Do You Need Permission to Write About Somebody?


Some of the most common questions I hear from picture book biography writers:

Q: Do I need permission to write about somebody, living or dead?

A: Permission is technically not required if the biography subject is/was a public figure, unless their estate has created a kind of legal fortress. There are rare cases in which permission must be obtained before sharing any likeness or representation. You should be able to identify these restrictions by searching online. The first place to start might be a website dedicated to the person, or the organization that controls their “papers of” or “official collection of.”

First Amendment rights aside, consider appropriateness. Personally, I would feel offended if a writer didn’t attempt to get my perspective or clarification of facts before writing a book about me. We writers should always consider courtesy. Even with ultra-famous subjects, it’s usually worthwhile to attempt contact. Equally important is to consider the subject’s ethnicity, cultural or gender identity, otherly-abled status, etc. Writing about someone outside of one’s own experience is very often frowned upon.

Q: What is the definition of “public figure?”

 I reached out to Jacqui Lipton, literary agent and author of LAW & AUTHORS: A LEGAL HANDBOOK FOR WRITERS, which is chock-full of information about copyright, contracts, rights, social media—and everything in between, packed into thirteen enlightening chapters. Two chapters are dedicated to the sensitive topic of writing about someone else and avoiding defamation. In an email exchange, Jacqui offered this about “public figures”:

A: “There are legal definitions of “public figure” in the defamation context but they’re very complicated and fact-specific–and courts vary from time to time and jurisdiction to jurisdiction–and it’s all very specific to the First Amendment calculus in relation to defamation law . . . the question of what constitutes a public figure will vary from case to case.”

Ultimately, it depends. Do your homework to uncover possible restrictions. If there is no legal barrier, you might be able to proceed full speed ahead, assuming you determine that you are the right person to tell the story.

Q: Why should I try to contact my biography subject or their family if the person is/was famous and well-covered in other books, articles, etc.?

A: Quite simply, if you’re successful, you will get the most accurate information and most intimate perspective. Just as importantly, you might get a feel for the person’s personality and speech quirks that could influence your story’s voice and overall approach. On the topic of accuracy, errors might have been perpetuated through other sources, something I faced when researching The Great Blondin for KING OF THE TIGHTROPE. Because I reached out to Blondin’s great-great-grandson, who eagerly dipped into family records to aid my research, I was able to identify and avoid falsehoods that have been repeated in countless books and articles since 1861. Not only did I correct the historical record, but Blondin’s family provided me information not found in any other publication. And I made a new international friend in the process—someone still boosting the book.

A: Most biography subjects or descendants will be thrilled about your book and eager to provide you with information. In fact, they usually feel honored, especially when they find out you’re writing for kids. Such was the case with my forthcoming book WINGS OF AN EAGLE: THE GOLD MEDAL DREAMS OF BILLY MILLS, co-authored with Oglala Lakota Olympian Billy Mills, being illustrated by S.D. Nelson. Billy’s celebrity status meant that it took me a long time to finally gain access to him and his family. It was worth it! As we get closer to the publication date, I’ll share more about how direct communication with Billy turned into a joyous collaboration that morphed the project into an autobiographical picture book. As a non-Native writer, this collaboration with Billy was the absolute right decision. To do otherwise could have been viewed as a kind of appropriation.

For other examples of authors who successfully reached their celebrity subjects:
Read about Kate Messner’s journey with Dr. Fauci: How a Boy from Brooklyn Became America’s Doctor.
Read about Cynthia Levinson’s journey with Hilary Rodham Clinton: Do All the Good You Can

Q: What if I am unable to reach my biography subject or their close relatives?

A: Sometimes, your intended subject, or their representative, doesn’t respond to polite requests for an interview or Q&A. Celebrities and high-profile individuals can be especially tricky to contact, though you should certainly make the effort. If you decide you are still the right person to write the story, seek out people who know/knew them: relatives, co-workers, neighbors, etc.. And search for quality primary and secondary sources that are exceptionally reliable. Documented interviews with your biography subject can reveal feelings, experiences, and direct quotes. At every step of the process, you should gut-check your decision. How will the biographee or their loved ones react to your unauthorized biography? The subject might be considered fair game, but make sure you are playing the game fairly.

Q: Are there potential downsides to contacting my biography subject or their family?

A: Possibly

—A biographee or their descendant could explicitly ask you not to write the book, in which case you should NOT write the book.
—They could respond with a vague “no thank you,” leaving you to decipher the underlying message. This happened to me. After many unanswered follow-up emails to a potential subject, my agent and I decided it would be unwise to proceed with my project.
—They could reveal that they are already working with somebody else on a book like yours. That doesn’t mean that you can’t also write a book about them, but the first author will have the authorized biography, which will almost certainly get the most attention. You must decide if it’s worth your time to write a book that will likely be overshadowed.
—They could agree to cooperate while assuming that they have creative control over the storytelling in your book. This could be tricky. You must graciously discuss boundaries and expectations upfront.

Q: If my biography subject says no, can I write the book anyway?

A: Technically…yes. As I alluded to earlier, you might have the First Amendment on your side, but you need to decide if it is wise to go against the person’s specific wishes. Assume that everyone has a big platform or access to media machines. I’m not a lawyer and can’t speak to legalities, but I can imagine nightmare scenarios in which the biographee or their relatives are angry enough to discredit an unauthorized book and its author. Is that likely? Maybe not, but I think it’s wise and just to air on the side of courtesy and respect.

Writing about someone else can be a rewarding experience, but we writers should never forget that our subjects are/were real people. They deserve respect, on and off the page.

A few additional sources about fair use and copyright:

“A Writer’s Guide to Fair Use and Permissions + Sample Permissions Letter” by Jane Friedman

“A Writer’s Guide to Fair Use” by Howard Zaharoff:

“Twelve Common Copyright Permission Myths” by Lloyd J. Jassin



September Class Registering Now — Writing Picture Book Biographies that Shine


I am smitten with picture book biographies. In fact, while pursuing an MFA in Writing (Children’s and YA focus) from Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA), I even focused my critical thesis on creative approaches to picture book biographies and the often-fuzzy nonfiction line. Since then, I have been honored with awards for Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness (Lee and Low Books)Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words (Peachtree), and King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara (Peachtree). See the home page here about my newly-announced co-authored book, Wings of an Eagle: The Gold Medal Dreams of Billy Mills. Teaching writers is one of my great joys, and I have done so through the Highlights FoundationSCBWIThe Writing Barn, independent writing organizations, and my individual classes. You can read some student testimonials here. I hope you’ll join me this fall 2021.

A well-crafted and marketable picture book biography requires the research of a scholar and the style and sparkle of a storyteller. In this six-week masters-level class, we will dive deeply into the process of writing a stellar picture book biography, from idea to publication. This will not be your typical theory-driven class. We will mine stacks of mentor texts for concrete examples of craft elements in action so that you can better conceptualize or revise your own work-in-progress.

What you can expect to learn:

  • Defining nonfiction vs. fiction
  • How to analyze mentor texts
  • Finding your personal connection to your character
  • Marketable ideas
  • Choosing a tight angle/focus
  • Point of view and psychic distance
  • Theme (the heart of your story)
  • Character arc
  • Narrative arc
  • Voice
  • Structure
  • Beginnings & Endings
  • Research & organization
  • Backmatter
  • Revision & Submissions
  • Publishing process
  • Guest author Q&A (this is a bonus additional perspective)

What you can expect to receive from me:

  • Six info-packed two-hour classes via Zoom (You will learn more than you expect)
  • A mega-list of mentor texts
  • Handouts with helpful resources and idea generators
  • Writing exercises to help you build or evaluate your own picture book biography
  • An active private Facebook group for sharing resources, news, and encouragement
  • A one-on-one phone call with me to discuss your manuscript or your career goals (must be used within the six-week class session)
  • Limited-time recordings of each class

  • Bonus option for my students: One deeply discounted Developmental Critique letter from me (normally $225+). P.B. Bio. manuscript less than 1500 words. Must be used within six months of class.)

Why isn’t there an opportunity to workshop my manuscript during the six-week class?
Doing so would mean eliminating two class times of content so that up to 15 manuscripts can be live-workshopped within 4 hours by every student. That would be a whole lot of work for each of you. I polled former and potential students, and the majority preferred the current six-week instruction model. Here’s an example of feedback I received: “I can’t imagine you cutting any info from the class! … I did a XXXX Pb bio class after yours… and it was the 4 + 2 model. It was fine, but I preferred yours.”

Why don’t you offer a written critique of my manuscript as part of the class registration fee?
It’s a matter of time, really. I am immersive and thorough, and picture book biographies take longer than fiction picture books. Between multiple readings, outlining, and preparing notes, I easily spend 2-4 hours on each written Developmental Critique that I prepare. Multiplied by the number of student manuscripts (up to 15), it is impractical.

Bio: Donna Janell Bowman is the author of many books for young readers, including STEP RIGHT UP: HOW DOC AND JIM KEY TAUGHT THE WORLD ABOUT KINDNESS, ABRAHAM LINCOLN’S DUELING WORDS, KING OF THE TIGHTROPE: WHEN THE GREAT BLONDIN RULED NIAGARA, and the forthcoming co-authored autobiographical picture book with Olympian Billy Mills, WINGS OF AN EAGLE: THE GOLD MEDAL DREAMS OF BILLY MILLS. In addition to earning starred reviews, Junior Library Guild Selection, and inclusion on Best-Books-of-the-Year lists, Donna’s books have earned awards and honors from the National Council for the Social Studies, National Council of Teachers of English, American Library Association/Association for Library Service to Children, and more. Armed with an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts (Children’s and YA focus), Donna enjoys inspiring writers of all ages as a speaker, writing teacher, and freelance editor.

Education Grants for Books, Author Visits, School Programs, Professional Development & More


I love visiting schools and meeting librarians, teachers, and students. But many schools can’t afford author visits. In fact, many schools don’t have the budget for new books, enrichment programs, or professional development. That’s why I scoured resources and compiled this mega list of grants for schools and classrooms. There are plenty more than what you’ll find here, of course, but this is a good place to start.

If any links on this page are broken, search the web with keywords. Also, please note that any specified grant amounts and details are subject to change.

Grants for Education
(Where a Texas organization is mentioned, insert your own state’s equivalent.)

Some General Grant Sources:

Your local arts commission
Your state library association
Cooperative grant sites
Public library disaster relief funds
Corporate philanthropy (check local and national organizations)
Writing-related and literacy organizations
Sponsorships from community businesses

Select List of Specific Grants:

Aldi Cares Community Grants
Amazon’s Future Engineer Grants
American Association of School Librarians Innovative Reading Grant. Assists school librarians with programs that motivate students to read
American Honda Foundation grants — $1,000 grants
Assoociation of American Educators Foundation Classroom Grant
Barnes & Noble
Bayer Foundation grants (primarily focused on areas local to their employees)
The Laura Bush Foundation
Captain Planet Foundation (environmental focus)
City of Austin Cultural Arts Division
Crayola Creative Leadership Grants—$2500 plus products
Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation
Dell Computers
Dollar General Literacy Foundation. Grants to help establish a summer reading program.
Donors Choose
Exxon/Mobil (especially for STEM)
Fender Music Foundation grants
First Book (They also provide a book for each participating child.)
First (STEM and Robotics)
Fund for Teachers Fellowships
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
GetEdFunding – grant finding resource
Google for Education — (various grants)
Grant Watch by state (ie: Texas Grant Watch) — U.S. Department of Education (multiple grant options)
Grants for Teachers
Maureen Hayes Author/Illustrator Award from AASL and funded by Simon & Shuster—$4,000 school visit grant
HEB Education grants
HigherEd Grants
Impact Austin
Innovative Reading Grant from AASL, sponsored by Capstone
International Literacy Association Regie Routman Teacher Recognition Grant—$2,500 for K-8 educators in schools with at least 60% of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch
The Library of Congress Surplus Book Program
Junior Library Guild
Lockheed Martin
National Education Association — multiple grant options
National Endowment for the Arts
Office Depot grants
Pets in the Classroom — Financial support to purchase and support classroom pets
Reading Rock Stars Program — Texas Book Festival grant. They provide a book for each participating child, too.
Reflex Educator Grant Program
Samsung Solve for Tomorrow,
SCBWI’s Amber Brown Grant
Shell Corporation
Snapdragon Book Foundation — Grants to help provide books for school libraries for disadvantaged students
Sprint Foundation
TD Charitable Foundation
Texas Commission on the Arts
Texas Education Agency grants
Texas Grant Watch — list of grant opportunities
The Texas Library Association sponsors grants
Trader Joe’s grants
Voya Unsung Heroes by Scholarship America—Each year, they give $2,000 to 50 schools to support education
Walmart Local Community Grants— $250-$5,000 for schools in need, to fund educational projects or purchase classroom resources
Wells Fargo,
Worlds of Words grants —$1,000 for literacy communities to explore the use of global literature and world languages to build intercultural understanding
Writer’s League of Texas’ Project Wise facilitates one-hour author visits at no cost to participating Austin-area schools

Looking for even more grants?
List provided by
List of 10 music education grants in this article by The Journal
List of even more Music-specific grants, provided by NAMM
Compilation of resources by Amanda Jones for AASL’s Knowledgequest.  Also, her Wakelet with tremendous list of additional resources.  And her podcast information for School Librarians United


If you would like information about my school presentations and writing workshops, contact me here. 

Related:  Click here to learn more about author incomes