Finding the Hook in Writing Biographies
When I chose a person for a biography, I have no idea of how I am going to write that person’s life. Research is the opening key on to how to do this. I gather all the information I can about the subject and the period in which he/she lived. We need to understand the historical period to place a person’s accomplishments in context. By the time I finish my research, I have files and files and files on my computer of information. My goal is not to write an encyclopedia article with lots of facts. My goal is to illuminate the meaning of someone’s life.
A good biography presents an interpretation of the facts. I call that “the hook.” My “hook” may differ from someone else’s interpretation, and it should, because each of us is unique and sees the world differently. To find the book, I delve into my research files, categorizing them, looking for a theme that will illuminate my subject’s life.
One of my first picture book biographies was on Martin Luther King, Jr. For about three months, I lived in the Schomburg Center for Black History and Culture in Manhattan. This was in the days before the Internet. I had been in the Civil Rights Movement but I really had no idea how I was going to tell Dr. King’s life. I read all his speeches, sermons, interviews, and exhaustive biographies by Taylor Branch and others. And still I had no idea how to tell his story.
Then I read Dr. King’s autobiography: he explained that in his childhood, he felt humiliation, upset, and anger at seeing the ugly words, “White Only,” everywhere in Atlanta. But he also wrote about the strength of the words he read in the Bible, the lyrics of hymns, and his father’s sermons. This contrast made me think about the power of words to hurt us and to elevate us. At that moment, I had found my hook. I was going to alternate my narrative with Dr. King’s words, and so “Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” was born.
I have written a number of other biographies using that technique, but I have also found other styles for telling a life. I spent a good number of months in the archives on Liberty Island in Manhattan researching the Statue of Liberty. My research led me to a host of individuals responsible for the building and delivery of this statue. I met Edouard de Laboulaye, whose idea it was to give a present to the United States on the one-hundredth anniversary of its birth. I met the sculptor Auguste Bartholdi; Marie Simon, the assistant sculptor, (whom I originally thought was a woman); Gustave Eiffel, the structural engineer; Joseph Pulitzer, the publisher of the New York World, whose led a tireless campaign in his newspaper to raise the money for the pedestal and foundation; and ten-year-old Florence de Foreest who offered her pet bantams to be sold for the cause. It became clear to me that these people should tell the story of their part in the building of the Statue. And so “Lady Liberty: A Biography” came into being.
When I approached writing “42 Is Not Just A Number: The Odyssey of Jackie Robinson, American Hero,” I was already acquainted with Robinson’s baseball exploits. When I was about nine, I became an avid Jackie and Dodgers fan. I gobbled up the daily baseball statistics to see how he was doing. I knew how many singles, doubles, steals, RBI’s that he had, but I was really too young then to understand that the real significance of his life was not just his outstanding athletic ability.
In researching Jackie’s life, I had a great advantage because many authors already had written about his life, approaching it from different angles, and Robinson had written two autobiographies and given hundreds of interviews. One biographer, Arnold Rampersad had access to personal material not available to others. I tracked down the footnotes in his book to find the original sources– footnotes are the “juice” of new information. The footnotes led me to letters never published before, citations for newspaper articles, and personal reminiscences. Many of the original sources of these footnotes were found on the Internet, but trips to the Schomburg Center for Black History and Culture were essential. I had the most fun finding a website that detailed every game that Jackie played in so I could recreate them on paper.
As I went over my research and outlined the key events in his life, it was crystal clear that courage and defiance were bred into his very being from his early years. And so the title came to me: “42 Is Not Just A Number.” No players are allowed any longer to use the number 42. It is baseball’s tribute, and perhaps the world’s tribute to the man who opened major league baseball to athletes of all races.
Doreen Rappaport is the author of 63 nonfiction books. She has said all her books may have different formats, but they all have the same theme—that we are all capable of empowering ourselves.
Among her award-winning books are Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr., published by Hyperion Books for Children, and Lady Liberty: A Biography and 42 Is Not Just A Number. You can read about her other books on her website, www.doreenrappaport.com.
This giveaway is for a copy of 42 Is Not Just A Number. Many thanks to Candlewick Press for donating this prize. For a chance to win this copy of the book, please leave a comment about this post by Sunday, June 3rd, 2018 at 11:59 p.m. EDT. I’ll use a random number generator to pick the winners, whose names I will announce at the bottom of this post, by Wednesday, June 6th. Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.) U.S. mailing addresses only for the book.
If you are the winner of this book, I will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – DOREEN RAPPAPORT. Please respond to my e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.
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