Choosing Subjects

authorpicAward-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.

Choosing 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:




Young and Fabulous in Liverpool

FabFourFriends jkt des3 hiresFab Four Friends: The Boys Who Became the Beatles
By Susanna Reich
Illustrated by Adam Gustavson
(Christy Ottaviano Books, Henry Holt & Co., 2015, New York, $17.99)

The Beatles remain one of the most popular and enduring bands of all time, but the group’s success once appeared unlikely. All four members hailed from humble beginnings in Liverpool, England, where their shared love of music helped them overcome grief and loss. John Lennon lost his mother as a teenager, and Ringo Starr spent three years in the hospital.) At first, no London producer would even listen to the four Liverpudlians play. Then one did – and Beatlemania soon followed.

In Fab Four Friends, Susanna Reich and illustrator Adam Gustavson tell the Beatles’ stories. Both a collective biography and an account of the band’s origins, the book contains sections devoted to each musician. Reich celebrates the band’s wit and high spirits, incorporating their quips and various Britishisms into her narrative. Gustavson’s oil paintings bring the musicans’ world to life, evoking both domestic life in post World War II England and the excitement of performing – and hearing – rock n ‘roll in crowded clubs.

Although it is a picture book, Fab Four Friends’ long and complex narrative is more suited to middle-graders than the youngest readers and listeners. Kids already familiar with the Beatles will enjoy learning more about the band. Parents and educators, on the other hand, will be only too happy to share their enthusiasm for the Fab Four with a new generation of fans.

-Dorothy A. Dahm


Brothers Growing Up

pedrojacket420Growing Up Pedro
Written and Illustrated by Matt Tavares
(Candlewick Press, 2015, Somerville, Massachusetts, $16.99)

Pedro Martinez was one of baseball’s most unbeatable pitchers in the 1990s and 2000s. In 2004, he helped the Boston Red Sox secure their first World Series victory in eighty-six years. But before he became one of Boston’s favorite adopted sons, he was a small boy from Manoguaybo, a little village in the Dominican Republic. He idolized his older brother, Ramón, the best pitcher he’d ever seen.

In Growing Up Pedro, writer and illustrator Matt Tavares tells the story behind Martinez’s sparkling career. In simple, present-tense prose, Tavares relates – and occasionally implies – the many obstacles Martinez overcame to achieve baseball stardom: poverty, injuries, his slender frame. But the picture-book biography is more than the familiar tale of hard work trumping hardship; it is a poignant account of two brothers who have never lost their love for each other or their home despite their success. (Ramón also won fame as a big league pitcher.) Tavares has a gift for capturing facial expressions and body language, and the book’s most arresting illustrations are those that convey the bond between Pedro and Ramon: a shared look, a quiet moment tossing a baseball at the mango tree near their childhood home.

Baseball fans will enjoy Growing Up Pedro, an inspiring biography of a modern legend. However, even readers who are less interested in sports will be moved by Martinez’s story and his abiding love and respect for his older brother.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

The Depths of Intelligence

9780544232709_hresThe Octopus Scientists: Exploring the Mind of a Mollusk
By Sy Montgomery
Photographs by Keith Ellenbogen
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, Boston, $18.99)

One of the world’s most intriguing animals is neither vertebrate nor terrestrial: it is a marine mollusk with three hearts, eight arms, a venomous bite, and the ability to change color. In The Octopus Scientists, Sy Montgomery and photographer Keith Ellenbogen transport readers to French Polynesia, where an international team  of researchers is studying the Pacific Day Octopus. Montgomery’s delight is infectious as she introduces readers to individual octopuses, whose personalities range from reticent to curious to playful. Never condescending to her audience, she also describes the scientists’ adventures in the field and their colleagues’ equally exciting work in the laboratory. In addition, the book contains brief biographies of the various scientists on the team. Meanwhile, Ellenbogen’s photographs let readers travel below the surface of the tropical blue waters to meet an array of octopuses – and the other fascinating creatures who share their home. The Octopus Scientists should interest both kids and adults in octopuses and other marine life and the health of the ocean; it should also inspire a few to try snorkeling.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

In the Saddle

9780544455955_hresThe Cowgirl Way: Hats Off to America’s Women of the West
By Holly George-Warren
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010, Paperback Edition 2015, Boston, $9.99)

What is a cowgirl? A cattle wrangler? A rebel? A fabrication of Hollywood and popular culture? In The Cowgirl Way, Holly George-Warren explores the lore and lure of this uniquely American figure: the book is, in many ways, a biography of the icon. George-Warren begins by discussing the pioneering women who found unprecedented freedom in the Old West as cattle drivers, ranchers, and even outlaws. She also explores how the entertainment industry – from Wild West Shows to rodeos to television and film – shaped and still continues to define our understanding of cowgirl culture. The Cowgirl Way should engage cowgirls as well as those interested in Western and women’s history.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Meet the Biographer: Jane Sutcliffe

0076Jane Sutcliffe has penned books for early and middle-grade readers about Barack Obama, the War of 1812, Helen Keller, and Sacagawea. Recently, she published Stone Giant: Michelangelo’s David and How He Came to Be, a picture book about Michelangelo and his famous David sculpture. This week, she chatted with Kidsbiographer about her own encounter with David, the thrill of realizing a creative vision, and the joys of sharing her awe with young readers.

Kidsbiograper: Your author’s biography explains how you became intrigued by Michelangelo’s David during a trip to Florence. Can you talk a bit more about the story behind Stone Giant?

Jane Sutcliffe: I had only seen photos of the famous David and had always wanted to see it “in person,” but I was not prepared for how truly beautiful it is. Entering the Galleria dell’Accademia, where David is housed, is like entering a church: you walk quietly and reverently down a long aisle lined with other Michelangelo statues. At the end, in its own curved niche, stands the David. It is even taller up close than it seems in photographs, and I stood with everyone else in my tour group, our heads tilted back and jaws agape, drinking in all that beauty.

I could not stop looking at David’s face. It seemed to me the whole story of David and Goliath was told in the expression on that face. I could see David looking at his adversary in the distance. I could see him squinting a bit, judging the distance he’d have to throw his stone. I could see him owning that moment, taking the responsibility of the fight. I could see his resolve in the set of his jaw. In cold, hard stone, the artist had laid out the entire story.

I looked at that face for a very long time. So long, in fact, that the rest of the tour group moved on without us. And still I kept standing there, unable to pull myself away. My very understanding husband encouraged me to take all the time I needed. I never did catch up with the rest of the tour.

Kidsbiographer: What was the most exciting aspect of the research you conducted to write Stone Giant?

Jane Sutcliffe: Even with all the staring I had done when I visited the David, it wasn’t enough. I wanted to see more. So I was thrilled to find a collection of photographs of the sculpture by Aurelio Amendola. These were black and white close ups of every part of the sculpture: face, torso, feet. My favorite: a close-up shot of David’s right hand. It is so amazingly lifelike with veins and perfectly carved knuckles. I swear I can see pores in David’s marble “skin.”

Kidsbiographer: Throughout the text, the word giant reemerges in different contexts, referring to the original block of marble, Goliath the biblical character, the finished statue of David, and perhaps Michelangelo himself. Can you describe how this motif evolved during the writing process?

Jane Sutcliffe: The people of Florence really did refer to their big block of marble as a giant—“il gigante.” It was really just a happy accident that the subject of the marble was David, the famous giant-slayer. I also knew that the word conjures up the image of a kind of “fee, fi, fo, fum” ogre, so I used that to play with the reader’s expectations a bit in the opening line of the book: “There was a giant in the city of Florence.” I liked the line, and decided it also applied to Michelangelo’s masterpiece, so I ended the book with the same line. And just like that, a theme was born. I was very pleased that the illustrator, John Shelley, picked up on the theme and showed the finished David as towering over the city like a giant. It’s a very powerful illustration.

Kidsbiographer: One of my favorite parts of Stone Giant is the book’s conclusion. Everyone in Florence is admiring the statue and embracing it as a symbol of their republic. Michelangelo, however, is not elated by the praise he and his work are receiving: “And Michelangelo? He saw his David. He was just as the artist had seen him when he first looked at his enormous stone.” He is not interested in wealth, fame, or even critical acclaim, but merely the realization of his own artistic vision. What do you hope young readers will take away from this part of the narrative?

Jane Sutcliffe: The David is a masterpiece for many reasons. I see it as a triumph of vision. I think we all have moments when we see a path clearly and know what the outcome must be. And then all we have to do is remove whatever will not take us to our goal.

Kidsbiographer: What is the most gratifying response you’ve received from a young reader about Stone Giant?

Jane Sutcliffe: I’ve been privileged to read the book to several groups of children now. Adults always seem to hold their breath when I come to the illustration of the full-length David and wonder how kids will react. But I’m happy to say I’ve never gotten a raised eyebrow, a question, a giggle, or anything other than rapt attention from young readers. Kids recognize the beauty and power of the David and simply accept it.

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?

Jane Sutcliffe: I have a picture book called Will’s Words: How William Shakespeare Changed the Way You Talk, which is coming out next year from Charlesbridge. The book describes a typical trip to the old Globe Theatre to see a play by Mr. Shakespeare, and is told using Shakespeare’s own words (“because the long and the short of it is this: no one could tell a story like Mr. William Shakespeare.”) And I am so pleased that John Shelley will be illustrating. Together again!




A Galaxy of Interests

RRAB_Jemison_coverMae Jemison
By Jodie Shepherd
(Children’s Press: Scholastic, 2015, New York, $20.70)

The first African-American woman in space, Mae Jemison entered the U.S. space program in the early 1980s, a time when few women or African Americans became astronauts. She was also a medical doctor and Peace Corps alumna, a Renaissance woman with an insatiable curiosity about the world and a deep desire to improve it. In Mae Jemison, Jodie Shepherd tells her story for beginning readers. Colorful photos complement the simple, engaging text; fun facts about Jemison’s life and the history of space exploration supplement it. A poem about Jemison’s thirst for knowledge appears at the end of the book. Mae Jemison shows that nonfiction books for early readers can be exciting and that children can absorb new information even as they master basic reading skills. In fact, the very youngest students should learn about pioneers like Mae Jemison: her sense of adventure echoes the excitement children feel when they finally learn to read, and her refusal to limit herself should inspire kids and adults alike.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Hoofed Hero

midnight-medMidnight: A True Story of Loyalty in World War I
By Mark Greenwood
Illustrated by Frané Lessac
(Candlewick Press, 2014, Boston, $16.99)

Beneath every cavalry officer is a loyal horse. The bond between Lieutenant Guy Haydon and his mare, Midnight, was particularly strong: she was born on his family ranch in Australia, and he trained her himself. When World War I began, they traveled to the Middle East, where his regiment participated in the Charge at Beersheba on October 31, 1917.

Midnight is the story of Haydon and his horse; it is also a moving biography of Midnight herself. In simple, lyrical prose, Mark Greenwood recounts the pair’s journey. Frané Lessac’s illustrations complement Greenwood’s narrative, capturing Midnight’s striking beauty, the expansive Australian high country, and the vast desert where the battle took place. The result is a gorgeous, heartbreaking tribute to the devotion that can exist between animals and humans.

-Dorothy A. Dahm


Portraits of the Artists

9780544252233_hresLives of the Artists: Masterpieces, Messes (And What the Neighbors Thought)
By Kathleen Krull
Illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1995, Paperback 2014, Boston, $8.99)

Since at least the early nineteenth century, mainstream society has equated creativity with eccentricity. In Lives of the Artists, Kathleen Krull and Kathryn Hewitt celebrate the eccentricity, egoism, and even strangeness of nineteen artists from Da Vinci to Warhol. Krull’s brief, breezy profiles discuss each artist’s life and work – with an emphasis on the more outrageous and unusual aspects of the former. A humorous portrait accompanies each biography: Hewitt depicts her subjects as large-headed caricatures of themselves and surrounds them with details evocative of their interests and oeuvre. Her portrait of Georgia O’Keefe, for example, shows the painter dressed in signature black. She wears a hat festooned with tiny skulls, one of O’Keefe’s favorite subjects. The artist’s cloak opens to reveal a gorgeous floral pattern that evokes her famous flower paintings. Finally, a rattlesnake and a chow dog stand on either side of O’Keefe as she hunted the former and loved the latter.

In addition to household names such as Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Picasso, the collective biography also introduces young readers to lesser-known artists, including Sofonisba Anguissoloa, an Italian woman who earned a living as a painter in Renaissance Europe, Kathe Kollwitz, a German artists and crusader for social justice, and Japanese-American sculptor Isamu  Noguchi, who designed work for both museums and public spaces. Lives of the Artists is a fun and engaging romp through art history; perhaps its only downfall is that it perpetuates an idea of the artist as fascinating oddball without sufficiently exploring what is far more interesting – the work itself.

-Dorothy A. Dahm


A City’s Hero

StoneGiantStone Giant: Michelangelo’s David and How He Came to Be
By Jane Sutcliffe
Illustrated by John Shelley
(Charlesbridge, 2014, Watertown, Massachusetts, $16.95)

Although Michelangelo’s David is nearly synonymous with Florence, Michelangelo was not the first artist to attempt a sculpture of the biblical hero in the Tuscan city. For almost forty years, a large block of marble occupied a cathedral yard as a succession of sculptors attempted to elicit David from it. All gave up quickly. Then, someone invited Michelangelo, a young Florentine artist, to tackle the project. Over three years, he worked feverishly. The result was the athletic, formidable David who still awes Florence’s visitors.

In Stone Giant, Jane Sutcliffe and illustrator John Shelley communicate both the arduous nature of Michelangelo’s task and the wonder of his vision. Along the way, young readers and listeners learn something about sculpture, Renaissance art, and the creative process. Shelley’s illustrations invite a few trips through the book. His scenes of early 16th century Florence are warm and human; in one spread, a crowd of Florentines, their faces curious, eager, or skeptical, their attire and features distinct, gather around the work-in-progress; in another, a cat naps in a shop window. Others depict the sculptor intent on his work or stooped with exhaustion from his labors. On some pages, Shelley flirts with neoclassical themes and motifs – an approach touch considering the influence Greek and Roman artists had on the Italian Renaissance. For example, on a page that describes Michelangelo grappling with bad weather, Shelley arranges small images of the sculptor at work inside a wheel. The page’s corners show personifications of the weather – a cherub sprinkles snowflakes while a Zeus-like figure presides over a raincloud. Thus, Shelley provides some context for the sculptor’s work without words.

Stone Giant concludes with the public presentation of Michelangelo’s David. Citizens of Florence marvel at the sculpture. But, instead of celebrating Michelangelo’s new acclaim, Sutcliffe tells readers the artist “saw his David.” The artist’s reward is not wealth or even praise, but the simple satisfaction of a dream realized.

-Dorothy A. Dahm