My audiobook of the moment is Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America by Susan Campbell Bartoletti. The title may be all Typhoid Mary all the time, but after listening to the first 1/3 of the book, I’d have to say that the focus of the book is on George Soper. Soper billed himself as an expert on epidemics, specifically typhoid but he had no medical background. He was a civil engineer. I had a grad class on urban history so this makes sense — a big focus for the early civil engineers and city planners was public health. They fought to keep people healthy as American cities grew.
What a timely topic! But without Typhoid Mary I don’t think it would have been an easy sell.
George Soper? Whose George Soper and why do we care? Civil engineering just doesn’t have any play as a “sexy” topic.
Flash “Typhoid Mary” in front of an editor and you just might grab their attention. Sell it from a new angle – a medical mystery pursued by a new kind of investigator and you’re reeling that editor in. If you can find a way to make it sing, you’ve likely got a sale. Clearly, Bartoletti did and this reads like an episode of Bones or a crime drama.
As much as editors tell us to submit the biography they haven’t already seen, the completely unfamiliar is a remarkably hard sell. Too rarefied and editors know it will be tough to locate an audience, no matter how fascinating the subject.
This means that if you’ve found someone unknown, look for a way to tie them into something well-known or timely. Even if someone doesn’t know Mary Mallon, they’ve probably heard of Typhoid Mary. Fears of West Nile and the Zika virus are rampant and this ties into that mind-set. Bartoletti also found a way to make it sound like true crime. It may not be easy to make the connections but the more you can make the more likely you will be to make a sale.
When I saw the cover of Patricia Hruby Powell’s Josephine, I did a double take. A picture book on Josephine Baker? Are you serious? Apparently you can judge a book by it’s cover and I am seriously guilty. After all, I haven’t read the book yet although I have requested it from my library.
And I should really know better. After all, I’ve read Gary Golio’s Jimi: Sounds like a Rainbow. Yes, a picture book about Jimi Hendrix. And, although Hendrix had a serious drug problem and died of an overdose, it is an amazing book.
The beauty of the picture book format is that you have 36 pages to tell your story. Slant it right and you can avoid the bits that aren’t age appropriate without being accused of censoring your topic. Golio did it by focusing on Hendrix’s childhood drawings and how they fueled his music later in his life. The author’s note tells how Hendrix died and discusses substance abuse and addiction. As a result, the book it totally honest and totally age appropriate.
Since I haven’t yet read Josephine, I don’t know how Howell pulls it off. I do know that the story is told in verse and that the rhythms and energy echo Baker’s life.
Who else may or may not make a good candidate for a biography for the very young. Charles Lindbergh, humble and hard working early in life, would be excellent. Charles Lindbergh, father of a kidnapped and murdered boy? His later political statements? Nope. I wouldn’t touch that with a ten-foot picture book pole. But I could easily see writing about what in his youth inspired his flight.
Pick several historic figures who led “colorful” lives and play with how many ways you could present them to a picture book audience.
Many of us who write picture books participated in Picture Book Idea Month throughout November. Not surprisingly, since I love nonfiction, about half of my ideas were for nonfiction manuscripts. Several of these were biographies. Here are three things to keep in mind when writing a picture book biography.
- Find a kid friendly angle. No matter how important the topic of your biography may be, you will need a hook that appeals to kids. One way to do this is to pull in your subject’s childhood. This might mean starting in childhood and moving forward into adulthood when that person became famous. Gary Golio did this in his biography of Jimi Hendrix, linking Hendrix music to his childhood love of drawing in Jimi: Sound like a Rainbow. You may also connect the subject to something with high appeal for kids. Susanna Reich does this when she writes about Julia Child’s cat in Minette’s Feast.
- Focus. Because you are writing for a picture book audience, you are going to have to have a tight focus. This means that your biography will not be comprehensive. It simply isn’t possible in the tight word count of a picture book. This can also help keep a possibly dicey subject kid friendly. Golio doesn’t ignore Hendrix drug use, it’s mentioned in the Author’s Note, but he does focus on painting with sound. This focus helps play down portions of Hendrix life that may not be appropriate for young readers who can still appreciate his contribution to music.
- Keep it real. Biographies today often use dialogue. Dialogue is a great way to help readers connect with your subject. But this also means that you have to find dialogue to quote. You may not put words in your subject’s mouth. This means documentation and finding sources.
Find out more about writing picture biographies in this interview with author Susanna Reich.