Award-winning author Susanna Reich has written about such varied figures as Julia Child, George Catlin, and Clara Schumann for young readers. Recently, she published Fab Four Friends: The Boys Who Became the Beatles. This week, she is on a blog tour, and she paused in her cyber travels to tell Kidsbiographer how she chooses her subjects.
By Susanna Reich
I’m often asked how I choose my subjects. Do you want to know a secret? (Doo-da-doo….) I start by asking myself several questions:
Did this person do something significant and original?
It helps if a subject is well-known, but whatever their field of endeavor—politics, science, the arts—a lack of fame doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is unworthy of a biography. Not many people had heard of Wilson Bentley before Jacqueline Briggs Martin and Mary Azarian created the Caldecott-winning Snowflake Bentley.
Is there sufficient research material?
What primary and secondary source materials are available? Biographies, memoirs, diaries, letters, archival newspaper and magazine articles, films, audio recordings, art and artifacts? Quality, not quantity, is the deciding factor here. There aren’t that many books about Julia Child, but all of them are good, and her memoir provided wonderful anecdotes for Minette’s Feast. With Fab Four Friends, the challenge was the opposite. Which of the hundreds of books about the Beatles was worth reading? I concentrated on those that were authoritative, original and well-researched. And I listened not just to their songs, but to the musicians who influenced them.
Will this be a cradle-to-grave biography, or will it focus on an important period in the life of the subject? If the former, I’ll need a narrative thread that runs through a person’s life. For the latter, a theme or event that reveals something essential. Fab Four Friends focuses just on the Beatles’ early years and explores how four ordinary kids from Liverpool became the bestselling band in history.
Did this person have an interesting childhood?
For a cradle-to-grave bio, I’ll probably write more about that person’s childhood than an adult biographer would. I want young readers to feel a personal connection to the subject, and I want them to see how childhood shapes who we become.
How can I write about this person in a way that will be interesting to kids?
Lively language, suspenseful narrative, fully-realized characters, evocative settings—all the hallmarks of good fiction come into play in writing a kid’s biography. These elements get fleshed out over the course of many revisions. I also look for universal themes. José! Born to Dance goes beyond dance to tell an immigration story. Painting the Wild Frontier isn’t just about a painter; it’s an adventure story. Fab Four Friends is a rock and roll book, but also tells of hopes and dreams, friendship and hard work.
Have other children’s books on this subject been published, and are they still in print?
Ultimately, I want an editor to buy my book and consumers to purchase it, so the marketplace is always a consideration. If there’s a competing title, I’ll need to write something different and unique.
Do I have a passion for this subject?
This is perhaps the most important question. Researching, writing, revising and publishing a book takes a long time. I’m going to live with this subject for the rest of my life (or at least as long as the book’s in print). So I have to be really, really interested in the subject, with enough patience and commitment to carry me through. Otherwise I’m just the fool on the hill….
Tomorrow, read more about Susanna’s creative process on the next stop on her blog tour: http://blog.gailgauthier.com.