SCBWI's Blueboard - A Message & Chat Board

Biography about person with character flaws

Discussion started on

New Poster
  • *
  • SCBWI Member
  • SCBWI Region sfnortheastbay
I am currently working on a biography of a man who accomplished a great feat, yet the more I research, the more it has become clear that he had a couple of serious character flaws and was not loved by all.  In fact, he claimed credit for some work done by others who have not been as frequently acknowledged.  Basically, he was an egomaniac.  I've read a lot of biographies for children, and they all seem very positive about the main character.  Do authors exclude or gloss over their flaws, or only choose subjects who are relatively flawless in character?  Should I give up on this subject?  or leave out the flaws?  or include them?  I've already put a lot into this, and the subject in general is one I'm very interested in, but I wonder now if I should continue as a biography or re-direct my focus to the historical event with this man included as just one of many characters. Any advice appreciated!!  :help2
#1 - May 24, 2016, 01:35 PM

Member
Poster Plus
  • *
  • SCBWI Member
  • SCBWI PAL
  • SCBWI Region ksmo
If it's too big a flaw, I might pass. But in general, PB bios these days focus not on a person's entire life but on a small slice of what made them remarkable, which wouldn't necessarily include the bad stuff. Sometimes authors use the Author's Note to point out the not so favorable stuff. It's a tough call. If this man was part of a group project/historical event, you could take the focus off of him, as you suggest.
#2 - May 24, 2016, 02:36 PM
PRUDENCE, THE PART-TIME COW, A CHIP OFF THE OLD BLOCK, IT'S YOUR FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL, BUSY BUS!, THE WAY THE COOKIE CRUMBLED
Twitter @jodywrites4kids

Member.
Poster Plus
  • *
  • SCBWI Member
  • SCBWI PAL
  • SCBWI Region minnesota
I don't know enough to offer advice on this, but your post made me think of Barbara Kerley's WHAT TO DO ABOUT ALICE?, a PB bio about Alice Roosevelt, Theodore's daughter.

When I first read it--being totally unfamiliar with Alice R.--I fell in love with Alice's fun-loving, vivacious personality. In reading more about her in adult sources, though, I learned that there were many things she did that were controversial and that she had some definite character flaws (as we all do!). I found it interesting and a bit confusing that the two characters--the PB one and the real life one--were so different.

Good luck with your biography! I hope you get some good advice.
#3 - May 24, 2016, 02:36 PM
"No furniture is so charming as books."
--Sydney Smith

http://saramatson.com/

Global Moderator
Poster Plus
  • **
  • SCBWI Member
  • SCBWI PAL
  • SCBWI Region carolinas
Always an interesting dilemma. We are human and flawed. So how much to share. I think if the event doesn't depend on his character flaw, to focus it on that event. As Jody says, most PB biographies revolve around a pivotal time in the person's life. An author's note can explain many things. I say go for it since you've already invested a lot of time. No writing is wasted, imho.

Vijaya
#4 - May 24, 2016, 02:45 PM
TEN EASTER EGGS (Cartwheel/Scholastic, 2015)
www.vijayabodach.blogspot.com
Author of over 40 books and 60 magazine pieces

Global Moderator
Poster Plus
  • ***
  • SCBWI Member
  • SCBWI PAL
  • SCBWI Region midatlantic
Is this a PB bio? If so, I agree with what others said above, focusing on the traits that contributed to his success or the historical event. But if it's a YA, I think it's food for teens to see character flaws. . . . MG - probably a bit of both!  Good luck!
#5 - May 24, 2016, 03:35 PM

Member
Poster Plus
You might want to look at some books that do focus on character flaws, such as TRICKY VIC and THE HERO SCHLIEMANN, and some that mention them in passing, such as Maira Kalman's THOMAS JEFFERSON. I haven't read any recent bios of Thomas Edison, but I'm guessing most of them would mention Tesla, etc. Then there are some that children's writers seem to have given up on, e.g., Charles Lindbergh, Henry Ford.
#6 - May 25, 2016, 05:44 AM
AROUND AMERICA TO WIN THE VOTE
ANYTHING BUT ORDINARY ADDIE
MESMERIZED
GINGERBREAD FOR LIBERTY!
THE GRUDGE KEEPER
more at mararockliff.com

New Poster
  • *
  • SCBWI Member
  • SCBWI Region sfnortheastbay
I'm just in the research phase, and aiming to turn this into a picture book for children grades 3-5, with side notes and/or back matter.
All people are flawed, and we don't have to mention all their flaws.  But this is tricky... this man was the main driving force behind this great feat, yet it's now clear to me that others made very important contributions, as well, and he could not have done it without them, yet he wanted to be in the limelight and take credit for most of the work. 
One option is that I still focus the book on him, but include plenty of information about the others in the back pages.  Or does that still belittle their accomplishments?  Of course, it has to be a clear and narrow enough focus, and I can't include everyone and what they contributed in the body of the book. 
Mara- I'll read those books you mention.  If anyone knows other PB biographies that include imperfect main characters, please let me know!  Wow, I don't even know how Lindbergh and Ford are faulty, ha!! 
#7 - May 25, 2016, 01:16 PM

Global Moderator
Poster Plus
  • ***
  • SCBWI Member
  • SCBWI Region westcentny
Quote
But this is tricky... this man was the main driving force behind this great feat, yet it's now clear to me that others made very important contributions, as well, and he could not have done it without them, yet he wanted to be in the limelight and take credit for most of the work.

I totally think that for grades 3-5 you could include this information. I think that grade level likes to know that their "heroes" are not perfect, and a little scandal will spice up the story for them. (I would probably say do NOT go into it if the "bad" thing about your subject was something like he also murdered his mother, yet we still think he is great. You know what I mean. :))
#8 - May 25, 2016, 05:54 PM
BLACKOUT -- available now
DESERTED -- available now
SISTERS DON'T TELL -- available now
www.deenalipomi.com

Member
Poster Plus
  • *
  • SCBWI Member
  • SCBWI PAL
  • SCBWI Region losangeles
I would wager that many "heroes" are not perfect, and it's the force of their imperfect personalities that enables them to accomplish what they do.

With that said, I find it difficult in a picture book biography to develop all the facet of a person's character. Normally the overall theme or takeaway dictates the details I choose.

Some books focus more on  the person's quirky personality versus accomplishments, and these might be good examples as well. THE BOY WHO LOVED MATH comes to mind.

Good luck!

Kirsten
#9 - May 26, 2016, 06:19 AM
Kirsten W. Larson

--
WOOD, WIRE, WINGS (Calkins Creek, 2020)
http://kirsten-w-larson.com
Authors and illustrators ... join me at SubItClub.com!

Member.
Poster Plus
  • *
  • SCBWI Member
  • SCBWI PAL
  • SCBWI Region newjersey
It also depends on how adult the character flaw is. Children can understand about people taking credit for work that's not their own. You might not want to get into sex, drugs, and rock and roll, though.
#10 - May 26, 2016, 09:01 AM
Laurie Wallmark
lauriewallmark.com
Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code (Sterling 2017)
Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine
(Creston 2015)

Member
Poster Plus
  • *
  • SCBWI Member
  • SCBWI PAL
  • SCBWI Region losangeles
Though, Laurie, you are brining to mind Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow (Jimi Hendrix) where the author does deal with substance abuse, but mostly in the author's note.

That might be another one to look at though it's for 4th grade and up.

I am always amazed at how masterfully authors can write about all kinds of subjects!

Kirsten
#11 - May 26, 2016, 09:20 AM
Kirsten W. Larson

--
WOOD, WIRE, WINGS (Calkins Creek, 2020)
http://kirsten-w-larson.com
Authors and illustrators ... join me at SubItClub.com!

Member
Poster Plus
  • *
  • SCBWI Member
  • SCBWI PAL
  • SCBWI Region sfnortheastbay
It's interesting to think about this for the very young. Biblical characters have flaws-- some serious ones. I think I was in second grade before we read those in school and their failings were not edited out for us.
But publishing can see it differently, especially for age 3-5. I think the listeners' age is where the issue lies. Can children this young absorb this ever-present human dichotomy of the great residing with the flaws?

Personally, I would not write about a famous ego-maniac for age three or four. A fictional animal fable may work, but a real person, specifically named, whose biography this is? I wouldn't know how. Age thirteen to fourteen is a whole other ballgame. Even then, some publishing professionals balk, but things have changed in the MG world. We don't have to round all the corners there.

I am very curious to see and read examples of what you are looking for written for this age group.

Edited to add: OOP! I misread. Not age 3-5, but grade 3-5. PHEW, what a relief. 
In that case, I would do what was suggested and do a bit of both-- mention flaws but not focus on that at all. I wonder, though, if "Picture Book" is the right classification for a book read in 4-5 grades? Could you have meant a non-fiction book that will contain photographic matter, for example? Most kids stop reading real picture books by the third grade. (Though some, like us, return to them with delight years later... but that's off topic.)
#12 - May 26, 2016, 12:03 PM
« Last Edit: May 26, 2016, 12:11 PM by 217mom »
THE VOICE OF THUNDER, WiDo Publishing Aug 2012
THERE'S A TURKEY AT THE DOOR, Hometown520 July 2011

www.mirkabreen.com
http://mirkabreen.BlogSpot.com

New Poster
  • *
  • SCBWI Member
  • SCBWI Region sfnortheastbay
That's right, this is for upper grades of elementary school- perhaps 3rd or 4th to 6th grade, not very young children.  I am envisioning the type of PB that is more lengthy, includes illustrations and/or historical photos, but has significant amount of text.  I'd like to know if there is a name for this type of book.   An example is:  Digging a Hole to Heaven: Coal Miner Boys by S.D. Nelson.
There is no murder, sex, drugs, etc. to speak of, just the one issue I brought up about the importance of others' work being diminished. 
Thank you for all the feedback so far and helping me get over this hump.  I'm now inclined to continue, and I will include names of others who made important contributions to the project either in a side note or back pages.  I'll have to do more thinking about how to address the matter in the text.

#13 - May 26, 2016, 01:02 PM

New Poster
  • *
  • SCBWI Member
  • SCBWI Region sfnortheastbay
LaurieW - I had your Thinking Machine book at home, and this inspired my son to do his biography report on Ada Lovelace.  (He even dressed up as her!)  Good to spread the word that this pioneering computer programmer was a woman in the 1800's. 
#14 - May 26, 2016, 01:07 PM

Kids love flaws, trouble, high stakes, perseverance, determination and excitement. That is what makes them relate. Go for it!!
#15 - May 26, 2016, 02:16 PM
What's for pudding, Mimmy?

Illustration website:

http://www.puddintanesbrain.com

www.puddersputter.blogspot.com

The other option, of course, is to make the story about the FEAT, not the person -- in other words, let's say we are talking Edison - instead of centering it on Edison himself, who was clearly a total jerk who stole people's ideas, etc, center it on the LIGHT, and the rivalry between him and Tesla, and the lengths people would go to for glory, the drama of the people who got stepped on along the way . . . So it is a lot about Edison, but you can feel free to not make him out to be a saint, and give other people's POVs as well, if that makes sense?

Good luck!
#16 - May 26, 2016, 03:05 PM
twitter: @literaticat
ask the agent: http://literaticat.tumblr.com/ask

New Poster
  • *
  • SCBWI Member
  • SCBWI Region sfnortheastbay
Another good option, thanks!  All good ideas, I appreciate the help.  The  book on Thomas Jefferson by Kalman was a great example of the complexity of a person who did great things but also had a major fault that was addressed in the book.
#17 - May 27, 2016, 11:11 AM

Members:

0 Members and 1 Guest are viewing this topic.