Posted by: jeannineatkins | December 17, 2008

A Bit More about Biographies for Children

Not long after I first learned to read, when visiting the library I habitually headed to two shelves near the floor of books with tattered orange covers. These were biographies that fictionalized the childhoods of famous Americans, and though there weren’t as many girls as I would have liked, I loved them. They were illustrated with cut-paper black silouhettes which seemed to help me dream my way into their lives. And provided fodder for games played in the woods behind my house.

And these are a version of the books I like to write today, though I try to include more detail and grit and lengthen the list of girls and women. I start by reading biographies for adults and getting smitten, like a student who came by my office on Monday to pick up project. She’d brought along the embroidery she’d done of Clara Barton, which I’d asked to see after a conversation about being obsessed with her as a child. Fran wrote and illustrated a biography for children as a project. With class over, I don’t know if she’ll go on with this project, but here would be a beginning: obsession. If you’re going to spend a long time reading and writing about a person, it had better be someone you love, are obsessed with, or both. I know some people write about villains or various kinds of low lifes who may shape history as much as heroes do. Personally, I wouldn’t want that kind of company for long in my room.

Fran based the short book she wrote on letters Barton wrote to children who wanted to know more about her childhood. I think the underlying question for some of these children was: can I grow up to be a little like you? Barton replied, conveying some impatience, almost bristliness, at people “wont to dwell upon my courage.” She wrote “in the earlier years of my life I remember nothing but fear.” Of course I want to know what she feared, and how she overcame it, which Fran’s small book didn’t have the space to explore. And there’s a shape of many a biography, the arc from fear to courage.

Another approach would be to expand from the person to the larger scope of history. A book about Clara Barton might certainly be much about founding the Red Cross, and one might follow the organization’s history to the present. Children might like to know not only more about women in the Civil War era, but the history of nursing. Now it’s a female dominated role, though with more room than it had when I was growing up, when it was one of the few or popular choices, along with teacher and secretary. Clara Barton fought to break into the field, back in a time when women’s legs, sometimes obliquely referred to as limbs, were well covered by skirts, and the idea of the virtuous getting corrupted by male anatomy, no matter how in need of healing, meant that most nurses were men, and scarce.

All kinds of directions are possible. When I get lost in my research, I go back to the first moments of falling in love: what snagged my attention? What made my heart beat harder? That’s got to be at the center of the book, and often suggests its shape.



  1. I just described my historical YA in a query letter to an agent who wants to hear about ALL projects, done and in any-kind-of-works. Felt SO good to see her story, and the historical part, on paper–even in just a couple of sentences. 🙂

  2. Such a beautiful post, Jeannine. In writing biographies, we’re really writing about ourselves. And in the case of my own memoir, I hope the opposite is also true.
    PS Clara Barton? She’s on my own list of personal favorites! (Even more so than Cherry Ames: Student Nurse. LOL)

  3. I started my project with an interest in Jane’s life, and have expanded to an obsession with her work and life. It’s endlessly fascinating to me. I cannot recall the precise date when I finally felt like an actual biographer, but I know why I felt that way: I was not only willing to come up with my own theories or opinions about things, but fully able to support those opinions and back them up.
    I had a biography of Clara Barton when I was a kid that I read and re-read. It definitely talked about the Red Cross, too. And for a while, I really wanted to be a nurse, just like Clara Barton.

  4. Yes! Yes! Yes!
    Thanks you for sharing these thoughts, Jeannine. I am in love and obsessed with my subject, though I have not yet told his story the right way. Happily, I don’t mind hanging out with him for even more years …

  5. I am so much drawn to your suggestions for the second approach. I see mostly the first approach in pb biographies and they often feel forced to me–trying to find an arc when perhaps none existed. The second approach allows the writer to take whatever road mosts interests them. They don’t have to put the strand together, they just have to follow it. And the natural interdisciplinary learning that seems to flow naturally from this is really interesting to me.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, as always, they make me think.

  6. I love hearing about those couple of sentences!

  7. Yes, it’s getting to the oneness, I think. We become our subjects, so readers can be part of that sea of words, too.
    I, too, preferred Clara Barton over Cherry Ames. But it was probably about the costumes. In my more realistic adulthood, I’d have to choose a hospital, preferably the maternity wing, over dodging bullets on the battlefield.

  8. I like that defining moment, Kelly.
    Now I’m wanting to read a Barton biography. But kind of hoping it doesn’t turn to obsession. Too many obsessions and their resulting drafts already around here. Glad others get different obsessions and we get to tag along as readers.

  9. What, you obsessed, Loree? Why aren’t we shocked?
    I do think the obsession moves us to those long amounts of time in immersion. I don’t know any other way to know all the right details, and revisit them, and “suddenly” (yes, sometimes after years) see them in a new and defining way.

  10. *what snagged my attention? What made my heart beat harder?*
    Yes! I ask myself these questions, too. And usually they help me find my way out of the swamp (though not always quickly or neatly).
    It really is wonderful to hear your thoughts on this. Structure is something I struggle with. It can be hard to be patient, but when I move too fast the material falls apart in my hand — or is too rigid and unyielding, which is even worse.

  11. Thanks for writing, Linda, and your kind comment.
    That word “forced;” just hearing it, my muscles stiffen. You are so right that there’s not going to be the connection we want with readers if the connection to our own subject isn’t so integrated into our lives and writing that it’s almost seamless by the time of publication.
    I try to answer questions about the context that I myself had, but when possible, it may be just a phrase or an adjective, not much breaking the narrative flow.

  12. Oh, those nasty murky swamps. Bio-land is worse than some of what those hobbits and friends had to cross.
    Yes, patience. I just responded to Loree above (was writing when your post came in) about the connection between obsession and … time. I wish I had a trick, but staying in the mud and murk seems to be my one way.
    Thanks for writing! And good luck with waiting it out!

  13. Oh, I loved those silhouetted biographies, too! I tend to collect old books and many of them have silhouettes but I don’t have any of those particular biographies. I’d love to see them somewhere.

  14. Yes, I’ve never tried to hunt them down, but I’d like to not just see, but hold and smell one! Maybe get carried back…

  15. Oh, yes – hold and smell one. And take it home!

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