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Finding the Hook in Writing Biographies

Author Spotlight
Leave a comment on this post for a chance to win a copy of Doreen Rappaport’s new book: 42 Is Not Just a Number.

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.

martins big wordsThen 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.

9780763653019I 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.

9780763676247When 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.

Giveaway Information:

  • 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.

Comments are now closed.

Thank you to everyone who left a comment on this blog post.
I used a random number generator and Renee Allen’s commenter number came up so she won this giveaway.

37 thoughts on “Finding the Hook in Writing Biographies Leave a comment

  1. Thank you for your inspiration for my writers as they work to understand the process of writing a biography. We will use your quote “illuminate the meaning of someone’s life” to remind us of the importance of this work!

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  2. How powerful to read of the moment your research brought you to the contrast of words for Martin Luther King! That was such a critical and essential part of him, and you brought it together.

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  3. I love reading Doreen Rappaport’s books and sharing them with children and teachers. The information she shared in this post is priceless! Thank you!

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  4. I love the idea that when you write a biography you have no idea “how you are going to write that person’s life.” Biographies are no longer dry books of facts but can be told in so many different ways. What a great lesson and thought to share with student writers – YOU choose how you are going to write about something.

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  5. I’m “hook challenged” but getting better. Your books are inspirational models. Thanks for sharing some backstory on your journey.

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  6. I love the writing advice to find a hook so the biography isn’t just an encyclopedia entry. Now I want to read all Doreen Rappaport’s books!

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  7. I think the line that struck me the most was, “My goal is to illuminate the meaning of someone’s life.” This has given me an entirely new outlook in how to tell someone else’s story. How inspiring. Thank you for this! I want to be sure to communicate the same to my own students!

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  8. “My goal is to illuminate the meaning of someone’s life.”
    This is why your biographies are so perfect for teaching theme, author’s purpose, and the craft to reveal these things. I look forward to this next one. Just shared Matt Tavares’ Hank Aaron biography for the same reasons.

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  9. I love the whole idea of hooks and drawing a reader into the book. I am not into fishing at all, but a hook in a book is just so full of promise and anticipation. I love Doreen’s use of titles and how spot on they are. Would love to read all of these with my students!

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  10. Thank you for sharing the work behind the books. It is information that I will share with my students to enhance their understanding of the books.

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  11. I have read Martin’s Big Words. In fact I have the book. I loved the way the biography incorporates narrative. I look forward to reading about Jackie Robinson, whether I win the book or not. Thanks for the chance to acquire it!

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  12. I think that students will “gobble” this book up. Teaching students to both read and write biographies that are engaging/interesting versus the antiquated ones living in libraries is SO important!

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  13. I am a HUGE fan of everything Doreen Rappaport writes. Thank you for this inside look at her process. I love the TWT Author Spotlight posts!

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  14. I never thought of searching the footnotes of someone else’s research. It sounds like a treasure hunt. Fun work.

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  15. Thanks for sharing your process. I think it’s important for all writers to think about their purpose for writing. You can call it the hook or the purpose or the heart or any other term, but it is the foundation of the writing and an important organizational tool. I think it’s important when writing nonfiction to organize your information around a hook. Otherwise it sounds like an encyclopedia entry. Looking forward to checking out your latest book!

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  16. Thanks for sharing your research process into a book. Any advice for similar research approaches for lesser known figures where there isn’t much historical record to comb through?

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  17. I can’t wait to give this book to my baseball fans to read! I love to use mentor text to teach writing crafts, so this sounds like a great addition to my library. Thank you for your blog… I learn so much from you!

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  18. Wow! Thank you for this opportunity to win a copy of this book. My students have found a new love for biographies. I am working on building our biography section in our class library.
    Wonderful interview. It’s interesting how she uses the research to assist & bring about the “hook”. Many times our students hope the “hook” just happens and sometimes it evolves.

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  19. Thank you for breathing life into biography research and writing. I loved reading that “Footnotes are the ‘juice’ of new information.” While footnotes may be new to fourth graders, I am intrigued enough to explore some of our classroom texts to see how many have them. This could be a fresh mini-lesson for next year’s biography writing unit. Thank you!

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      • This book looks wonderful for my third graders. Also, I can feel this book is filled with emotions just from the title. I am anticipating it will touch its audience.

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