Secondary Sources to the Rescue!

There’s a common belief among new nonfiction writers that primary sources are the only way to find absolute facts. Secondary sources are assumed to be inferior, less trustworthy, less valuable.

I beg to differ.

Don’t get me wrong, I get a rush when I find primary sources. As kids in my school visits can attest, I’m downright giddy when I talk about turning the pages of original 19th-century newspapers or scrolling through microfilm. I’ve had palpable reactions while donning white gloves as I perused the crumbling Beautiful Jim Key scrapbooks at the Tennessee State Archives (Step Right Up), or when I found Lincoln’s handwritten letter with his duel terms (Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words). For each book’s research, I was reminded that primary sources are not a guarantee of accuracy.

The primary sources I uncovered while researching for King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara were especially suspect.

First page of Lincoln’s 1842 letter with his duel terms, housed at the Library of Congress


When I found the first biography of Jean Francois Gravelet, aka The Great Blondin, published in 1862, I thought I had hit pay dirt. In the preface, the biographer claims that Blondin himself was part of the book’s creation. It was as close to an “as-told-to” account as I could ask for. If Blondin was feeding the author information and approving the content, the book was as good as a primary source. What a gold mine! Or so I thought!

Seems like everything ever written about The Great Blondin originated from this book, either directly or secondarily. I believed every word until I expanded my primary source search and dove into secondary sources with a critical eye. AND, luckily, I successfully tracked down a well-informed descendent of Blondin.

Following are just a few of the many inaccuracies found in the primary sources I turned to:

The 1862 collaborative biography claims that young Jean Francois was accidentally introduced to acrobatics and tightrope-walking when a traveling troupe camped near his French home. He purportedly taught himself the skills of acrobatics and funambulism and was quickly considered a prodigy. His parents sent him to L’Ecole de Gymnase in Lyon—a special school for acrobats.  By the age of nine, the biographer states, the future Blondin was orphaned. What a story! An orphan who grows up to be the best in his field. Unfortunately, much of the book was falsified.

My ultimate research revealed that, in truth, Blondin was part of the third acrobatic generation in his family. There was no circus camped near his home. He came to his vocation naturally and was part of his parents’ act even as a toddler. He literally grew up on the rope and on stage. As for the acrobatic school in Lyon—my research revealed no such school—a fact confirmed by Blondin’s great-great-grandson in France.

Later, the biography claims, as an adult sailing to the United States for a two-year acrobatic tour, Blondin proved the only person brave enough and strong enough to dive into the Atlantic during a raging storm to rescue a rich nobleman that had been pitched overboard.

Nope! Not true. According to the ship’s passenger list (another primary source), there was no nobleman. And, since there’s no other record of a storm during this sailing, I must assume the entire episode is an invention. 

As for the sad fact about Blondin becoming an orphan at age nine…you guessed it. It was false. Though his father died while Blondin was young, his mother lived into her 50’s, dying while adult Blondin was performing in the U.S.


I’ll never know if Blondin falsified his story for this biography or if the author falsified Blondin’s involvement and simply made stuff up. It was not the only primary source with unreliable information.

In 1859, Blondin carried Harry Colcord, his agent, across the Niagara River on his back, much to the amazement of all who witnessed it. Colcord’s later accounts of his experience, and of Blondin’s process of engineering his ropes, survive as primary sources. Unfortunately, Colcord was quite a storyteller, and he changed his details with each telling. In one interview, he was quoted as saying that sixteen horses powered a windlass on the American side of the Niagara River to stretch Blondin’s rope. I believed it, hook, line, and sinker. Maybe I subconsciously wanted it to be true because of the drama of the scene.  Illustrator Adam Gustavson even created a gorgeous spread depicting the equine laborers. Then I discovered that it was false. There were no horses used in the stretching process. Grrr! Poor Adam had to change his illustration.

We cannot assume that primary sources are accurate. Sometimes, the creator has a biased perspective or a limited perspective or, naively, incorrect facts. Sometimes, the source is exaggerated or altogether falsified for dramatic effect.

This funny newspaper line made it into my book
This one claims that Blondin fell to his death at Niagara
This report claims there was no such man as Blondin


Newspapers, too, are notoriously inconsistent. You can’t imagine the frustration of finding wildly different reports about the size of Blondin’s walking rope—from 1 1/2″ to 7″ diameter, wide, circumference, thick, around—even the units of measure were inconsistent. And, don’t get me started about the lack of reportage about Blondin’s process of engineering his rope across the gorge. What details do exist are also inconsistent and missing chunks of information. For those missing details, there were no primary sources to refer to.

Secondary sources 

The best secondary sources result from the distillation and evaluation of information from many sources and different perspectives. While a primary source is like seeing facts through one rigid lens, a good secondary source is like a carefully curated panoramic view.

Had I relied solely on primary sources for King of the Tightrope, I would have invariably perpetuated falsehoods. Thanks to modern experts, engineers, scholarly analysis, and a family connection, I was able to uncover the true story about The Great Blondin and his notable feats at Niagara, and the STEAM connection that threads my narrative together. I can feel confident that my book—a secondary source—will provide accurate information going forward. Had my topic been purely science or technology-based, it would have been equally important. Consider how breakthroughs of the past would be viewed today.

Dig for those primary sources, friends. But don’t stop there. Look for quality secondary sources that will help you form a more complete and accurate picture of your topic. You’ll feel triumphant when your true story comes into focus.

You can read more about my primary and secondary research on this Knowledge Quest blog for AASL.

It took a lot of wrong information to get to the truth
Research binders for King of the Tightrope

Choosing a Structure for your Picture Book Biography

Are you following February’s fabulous and free Nonfiction Fest, described as a month-long crash course in writing children’s nonfiction? I was honored to contribute the following blog post about creative structures available to picture book biography writers. I hope you enjoy it.

Choosing a Structure for Your Picture Book Biography

By Donna Janell Bowman

Dear reader-writer, I understand the struggle. Writing picture books is challenging. Informational picture books and picture book biographies can be especially toilsome because of the research and the challenge of artistically shaping facts into a picture-book-sized narrative. My own stacks of saved (I don’t know why) revisions are evidence of the struggle. And I’m not alone. In my coaching, critiquing, and teaching of kidlit writers, I’ve noticed that a few specific craft elements cause exceptional angst, especially with narrative biographies. Among them is structure.

There are several ways to define literary structure. For today’s purposes, I’m referring to how you order or arrange your text to customize your storytelling. Yes, I said storytelling. And, yes, I’m talking to you. Remember that you are not writing facts, you are writing a factual story. That’s why it’s called narrative nonfiction. Publishers and their respective editors might have house styles that influence their preferences, but there’s no doubt that a fresh approach can make the difference between a rejection and acquisition. So, let’s think outside the box and get creative.

Before You Choose Your Biography Story Structure,
Know Your Story

* What point of view will you use?
* What is the scope of your narrative—your character’s entire life or a specific time period?
* What makes your character notable? An invention, a creation, activism, an exceptional accomplishment?
* What kind of action and obstacles are involved in your narrative arc?
* What are the primary themes of your narrative? In other words, what inspiring message or character traits will readers glean from your tale?
* What tone and voice will best capture your character’s spirit on the page?
* What age range is most appropriate for your story, 6-8 or 8+?

There are no prescribed rules about structure, but the following are some options—

Linear – The good ole classic chronological approach – Point A to Point Z (not necessarily an entire life). Examples include Jen Bryant’s The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus, illustrated by Melissa Sweet, and Cynthia Levinson’s Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

Reverse Chronology – How about a story structured from ending to beginning—or from the character’s old age to their youth? That’s how Lesa Cline-Ransome crafted her verse biography Before She Was Harriet, illustrated by James Ransome.

Basic Non-Linear – You can rearrange the chronology for storytelling purposes, as long as you don’t confuse your reader. For example, as a hook, begin with a mid-scene, mid-action segment from what would be Act II or III, and then a flashback to fill in relevant backstory. From that point, you could intersect the narrative with that opening scene and carry it through to the story’s end. Adjust your structure to fit your story. Examples include Laurie Wallmark’s Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code, illustrated by Katy Wu, and my newly released King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara, illustrated by Adam Gustavson.

Alternating Time & Tense – This tricky non-linear approach works especially well with high-drama stories or interesting points of view. Often, the narrative alternates between present tense and past tense. I chose this structure with my book Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words, illustrated by S.D. Schindler, as did Leda Schubert with Monsieur Marceau, illustrated by Gerard Dubois.

Episodic – Rather than a single narrative, this rare approach includes disconnected episodes, with a common theme. See Elvis is King by Jonah Winter and Red Nose Studio for an example.

Parallel Structure – Do two bio characters share the stage in your story? Consider a parallel structure, as Andrea Davis Pinkney did with Martin & Mahalia: His Words, Her Song, illustrated by Brian Pinkney. Or perhaps a metaphorical comparison between a character and a natural phenomenon, as Hannah Holt did with The Diamond and the Boy: The Creation of Diamonds & The Life of H.Tracy Hall, illustrated by Jay Fleck.

Concept Structure
 – Related to Episodic, this structure capitalizes on the character’s achievements. A biography about a baseball player could be structured in innings, an actor’s story could unfold in Acts, an athlete’s story could be revealed by laps, etc. Take a look at Alan Schroeder’s and John O’Brien’s Abe Lincoln: His Wit and Wisdom from A-Z—an alphabet book. Or Jonah Winter’s book, Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The Case of R.B.G. vs. Inequality, illustrated by Stacy Innerst, which is structured as a court case. See how clever that is?

Verse – Verse and rhyme don’t only fall into the Voice category. Poetry has structure. If your story is poignant, elegant, fluid, or extremely emotional, free verse can be a powerful option. Consider how the lyrical verse approach to Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova, by Laurel Snyder and Julie Morstad, complements the fluidity of the ballet subject. Likewise, Bethany Hegedus’ Rise: From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, illustrated by Tonya Engel reflects the poetry of Maya Angelou.

Rhyme – Rhyme can give life to an otherwise dry topic, or it can mirror the liveliness of a character. Kathleen Krull chose rhyme for her rollicking picture book biography, Fartiste: An Explosively Funny, Mostly True Tale (which is, in fact, 100% factual), illustrated by Paul Brewer. Can you imagine a more fitting structure for a flatulence artist? As an example of the versatility of rhyme, Julia Finley Mosca chose rhyme for The Girl with a Mind for Math: The Story of Raye Montague, illustrated by Daniel Rieley.

There are no templates or rules for writing a picture book biography, and there’s no limit to the creative structures that could be imagined. Picture books are an art form and writers are half of the artistic team behind them. Go ahead and experiment with the structure of your narrative. You might just elevate your storytelling, bring your character to life, and slay that nagging angst.

For Educators—STEM Experiments & a Handy STEM Glossary/Companion

Hey, educators, I know how busy you are. Having ready-made lessons and tools can ease your workload as you make curriculum connections with your students. To that end, click here for the fabulous curriculum guide and readers theatre. As a bonus, below is a downloadable one-page STEM glossary companion and two simple balance experiments to connect with King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara. 

(pardon the blur. Print the PDFs for clarity)

Share photos of your students’ creations on Facebook and Twitter. Please tag me.



Click on the document to download & print the PDF
Click on the document to download & print the PDF