By Peggy Thomas
How do you include everything in a person’s life when writing a children’s biography? The answer is: you don’t.
No matter what your word count, it is impossible to tell the whole story. Your job is to reveal the essence of a person. But some biography subjects are overachievers with too many fingers in too many pies. That’s what I found out with Norman Borlaug who earned the Nobel Peace Prize for feeding millions of people. His work took him around the world. He had interests in forestry, patents in industry, and revolutionized plant breeding. He also was a teacher, had a family and a prominent place in little league baseball history. I wasn’t sure if I could pull out that single thread of continuity that was tangled up in tons of details, settings, situations, and themes.
I knew my focus would be on his Peace Prize work – How he developed a wheat that could grow almost anywhere, and a network by which he could teach agricultural students from around the world, especially in countries threatened by poverty, famine and war.
The first thing I did was make a list of my key words – food, farming, plants, growing, feeding, etc., and to a lesser extent hunger and violence. These would help me keep on track.
The next thing I did was create a timeline, a chronological outline that might show me a pattern I could use for structure. No pattern of events emerged, but a pattern of character did. No matter what Norman faced he was dedicated and worked hard. So, where did that work ethic and dedication come from?
I sifted through his early years and pulled out key moments that showed his dedication, and the key people in his life who influenced his sense of duty and perseverance. That was the easy part.
His college days and early work was all over the place. He was a top wrestling student. That could reinforce Norm’s character development, but it wasn’t really related to agriculture. However, there was a connection to hunger and violence. I could weave wrestling into the narrative.
Norm also studied forestry and spent months alone atop a fire tower in Idaho. He even battled a forest fire by himself until help arrived. This clearly showed his dedication, hard work, sense of duty and perseverance, etc. And it involved plants. But it took the main trajectory of the story gallivanting off on an unhelpful detour. I hated to leave out such an action-rich scene, but I also didn’t want to lose readers who couldn’t follow the meandering flow I now had. So, I cut it.
So far, I hadn’t mentioned his wife and two kids, but he was often away from home months at a time. And what about baseball? He played baseball as a kid, and he created the first little league in Mexico. That shows initiative but doesn’t involve agriculture. But it is kid-friendly. My solution was to create recurring sidebars. One is titled ON THE HOMEFRONT. There is one for when he got married, others for the births of his daughter and son, AND baseball, because he started the little league team for he and his son to do together.
Another recurring sidebar is called FOOD FOR THOUGHT. These bits help explain more difficult concepts that are mentioned in the text without bogging down the flow. For example, I have one on how plants tell time, and another on how seed banks were created.
So, the next time you tackle a biography try this:
1. Establish your character’s primary accomplishment, or at least, the one you want to focus on.
2. Create a list of key words. They will help as you do your research, and more importantly, act as a lens through which you view other parts of your character’s life.
3. Assess other parts of your character’s life through this lens. Does an event directly relate? Can it be used as an example? Or does it distract and need to be cut?
4.Uncover the key personality traits that allowed your character to be successful, or not. How did these traits develop? What scenes clearly show this? Who was instrumental in his upbringing?
5. Streamline your narrative arc by experimenting with single or recurring sidebars.
6. Cut unnecessary information – information that Does Not reinforce the theme, or reveal personality or growth.
Peggy Thomas is the author of Hero for the Hungry The life and work of Norman Borlaug, out September 1st from Feeding Minds Press.
10/31/2022 04:01:38 am
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