By Susan Kralovansky
Are you a dreamer? A planner? From childhood, have you known exactly what you wanted to do with your life? If so, you will love Hero for the Hungry: The Life and Work of Norman Borlaug, a soon-to-be-released biography from Feeding Minds Press written by Peggy Thomas and illustrated by Sam Kalda. Hero for the Hungry is an engaging biography about a quiet Iowa farm boy who grew up to change the world with his crop innovations, feeding hundreds of millions of people around the world.
Today, fellow Ninja Peggy Thomas joins us on The Ninja Notebook to talk about the man that inspired this book.
Writing a biography can be tricky. How did you decide what parts of the story to keep, what to add to the backmatter, and what to leave on the cutting room floor?
Hero for the Hungry was tricky to write because Norman Borlaug led such an amazing life. He spent more than 50 years fighting to end world hunger. He won the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, AND the Nobel Peace Prize! He had a lot going on.
To maintain focus, I first had to understand what he did. He was an agricultural scientist, a plant breeder before they knew what DNA was. That takes patience, hard work, and determination. So, where did those characteristics come from? I focused on incidents in his childhood that might explain why he was able to be so successful in that kind of work.
When it came to writing about his adult life, I focused mainly on his work. I didn’t want to ignore his family, so I created a recurring sidebar called On the Home Front that keeps the reader informed about his wife and kids.
Many authors say that the process of writing each book is often different from the last. How has the process of creating Hero for the Hungry: The Life and Work of Norman Borlaug differed from your previous biographies?
The writing process was similar except that this biography is a mid-grade chapter book, while my other biographies were all 40 or 48-page picture books. So, I was able to expand the narrative and weave in more characters, which I really enjoy doing. The picture books are more streamlined and contain much more word play. Although I did use word play in titles when I could.
The difference was in the research. My other biographies were about people like George Washington, long dead. Norm was a contemporary character. I got to speak with his daughter and people who worked with him. And I watched video clips of Norm giving speeches and being interviewed. It was great to listen to his voice, the cadence of his speaking pattern, especially when he got excited about what he was talking about. But it was his hand-written notebooks that gave me the most insight into what he was thinking and feeling. I could see what he saw and understand what he valued. For example, when he was touring India during a famine he wrote pages of details about the soil, the crops, the living conditions. At one point he stopped and just wrote “humanity – frightening.”
What was the biggest challenge in bringing this story to life?
Someone actually warned me not to do this book, because they thought plant breeding was so deadly boring. Norm bred thousands of plants and had to examine every plant every day for signs of disease. Plant by plant. row by row. It could sound deadly. But you have to think of his motive. Norm was looking for a wheat variety that was resistant to a disease that, throughout history, had wiped out many countries’ entire wheat crop. It was a devastating as the potato blight or worse. So, I saw Norm’s work more as a suspenseful treasure hunt. Would Norm find the perfect wheat variety in time to save people from starvation?
Tell us about what you’re currently working on.
I’m working on another biography for Calkins Creek about Alice A. Dunnigan, who was the first Black woman admitted to the White House press corps, and I have a new picture book in the works with Feeding Minds Press. More information coming soon!
Post a comment to this blog post for your chance to win a free copy of Hero for the Hungry. Follow Peggy on Twitter @Pegtwrite, Facebook at PeggyThomasWrites, or Instagram at peggy.thomas.writes for more opportunities to win free books, critiques, and school visits.
Hero for the Hungry will be released September 1st. Contact your local library for a copy or fill out a request to have the book added to the collection if it isn’t already in their catalog.
You can also pre-order Hero for the Hungry: The Life and Work of Norman Borlaug from an indie bookstore near you.
Barnes & Noble.
Books a Million
By Pat Miller
Want to improve your book’s structure?
Does it have enough action, enough scenes for illustrations. Do you want to identify emotion or trim the word count?
Then you need to self-publish!
Wait--I’m not talking about cartons-in-the garage self-publishing. This kind will be a DIY project and you will publish a single copy.
You will likely be the only person to read it.
It’s called a dummy and might be the smartest helper you’ll have. You will use your dummy to paginate your book, figure out how many words go on a page, where the page turns should be, and much more.
So, how do you make a dummy?
Think first grade. You can make a simple dummy by taking 16 or 20 sheets of printer paper, folding them in half, then staple, staple, staple down the left side.
I quickly moved from a folded paper blank book to ones from Target. They are also sold online. Oriental Trading sells blank books in 12 packs which are perfect for sharing with your writing group.
Here’s how I came to create a Sticky Dummy.
1. DECIDE WHERE TO START There is a preferred way to paginate your book that is determined by the publisher. If your dummy has 32 pages, where do you begin the text? Free picture book templates are available from authors Tara Lazar or Debbie Ridpath Ohi. Or examine how some of your favorite PBs are paginated.
2. CUT YOUR STORY UP Now you will create your first version of the book. You can cut up a draft or an outline. Here are steps I tried in some of my past dummies:
In my first dummy, I simply sketched in the outline of my story. Not a bad idea, but doing it this way made moving events around or changing things nearly impossible.
Next, I wrote the outline on sticky notes. They were much easier to rearrange, expand, or throw out. The headache came when the notes curled up, and over time, stuck to each other or fell out of the book.
I had better luck with typing up my stories and outlines, then cutting them apart and taping them to appropriate pages. They were easy to move. Problems came when there was a single skinny sentence per age. They bent as I turned pages and sometimes snagged each other. Repeatedly moving a taped strip can tear your blank book.
My hobby is making greeting cards, and that’s how I heard of this invention. These are Post-it Super Sticky Full Adhesive Notes. They are available in 3 inch squares or 4 inch squares in a large variety of colors. If you look closely at the green pad, you see a thin gray stripe on the right side. This is the only part of the pad that is not sticky.
The stickiness is stronger that the typical notes, but just as repositionable. Because the glue is edge to edge, there is no curling up. You could write your story or outline on the individual pages, but I thought of a way that works better for me.
Here is my hardcover blank book. The pink is the Super Sticky Post-it note.
Before printing my draft, I made the margins fit better on the notes. I then attached each with a glue stick. All four of these were cut from the same sheet of Post-it Note. The pink part makes them easy to move and reattach, and they stay flat.
3. MOVE THE FURNITURE Now that you’ve made or bought your dummy, it’s time to cut your story up and see how it fits. Will you have enough for so many spreads? Is there material to illustrate on each double-spread? What about the action, the emotion? You might even want to use one color of the Super Sticky Post-its for scenes, another for the connectors. Or maybe one color for text and another for sidebars.
For specifics on how to use your dummy, see Lisa Amstutz’s post, “Ninja Writing Tip: You Need a Dummy!” I think you will find that a Sticky Dummy will be just what you need to make your story deserving of a publisher’s hard cover!
By Christine Liu-Perkins
At a recent retreat of the Nonfiction Ninjas, we shared our old manuscripts and asked for thumbs up or thumbs down. Does that manuscript have enough potential to work on it further? Or should we put it back in the drawer?
I’ve been working on one particular project on and off for eighteen years. There’s something about the core that I love and think kids will love, too. I’ve written fifteen different versions, ever searching for the right approach. Various versions have been critiqued by fellow writers and by editors at conferences. One editor liked it so much that she called and left a voicemail! (I was shocked.) In the end, however, she couldn’t take it on. (Oh, I was heartbroken.)
I put it away, but never completely forgot about it. Finally, this year I had a new idea for how to frame it. I took a research trip for inspiration. I searched online for new information. To my surprise, I found material on my computer that I’d collected but never used that led to a breakthrough! I wrote a new draft in April and finished a revision last week. I hope I’m on the right track at last . . . .
Looking for a fresh approach to your manuscript? Here are a few ideas for inspiration:
We are nonfiction authors who support readers and writers through our writing, author visits, and workshops.
Disclaimer: The Nonfiction Ninjas are a group of writers with diverse ideas . The views expressed in each post are those of the author and may differ from others in the group.