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
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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.