Monday, September 17, 2018

Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep by Barb Rosenstock

The question I get asked most at school visits is, “Why do you write biography?” Early on, that question caught me off-guard—the “why” of it never occurred to me.

Barb and Grandpa Stan
To know why I write biography, you’d have to have met my grandpa, Stan. He was the kind of Chicago character who spent his life connecting people to jobs, tickets, schools, charities, and each other. He understood where people came from, and where they wanted to go. He knew how to keep a confidence and when to reveal. He connected people through stories—hilarious, tragic, or tender. He told people’s stories better than anyone I have ever met.

I loved listening to his stories, and I was a voracious reader as a kid; but “author” was a job for fancy people in New York or Paris. As an adult, I worked in corporate marketing, had a family, and read a good deal to my sons. They too tended to like stories about people—explorers, inventors, and athletes. Although there has always been great children’s nonfiction, most of the biographies I read to my sons (going back about fifteen years) disappointed me.

None of them sounded like my grandpa’s stories. Few of them seemed connected to real kids’ struggles or larger themes. They were essentially illustrated encyclopedia entries. So instead of reading the books as they were written, I used what I’d learned from my grandpa to turn the facts into stories my sons would love. At some point, I transitioned to writing.

At a school visit
When I visit schools as an author, I find that most teachers and students make false assumptions about the process of writing biography. First off, they assume I have some “file of famous folks” in a desk drawer. They believe I go to the list, choose a person, do some research, and plug facts about the subject into some sort of formula. But biography isn’t a formula (birth+3 facts¸death =fame). It’s a way of thinking about art or science or sports or any topic through the lens of understanding who did what, why, and how.

Why do teachers and students have these misconceptions? Because that’s how students often write reports in school. But that’s not how professional writers work.

For me, the process of choosing a subject is much more complex and deeply rooted in who I am. In fact, I don’t typically start with a person at all. I begin with an idea or a memory or an experience that has personal meaning to me. Here are the personal connections that launched a few of my titles:

Fearless: The Story of Fearless Driver Louise Smith: I built go-karts as a girl.

Thomas Jefferson Builds a Library: In 8th grade, I wandered off on a field trip to Monticello (Thomas Jefferson’s home).

The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky's Abstract Art: Until I was 8 years old, I thought numbers had personalities.

Blue Grass Boy: The Story of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass Music: A friend’s grandfather played mandolin at her birthday party. 

Otis & Will Discover the Deep: The Record-setting Dive of the Bathysphere: As a child, I was fascinated by a TV cartoon called Diver Dan.

As you can see, my topic choices are influenced by what I want and need to write about. The biography subjects are just the way I present an idea I’m passionate about.

That’s why no two biographies are the same. Even when two (or more) authors write about the same person, each one brings something different, something unique to the process. A finely-crafted biography offers much more than a Wikipedia entry because, at its heart, is an idea the author has carried deep inside (sometimes for years). The author combines that idea with accurate research to craft a creative product that contains parts of the author’s story within the subject’s.

I write biography, not because of who my subjects were, but because of who I am. I wish each child in every classroom the same opportunity to discover their own interests, backgrounds, and experiences—to use their own stories to connect to others.

Barb Rosenstock loves true stories best. She’s the author of award-wining nonfiction and historical fiction picture books including the 2015 Caldecott Honor title The Noisy Paint Box, illustrated by Mary Grandpré. 2018 titles include: Blue Grass Boy with Edwin Fotheringham, The Secret Kingdom with Claire Nivola, Otis & Will Discover the Deep with Katherine Roy and Through the Window with Mary Grandpré. She lives near Chicago with her family and two big poodles.

14 comments:

  1. Start with your passion- perfect!

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  2. I love the behind the scenes on these awesome books. You are a master biographer, Barbara. People's stories draw me in and I cannot escape. I figured out, for the most part, that I write stories about people whose gifts and talents are opposite from mine. I write to figure out how and why they do what I never could.

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  3. I love the behind the scenes on these awesome books. You are a master biographer, Barbara. People's stories draw me in and I cannot escape. I figured out, for the most part, that I write stories about people whose gifts and talents are opposite from mine. I write to figure out how and why they do what I never could.

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  4. Thanks Barb for your wonderful essay about connections to your family and what inspires your writing!

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  5. Excellent post! Your bios are so engaging! Thanks, Barb and Melissa!

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  6. great interview. Thanks for sharing your process and thoughts, Barb.

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  7. Loved reading your post, Barb, and I love your books! Otis and Will was wonderful (in fact, I felt claustrophobic-in a good way ;)!

    I love Marc Chagall's art, so I'm really excited to read Through the Window!

    Thanks for sharing your process!

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  8. Hi Barb - thanks for sharing how events in your life led to your biographies. I liked Diver Dan, too!

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  9. Thanks for the insight into WHY you write biographies. I love the line "I write biography, not because of who my subjects were, but because of who I am." I think if teachers could tap into this personal connection when teaching students how to write biographical reports for school, the whole experience would be much richer!

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  10. Love Barb's comments about what's at the heart of biographies that connects with writers, with readers.

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  11. Great post! I especially love The Noisy Paint Box.

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  12. Great post! Barb's books are wonderful!

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  13. Nonfiction picture books? My absolute favorite to read and to write. And Barbara Rosenstock is one of my favorite pb authors...so i absolutely LOVE this interview, Melissa.

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  14. Excellent post! Students need to see those personal connections!

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