Meet the Biographer: Ann Angel

Ann Angel has received lots of acclaim for Rise Up Singing, her 2010 young adult biography of Janis Joplin, including the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults.  This week, she chatted with Kidsbiographer about learning from Joplin’s life and introducing her music to a new generation of independent women.

Kidsbiographer: When did you become a fan of Janis Joplin?

Ann Angel: I’m not actually sure when I first heard Janis Joplin sing. I just remember her powerful voice and unique style. She stood out there all alone and didn’t seem to care what everyone else thought about her. Everyone else was listening to the Beatles and the Dave Clark Five and girl groups, but I would listen to Janis and I knew that I wanted to be independent and strong. By the time I was a senior in high school, I was pretty sure that I didn’t need or want to follow the popular girls anymore. I wanted to do my own thing.

Kidsbiographer: To write Rise Up Singing, you interviewed those close to Janis, including her family members and bandmate Sam Andrews. What was the most surprising insight you gleaned from those deeply personal interviews?

Ann Angel: Strangely there was no surprise information that came out of my research although I found some amazing and rarely seen images. Janis’s early life has been pretty well chronicled through her own letters home and in an early biography, Buried Alive, written by her very dear friend Myra Friedman.

My job was to write Janis’s story from the perspective of a teen who loved her and mourned her death. I set out to uncover the source of that love, and I found that Sam and Myra and Janis’s family all had a tremendous depth of love for her. Janis had a supportive and loving family and supportive and loving friends.

In telling Janis’s story, I also came to appreciate the connectedness of our humanity. Janis’s story is played out every day in less media-centered ways – in families fighting bullying and substance abuse issues, in families trying to figure out how to help and support each other.

Kidsbiographer: In Rise Up Singing, you relate how Janis wrote long, chatty letters to her parents and younger siblings even at the height of her touring and partying. Like many artists of her generation, Janis is regarded as the personification of rebellion, not someone who nurtured family relationships. How have readers responded to this side of Janis?

Ann Angel: Readers are often amazed to realize she was such a sensitive and loving friend and family member. They like that about her. New readers tell me they download her music and hear it, even if not for the first time, as the work of a terribly sensitive, smart, and vulnerable young woman.

Kidsbiographer: One of my favorite aspects of Rise Up Singing is your refusal to glamorize or condemn Janis’s drug use and tempestuous personal life, thus sparing readers both a heroic saga and a cautionary tale. How did you decide to approach this side of her life for young adults?

Ann Angel: I think of Janis as my own personal flawed hero and cautionary tale. But it was my decision to take a message from the reality of her life. As a teenager, I loved her and mourned her death and wished she hadn’t struggled with substance abuse. I think others can learn that from her story without my narrative moralizing. So I wanted to tell her story in the way it played out – to show why fans like me loved Janis and still do – without glamorizing or demonizing her life choices. I believe that readers, whenever confronted with a flawed hero, have the opportunity to learn from that hero’s life.

Kidsbiographer: Has your book introduced a new generation to Janis Joplin? What is some of the most gratifying feedback you’ve received from young adult readers?

Ann Angel: I spoke at the Gulf Coast Museum in Port Arthur,Texas, and was stunned when an entire girls’ baseball team showed up in their cleats and uniforms to hear what I had to say. One after another, these girls asked me to sign their books and said they were downloading Janis’s music. They had no idea she had broken the ranks of the “men only” rock star club. That made Janis a hero in their minds…they saw her as strong and vulnerable and hearing her music spoke to their own desires to have a solid place in the world.

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

Ann Angel: I just finished a young adult novel. I’ve got someone reading it now for feedback. But I’m also working on a nonfiction project on human trafficking in America. I want this book to be preventative and to help young adults look at how our hypersexualized culture may be jeopardizing so many young adult lives – both guys and girls – because it objectifies them.

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