Transcript from an interview with
A Nun in the Sun
I started writing and making up my own little stories when I was in second and third grade, and I had a teacher in third grade, Sister De Maria, who praised my writing. Every day I would go home and write a poem, and I can tell you one of the poems, if you'd like to hear it. It's: "The sun, the sun, the sun; must run, must run, must run; for it is like a hot, hot bun; and inside that bun there is a big, big nun."
Because all my teachers were nuns, I wrote a lot of poems about nuns, and you can rhyme "nun" with a lot of things. It's kind of fun. I'm not saying these were great poems, but I was learning how to play around with words on the page, and that was something that was really helpful for me, and I found it to be very pleasurable. I wanted to keep doing it.
A Fresh Spin on Biographies
I like to think that my books are unique. I have tried writing different kinds of books, but I've found that the field of biography has been really good to me. I love it because I am so nosy. I love writing about other people, digging up all of this information, like a detective, at the library. I try to make my books as fresh and as current, that real kids today would want to read them. I try to avoid the dated feel of the past, like making up dialogue - things like that. Everything that I write is very true, very accurate. I take old stories of famous people and try to put a fresh spin on them and make them new for kids today.
I like to think that my books do help kids remember famous people from history that they should remember. For example, in my book A Woman for President, which is the story of Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president back in 1872 — this is somebody that most kids have never heard of, and yet she's really an interesting figure from American history. That's the kind of thing that I go after, stories from the past that I think kids should know about today.
I do try to humanize the famous people from history, especially in my Lives of books, which are all about famous people — these icons from history — and what the neighbors thought of these famous people. Which is just sort of a way of saying these are the very nosiest things that I could find out about each person, that they weren't marble busts that you see on a piano somewhere, or in a library on the top shelf, all dead and moldy. These were real human beings with quirks and faults and interesting habits and different girlfriends and boyfriends and ways to spend their money and clothes and hair and underwear and little personality quirks and how they related to their children and their parents and just whatever I can find that makes them seem like real human beings. That's my goal.
Gossip Can Be a Good Thing
Gossip does have some bad connotations, but I like gossip, and I think most people do, whether they admit it or not. Most people are very much interested in gossip, and I think of gossip as a way for kids to learn about history by using gossipy details about people from the past as a way to hook readers in and tell them the other things that you want them to know about these famous people — why they're so respected, what their accomplishments were. So, I think of gossip as a good thing. I try to put a good spin on it.
I have been interested in gossip ever since I was little. One time in sixth grade, our assignment was to pick any word from the dictionary that we wanted to and write a research paper about it, and the word I picked was "gossip." I could tell you a lot about gossip and what it means throughout history. It's an interesting concept. I like to think of it as a good hook, too. We're all secretly People magazine readers at heart, even though we might not admit it.
One of the most interesting people that I've researched — they're all fascinating, but Beethoven had a lot of personality quirks and a lot of problems with his neighbors. Beethoven actually had to move about once a year because of so many complaints from his neighbors. He played his music in the middle of the night, the same thing over and over again. Drove the neighbors crazy.
Wasn't big on personal hygiene. Really didn't care about clothes or his hair — keeping clean clothes. His friends — he did have friends, because he was a very charismatic person — they would try to help him out. When he would fall asleep, they would take his old, crusty clothes away and bring in a new suit of clothes for him to wear the next day. He'd put on the new clothes and would not notice that there had been a change. So, [he] just was not into his clothes. Kept food around his apartment 'til it got old and moldy and very smelly. Kept a pot by his piano so he didn't have to go far when he had to go to the bathroom.
The Fastest Woman in the World
I think the biggest common thread would be overcoming obstacles. Most of my stories end up being about people who had a lot of problems in their lives. They had bad childhoods. They came from disabilities, poverty, all kinds of disadvantages, things hurled at them through life — challenges hurled at them. And, yet, they struggled and were able to overcome these and achieve something great and become heroes in their own way.
I think probably the most dramatic example of that would be my book Wilma Unlimited, which is the true story of Wilma Rudolph and how she became the fastest woman in the world. Here was this girl born premature, weighed four pounds, had all of these illnesses, finally was stricken with polio, couldn't walk until she was 12 years old. Came from a family of 22 children and terrible poverty and prejudice. She couldn't get treatment at hospitals, because the hospitals in her state of Tennessee wouldn't treat black people. The story of how she overcame those obstacles and ended up at the Olympics as a runner winning three Gold Medals at the Olympics — first woman to do that — was probably the most amazing life story that I've ever heard.
Giants of Science
I have a brand new series that I'm starting, and it's called Giants of Science, and these are individual books about famous scientists. They're for a little older kids than I usually write for. They're for grades, say, five to seven, and they're more like chapter books, they're not as heavily illustrated as my books usually are. They have black-and-white line drawings by a great artist named Boris Kulikov, who does these very quirky drawings. These are a little more advanced. They go into more depth than my other books. We started out with Leonardo da Vinci as a scientist, and there's a lot of ways that you can look at Leonardo and think of him as our first scientist. He invented things, came up with concepts 500 years before a lot of other people did. He spent a lot of time dissecting bodies — corpses — and drawing these amazing drawings of what was going on inside the body.
We think of him as an artist, but actually, in his life, only completed 13 paintings. In fact, his art was a way for him to finance his science. He couldn't figure out a way to get paid as a scientist. There wasn't even a word for "scientist" back in Leonardo's day, but by working as an artist, he could keep up with his science experiments. So, he was a fascinating guy, and I got to go in these books a lot more in depth than my other books, and I don't have to be quite as concise and abbreviated.
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