jerry and Joe gave, plus did original research. Perhaps the most surprising fact I uncovered is that Jerry’s father was not murdered during a store robbery as had been previously reported; he DID die during a robbery, but due to heart failure. Here is how I found out: http://noblemania.blogspot.com/2008/09/death-of-jerry-siegels-father-part-1.html.
Kidsbiographer: In some ways, Boys of Steel is an all-American success story: both Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster experienced difficult childhoods – the loss of a parent, poverty, ostracization at school –before launching their creation to great heights. What do you hope kids will take away from that aspect of the biography?
MTN: Be persistent! The alternative is worse. I’d much rather go through some rejection to get to success than to always wonder what would have happened if I only tried…
Kidsbiographer: However, in your afterword, you describe Siegel and Shuster’s battles to gain recognition for creating Superman as well as appropriate compensation for their work. What do you hope this part of their story will convey to readers?
MTN: The same! And also claim ownership of your work, with pride.
Kidsbiographer: In Boys of Steel, Superman begins to seem like an alter ego for Siegel and Shuster: he has the physical strength they lack, and he could prevent some of the terrible things that occurred in their own lives – including Siegel’s father’s death following a robbery in his store. How did you decide to develop this theme in their story?
MTN: The boys themselves laid this out for me, so to speak. They modeled Clark Kent on their own meek demeanor, figuring that would be the best disguise for a superhuman. And it just hit me to use a metaphor referencing Superman’s famous nickname, even more famous after the latest Superman movie, “the Man of Steel.” The boys did not feel strong in their lives till they created a character who was strong…and wildly successful.
Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?
MTN: Always! The one I am hoping to have news on soon is another true story that fills a gap in history…and involves a flying man. Only this time, he flew in a plane, not with a cape. He was a Japanese WWII pilot who did something no one before—or since—has done, and like Boys of Steel, the story explores what makes a hero. Here’s more: http://noblemania.blogspot.com/2011/09/picture-book-for-sale.html.
August 19, 2013
Earlier this year, husband and wife writing team Kathleen Krull and Paul Brewer published The Beatles Were Fab (and They Were Funny), a picture book about the Beatles’ early career. This week, they chatted candidly with Kidsbiographer about their lifelong love for the band, the Fab Four’s legendary wit, and the joys of collaborating on a manuscript.
Kidsbiographer: In your author biographies, you describe your early experiences as Beatles fans. To write The Beatles Were Fab (and They Were Funny), you must have done a great deal of research about the band and the sixties. Can you discuss how your own experience with Beatlemania informed your research and your work on this book?
PB: Being a life-long Beatle fan since the beginning of Beatlemania made me quite passionate about doing this book in the first place. I had also read numerous books on the Beatles and the sixties, so I was pretty well informed before I even started my research. I love music and especially like reading rock and roll biographies. This book was a real labor of love.
KK: When the lads appeared on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964, I was the exact right age to become a devout Beatlemaniac. My fave was George, though I later switched to John. My parents bought me the latest records and some of the merchandise, including tiny squares of the sheets they slept on in their Chicago hotel. I used to have a ton of Beatle memorabilia, all dispersed over the years, alas. It was exciting to recall that Beatle-love and try to make it mean something to today’s kids. The Beatles will live forever and really don’t need our assistance, but I like to think we’re helping to extend their popularity into yet another generation.
Kidsbiographer: The Beatles Were Fab (and They Were Funny) emphasizes the Fab Four’s playfulness – with language, reporters, and the music itself. How did you decide to pursue this angle for the picture-book biography?
PB: Our last book with Harcourt was Lincoln Tells a Joke, which was all about Abe’s keen sense of humor. We wanted to come up with another book idea centered around a famous person’s sense of humor. During one of our “power breakfasts,” I brought up the Beatles and their collective wit, especially during their press corps interviews when they toured the US. The book idea was born, and we sold it to Harcourt in record time!
KK: We like to laugh.
Kidsbiographer: During your research, you must have stumbled upon countless hilarious anecdotes about the Beatles’ early career. What was the funniest story or quote you didn’t include in the book?
KK: We scoured every Beatle book and interview for quotes that would work. We looked for stories that were still funny after all these years, but not too adult or too British or requiring too much background to understand.
PB: There was so much funny stuff that did not make it into the book, mainly because it was too adult for a children’s book—like this:
Q: ”What about the gifts? I notice more and more you’ve been getting more and more gifts from fans. What was the most unusual gift you’ve ever received? I know there’s so many – Is there one that sticks out in your mind?”
John: (laughs) “I once received a bra…”
Q: (laughs) “You did?”
JOHN: ”…with ‘I Love John’ embroidered on it. I thought it was pretty original. I didn’t keep it, mind you – It didn’t fit.”
Kidsbiographer: Collaborating on a book is always challenging; I would imagine that writing a picture book with another person is even more difficult. Every word counts, so you have to be very selective about phrasing and diction. What were the greatest challenges – and joys – of writing The Beatles Were Fab together?
PB: On this particular project, I was in charge of finding all the funny quotes that the four made, mainly coming from all the press interviews. We then made the decisions about what we’d put in the book and in what order. Kathy wrote the final text with critiques from me and our editor, Jeannette Larson.
KK: Paul is being modest, as we both wrote the text. He tends to work at night, while I work during the day, so we work alone, but keep passing the manuscript back and forth, over and over until we reach a stage where every word seems right.
Kidsbiographer: What do you hope kids will take away from The Beatles Were Fab (and They Were Funny)?
PB: I think it would be great if those who read this book to children would put on some Beatles music while they read it. It’d be a great way to set the mood. The Beatles changed the direction music was going at that time, and so many groups since then have mentioned the Beatles as a major influence on their music. Letting kids know that these four great musicians were also very funny makes our book a bit more intriguing, I think.
KK: Besides a basic Beatle-intro, I hope kids will realize the power of music – any music they like – in their lives. Music is a recurring theme in my books, out of a desire to encourage kids’ love for it, especially as it’s now getting cut out of so many school budgets.
Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or future projects?
KK: I have two more books this year, neither of them musical or particularly funny, but lots of fun to work on – Lives of the Scientists: Experiments, Explosions (and What the Neighbors Thought), the eighth book in this series from Harcourt, and Benjamin Franklin in the “Giants of Science” series (Viking).
PB: Last year Kathy and I worked on some school textbooks for Heinemann. We co-wrote a book about the theremin, a very strange sounding electronic instrument that you don’t have to touch to play. We wrote another one about robots that are used in space travel. And we also came up with a humorous idea and wrote one that’s all about the history of April Fool’s Day. The three untitled books will be out this year and next. We have other book ideas in the works, but it’s too early to talk about them right now.