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Author Q & A | Barbara Kerley

Posted by Rebecca G. Aguilar, M.Ed. on December 2, 2011

Those Rebels, John and Tom by Barbara Kerley

Barbara Kerley is the award-winning author of several biographies for children:

• Those Rebels, John and Tom
• The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy)
• What To Do About Alice?: How Alice Roosevelt Broke the Rules, Charmed the World and Drove Her Father Teddy Crazy!
• Walt Whitman: Words for America
• The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins

Kerley recently shared with Book Kvetch her thoughts about the research process, narrative nonfiction, collaborating with illustrators and writing for children.

The biographies you write bring subjects to young readers in new and surprising ways. Do you start your research with quirky questions?

I try to keep an open mind when I first start researching, and let the questions develop as I begin to learn about my subject.  The drawback to this approach is that I sometimes spend a long time (several months, sometimes!) not knowing exactly what story I’m going to tell, which can be a little nerve-wracking.  The benefit, however, is that I truly get to follow the research where it leads me, and the story develops organically.

What drives your interest in particular historic figures?

I’m really interested in people who discover their passion and then pursue it.  It gives a kind of energy to their life story that is very compelling.  People pursuing their passion also tend to lead dramatic lives, in the sense that they will work hard to overcome obstacles instead of abandoning their dreams.  You can’t help but root for someone who does that.

What is a typical research project for you?

I typically spend a lot of time researching before I begin to see the arc of my story.  So, for example, I spent months reading about John Adams and Thomas Jefferson before I began actually writing my new book, Those Rebels, John and Tom.  I read biographies of Adams and Jefferson that other people had written and poured over primary sources—Adams’ and Jefferson’s own letters, journals, autobiographies, and account books.  I traveled to Philadelphia to see Independence Hall and the room where Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence.

Even after I started writing, I had to dip back into my sources many times to find just the right detail or quote.  But this is time well spent, as it is the details and quotes that bring a story to life. 

What are some surprises you have found researching subjects for your bios?

The thing that continues to surprise me is how often people who have done something remarkable have had to figure it out as they went along.  When Waterhouse Hawkins built the world’s first dinosaur models, there weren’t even dinosaur skeletons he could look at to guide him.  Walt Whitman found a way to serve his country both through his volunteer work in the Civil War hospitals and in the poems he so carefully crafted to tell the soldiers’ experiences.  In a time when young women were supposed to behave, Alice Roosevelt figured out a way to live life on her own terms.  Susy Clemens taught herself how to write a biography and created an intimate and utterly unique portrait of her father, Mark Twain.  And Adams and Jefferson—well, they and the other delegates to Congress had to create a system for the colonies to make decisions and then convince that little cluster of colonies to join forces against what was probably the most powerful country in the world at that time—England.

And it wasn’t like any of these people had someone saying, “Here, just do x, y, and z and you’ll succeed.”  They all had to figure it out as they went along.  I’m continually surprised by what a single person can accomplish, just feeling their way forward and not giving up.  It’s very inspiring—and also reassuring.  It makes me feel like people can figure out just about anything (and solve any problem).  And that’s a good way for us to face the future.

Greetings from Planet Earth is fiction and A Little Peace is basically essay. What is the same about writing biography and these other works? Different?

In all my books I look for a compelling way to explore a theme.  Different genres, of course, have different constraints, but no matter the form, I really pay attention to the language I’m using.  I want to find just the right word to evoke a mood or nail an idea.  The difference in biography writing is probably the amount of research that goes into conceptualizing the story and then building it up from scratch.  The research—what happened—has to drive the storyline, of course, and unlike fiction, I have to pull my concrete details and sensory images from the research, as well.  (No making stuff up.)  In a photo essay like A Little Peace, I don’t have a character, per se, and but I try to use concrete details nonetheless to make an abstract idea more concrete, and thus more accessible to kids.

What do you think of the term, narrative nonfiction?

I really like the term and use it myself.  Biography truly is nonfiction storytelling, so I think it’s accurate.  And it’s a good reminder as a writer that story matters, but accuracy matters just as much!

What inspired your collaboration with Brian Selznick?

I’ve been lucky enough to write all my biographies with the help of a wonderful editor at Scholastic, Tracy Mack.  It was Tracy who paired Brian and I together for The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins and Walt Whitman: Words for America.  Brian puts such heart into everything he does that he is a joy to work with.


Category: Juvenile Nonfiction, Biography, History

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