Inquiring minds want to know the answers to all these frequently asked questions! Thank you, Emma Bland Smith, for addressing these issues! Nonfiction writers, biography writers, parents, educators, librarians, and readers—dig in. I’ll bet you all find something of interest here.
Emma is offering a GIVEAWAY, too! Just leave a comment below for a chance to win a copy of THE PIG WAR.
The winner of last week’s giveaway, COW SAYS MEOW by Kirsti Call is….Donna Rossman!!
Behind the Scenes: Best Practices for Reaching Out (or Not!) to Biography Subjects
One of the trickiest things about writing biographies is approaching and dealing with your subjects. It can be a little intimidating and awkward, for sure.
But don’t let that scare you off! If I, a shy, insecure, sensitive-to-criticism writer, can navigate these situations successfully, anyone can! Here, I’ll answer some common questions and provide examples from my own experiences.
Do I have to get permission to write about someone? is one of the questions I hear the most often in nonfiction writing forums. The short answer is… NO! You do not need permission. Consider yourself a journalist who is allowed, by freedom of the press, to write about anyone you like.
However, in many cases there are reasons you might want to get the blessing of your subject (or their descendants, estate, or foundation, if they’re no longer living).
If your book is about a not-yet-famous person (or animal) who is still alive, you almost certainly want their approval. They’ll be able to provide interviews and other primary sources that might not be out in the world, as well as help promote the book. For Odin, Dog Hero of the Fires, I visited Odin and his owner twice and was in close contact during the whole process. (And Odin would have attended the book release party had Covid not reared its head!)
While researching my upcoming picture book biography of Robert McCloskey (Mr. McCloskey’s Marvelous Mallards: The Making of Make Way for Ducklings; Calkins Creek, fall 2022), I reached out to his daughter, Jane McCloskey—and to my delight, she wrote back! Jane was able to give me some wonderful family photos and also provide a note for the back matter. I could have written it without contacting her, but I feel her involvement is bringing something special to the book.
Another reason you might want to reach out is to ask if anyone else is currently writing about the person.
What if my person is very famous (and alive)?
You still don’t have to get official approval. Very famous still-living people (say, JK Rowling, President Obama, or Serena and Venus Williams) are written about frequently. There is a lot of information about them available, so you probably don’t need to contact them to get facts for your book. I have not reached out to family members for my upcoming books about Gustave Eiffel or Fannie Farmer, because information about them is readily available.
If you are the first person to write about someone, however, you might want to let them know. Famous as they are, they still might be enthusiastic and help you research and promote the book!
How do I contact people? Start by checking their website for a contact form or email address. (Some even have a phone number on their website!) I have also contacted people by Facebook or Twitter direct message.
What if they ask me for money? It can be awkward if the person you’re writing about considers that they should be paid. I once wanted to write about a different amazing dog. His owner, however, expected me to buy the rights to the story. When I nervously explained that I wasn’t going to do that, he lost interest. It’s better to write about folks who are enthusiastic about the project, so I (not without regret) walked away from the story.
How much editorial involvement should they have? If the person is involved, you probably want to ask them if they would read the manuscript, and to let you know if something bothers them or is inaccurate. However, I recommend you make it clear (in your own nice, delicate way) that YOU are the author, that children’s book writing is a unique art form, and that certain facts might be left out in the interest of telling your story or creating a narrative arc. (Definitely suggest that you can add additional information to the back matter.)
Every single time I have asked someone to read a manuscript, I have been worried that they would come back with something like, “This isn’t at all the way I think the story should be told!” and every single time, that hasn’t happened; on the contrary, they have been delighted with the story. (Maybe I need to give people the benefit of the doubt more often!)
What about institutions like museums or zoos? This is a grey area. Some zoos claim that their animals are their intellectual property and that you need permission to write about them. When I wrote Claude: The True Story of a White Alligator, about the albino alligator at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, I was required to sign an official agreement. It’s worth jumping through these hoops, because you want the institution to be on board: Your book will be sold in their gift shop, after all! I also had the manuscript and illustrations carefully vetted by the scientists at the museum.
One more note about this: I waited to approach the museum until I had a solid manuscript that had been worked on by my critique group and approved by my agent. I felt that gave me a better leg to stand on when approaching the museum. On the other hand, do consider getting the institution’s tentative support before sending the manuscript to editors, who will want to know the status.
I hope this has been helpful. Now, go forth and tell true stories!
Don’t forget to leave a comment below to be entered in the GIVEAWAY for a copy of THE PIG WAR! (US addresses only, please)
Emma Bland Smith is the award-winning author of thirteen books for children. Her first book, Journey: Based on the True Story of OR7, the Most Famous Wolf in the West, won Bank Street College’s Cook Prize and Northland College’s SONWA award. Her latest book, The Pig War: How a Porcine Tragedy Taught England and America to Share, relates events that took place on a small island in Washington State and were almost too ridiculous to be true. Emma is a librarian and lives in San Francisco with her husband, two kids, dog, and cat. Visit her online at emmabsmith.com and on Twitter at @emmablandsmith.