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.
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