Before I can start writing a biography, I need to know exactly who I'm writing about. That of course means doing all kinds of research. I read interviews, articles, and books. I watch any videos available, go through photos, census records, and yearbooks. I am collecting the facts that will make up my subject’s biography. But I'm looking for more than an accurate timeline of their lives. As I go through the bits and pieces and put together the facts, I'm trying to uncover my subject’s character.
When illustrators talk about character, we mean a visual representation of all the traits and the dimensions of the person/animal or object written about. Everything, clothing, hairstyle, and pose, conveys to the reader who that character is and why they should care about them. In nonfiction picture books, this is vital. As nonfiction authors, we want our books to be more than a collection of facts--we want the reader to engage with the story and care about the subject. So how do we do this? One way is to uncover your subject's character.
The photos, videos, and interviews I found when researching Annette Kellerman for ANNETTE FEELS FREE emphasized Annette's passion for dancing from a young age, and her passion for swimming, diving and, swim dancing after her illness. I even found a video of her swim dancing at 70 years old, and she was smiling contentedly, absolutely at peace doing what she loved. This was a clue to who she was, her character. While the text discusses her accomplishments and how hard she worked to achieve them, it's in the illustrations that I emphasize to the reader that Annette is happiest when she's dancing, swimming, or diving.
Annette comes across as opinionated and outspoken in her interviews and in her own writing. When she believed strongly in something, she spoke up. So, while the text describes Annette's arrest on Revere Beach for wearing what was essentially a man's swimsuit, it's the illustration that emphasizes to the reader who Annette was: a strong, confident woman. She stands with her hands on her hips and stares the policeman directly in his eyes when accused of and arrested for indecent exposure.
In contrast the subject of my upcoming picture book biography, BEULAH HAS A HUNCH!, Beulah Henry was demure rather than outspoken. She took pride in being a “lady”. This contrast, a well-mannered lady in a man’s world, was a major piece of Beulah’s character, as well as a key to her success (who else can invent better for women than another woman?) So, as an illustrator, I emphasized this by illustrating Beulah wearing gowns and pearls even in the factories and when lying on the floor drawing.
So, as you research, look for the nuances mixed in with the
facts that tell you who your subject was. And if you don't illustrate, then
make a point to share these insights with your illustrator to help them add
character to your picture book bio subject and bring them to life.
Meet the Author/Illustrator:
Katie Mazeika is an Ohio girl, born and raised! She grew up in Cincinnati, graduated from The Columbus College of Art and Design, and now lives in the Cleveland area with her husband, two kids, and two dogs.
Katie can’t imagine a better job than making books. She specializes in telling stories based on real people and events and likes to highlight disabled voices and create characters that make an impression. Katie’s author/illustrator debut ANNETTE FEELS FREE: THE TRUE STORY OF ANNETTE KELLERMAN, WORLD-CLASS SWIMMER, FASHION PIONEER AND REAL-LIFE MERMAID was awarded Picture Book of the Year 2022 by the Northern Light Book Awards and is a Junior Library Guild Gold Selection. Her next book BEULAH HAS A HUNCH! INSIDE THE COLORFUL MIND OF MASTER INVENTOR BEULAH LOUISE HENRY comes out in the fall of 2023. You can visit Katie online at www.katiemazeika.com
Thanks for the helpful reminder regarding biographies and sharing a bit of your process, Katie. I love your story of Annette Kellerman and I'm eager to read BEULA HAS A HUNCH!ReplyDelete
Thanks so much for Annette Feels Free and describing the process.ReplyDelete
Thank you, Katie, for the reminder to write a story so the reader will care.ReplyDelete
I look forward to reading your books.
Thanks so much for these! I can't wait to "dive" in to these great examples.ReplyDelete
This is an excellent reminder that truthful writing about a person, means we have to know who they are. Thanks!ReplyDelete
Good lesson here. Looking forward to reading your books. Thank you!ReplyDelete
Excellent advice, Katie! Congratulations on the new book and the well-deserved acclaim for Annette Feels Free!ReplyDelete
you make it clear that not only do we need to KNOW our character, we have to care about who they are. Thanks for sharing your insights.ReplyDelete
Can’t wait to see Beulah!ReplyDelete
It's interesting to see how you can pull such personality details from your research. Thanks for taking the time to share your tips and process.ReplyDelete
KATIE: THANK YOU for the INSPIRATION to not get caught up in the world of facts, so we don't miss the most important part of a picture book bio itself--the person. Seeing how you, as both the writer and illustrator, bring your characters to life by balancing their traits through these different mediums is TRULY HELPFUL for our own work! THANK YOU!!!ReplyDelete
Yes! Great reminders, thank you!ReplyDelete
Thank you, Katie, for sharing your research into the heart of the character and the story that only you can tell. Congratulations on your forthcoming book! Pure inspiration!ReplyDelete
Love the focus on the inside of a character. Thank you Katie!ReplyDelete
Love these tips, Katie, and I look forward to reading your next PB bio!ReplyDelete
Loved reading about how you find your character. Thanks Katie!ReplyDelete
Thanks for the insight into trying to reveal character in your writing.ReplyDelete
Love the ladies you found to research and really got to know. Really like how you showed us their opposite demeanor even though they were both strong women. Thank you for sharing how you got to meet them!ReplyDelete
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Katie!ReplyDelete
It's a great tip to look for the nuances. I love this. Thanks and congrats on both books. They look wonderful.ReplyDelete
Excellent thank you. Love learning was to get to the heart of stories.ReplyDelete
I always learn so much about the layering in PBs when someone like you shares from the illustrators pov. Thank you!ReplyDelete
Katie, thank you for showing us how to find and keep our eyes on our subject's character and unique spark while we are researching and writing their story. I am looking forward to reading your books!ReplyDelete
This was a fascinating insight into character from an illustrator perspective—perfect timing for me, as I am working through character issues now and was only addressing them from the author perspective. Thanks!ReplyDelete
Thank you Kathy for your great tips on researching and creating an illustrative mindset when writing your story.ReplyDelete
Heros are real people wiht different approaches to life and the times they live. Thanks for the reminder.ReplyDelete
Research is one of my favorite things to do. Thanks for your helpful tips.ReplyDelete
Thank you, Katie! Great job researching and showing real people.ReplyDelete
Wonderful post. Thanks for your great examples.ReplyDelete
So interesting to consider characterization from the illustrator's perspective! Thanks for sharing!ReplyDelete
This post really spoke to me. It was a great reminder to not just look at the character in a "just the facts maam" type of way, but to look for clues to who they were as if they were someone you had met. I was also fascinated that illustrators consider all the traits and the dimensions of the person/animal or object before rendering a visual representation. Thanks for a great post!ReplyDelete
Congratulations on both your books, Katie! Thanks for a glimpse into your writing and illustrating process!ReplyDelete
Great biographies, Katie. Thank you for giving a little insight into the the junction of the illustration and the text, the way the work together to present the character and make ther reader care.ReplyDelete
Thanks for reminding us to see the world from our character's POV. The small nuances of daily life can shape how our subjects present to the world. Appreciate all you do!ReplyDelete
These women are so interesting and I really appreciate how you got to the core of each of them. Thank you for sharing your insights.ReplyDelete