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.

Reverse-Engineering an Engineering Process from the Past

They are short and for kids, but nonfiction picture books can require the sleuthing skills of Veronica Mars, the puzzling wizardry of Sherlock Holmes, and the science chops of Bill Nye.

When I set out to write about how The Great Blondin engineered his tightrope across the Niagara Gorge in 1859, I hoped to find the honey pot of details in the countless newspaper articles I uncovered. But instead of a step-by-step reveal, I faced scattered and inconsistent details and humongous gaps in information. Though my picture book narrative couldn’t possibly include every single step, I needed to understand them, to ensure accuracy and a you-are-there sense of tension. Piecing those steps together required that I step out of my comfort zone and into the world of STEMs. Beginning with rope.

The Mysterious STEM of Ropes

You’d think that the simplest detail to nail down would be the rope Blondin performed on, right? Afterall, witnesses could touch the “hawser.” Alas, though most sources correctly estimated the length of the walking rope to be ~1300’ feet long, the rope’s circumference was another matter. Reporters claimed it was 1.5-inches, two, three, 3.25, 3.5, four, six, ten-inches “wide,” “thick,” “diameter,” “around,” “large,” “circumference.” Oy vey! What a snarl to untangle. Was it really that important? Absolutely! There was only one way to solve this hempen-braided mystery, 160-years after the event. I turned to an engineer. Specifically, one with a vested interest in my project—Blondin’s great-great-grandson in France.

The blessed planets aligned for this fortuitous connection. Jean-Louis (thankfully, an English-speaker) and I exchanged clues from historical accounts, then he tapped into his expertise to determine the tension/breaking rate of fiber ropes of different sizes until the mystery was solved. Historical clues + Modern science. Voila! Now I could accurately state that The Great Blondin’s walking rope was 3.25” diameter, or ten+ inches circumference (circumference= diameter X pi [3.1459]). That concrete detail affected every step of Blondin’s process, including the 40,000’ of other ropes. It seems like a lot of effort for something as simple as rope, but accuracy matters. For classrooms, I hope my STEM research mystery inspires a hands-on approach to learning math and engineering concepts.

It’s All About the Questions

Now that the rope mystery was solved, I extracted more research clues to determine necessary questions. How did Blondin and his helpers get the walking rope from the American shore to the Canadian shore in a rowboat? How far upstream did they have to begin to compensate for the wicked current, in those days before human intervention, when 1.5 million gallons of water per second flowed over the Niagara Falls? How did the men transport, attach, lift, transfer, tie, splice, stretch each rope for its intended purpose? Step by step?

Looking back, I see an evolution of my own thought-process in my early diagrams and moodling, often with my engineer-son’s help. The engineering calculations were over my head, to be sure, but my inner Veronica Mars embraced the challenge of connecting the proverbial dots.

Once Blondin’s process was nailed down, I could put Blondin on his rope. Almost.

The Science of Balance

I couldn’t write about a rope-walker without feeling rope beneath my own feet, so I found a four-foot-long, 2 ½”-inch diameter manila rope (the largest available). I walked back and forth on the rope, as it rotated under my feet, and I struggled to keep my balance. More questions emerged: What is balance? How does a balance pole help a tightrope walker? Suddenly, I was a kid again, wobbling on a balance beam, a cavaletti, that crazy swinging playground bridge—oblivious to concepts of gravity, inertia, mass—the secret recipe to keeping me upright. I like to think that, had I read a story like King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara at that time, I would have been inspired to solve the mystery of my own STEM connection.

I encourage kids to think critically and to embrace historical and STEM topics when I visit schools. To help educators, there’s a curriculum guide, a one-page related STEM glossary, and two experiments to inspire students’ inner Mars/Holmes/Nye.
Find the full curriculum guide and more information at http://www.donnajanellbowman.com/book/king-of-the-tightrope. Follow me at  https://www.facebook.com/donnajanellbowmanauthor and on Twitter @donnajbbwrites__________________________________________________________________________

Donna Janell Bowman is the author of award-winning and lauded nonfiction books, including Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness, illustrated by Daniel Minter (Lee and Low, 2016) and Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words, illustrated by S.D. Schindler (Peachtree, 2018). STEAM-infused King of the Tightrope: When The Great Blondin Ruled Niagara (Peachtree, 2019) released in October 2019. Donna has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She enjoys mentoring and inspiring writers of all ages, especially during school visits. Donna lives in Central Texas where she does NOT walk on a tightrope.

TLA, A book launch, school visits, Classes I’m Teaching, Oh My!

Life-sized Abe Lincoln is ready for photo-opps at my April 15th launch party.

Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words

Much has happened within the last month. The book launch trailer for Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words released, which makes me all kinds of giddy. Then, on April 1, the book itself hit bookstore shelves. I hope you will get your own copy from your favorite independent bookstore and share it with the young people in your life. I think you will agree that it has powerful tie-ins with character education. And I employed a fun, direct-address narrator that makes it great for read-alouds, too. Be sure to read the expanded content, linked to the book page here. While you’re on that page, if you’re a librarian or teacher, consider sharing the full bibliography and my working timeline with your students. Everyone will be surprised to learn how much peripheral research was required. And don’t miss the teacher’s guide here. 

Though the book released April 1, the official launch party for Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words will be Sunday, April 15, 2018, at 2:00 pm at Book People in Austin. If you’re in the area, please come by for a reading, snacks, trivia, and a photo opp. You can view/print the Lincoln launch flyer for full information.

Step Right Up

Taking photos of your kids in the bluebonnets is a Texas tradition that has taken on a new meaning for me this year:)

Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness, illustrated by Daniel Minter, continues to be embraced by schools and families around the country. Entire schools are taking the Step Right Up Kindness Pledge. How humbling and lovely! As many of you know, because of my personal connection to horses and my love of all animals, this story is infused with an extra piece of my heart. Now, SRU is on at least four state award lists, including Kansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, and the Texas Bluebonnet master list for 2018-19. As a native Texan, I admit to being especially honored by the Bluebonnet nod. At the 2018 TX Library Association (TLA) conference in Dallas this past weekend, I had a blast meeting librarians from around the state during the Bluebonnet speed dating event and signing. What these remarkable literary champions may not realize is that we authors think of them as the rock stars. After all, every educator spends their career to changing young lives every day. Wow!

 

Honored to see Step Right Up acknowledged for the 2018-19 Bluebonnet master list.

Other highlights from TLA’18 included catching up with other authors, meeting TLA committee and staff members, collecting more books, signing both of my books in the author area, attending the Bluebonnet luncheon, and being stopped by KidLitTV for an interview. You can see that here. 

School visits

I’ve had a lot of school visits in Texas this year, and I look forward to traveling to Louisiana for school visits in May. During my presentations, I offer my personal connection to my books, my writing and research process (aimed to reinforce classroom goals), expanded content, and a conversation about how one person can make a difference with kindness and how words are a super power. During the 2018-19 Bluebonnet season, I hope to visit as many schools as possible.

You can view/print my 2018 School visit flyer here. Email me for more information. 

Upcoming Classes that I’m Teaching

If you’re a librarian or teacher who dreams of being published, stay tuned. I might be offering an online class or webinar just for you!

If you’re interested in having me critique your manuscript, of if you’re interested in hiring a writing coach, donna@donnajanellbowman.comemail me.

June 9, 2018—I will be teaching a one-day workshop on writing picture book biographies for the San Antonio chapter of SCBWI. Registration is open.

June-July—I’ll be teaching an online class about picture book biographies. Stay tuned for details. Email if you would like more information.

Fall 2018 (event not yet announced)—I’ll be speaking at an SCBWI conference about writing query letters, synopsis, and cover letters. Stay tuned.

Subscribe to my e-newsletter to stay up to date with what I’m offering.

That’s quite enough for this month, don’t you think? Thank you for taking the time to read.

Picture book biographies—My most-viewed posts

We’re working to re-establish the blog archives and categories that got tangled up in the recent website import. For now, if you’re looking for past posts about nonfiction picture books or picture book biography (or ies), simply type those terms into the blog search box. You can also find the most-viewed posts below.

*DISCLAIMER: These posts were written in 2010 and 2011, as I was teaching myself how to write picture book biographies by dissecting other books. Since then, picture book biographies have evolved and I have evolved as a writer. When my imaginary household staff, interns, and assistants catch up on the backlog of responsibilities, I hope to return to the topics with a more recent perspective. Til then, enjoy!

NEW! Listen to The Porchlight Podcast where author Cynthia Levinson and I discuss the challenges of writing nonfiction picture books.

Nonfiction Picture Books- the power of THEME

Nonfiction Picture Books – Defining Tight Focus

Nonfiction Picture Books – Language and Tone

Picture Book Biographies with First Person Point of View

Nonfiction Picture Books – The Power of Illustrations

Nonfiction vs. Creative Nonfiction vs. Historical Fiction

Truth Inspired – How Story Dictates Itself

Interview with Marc Tyler Nobleman – BOYS OF STEEL and the Nonfiction Picture Book Genre

Waiting for the “NOW”. When it’s time to start Writing

Stealing, Tweaking, Voice

Alternating POV and Alternating Tense in Nonfiction Picture Books

Dramatic Point of Vew in Historical Fiction Picture Books

To Nonfiction or Historical Fiction. That is the Question

Nonfiction Picture Books – Defining Tight Focus

Research- The Scavenger Hunt of Writers

Do nonfiction picture books always have a story arc?

Research Resources- Start Growing your Cyber Library

From Befuddled to Eureka- Clarifying my narrator’s lens-P.B. Biography

Revising like a Sculptor

Revision

SCBWI Grants, the Cost of Research, and My Most Used Research Sites

Interview with Marc Tyler Nobleman – BOYS OF STEEL and the Nonfiction Picture Book Genre