Reading through this inspiring series has me as fascinated by other writers as I am by people in general. It is remarkable that we are each drawn to some ideas but not to others. What compels us to spend often years of our lives distilling research into books for kids? How does a singular subject cast such a spell on us? Why nonfiction? Why us? Why me?
I’m especially intrigued by the challenges of writing narrative picture book biographies. I like to joke that I write about dead people. (Apologies to the living subjects in my queue and to the loud fictional characters nagging for page space.) It took many years to realize that the answer to my why question goes deeper than the go-ahead-and-dare-me challenge of resurrecting a dead person on the page. And it all began in my childhood.
I grew up on a Quarter Horse ranch surrounded by a myriad of pets and farm animals, including a pet skunk. And horses. Did I mention the horses? I was a horse-crazy girl and a lucky beneficiary of the human-animal bond. But, far away from friends and family, I often felt isolated. Lonely. I became a writer in those wide-open spaces where a deep curiosity took root.
People fascinated me. I became naturally nosy.
When my mother shared childhood stories about the rag man, the armory, or her Italian-speaking grandmother in the upstairs flat of her inner-city Chicago neighborhood, I was mesmerized. During rare trips to visit her family, I was a sponge for my grandmother’s stories. Understanding my mother’s background and her people, helped me understand her.
But my father was a contradiction. To the rest of the world, he was a charming, handsome, funny, successful man. But at home, he was a closed book. He never spoke about his earlier life and never introduced us to his people. He died while I was in my twenties, taking with him all details about his WWII experiences, family lore, his own early quirks, hobbies, traumas, passions. I was left with unanswered questions about what made my complicated father tick. The omission felt like a void in my own identity.
It seems obvious now that my fascination with people is rooted in my attempt to understand my father, my people, myself.
The nonfiction story ideas that find me likewise tug at my heart strings. Most often, they begin with a simple curiosity—something I read, hear, watch, dream. I tend to be drawn to underdog stories and obscure bits of history that have been veiled by the cobwebs and dust of time.
The initial spark for Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness was the “educated” horse Beautiful Jim Key. But it was learning about the tenacious spirit of formerly-enslaved William “Doc” Key, and the indelible impact he and Jim had on the emerging humane movement, that kept me motivated throughout the book’s ten-year journey.
See, during my early years of horse shows and then working for a veterinarian as a teenager, I witnessed many cases of animal abuse. The heartbreak and helplessness never left me. Sharing Doc and Jim’s story was my way of speaking up. My heart is so embedded in the story that I had my late father’s stallion “sign” my publishing contract with his hoofprint. Step Right Up is a call to action to be kinder to animals and to each other. I’m there on every page.
For Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words, the initial spark came from the shock of learning that Honest Abe, the man who wrote some of the most powerful, inspiring, important words in our country’s history, once wrote something so mean and offensive that he was challenged to a duel. (Spoiler alert: Lincoln survived!) Lincoln owed James Shields an apology.
My manuscript had already been acquired when I realized where my heart connects to the story. First, it was the realization that how we respond to our mistakes defines our character. And words have the power to harm or to inspire, which brings me to an epiphany.
When Step Right Up was nearing print time, I was mulling over my final dedication for that book while walking my dog. Then, wham! That inner voice interrupted my thoughts with a premature dedication for Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words: To my brother, because we owe each other an apology.
Whoa! Had I written an apology book? I didn’t ultimately use that dedication in the book, but it’s whispering there in the ether.
Yes, my heart is woven into everything I write, even when I don’t realize it. After researching the dickens out of my subjects, my inner storyteller frames a narrative through the lens of my own life experiences.
During every project, I learn a little more about myself, my people, and about the human condition. Hopefully, young readers will learn a bit more about themselves, too.
Donna Janell Bowman is the Texas author of many books for young readers, including the award-winning picture book biography Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness, illustrated by Daniel Minter and Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words, illustrated by S.D. Schindler. In 2019, her STEAM-infused book King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara, illustrated by Adam Gustavson, releases from Peachtree Publishers.