When anyone can look up anything, what makes a nonfiction story different than a Wikipedia entry? What is it that lingers after a child reads a book, that brings new perspective and inspires thinking? To me, that’s heart, the most essential and difficult part of writing. It’s a thread that you won’t find in the research, but something that comes from the research. It might hit ten seconds before sleep, during a walk, while reading something entirely unrelated, or may never surface at all. Barb Rosenstock, author of a number of picture book biographies, calls it the “So What?” Many thanks to Barb for sharing her thoughts in the first of my monthly series for writers on “Mining for Heart.”
Writing a picture book biography? So what?
Most readers (and some authors) think these are the steps to writing a picture book biography—
1) choose person 2) research life facts 3) write up facts 4) publish book
I wish. Instead, buried in my laptop are long lists of people that I started to research, but just didn’t care about. I have a file drawer full of picture book ideas that never got anywhere near being manuscripts. Why do some stories turn into scrap paper while others turn into books?
It’s a matter of answering the question, “So what?” A picture book biography is elevated, useful, even publishable only when it finds some resonance for children living today. So what does this mean for kids now? So what changed in our world? So what can this mean for our future?
Finding the “So what?” is rooted in curiosity and caring. When I really care about a historical person, I’ll pore over photographs, letters, and indexes. In the early stages, I don’t even know what I’m looking for…I might need to know…everything! Then, before I write, ideally, I listen to the echoes of this person’s life that might be important for kids; the universal human stuff—flaws, strengths, and relationships. Even then, the “So what?” of the story can remain elusive.
Take Dorothea Lange. (At one point, I would have said, “Please! Someone else take Dorothea Lange!”) I loved Dorothea’s work and her determination to create a life that suited her against all odds. I read and read, then wrote and wrote. But every version of the story wasn’t working. The “So what?” was missing. What idea could carry this story to the heart of a child reader? What idea was both universal and specific enough to affect every writing decision, from which scenes to include to which verbs to choose? Was it her childhood polio? No. Was it her family relationships? No. Was it her most iconic photograph, Migrant Mother? No.
I stopped writing. I reread an oral history, imagined myself in the room with Dorothea. I found video of Dorothea speaking about her work. I was surprised (and that’s usually an indication I’m getting close.) Dorothea didn’t much talk about cameras, or people; she talked about the art of seeing.
The “So what?” of my Dorothea Lange picture book biography turned out to be her eyes—her way of seeing the world. A “way of seeing” is unique to each child on the planet. Dorothea saw her life a certain way. She felt invisible as a girl and later, behind a camera. She translated those feelings into great art—art that also helped those in need.
Dorothea’s Eyes is about an unseen little girl who observes the world and using a camera, creates art with her eyes and heart. Will there ever be another Dorothea Lange? No. But are there children on the planet today whose unique way of seeing could someday create art that helps others? Yes. Yes. Yes.
Barb Rosenstock loves true stories best. She combines research and fun language into books that bring history to life for young readers. Her latest picture book from Calkins Creek is Dorothea’s Eyes, illustrated by Gérard DuBois. Other books include The Noisy Paint Box (2015 Caldecott Honor), illustrated by Mary Grandpré, Ben Franklin’s Big Splash, The Streak, Thomas Jefferson Builds a Library, The Camping Trip that Changed America, The Littlest Mountain and Fearless. Barb lives near Chicago with her husband, sons, two big poodles and hundreds of interesting books.
Barb Rosenstock, Janet Fox, and Liz Garton Scanlon are currently celebrating the 100th anniversary of the U.S.National Parks with “Page Through the Parks” throughout the month of August. Check out the kick off post, their Facebook page, and prizes. Teachers and librarians have a chance to win a tremendous package of goodies. Also available, a list of titles from picture books to YA that feature U.S. National Parks. Next week, in conjunction with “Page Through the Parks,” Liz Garton Scanlon will share her thoughts on “Mining for Heart” in a different genre.