1) PICK A PERSON YOU LOVE
Whoever you pick is someone who is going to be part of your life for a long time. You will be spending time researching, writing, rewriting, editing and, finally, when your book is published, marketing. In short, if the person you pick does become a book, that person will be part of your life forever. Make sure that’s someone you want to be part of your life forever.
2) FIND THE DREAM
Disclaimer: not everyone looks for a dream when writing a picture book biography. Some people can write a riveting story inspired by a little known fact about someone you think you know or deserves to be known. Others may take a fresh approach to a familiar subject, revealing fresh insights into someone’s art or offering writing so lyrical, that you feel you’re experiencing the story for the first time. These approaches can and do charm children and critics alike. But when I write books, I look for the dream. I have to know what my subject wants more than anything else and how that dream has driven my subject since childhood.
3) MAP THE JOURNEY
For me every picture book biography is a quest or a hero’s journey. Whether I’m writing about William Hoy, Dashrath Manjhi, Charlie Sifford or Irving Berlin, I am thinking about Odysseus and Bilbo Baggins and Harry Potter and how they set out to achieve something against challenging odds. I map out the journey, starting with the dream, and showing the difficulties escalate until they seem insurmountable. Finally, just before the end, the subject breaks through.
4) USE YOUR SENSES
This can be the toughest part of making the story work. You have your main character. You know their dream and the journey they took to achieve it. But it won’t have the breath of life unless you can feel and make children feel the emotions, the sights, the sounds, the tears and the exhilaration of that journey. You have to be there. You have to live it. You have to inhabit your character the way an actor inhabits a part. You have to think through your character’s brain, feel through your character’s heart while giving the gritty specifics of his or her hard-fought progress.
5) BRING THE HERO HOME
The ending of your story should echo the beginning in some way. In the words of the poet, T.S. Eliot: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” So at the end of The William Hoy Story, William is brought to tears when the crowd cheers him with deaf applause just as his mother used to do. Manjhi finishes his journey at the mountain where he began it, but the mountain, due to his hard work, is different, and so is he and so is his village. Charlie, who just wanted a chance to play golf, takes pleasure at the end in opening the door for others so they can play.
FINAL NOTE: These are tips that have guided me, but remember that no two books are truly alike, not even from the same author. There’s no one formula to follow and your journey to create something memorable will become your own personal quest that will be different in both its challenges and rewards from that faced by anyone else. I am glad to see the increased interest in writing picture book biographies. Children love these true stories and there are so many that have yet to be told. I hope these tips have been helpful and I look forward to learning from what you discover on your journeys in the time ahead
About the author:
Nancy Churnin is the theater critic for The Dallas Morning News and author of THE WILLIAM HOY STORY, HOW A DEAF BASEBALL PLAYER CHANGED THE GAME (Albert Whitman & Company), which has been picked for the 2016 New York Public Library Best Books for Kids list, the 2017 Bank Street Books Best Books for Kids list, the 2017 Texas Library Association's 2X2 and Topaz lists, the 2017-2018 Illinois School Library Media Association's Monarch Award Master List and Connecticut's 2017-2018 Charter Oak Book Awards. MANJHI MOVES A MOUNTAIN (Creston Books), won a silver Eureka Award from The California Reading Association, is a Junior Library Guild 2017 Fall pick selected in the Character Building Elementary category, The Children's Book Council showcase pick, and on the long list for the Windows and Mirrors diversity titles selected by the Northern California Children's Bookseller Alliance. Coming out in 2018: CHARLIE MAKES HIS SHOT: HOW CHARLIE SIFFORD BROKE THE COLOR BARRIER IN GOLF (Albert Whitman) in January; IRVING BERLIN, THE IMMIGRANT BOY WHO MADE AMERICA SING (Creston Books) in June and THE QUEEN AND THE FIRST CHRISTMAS TREE (Albert Whitman) in September. A native New Yorker, she's a graduate of Harvard University, with a master's from Columbia University School of Journalism, who is happy to call Dallas her home. She and her husband, Dallas Morning News arts writer Michael Granberry, are raising four boys and two cats.. For more, visit: www.nancychurnin.com.