I am such a fan of Mara Rockliff’s books: MESMERIZED, GINGERBREAD FOR LIBERTY, AROUND AMERICA TO WIN THE VOTE, and soooo many more! Plus a few brand new ones! Thank you, Mara for sharing your process of “mining for heart.”
Where should a story end?
If your story—like many of mine—is a biography, the answer might seem obvious. A biography is a life story, after all.
But a picture book biography rarely extends from birth to death. It’s not really the story of a life; it’s the story of the heart of a life. One great accomplishment. A whole career. A special talent, trait, or passion that shaped everything the person did. Whatever that life’s heart turns out to be, once it has found its full expression in your story, it is time to stop.
Doctor Esperanto and the Language of Hope tells the story of L.L. Zamenhof, who dreamed a “universal” language could bring peace and understanding to the world. Creating an easy second language anyone could learn was no small task, and he faced many obstacles—even his own father, who threw his work onto the fire.
Clearly, Zamenhof’s one great accomplishment was his language, Esperanto. But I wasn’t sure where the story ought to end. Should I stop when he published the language in 1887? Sometime during the next thirty years, as he watched Esperanto grow and spread? Or should the story go on past his death, to the millions of people using Esperanto to communicate today?
I realized the heart of Zamenhof’s life story was his wish for understanding. And the moment that found full expression was at the very first World Congress of Esperanto in 1905, when he stepped onto the stage to face the waiting crowd, and suddenly he couldn’t speak.
So many men and women from so many countries, meeting face-to-face for the first time! What if they couldn’t understand each other after all? What if his work had failed?
He gazed out at the people of the world who had come so far to share a dream.
And then he found the words—his words.
And when they all rose to their feet and cheered and shouted, Vivu Esperanto! Vivu Zamenhof! he understood them, too.
Lights! Camera! Alice! is, as the subtitle says, The Thrilling True Adventures of the First Woman Filmmaker. Decades before the “talkies,” Alice Guy-Blaché was already making movies with sound, color, and special effects. From crawling in a tiger’s cage to blowing up a pirate ship, Alice would do anything to make her movies more spectacular.
Lights! Camera! Alice! could have ended when she built her own state-of-the-art movie studio—the peak of her career. But the heart of Alice’s life story wasn’t her success. It was story itself. Back when the Lumière brothers were satisfied just filming everyday events, Alice thought of using their invention to tell stories. More than movies, it was stories Alice loved.
So even when she has no studio, no actors, no costumes, no sets, not so much as a movie camera, Alice still has one last story left to tell—her own. Her memoir is much like her movies:
It was a story full of laughter and surprises…romance and adventure…thrills and heartache. Alice’s story had everything—except, of course, an ending.
She couldn’t wait to see what happened next.
Born to Swing: Lil Hardin’s Life in Jazz actually does end with Lil Hardin Armstrong’s death. As the fictional narrator of her own story, Lil tells the reader why:
You won’t believe me, but I died at the piano, playing that “St. Louis Blues”—playing hard. Oh, boy! I went out swinging.
Right up to the end, I had the widest smile and the biggest, brightest eyes.
As a bright-eyed teenager, Lil fell in love with pop music when she discovered W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.” That song would set her on her path as a jazz pioneer who played piano, wrote hit songs, arranged recording sessions, led multiple bands, and turned an unknown horn player—her husband, Louis Armstrong—into a star. When I found out she died playing that very song, there was no question where her story had to end.
I’d never ended a picture book biography with death before, and probably I never will again. Most of the time, you’ll find an earlier point will be the right place to stop.
But what about the many fascinating things that happened later in your subject’s life? Well, there’s always the author’s note—
I’ll just stop there.
Mara Rockliff is the author of many lively historical books for children, including Gingerbread for Liberty! and Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France. Her newest picture book biography is Doctor Esperanto and the Language of Hope (Candlewick, March 12, 2019). She lives with her family in Lancaster, PA, but enjoys daily chats with Esperanto-speaking friends around the world. Visit her online at www.mararockliff.com.