I can easily conjure up little Eleanor Roosevelt suffering through her lonely childhood, or Helen Keller, on the cusp of adult life, announcing her intention to go to Harvard; both scenes were imprinted on my memory by my early reading of biographies.
Biography thrives as a literary genre because people love to read about other people. This is true for readers of any age. A good biography breathes life into a figure readers may have met only briefly in a classroom or history book; it takes them behind the scenes, where they get to know the subject in family life; it places them on the spot as the subject experiences triumphs and setbacks, sorrow and joy, and learns how to navigate life.
I still like reading about people, but today I like writing about them as well. Biography lets me do what writers love to do: tell good stories. Even better, through biography I can explore a character in depth and create a vivid portrait in words. But writing is a solitary task, so like many writers I welcome opportunities to mingle with other people doing the same kind of work, to talk shop and gain from others’ wisdom. This is why I was happy to discover Biographers International Organization, or BIO for short.
BIO is young (founded in 2010), but it has been strong and active from the start. Having as its mission “to promote the art and craft of biography, and to further the professional interests of its practitioners,” BIO presents the annual BIO Award to a distinguished biographer for his or her body of work. This year’s recipient is Stacy Schiff, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Véra and other notable works. BIO also hosts a terrific annual conference that always sends me home with many new ideas to think about and apply to my work.
At this year’s Compleat Biographer Conference, which will be held at the University of Massachusetts Boston on May 17 and 18, I will moderate a panel on young adult biography. On the panel will be two accomplished biographers, Mary Morton Cowan and Kem Knapp Sawyer, and a representative of the world of children’s book blogging, Dorothy Dahm.
Cowan received a 2010 National Outdoor Book Award and other honors for Captain Mac: The Life of Donald Baxter MacMillan, Arctic Explorer (Calkins Creek). She has also published numerous magazine stories and articles, a novel based on MacMillan’s experiences, and a book on logging in New England. Cowan has said about her work, “I am pleased and proud that these books give young readers a glimpse of relatively unknown history—dangerous and adventurous chapters of history!”
Sawyer’s recent biographies are of Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela (both from Morgan Reynolds) and Harriet Tubman and Abigail Adams (both from DK Publishing). “I try to figure out what gave my subjects the ambition and the drive to set out to change the world,” she said in a recent interview. “And I like to focus on what they were like when they were young, before they went on to become leaders.” Sawyer has written as well about current social issues such as the situation of refugees worldwide, and historical subjects such as the Underground Railroad. She also reports on youth in developing countries for the Pulitzer Center, an organization that supports journalism and education.
In recent years, book bloggers and online reviewers have become increasingly influential in the world of children’s literature. Dahm’s lifelong interest in biography for young readers led her to launch the Kidsbiographer’s Blog (http://kidsbiographer.com/), where she reviews new and noteworthy biographies for children and young adults and interviews their authors. A professor of English at Castleton State College in Vermont, Dahm has contributed articles and reviews to publications in the United States and Great Britain. I’m eager to hear what she has to say about the state of young adult biography today and what she looks for in a book of this genre.
Other conference sessions will focus on such matters of craft as creating suspense in biography and finding the right balance between a subject’s life and work, and on practical aspects of the writing life: dealing with agents, marketing, and the like. There will be plenty to interest biographers writing for any age level. You can learn more about the Compleat Biographer Conference from BIO’s website: http://biographersinternational.org/conference/. I hope to see you in May!