Thursday, September 21, 2017

Suzanne Slade Talks Picture Book Biographies (and a Giveaway!) ~ by Patricia Toht

Kidlit friends, are you familiar with Suzanne Slade? If not, it's time you've met!

Suzanne is the award-winning author of over 100 books! Her picture book biographies are mainstays in schools and libraries. Her newest is DANGEROUS JANE, a lovely and lyrical look at Jane Addams, who devoted her life to social reform and helping the poorest in society. She was co-founder of Hull House, the first settlement house in the US, and won a Noble Peace Prize in 1931.





Suzanne began writing this book in prose form in May 2013. Her files are filled with 82 revisions of that early piece, titled "Unstoppable Jane." She then decided to change the main theme to "dangerous," and created 18 different versions of DANGEROUS JANE. In August 2014 (after 15 months of revisions), she decided to try the story in free verse. After 26 more revisions in free verse, it found a publishing home at Peachtree Books. Now THAT'S dedication to a project!

I love picture book biographies, and I fancy writing one some day. But I admit that I am completely intimidated by the research! Well, since we have an expert in our midst today, let's pose a few questions to Suzanne:

Q: Hi, Suzanne! Thanks for stopping by! My first question is, what inspired you to write about Jane Addams?


S: For as long as I can remember, I've admired Jane Addams and how she helped found Hull House in Chicago to help struggling immigrant families. Several years ago, I stumbled upon the fact that she was the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, and I was surprised I didn't know anything about Jane's important peace work. Curious, I began researching in earnest. When I mentioned my discoveries about her tireless work for peace to my friends, not one was aware of her peace work either. 

So I decided I needed to share her tumultuous, true story with young readers -- how Jane went from being a beloved humanitarian, to the FBI's "Most Dangerous Woman in America," to the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. I hope her fascinating story inspires a new generation to be kind to all people, regardless of their backgrounds, and to never stop striving for peace. 

Q: As a nonfiction writer, how do you organize your research? Do you use a program like Scrivener? Or do you use notecards or binders?

S: My organization "system" is rather old school. It consists of three items for each book:
  1. Email folder - This contains all the email correspondence with experts/historians, permissions to use photos/artwork, etc.
  2. Paper folder - I fill this with hand-written notes from telephone interviews, brochures or papers from museums, photocopies of research materials, and various story drafts.
  3. Source doc - This is a lengthy, ever-growing computer document I'm continually updating which contains website links (below each link I copy significant paragraphs from that site), book sources (below each book title I note page numbers with specific facts found on each page), links to online books I couldn't get in hard copy from library, and a list of sources where I found pertinent quotes. This document also has a photo sources list, along with a small copy of each photo for reference. Since Sources docs often become rather long and unwieldy, I bold the facts that end up in the story so I know exactly where I found each one. The length and size of Sources docs for different projects varies greatly. The last story I wrote had a 14-page Sources doc. Another for a space project was 35 pages and had so many hi-res photos that the file was too large to email!
Suzanne's DANGEROUS JANE folder contains a brochure
from her Hull House visit, hand written notes from that visit,
copies of 1917 newspaper articles, a 'book dummy',
various story drafts, and more.
Q: At what point in your research do you conduct interviews?

S: I generally do interviews after I've finished a fair amount of research and have a completed rough draft. That way, I'm asking somewhat educated questions and will hopefully gather the facts and details really needed for the story. Of course, I also note extra information the expert may expound upon so I have that background info. But I don't want to waste the expert's time, so I try to think of all the questions I may need answered before we talk. For DANGEROUS JANE, I interviewed several Hull House staff, and conducted email interviews with Jane Addams experts from the Swarthmore College Peace Collection, the Cedarville Historical Society, and a few notable historical authors, and others.

Now if the subject of my story idea is alive, I will try to contact him or her earlier in the draft process -- after creating a story outline, but before writing a complete first draft. For example, when I proposed a leveled reader project to one publisher about Alan Bean, the fourth man on the moon, I knew we'd want to include photos of his artwork (he now paints moon scenes). So I contacted astronaut Bean early on to see if he'd be willing to participate in the project. Fortunately, he said yes, and I had the privilege of chatting with one of the twelve brave explorers who has walked on the moon. Definitely an out-of-the-world experience for me!

Q: You juggle so many different projects, sometimes releasing multiple books a year. How do you do it all? One book at a time, or multiple projects? (And do you ever sleep?!)

S: If things are going well, I'm generally juggling several books which have been acquired and are at various stages in the publishing process. (I have six books-in-the-works right now with five publishers.) I only work on one or two brand new stories at a time. Meaning, I may have one I'm fine-tweaking and/or submitting and another that's in the earlier researching/writing phase.

Before I begin a new story, I make sure I have at least two weeks without author events or any other interruptions, so that I can really get into the research and writing, and stay immersed until I have a full rough draft. As an aside, it's a scary sight when I'm wrestling down a first draft of a story. I pace around my house with uncombed hair, talking out loud, and asking myself questions. I hand write my first drafts, so handwritten pages with scribbly sentences and huge crossed-out sections are strewn everywhere, along with thick books filled with hundreds of sticky notes. 

I usually get a fair amount of sleep. I do lose sleep, though, when a story is not quite working and I can't figure out why. I keep a pad of paper and pen by my bed because sometimes I suddenly wake up with an idea to "fix" a story. Actually, some of my best ideas strike in the middle of the night. I also don't sleep particularly well before a school visit. But that's okay because the night after a visit, I sleep like a log!

Q: How much backmatter is the right amount? What do you think of sidebars? Do they distract from the telling of a story?

S: This is a tough question because the amount of backmatter depends on several things: the topic of the story, the amount of information covered in the main text, the personal preferences of the editor and publisher, and the length of the book (number of pages). For DANGEROUS JANE's backmatter, we included a great quote by Jane, two outstanding photos of Jane doing what she did best (caring for children and fighting for peace), an Author's Note with more details about her peace work, a Timeline, Selected Bibliography, Sources for quotes, and Acknowledgments of those who graciously helped with the research.
Backmatter from DANGEROUS JANE

Sometimes the amount of backmatter isn't decided until the book designer lays out the book to see what fits. Even then, things can change. For example, my book THE INVENTOR'S SECRET was originally slated for 40 pages (I think), then was bumped out to 48 pages so it would have 9 (yes, NINE!) pages of backmatter. There was so much cool science content in the story that we knew curious readers would enjoy -- like early car models, inventions, patents, etc. -- that we ended up sharing more than we originally planned.

As far as what backmatter to include in a story submission, I suggest a writer simply provide the content he or she thinks is extremely interesting and pertinent to the main topic(s) of the story, knowing that the publisher may or may not decide to include it all in the book. 

Regarding sidebars, personally I'm not a big fan of sidebars in a picture book. But for some topics and layout styles, they work extremely well. Again, it depends on the topic and vision of the publisher. If an author thinks that sidebars would be great with a story, there's no harm in including them. Then just see what the publisher thinks of them and edit accordingly.

Q: Do you share your research with the illustrator? Or does the illustrator do his or her own research?

S: I always email my Sources doc to the editor after acquisition so he or she has the option of sharing it with the illustrator.  So far, every editor has forwarded my sources to the illustrator. I also ask the editor to let the illustrator know I'm happy to answer any questions as best I can.
Illustration of the interior of Hull House with period details
in clothing, home decorations, etc.

Of course, illustrators do their own research to learn about settings, buildings, clothing, and hair styles, etc., but at least my notes give them a list of reliable sources (and experts) to start with, which hopefully saves them time. Alice Ratterree, who illustrated DANGEROUS JANE, did a great deal of her own research, which really shows in her gorgeously detailed and accurate illustrations.

Wow, Suzanne! Thank you so much for shedding light on the research process, as well as tips on writing and organizing a picture book biography.

And now, readers, I have a special treat! 

It's time for a 

GIVEAWAY!

For your chance to win a copy of DANGEROUS JANE, please  comment below and tell us the best way to reach you. 

Good luck!



To find out more about Suzanne Slade, visit her website.

73 comments:

  1. What a fabulous post and sounds like Dangerous Jane is an amazing book. I can't wait to read and I love, love, love free verse. Thanks for sharing your process. I'd be thrilled to win your book, my email is spurvis500@embarqmail.com

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    1. Thanks, Suzanne! I'm a huge fan of free verse, too!

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  2. How wonderful to learn how an accomplished author like Suzanne works, researches, and organizes her work. This is such a useful interview, Patty. Thank you both. Not sure if I'm allowed to win since I'm a GROGger, but you know my email.

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    1. Suzanne turns out terrific books! Thanks, Kathy!

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  3. Wow! This is just the post I needed to read today! Not just for tips on organization, but also inspiration to keep going on one of my bios. Thanks for sharing this great interview. And like Kathy - if GROGers can toss their raffle ticket into the hat... you know how to find us.

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  4. Appreciations for this inspiring interview Susan & Patty & the links with great info.

    Susan, as a Florida resident, I'm curious about what part of Delva IV rockets you worked on & want to share that something of your own globe-trotting at sea adventures sound like it should be between book covers down the road. I previously liked your Sojourner Truth book & have discovered so many titles here to put on my list. With one traditionally published p.b. bio to my credit, of a then-living figure, it took our team many years to bring it successfully together, so I liked learning about your Alan Bean book.

    It sounds like you & your team truly have Jane Addams' back. Children will have a full picture of her with this book & it is so wonderful you are connecting them to her 'dangerous' story, which will likely inspire some of them to great acts, like Jane.

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    1. I love that Suzanne is not only a children's writer, but also a rocket scientist!

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  5. Exciting post to read this morning! Thank you Patrica and Suzanne❤️ Love the tips on research. Can't wait to get my hands on a copy. From another GROGer.

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    1. I agree that PB biographies are the best! And an oops on my part - I forgot to include that the giveaway is for US residents. So sorry.

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  7. The book looks great. pjmac56 at yahoo.com

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  8. Fabulous post, Suzanne and Patricia. Loved reading this. phpowell at talesforallages.com

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  9. Great insight into Suzanne's process. Thanks to you both. Six books at once! Suzanne, I'm in awe.

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    1. I know, Darcy! Isn't that incredible?

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  10. I love picture book biographies. Dangerous Jane looks great! The best way to contact me is via email. Munchkintreks@gmail.com

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    1. PB biographies have a special place on my shelf, too.

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  11. Wow,Suzanne, you put a lot of work, heart and soul into your books. Dangerous Jane sounds like my kind of children's biography about a great American. Our kids need more reading material like this. elizabethwestra@gmail.com

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    1. Suzanne is a truly diligent worker. I'm so glad that she keeps turning out wonderful biographies for kids.

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  12. Thank you, Patty and Suzanne. This is a great in-depth interview and exciting to learn more about Dangerous Jane!!

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  13. Good interview! Thank you. This looks like a great bio...and part of Jane I'm not familiar with. annettemwhipple@gmail.com

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  14. Fantastic interview! I love reading about author's research. Very timely for me, as I'm attempting to write a PB Bio in free verse right now. I'll have to get your book for a mentor text. It sounds amazing. tracyhora at att.net

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    1. So glad this was timely for you. Good luck with your PB bio!

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  15. Terrific post! Thank you, Suzanne! Thank you, GROG team!

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  16. So impressed with your research methodology Suzanne! I'll bet you have a dynamite system for storing and backing up all the irreplaceable data if your computer crashes!

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    1. Thanks to my smart son and husband, yes! My son set me up on Dropbox and my husband connected an external drive which automatically backs up. (Can you tell I had a computer crash about a year ago which spurred all of this?)

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  17. This was a fantastic post. I can't wait to read Dangerous Jane. nicoleturner723 @ gmail.com

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  18. Wow. This was a great insight into your writing/research practice, Suzanne. Thanks for this interview Patricia. My practice pales in comparison, but this prods me forward to better disciplined and more deliberate research. I do store my finds in Scrivener, with links, pics, etc. just for reference and to develop the Bibliography (in EasyBib, which is when final copied to a file in Scrivener). But I can see the advantages of real tangible files/folders--hands on lends to creativity, some think.
    I can be reached at sevenacresky@outlook.com if so lucky to win this fantastic book. I still will have it on my list-to-get, since I need a copy for me AND my granddaughter.

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    1. I've heard people say that they use Scrivener for PB bios. I'm intrigued by it, for sure.

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  19. What an amazing look at your background research and how this book came together - looking forward to reading it!

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  20. Thank you, Suzanne and Patricia, for this post. Suzanne, I love your tips about research and how you keep everything organized. I now have some ideas how to keep my research under control. I look forward to reading your new book, DANGEROUS JANE. My contact is: chardixon@sbcglobal.net.

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    1. Good luck with your writing, Charlotte!

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  21. I love behind the scenes info on a writer's methods, and especially, biography-related info. This book looks fabulous. What a prolific author. Thanks, Patricia.

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    1. I know, Sherri! Suzanne just keeps turning out new, terrific books!

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  22. DANGEROUS JANE sounds like a great mentor text. Thanks for sharing! manjuhoward@gmail.com

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    1. Yes, Manju! Studying Suzanne's books is really helpful if you're writing PB bios. My favorite is THE MUSIC IN GEORGE'S HEAD.

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  23. Great interview! I appreciate the glimpse into Suzanne's writing process. I've been looking closely at this book to examine the transitions between events. That's always a challenge when writing about a person over a period of time. If I'm lucky enough to win, please let me know through FB.

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    1. Thanks, Beth! Great idea to examine the transitions.

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  24. Great interview. I particularly welcomed the explanation of Suzanne's source organization and her thoughts on back matter. Contact info: mariamarshall@comcast.net

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    1. I agree. It's always nice to get tips from someone who has as much experience in this type of writing as Suzanne has.

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  25. Wow. Back to my latest revision! Thanks. julie.editor@gmail.com

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    1. Haha, Julie! Who was it who said, "Writing is re-writing"?

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  26. Fascinating! Thanks for sharing. I write fiction but have a possible NF idea. This was a helpful read. And my college dorm was named after Jane Adams, so this book is a must read!

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  27. I was researching online about back matter in children's books as one I am currently writing really lends itself to that. As I continued down the rabbit trail of research, I stumbled upon this website and was very impressed and excited of it's existence. I would love a chance to win. aliciagodfrey23@gmail.com

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    1. So glad you found us, Alicia! And it was pretty timely, I'd say. :)

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  28. Thanks for sharing this information. Last night at crit group, I asked about providing references upon submission. Now I have the answer.

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    1. So happy to hear that this information is timely for folks working on nonfiction projects. Happy writing to you!

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  29. Biographies are intimidating. Maybe that alone is a reason for me to give one a try. But who? I am so impressed with Suzanne's skills. Some great advice on how to get started. davidmcmullin1@yahoo.com

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    1. I'm a bit intimidated, too, David! But it makes it a bit less scary when you have some good advice, right?

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  30. What a great interview! Thank you Suzanne for sharing your methods. It really helps those of us who have not reached your level of prowess. I love DANGEROUS JANE and would love to add it to my mentor library. Julie(dot)lacombe at yahoo(dot) com

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  31. I loved this book so much. Congrats on another great book, Suzanne! dkshumaker(at)gmail.com

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  32. A very informative interview. It's great to hear inside knowledge of the processes authors use. I would love to win a copy of your book. My email address is hollieandfiggs@gmail.co.uk

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  33. Thanks so much for the interview and giving all that good information. Enjoyed it all.

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  34. I finally got to read this great post. Thanks, Suzanne, for answering my question. And thank you, Patti, for letting us ask questions. I'd love to win. tinamariecho(at)yahoo.com

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  35. Great blog post. I love picture book biographies and this is great advice from an expert in the field. Love the illustrations, too. wvsmarties(at)yahoo.com

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    1. Picture book bios are some of my favorites, too, Janet. Such a great way to learn about people!

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  36. Wonderful interview -- so rich with good, useful information. Thanks for that and for a chance to win a copy of this book.

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    1. Thanks for coming by, Rosi! So glad the information is helpful.

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  37. This is a great post. I too would love to write a PB biography. Thank you for doing this.

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