Kids’ Biography: Finding the Hook

By Barb Rosenstock          

Cradle-to-grave kids’ biographies are pretty much dead. There are few compelling reasons to chronicle dates, places, and events of well-known people when children can find that information in seconds online, whether the subject is Beethoven or Bieber. Currently, writing picture-book biographies is more about transmitting knowledge than information. To do that, kids’ biographers often look for a single event, object, or feeling that gives a reader a new angle through which to view a subject’s life. The more famous the person, the harder an original thematic detail or hook can be to find. At a writer’s conference, an editor said, “Don’t send me any books on Abraham Lincoln, not about his dogs, not about his hat, not about his kids. No more Abe, not ever!”  Children now know so many details about the Founding Fathers that it’s difficult to find a new angle that adds to their knowledge rather than repeats the same tired facts.

And yet…I’ve been fascinated by Thomas Jefferson since my 8th grade trip to Washington, D.C.   On the way home, we stopped at Monticello. The house literally glowed among the trees. Intelligence and affection lived there – I guess you could say (as corny as it sounds) I felt Jefferson’s spirit. Years later, I couldn’t get the idea of writing a picture-book biography of Jefferson out of my mind, no matter how often I told myself I’d find nothing new to say.

I was overwhelmed with the sheer volume of published information about Jefferson: over 10,000 biographical books, 2 million search threads. The most acclaimed adult biography of the man is American Sphinx. Why did I want to write for kids about a man who’s famous for being contradictory, private, and, therefore, unknowable? A freedom-loving slave owner. A women-hating lover.  A shy politician. Was there a way to express to children the intelligent spirit that I’d felt so many years ago, flaws and all?

I read books about Jefferson while running through endless ideas on how to give kids a hook to understand his life. Was it his daughters? His inventions? The Declaration? Horses? A piece of clothing? Slavery? Exploration? Rivers? Dogs ? (Turns out he pretty much hated dogs.) I kept reading: articles, biographies, dissertations, and Jefferson’s letters (18,000 existing letters! No, I never got through them all…) One day I noticed that Jefferson was constantly writing about reading.  A quick search for “Thomas Jefferson’s books” revealed some good academic sources, an extensive online exhibit from Monticello, and one great new fact: Jefferson sold his personal library to the U.S . to replace the Library of Congress after the British burned it during the War of 1812.  Our Library of Congress is Jefferson’s library! Those facts started months of research that wound up including expert help from librarians at the Library of Congress and Monticello, where his spirit really does live.

Tom Jefferson was a reader, and the kids who read picture-book biographies are learning to be readers, too. I found the hook. I wrote the book.

Barb Rosenstock loves true stories best. Her 2010 biography of race driver Louise Smith titled FEARLESS was named to the Top Ten of the Amelia Bloomer Book List. The Camping Trip that Changed America, a historical fiction picture book about Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir, illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein will be released in January, 2012. More upcoming biographies include: William’s Windmill and Vasya’s Noisy Paintbox, published by Knopf and of course, Tom Jefferson, Reader, which will be published by Calkins Creek. Find out more at http://www.barbrosenstock.com

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