Sunday, August 4, 2013

Writing Biographies for Children

Angelica Carpenter, Alexis O'Neill, and Susan Goldman Rubin
People who attended the nonfiction biography breakout session were lucky enough to hear from three nonfiction experts: 
  • Angelica Carpenter, a librarian who writes biographies about Victorian authors;
  • Susan Goldman Rubin, who started as an illustrator, but switched to writing about art when her when her house burned down and she couldn't draw anymore; and
  • Alexis O'Neill - who got her start writing nonfiction biographies for magazines.
They divided the session into three segments: research, writing, and elements of book proposals.

Research: The first thing to do is research which books have been written on the subject already, Angelica said:
  • is a good place to start;
  • The U.S. Library of Congress is free (search on juvenile);
  • Children's Literature Comprehensive Database (you can sign up for a seven-day free trial; and
  • - a librarian's search tool
Research isn't easy. Most primary source materials haven't been digitized, so you can't find them online. But you can find library catalogs and tell what's out there. Your library might be able to borrow microfiche from other libraries.

One more pro research tip: Make friends with a librarian (and bring her flowers on Valentine's Day).

Angelica Carpenter takes notes in Word in chronological order. If you've entered your dates consistently, you can find them.  You have to put a source on every entry in your notes and pictures. She also makes travel notebooks with planning information in them before she goes, and she adds things she picks up on her adventures to these.

Writing: Susan Goldman Rubin doesn't like to be as neat and thorough as Angelica Carpenter. She doesn't do it as she goes, which leads to "three-martini evenings."

"We so want you to think of biography as a wonderful genre for writing," she said. "There's a real need for biography."

You're looking for lively anecdotes that bring a character to life (not to mention people who kids are going to care most about). Biographies can give a student the impetus to know more about the period their textbooks cover, which is especially important in the common core age.

Most of all, "Be passionate. Passion is everything," Susan said. 

Alexis starts her research at home. But then she goes out into the field. "You have to live and breathe your subject to fully understand." It also opens up other avenues of research. She's also hired freelance researchers (one in Nebraska was $25/hour).

Also, "don't trust everything you read." Sometimes misinformation is out there and repeated.

Primary sources--letters, papers, interviews--are vital, Susan said.

Pro tip: "Save your butt and document everything," Alexis said. She writes the date she read her material, where she got everything. If there's a museum that thinks you got something wrong, they won't carry your book or recommend it.

They also gave great advice on negotiating photos and structuring proposals. 

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