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