GROG readers probably know by now that I 'm a picture book biography/nonfiction aficianado. So when AZ author friend Lori Alexander published a chapter book biography with illustrations and historical photos, I knew had to read it. My verdict matches that of the Kirkus starred review, "Informative, engaging, and important."
I was curious to see the structure of a chapter book biography. The 128-page book meant for grades 3-7 (HMH Books for Young Readers) reads quickly and grabs the reader with factual sidebars, fresh, engaging illustrations by Allan Drummond, and a mix of history, sports, medicine. Readers will identify and cheer on Ludwig Guttmann, a Jewish boy who disliked school, but became a neurologist who changed lives, fought the Nazis as a doctor, gave hope to those with spinal injuries, and created the Paralympic Games.
This book has so many hooks to reel in readers. Teachers and librarians will swoon over the deep back matter. Parents will appreciate a story about hard times, prejudice, and illness – a perfect jumping off point for discussions about social issues we face today. Best of all, this book amplifies hope, heart, and everyday heroism. I highly recommend it!
Craft Chat with Lori Alexander
KH: You began your writing career with humorous, fictional picture books and added nonfiction, biography and longer forms, such as A Sporting Chance. How did this transition happen? What new skills were necessary for crafting a chapter book biography?
LA: That’s correct! I had a few funny picture books under my belt when my agent inquired about my interest in nonfiction. I’m embarrassed to share that I never considered writing it before that. My husband is a scientist and one night he mentioned how much more informed doctors and pathologist were after the invention of the microscope. That got my wheels spinning! I wrote my first nonfiction manuscript, All in a Drop: How Antony Van Leeuwenhoek Discovered an Invisible World in picture book format. Later, I expanded to chapter book length when my wise editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt suggested the content would be a better fit for slightly older readers (3rd-7th grades). She was right! All in a Drop won a Sibert Honor for distinguished nonfiction earlier this year. As far as swinging from PBs to the longer form, it helped to read several “mentor” chapter books. Those gave me a feel for chapter length, vocabulary level, and layout of sidebars and back matter.
KH: How did you first find out about Ludwig Gutmann? How did you craft his story to appeal to kids? I know you have personal inspiration with the topic.
LA: My daughter was born with a condition called pseudoarthrosis. It affects the tibia in her left leg. We didn’t have a diagnosis until she was bearing weight as a newly walking toddler and her leg broke. The bone wouldn’t heal and after six months, her leg was still fractured. In many cases, children with pseudoarthrosis undergo multiple surgeries in attempts to get the affected bone to heal. If the bone won’t fuse, amputation is the next course of action. Although we’ve had some success with surgeries, bone grafts, rodding, and a leg brace, the amputation has always been in the back of our minds. We love to watch the Paralympics to show our daughter (now 13 years old) that legs aren’t required for gold medals. Success comes to those who work for it! Here’s a short clip that aired on our local Tucson news with a bit more of the story:
When I pitched Ludwig Guttmann to my editor at HMH, I emphasized the great mix of history, medicine, and sports. I wrote a 2-page “mini-proposal” with some historical highlights, possible sidebar topics, STEM tie-ins, and a competitive analysis explaining how the title would fit into the current market (comp titles come in handy here!). I’m so glad she was game to team-up once again! A Sporting Chance: How Ludwig Guttmann Created the Paralympic Games released in April 2020.
KH: The pacing, the interweaving of sidebars, science, and narrative arc such strengths of this biography. How did you interlace all these threads?
LA: I used a narrative nonfiction format so the remarkable events of Ludwig’s life would read like a story with a main character who has a problem to solve. I always like to begin with details from childhood. This gives young readers a hint at what’s to come (Ludwig was small but fast, was smart but didn’t love school, liked to play sports, and stood up for his Jewish friends when they were bullied). Ludwig was Jewish and lived in Germany up until 1938. In addition to details about his life, I had to provide historical context to young readers who may not be familiar with this part of world history.
Ludwig was a neurologist and worked with spinal injury patients. In the early 1900s, about 80% of these paraplegic patients died, mostly from bladder infections and infections caused by bedsores from their full-body casts. Doctors called them “incurables.” But Ludwig wanted to make a difference. He removed casts and worked to get his patients sitting upright in bed. He brought in physical therapists and wheelchairs and gave his patients simple jobs to do. He wanted these young men and women, many who were soldiers in WWII, to feel like part of society again.
When his patients believed simple tasks, like feeding and dressing themselves, were no longer possible, Ludwig encouraged them to try until they were successful. So whether I was writing about Hitler’s rise to power or the science behind the nervous system, I tried to use simple, straightforward language to present information in an age-appropriate, yet engaging manner.
KH: What was your organizational process for all these moving parts? Scrivener? Old-fashioned notebooks and folders?
LA: Ludwig’s fascinating life story spans 80 years. Born in 1899, he lived through both world wars, so I had quite a bit of historical ground to cover. At the same time, I didn’t want this chapter book to be overwhelming to young readers. Strategic use of “sidebars” allowed me to include fascinating tidbits without interrupting the main narrative.
I haven’t tried software like Scrivener to stay organized. I tend to have a Word doc open for ongoing notes and especially to remember the sources of quotes that I want to use later in the story. Mostly, my desk is covered with printed journal articles and research books with lots of little post-it flags sticking out of their pages. And it feels like I always have a hundred tabs open on my computer. That’s the trick with nonfiction. There’s so much info at our fingertips (the big slab of marble), we authors need to decide what to cut out and what to keep (to carve a stunning statue!).
KH: I’m impressed by the scope of this book as well as the amount of photos, images, and interviews you amassed in its creation. Did you get a photo budget or was the onus on you?
LA: Yes, there was a photo budget and I blew right through it! HMH actually increased the budget midway through the project and I still spent some out-of-pocket (we included around 40 historical photos). I didn’t realize how expensive photographs can be, especially from sites like Getty. But along with the Allan Drummond’s beautiful illustrations, the photographs added so much to the final look and feel of the book. The photo research itself (finding appropriate photos and securing permissions) can be quite time consuming. I didn’t realize these tasks were all part of the author’s role until I landed my first nonfiction contract.
KH: A Sporting Chance garnered a starred review from Kirkus and is a Junior Library Guild Selection. What was your feeling when you found out? Do these accolades affect a book? For you personally, what was your proudest moment so far with Gutmann’s story?
LA: I was thrilled to receive the starred review from Kirkus. They are notoriously tough! Another starred review just rolled in from Horn Book Magazine. It feels great to read such compliments about the text and the art of this book. I do think these reviews help a bit, especially when it comes to teachers and librarians adding books to their collections.
Since this book only recently released, I’ll say my proudest moment so far is simply getting Ludwig’s story out into the world. One of my favorite parts is the “ah-ha” moment that inspired Ludwig to create organized sporting competitions. One day out on the hospital lawn, he caught a group of his patients in their wheelchairs using upside-down walking canes to hit a puck. It reminded him of polo without the horses. Ludwig began to wonder if sports could help with rehabilitation. He brought in equipment to teach his patients archery. In 1948, he hosted a small archery competition between two hospitals. More sports and more participants joined each year. At first, people laughed at the idea. They told Ludwig that no one would watch his wheelchair games. But that didn’t stop him. His small competition on the hospital lawn grew into Paralympic Games we know today. In 2016, more than 4000 athletes competed in the summer Paralympics in Rio. The Games broke viewership records with a global television audience of more than 4.1 billion people!
There aren’t many children’s books that feature people with disabilities. It’s important for kids with varying abilities to see themselves in books. And it’s important for all readers to be exposed to the themes of compassion, tenacity, and social justice that are woven throughout this story.
KH: Any online readings or other book events our readers can follow regarding A Sporting Chance: How Paralympics Founder Ludwig Guttmann Saved Lives with Sports? What’s up next for you?
LA: This is such a tough time to release a new book! I *had* all kinds of book festivals and school visits on my calendar but everything was cancelled. I’m hoping to make another big marketing push for this one next summer, before the rescheduled Paralympics games in 2021! For now, I’m working on a third biography for HMH. It hasn’t been announced yet so I won’t give away too many details. But it will be in a similar chapter book format, with lots of full-color illustrations, for grades 3-7. In addition, I have a board book releasing in October from Scholastic (FUTURE DOCTOR is the fourth book in the Future Baby series). I also have a picture book called MINI MIGHTY SWEEPS, about a little street sweeper with a big job to do, coming from HarperCollins in 2022.
Lori Alexander loves to read and write! She has written picture books like BACKHOE JOE (Harper) and FAMOUSLY PHOEBE (Sterling) as well as the FUTURE BABY board book series (Scholastic). Her first non-fiction chapter book, ALL IN A DROP (HMH) received a Sibert Honor Award. Her new book, A SPORTING CHANCE (HMH), is a Junior Library Guild Selection and received a Kirkus starred review.Lori resides in sunny Tucson, Arizona, with her scientist husband and two book loving kids. She runs when it’s cool and swims when it’s hot. Then she gets back to reading and writing. Visit Lori at or on Twitter @LoriJAlexander or Instagram @lorialexanderbooks