A Theme to the Rescue
By Nancy Churnin
When you write biographies, it’s hard to resist the urge to list all the great things your main character has done. You want your readers to know about all your person’s fantastic accomplishments. But if your story reads like a list, readers will be overwhelmed or bored.
What’s the solution?
Find a child-friendly theme that addresses WHY your main character did what he or she did. And limit yourself, if you can, to accomplishments that fit that theme. All you want and can do in a picture book is open a door –a slice of life that makes children hungry for more.
At first, I struggled to find a theme for my biography of Henrietta Szold. This woman created the first night school in America, founded Hadassah, the first charity run by women, and saved 11,000 children during the Holocaust. As I researched, I began to understand why there had never been a picture book about her. There was too much to say!
My breakthrough came when I discovered Henrietta’s admiration of Queen Esther, the Biblical queen who spoke up and risked her life to save her people. Every year, Jewish children celebrate Queen Esther at joyous, kid-friendly Purim celebrations. They dress up in costumes, eat hamentashen, and shake groggers – noise makers.
What if my theme was how Henrietta tried to be like Queen Esther in trying to save her people in her own way? As soon as that light bulb went off, things fell into place. Henrietta called her charity Hadassah, which is the Hebrew name for Esther. When she traveled to Nazi Germany and pled for visas to save Jewish children, she, like Esther, was pleading with the powerful to save her people.
That theme led to the title: A Queen to the Rescue, the Story of Henrietta Szold, Founder of Hadassah.
Not only did this theme fit the story, it provided another takeaway. It’s great to admire heroic deeds done long ago, but what’s most important is to help others in our own lifetimes. Like Queen Esther, Henrietta saved her people in the way that people needed in the time in which she lived. And that encourages children to think of the good things they can do now.
9/1/2021 09:03:52 am
This is wonderful advice, Nancy. I plan to keep this in mind as I revise a work in progress. I have way too many words because I want to tell all the good my subject did for those who were suffering!
9/1/2021 04:56:46 pm
I'm glad it is helpful. What you struggle with is what I struggle with, Pamela! Finding a child-friendly theme was like a lifeline for me in the sea of facts in which I was swimming.
9/1/2021 05:43:48 pm
A theme! What a good idea. Thank you for sharing, Nancy!
9/1/2021 06:25:44 pm
Glad it was helpful, Kamalani. It has to be a kid-friendly theme, too. Once I found this one, it all came together.
9/2/2021 05:45:11 am
9/2/2021 12:48:41 pm
Susan, remember to have patience with yourself as you search. I remember being overloaded with facts and feelings in early drafts. And yet, it is important to absorb and process those facts and feelings. Once you have digested them, let your mind play. Think of the images and the stories and the celebrations, the wishes and wants that resonated with your subject as a child. So often adults are really feeling and wanting and connecting with the same things they did as kids, just on a different scale. Good luck. I know you will find it!
Jilanne F Hoffmann
9/2/2021 07:51:18 am
It IS so difficult to choose a theme, the key that unlocks and opens the door to the story you want to tell. Congrats on finding it!
9/2/2021 12:51:21 pm
It is challenging, Jilanne and I went through many drafts before I made this connection. You really have to live with and know your subject until that person becomes someone whose feelings you can feel. Once you're there, you can step back in time and imagine what resonated with your subject as a child -- looking for a theme that continued, in different forms, as an adult.
9/2/2021 10:14:15 am
Nancy, that is the key, how to look at it w/child-friendly eyes and your books nail it. Congrats on your newest!
9/2/2021 12:53:17 pm
Thank you so much, Kathy! There were so many drafts and revisions before I found that theme -- that golden thread. I don't want to make it sound easy to find it. It can come right away or it can take a while. But when it does come, there is this aha moment where everything falls together. That's how it was for me. I'm so glad it resonates for you, too!
9/2/2021 01:25:21 pm
9/21/2021 11:23:00 am
Susan, sometimes it comes in unexpected aha! moments, but if you're looking for it, I know you will find it!
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