Meet the Biographer: Candace Fleming

Children’s author Candace Fleming has penned children’s biographies of such varied American icons as Eleanor Roosevelt, P.T. Barnum, and Ben Franklin as well as novels and picture books. Last year, she published Amelia Lost, an Amelia Earhart biography that includes exciting coverage of her disappearance. This week, she chatted with Kidsbiographer about getting lost in research and finding the real Earhart.

Kidsbiographer: I enjoyed how Amelia Lost shifted between a chronological account of Amelia Earhart’s life and a focus on the attempts to locate her on the Pacific Ocean. Can you describe the creative influences – or impulse – that led you to tell Earhart’s story this way?

Candace Fleming: Amelia‘s structure – the juxtaposing of two stories — was dictated by my research. As I delved into Amelia’s life, I discovered another story — that incredible and dramatic tale of the search. And I began to see how the two stories dovetailed; how Amelia’s choices seemed to lead to her fate; how her fate led to her becoming legendary. Once I came to this conclusion, the writing came fairly easily. I didn’t write the stories separately, but rather in the order they appear in the book. Sure, I strived for dramatic effect and cliff-hanging endings. But the breaks themselves — where one story ends and another begins — followed their own course.

Kidsbiographer: What sort of research did you do to write Amelia Lost?

Candace Fleming: I’m one of those writers who tend to get lost in their research.  In fact, I WANT to get lost in the research. It’s the only way to uncover those overlooked tidbits of truth.  With Amelia, I spent weeks at the Purdue University Library shifting through the vast George Putnam Collection.  I visited historical societies in Kansas and New Mexico and California (places with connections to Amelia), and I talked with experts at the National Air and Space Museum and the Smithsonian National Postal Museum.  Best of all, I had the pleasure of working with Ric Gillespie, executive director of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR).  He and his organization are the ones who are out on former Gardner Island right now searching for Amelia’s plane.  Ric gave me unlimited access to TIGHAR’s primary documents, archival photographs, and scientific articles.  He even fact-checked the completed manuscript.  I could never have reconstructed the day-to-day events of the search without his help and knowledge.  And then I did things like fly Amelia’s route over South East Asia (in a commercial airplane!), walked Atchison, Kansas and sort of felt the air, and prowled through vintage airplanes (a Canuck, an Electra, etc.)   I even considered taking flying lessons, but… research has to stop somewhere, right?

Kidsbiographer: You paint a nuanced portrait of Earhart. On one hand, she shows an awareness of the measures she must take to protect and advance her image; on the other hand, she seems sincere about inspiring other women to take risks and follow their dreams. During your research, which new fact or insight about Earhart surprised you most?

Candace Fleming: What I found most surprising was the level of mythologizing Amelia did on her own behalf. What I mean is, she told stories about herself –wrote them in her memoirs –  that were totally untrue. She created them out of whole cloth. For example, in her book The Fun Of It, she relates this absolutely charming anecdote about her first glimpse of an airplane. It was 1908, she wrote, and a “thing of wire and wood” was giving demonstrations at the Iowa State Fair. But eleven year old Amelia wasn’t the least bit interested. She was entirely too taken with “an absurd little hat made of a… peach basket” that she’d bought for fifteen cents. It’s a charming story. But it’s not true. Aviation history (as well as the Iowa Historical Society) bears that out. And that wasn’t the only fib Amelia told. At first, I was frustrated by all the lies. I began telling people I was going to title the book “Flyer, Flyer Pants On Fire.” Then I realized that this was an opportunity to get beyond the mythologized Amelia — a chance to strip away the heroic mask in order to make her a living, breathing woman who did extraordinary things.

Kidsbiographer: In my review of Amelia Lost, I compared the biography to an exciting documentary film: informative, yet moving and suspenseful. Like many middle-grade and young adult biographers, you use textboxes to communicate background information without disrupting the human narrative. Where, in this project, did you find balancing your storytelling and educational objectives particularly challenging?

Candace Fleming: Recently, someone called my use of sidebars a “third story.”  I really like that.  As for the balance between narrative and sidebar, my choice is determined by two questions: 1) Will including this information in the text slow the story down and 2) Is the information just so fascinating that I simply can’t leave it behind. If the answer is “yes” to either one of those, then I know I have a sidebar. But I also know they need to be brief, so I try to keep them to two or three paragraphs. I try, but I’m not always successful.  My goal in all of this, of course, is to be entertaining.  I think of myself as a storyteller, not a fact teller and my hope is kids will read the book for pleasure, not just to write a report.  Thus, I don’t really have an eye out for educational objectives.  I just want to convey to my readers the joy and passion I find in my particular subjects.

Kidsbiographer: What’s the most gratifying feedback you’ve received from young readers about Amelia Lost? How have young girls responded to the book and to Earhart as a biographical subject and potential role model?

Candace Fleming: A few months ago, I was working with 7th graders at the Singapore American School.  I was there to work with them on their nonfiction writing, and in advance of my arrival they read my biographies.  My first day at the school, one of the students raised his hand, and after I called on him, he flipped open his copy of Amelia Lost and read the passage about Dana Randolph.  Dana, in case you don’t remember, was the teenaged boy in Wyoming who claimed he’d picked up Amelia calling for help on his wireless radio.  Anyway, the student read the passage and then looked at me.  “So,” he said, his voice full of challenge.  “how can you call that nonfiction?”  I confess I was confused by the guess.  “It’s nonfiction,” I verified.  “How can it be?” he persisted.  And he proceeded to point of the details and the dialogue.  He hadn’t realized good nonfiction uses the same storytelling elements as fiction.  He’d obviously experienced nonfiction as dull, an encyclopedic recitation of facts and dates and events.    But I had bucked that notion.  I was thrilled.

I was also thrilled when I received an email from a 6th grade girl that ended with this sentence, “It was history I could feel.”  Isn’t that lovely?

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

Candace Fleming: This fall (2013) I have two new books being published by Schwartz & Wade.  The first is a novel called On The Day I Died.  It’s a ghost story.  The second is a picture book illustrated by incredibly talented, Caldecott medalist Eric Rohmann called Oh, No!  And currently I’m in the throes of a new biography, this one about Anastasia Romanov.  In fact, I’m off to Russia next month to work in the National Archives, as well as visit the Imperial Family’s homes and haunts.  I can’t begin to tell you how excited I am about the project.  I’m writing it in the style of a “true crime” book – a real challenge, but an exhilarating one.

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