When I first got into publishing and for many years afterward, I avoided the topic of slavery, so it’s interesting to me that with my first two authored books, I took on the topic.
IT JES' HAPPENED: WHEN BILL TRAYLOR STARTED TO DRAW (Lee & Low Books, 2012) is the biography of once enslaved outsider artist Bill Traylor who, with no prior art training, created a body of artwork that is celebrated and collected around the world today.
POET: THE REMARKABLE STORY OF GEORGE MOSES HORTON (Peachtree, 2015), is the story of an enslaved poet who became the first African American to get a book published in the South. His poetry protested his enslavement.
Why did I decide to write these books? As a child in school, the horrors of slavery weren't addressed very much in the classroom, and movies misrepresented—and sometimes, even glamorized—the topic. As a result, I grew up misinformed and even ashamed of the subject. Through research, I learned how African Americans fought for and overcame tremendous adversity to obtain the rights we enjoy today. I realized the importance of preserving these stories and sharing them with children.
Researching the life of Bill Traylor presented a challenge. Traylor couldn’t read or write, therefore, he left no written records of his life. But he did leave behind something invaluable—his artwork, pictures he drew on the back of trash. They helped to fill in the missing pieces of his life. His drawings depicted his life as an enslaved man, his later life as a free sharecropper, and the years he spent on the streets of Montgomery as a homeless artist.
The topic of literacy and the importance of reading is what drew me to George Moses Horton's story. As an enslaved child, Horton wasn't allowed to learn how to read. But he taught himself by listening to his master's children when they studied books.
While Horton spent the majority of his life enslaved, becoming literate allowed him to earn enough money as a poet to live as a full time writer on a college campus.
Set during slavery years, POET presented some of the same challenges as IT JES' HAPPENED. Primary sources were scarce. But once again, by researching art—Horton’s poetry—I found my answers. Horton’s poetry allowed me to get inside of his head, to understand his feelings about his circumstances as a slave, and how he viewed the world and people around him.
For my third authored book, STRONG AS SANDOW: HOW EUGEN SANDOW BECAME THE STRONGEST MAN ON EARTH (Charlesbridge, 2017), I tapped into a different part of who I am.
I love physical fitness activities. Throughout the years, I've run, swam, worked out with weights, practiced yoga. After winning trophies in natural bodybuilding contests 20 years ago, I wanted to write a book on the subject. Victorian bodybuilder Eugen Sandow was the perfect way into that world.
I had many more sources to rely on in telling Sandow's story, but there were still unique challenges. After Sandow died, his wife and daughters burned all his belongings! Needless to say, they weren't interested in preserving his legacy. But that's another story.
Because of Sandow's huge celebrity status, he'd been well interviewed and written about. He was also the bestselling author of the Victorian physical fitness bible, STRENGTH AND HOW TO OBTAIN IT. A short autobiography was squeezed in the center of the book.
Another challenge with researching Sandow's life was his over-the-top telling of his own story. Sandow was a professional strongman. But first and foremost, he was a gifted showman. He was selling a product—himself.
Honestly, I think a lot of what sold was hyperbole and illusion. I mean, did he really hoist a grand piano over his head, with a full orchestra and a large dog on top? Did he really wrestle a 500-pound lion? Well, yes, and maybe yes. These things were documented by reporters and news outlets of the time. But no doubt, there was some the trickery at play. I wrote a story that I believed Eugen Sandow would have wanted told based on my research of his life—puny kid who grew up to be known as the "Strongest Man on Earth."
In my 30-plus year career, I've written and/or illustrated more than 50 books. Most have been nonfiction. With each one, I study my subject's lives, trying to understand their inner truth. I need to know what makes them tick. But I also consider what makes me tick—my inner truth. When our truths are in alignment, that's a story I feel that I can tell.
|Photo credit: Sam Bond|