My #FirstPictureBook Q&A

How do you decide where to start and end a picture-book biography?

October 2, 2017

As I sit down to write another picture-book biography, I’m faced with the familiar question—where do I start? And then, where does it end? Lives are big and complicated. How will I fit this person’s story into a 32-page book? After a deep breath, a bowl of ice cream, and staring out the window for a bit, I remember that I have answers to this question! Here are some #firstpicturebook writers discussing how they selected the timeframes for their nonfiction picture books:

Audrey Vernick: “A boy and his dog story—it was clear to us that it started with his desire for a dog—one we wholly related to. And it had to end not with the death of the dog, but in the way Bark is still thought of and loved and admired because of Tim’s life as an artist.”

Laban Carrick Hill:“This was certainly one of the biggest challenges for me. But this is the case for every book I write. I always start with big ideas and huge ambitions. The thought of trying to represent slavery and create a discussion about slavery—and the long history of terror, rape, slavery, and murder that America is built on—made for some very long drafts of the poem. It wasn’t until I decided to just let Dave’s actions as a potter be a kind of massive metonymy/synecdoche for the larger themes that the poem really began to come together. What he does and who he is—his on-the-ground life, his massive pots, his poems—told that larger message without me mediating it with my words. In fact, I think it would have diminished the book—as well as been patronizing—if I had tried to do something like that. I can’t speak for Dave. I—and anyone else for that matter—can barely interpret his life with the few, random clues that have been left behind.”

Emma Bland Smith: “It made sense to start the story with the wolf leaving his family and heading out on his own. As far as the ending, that was a little trickier. In my first version (which I just looked back at), the ending was very vague and open, sort of flowery and poetic--not what editors are really looking for! There wasn’t a very satisfying conclusion because we didn’t really know what was going to happen with Journey. Luckily for me, sometime after that first draft, it came out in the news that he had met a mate and they’d had pups. That made for a much more exciting ending!”

Nancy Churnin: “It took me a long time to realize that the heart of the story was how his difference — his Deafness in a hearing world — was his gift to baseball. Because he was Deaf, he signed. He taught those signs to the umpires so he could play the game he loved. Those signs, which we still use today, make baseball a better game for everyone. Once that came to me, I realized I need to begin with the signs (his mother giving him Deaf applause when he practiced his throws as a boy) and finally show how he was loved by the fans when they greeted him with Deaf applause as his mother had done. The connecting thread was the applause. I used it to connect from the time he was a boy to a young rookie ballplayer to a successful and popular ballplayer.”

Heather Lang: “It’s always a challenge with picture book biographies deciding whether to focus on one event or a short part of a person’s life or even an entire life. Lots of things factor into that decision, like what research is available and what I really want my book to be about. I decided I wanted the book to be about Alice’s incredible determination and tenacity in the face of so many obstacles—poverty, segregation, and gender discrimination. In order to pull that off, I needed to start with her childhood. I always knew I wanted to end the book with her winning the gold medal—such a high point.”

Shana Keller:“The more I researched him, the more it felt right to focus his story on the achievement that everyone supported during a divisive time in our history, and one he did of his own volition. It’s noted that people came from near and far to see his clock.”

Kristen Fulton:“I knew that this was going to be about one small part of history, not a biography, but about an event. So it was easy. I decided to start it and end it with the event.”