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Sources for picture book biography

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Hello, fellow nonfiction writers! I'm working on a picture book biography of a woman who lived in the twentieth century. She kept journals during the period I want to focus on (staring in her late forties), but there is limited information about her childhood--just a single chapter in a book of her edited journals, which was written by the book's editor. The editor knew my subject well and spent many hours talking with her about her life. Is this enough to go on, or would it be better to avoid writing about my subject's childhood/early years? So far I have not found other sources to verify the info about her childhood, and I've done a fair amount of research.
#1 - April 09, 2016, 08:54 AM

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It's hard to say for certain without knowing more about your subject and what information you were able to find in that one source, but my immediate reaction is that for a picture book biography, I'd want to know as much as possible about the subject's childhood, since that's usually an important part of the story. And I would be nervous about relying on just one source.

I assume your subject is no longer alive. Can you contact the editor and ask questions?
#2 - April 10, 2016, 08:32 AM
Harold Underdown

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Thanks for your reply, Harold. My subject (not a well-known person) died in the late 1980s. I have been in touch with the editor via email (he's in England) but he hasn't been terribly helpful. I have read that it's important to include material about a person's childhood in a book for young children. At the same time, I've seen some wonderful picture book biographies that start out when the subject is an adult. My subject, an artist and explorer, did not start the most important chapter of her life, which I want to focus on, until she was in her mid-40s.
#3 - April 10, 2016, 10:23 AM

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Even if you choose not to include much about this person's childhood in your text, you might want to include it in an Author's Note at the end. I'd keep trying.

One source I've found valuable when I've researched people for biographies is their hometown newspapers. Frequently, the papers interviewed the up-and-coming star, or after the person became famous, they did a piece about him which included info about his childhood.

Does your local library subscribe to online research databases of newspapers?
#4 - April 10, 2016, 12:40 PM
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Thanks, Jody! My subject was born in England so I'd need to find a database of small-town English newspapers. I actually hope to go to England to do some research later this year so I could pursue this possibility there.
#5 - April 10, 2016, 12:52 PM

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I will second the value of newspapers. I have a picture book biography of a source with no journals and few letters. My best sources were interviews with newspapers where she talked about her childhood and motivation.

Good luck to you!

Kirsten
#6 - April 11, 2016, 06:31 AM
Kirsten W. Larson

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Childhood isn't always necessary. It depends what you mean by biography. These days, what people call a picture book "biography" can also be a story about a particular accomplishment or event--like, I wrote one about something that happened to Benjamin Franklin when he was in France, and another about a pair of suffragists who drove around the U.S., and in both cases there was no reason to talk about their childhoods, even in the extensive back matter.*

Other times, a personality trait is the focus, and then it's typical to start in childhood and see how this kid always loved music or always had a can-do spirit or whatever. It just depends what angle you decide to take, and of course, what angle you decide to take depends on what material you find!

*(Oops, I just checked and I did actually talk about something in Franklin's childhood in the back matter. It wasn't really necessary, though.)
#7 - April 11, 2016, 07:49 AM
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 :agree I've found newspapers helpful, too. :umm Another thought is to try to conduct interviews with relatives, such as siblings, children, or grandchildren. They might be good sources of information, as well as photos.
#8 - April 14, 2016, 06:46 PM
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