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Today I (Christy Mihaly) am excited to be interviewing the prolific and talented picture book author Diana Murray. Diana and I are friends who met in an online poetry critique group, Poets' Garage. We're both clients of the amazing Erzsi Deak of Hen&ink Literary Studio. And yesterday (1/2/24) we both celebrated book birthdays of books in the Little Golden Book Biography series. Diana wrote about Arnold Schwarzenegger, and I wrote about Mel Brooks, and we thought we'd chat about them a bit today.
You may have noticed LGB has begun a series of bios of a range of artists, celebrities, political figures, and famous folks -- most notably the million-copy-selling Taylor Swift: A Little Golden Book Biography.
For Diana and me, writing these LGB biographies was a fun change from our usual work.
We each asked one another three questions ... here goes:
Christy: So, Diana, you are known for writing wonderful poetry and rhyming books about knitting pirates, unicorns and witches ... not exactly nonfiction works. Why did you want to write a Little Golden Book biography?
Diana: This was a huge departure for me. Not only is it my first nonfiction book, but it's the first book I've written in prose! I was thrilled to be asked to write it because I love a challenge and I love writing to a prompt. The chance to explore another genre was very exciting and fun for me. Plus, I'm a huge fan of Arnold's movies. "Conan the Barbarian" was one of my favorites during high school -- I must have watched it 50 times. I'm also a first-generation immigrant so I related to him in that way. I understand what it's like to feel grateful for the opportunity to be here.
CM: You certainly rose to the challenge, Diana. I'd say on your first prose nonfiction work, you nailed it! I also liked learning a new fact about you. What is a favorite fact that you learned about Arnold in the process of writing this book?
DM: I thought it was funny that they dubbed over all his lines in his first movie, "Hercules in New York," because of his accent. And, without his permission, they even changed his name on the movie posters to make it sound less "foreign!" That was in 1970. If only those producers knew what a huge star he would become!CM: Oh, that is so wonderfully ironic. Talk about overcoming challenges! I know you previously wrote a very adorable fiction/colors LGB, Firehouse Rainbow. I'm sure writing about Arnold was quite different -- were there similarities in writing the two books?
DM: There were two main similarities. One was keeping in mind the audience and making the text appealing for that age group. The other was thinking about page turns and illustrations. You want to create a little tension between page turns. Something that will make readers want to flip the page to learn what happens next. And you need to vary the scenes and locations to create variety -- you can't have the action happening within a single location so it's the same illustration across several spreads.
Now it's my turn! Here are my questions for you, Christy:DM: You have written several other fabulous nonfiction picture books, such as Hey, Hey, Hay! A Tale of Bales and the Machines That Make Them and Free for You and Me: What Our First Amendment Means. Did that experience make this project easier? How is writing a biography different?
CM: It's true I think of myself as primarily a nonfiction writer (and I've written many purely nonfiction, educational books), but in picture books I tend to write informational fiction, inventing a story line to convey information in a kid-friendly way. So the challenge in writing the LGB biography was to tell a compelling story for young kids in a few words without making anything up and without leaving out anything important. Honestly, that's always going to be a challenge!
DM: It's such a good question that I have to ask you, too: What's a favorite fact that you learned about Mel Brooks?
CM: I learned a great deal, but found Mel's childhood particularly fascinating. He grew up as Melvin Kaminsky in Brooklyn, without a father and with very little money. He says that he and his three older brothers didn't just share a bedroom -- they all slept in one bed.DM: I was impressed by how kid-friendly and fun your biography text is. What are some strategies you use to keep nonfiction from sounding too dry?
CM: Oh, thanks, Diana. One of the first things I did was read a bunch of other LGB biographies to get a feel for how other authors were approaching these short, 24-page biographies. The whole ethos of Little Golden books is to make these stories accessible.
As I wrote, I paid careful attention both to word choices and to which areas of Mel's life would interest kids. For each spread, I asked: What would a kid want to know? What would a kid think was funny, interesting, intriguing? What would make a young person care about Mel's story? I wrote quite a bit about his childhood, showing how his upbringing affected his life. In describing Mel's later life, I let kids know how important his best friend Carl Reiner was in his life, and also how he overcame many setbacks along the way. And as I chose words and cut excess, I tried to keep the tone light and humorous -- because, Mel Brooks.
Thanks for the great questions, Diana, and your great answers!
GROG readers, we'd love to see your comments ... Who do you think should be the subject of the next Little Golden Books biography?