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Doreen Rappaport is the author of more than forty books for young people. To Dare Mighty Things: The Life of Theodore Roosevelt, illustrated by C. F. Payne, is the latest in her Big Word Biographies, a series begun in 2001 with the much-awarded Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr., illustrated by Bryan Collier. With pictures by an array of today’s leading artists, the books are distinguished by bold design and the highlighting of the subjects’ own words, and the almost life-sized close-up cover portraits of the subjects provide a graphic signature for the series as a whole. Design is nothing without content, however, and Rappaport’s skillful distillation of her complex subjects has made her a leader in a last redoubt of children’s trade publishing: the picture book biography.
Roger Sutton: What drew you to Teddy?
Doreen Rappaport: My husband. He collects presidential political memorabilia. And he has a mustache. Some people say he looks like Teddy Roosevelt. Anyway, my husband had been after me for years to write about Teddy.
RS: I must admit as I scanned your books I thought, “Doreen Rappaport, she’s got to be an old lefty. What’s she doing here with Teddy Roosevelt?” He really felt out of your wheelhouse for me. Good for you.
DR: He’s such an extraordinary, larger-than-life figure, full of contradictions. He was a hunter, but also the father of conservation, and we wouldn’t have the national parks without him. Now, I don’t exactly love his war-mongering, but you can’t have everything. He was a man of his era.
RS: How much did you know about him when you started?
DR: I had a vague idea about him. I had read the Edmund Morris biographies [The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Rex, and Colonel Roosevelt]. But you don’t really know anybody until you start digging — looking at the footnotes, looking at the letters. The big challenge in writing nonfiction for younger kids is to not dumb it down. To get at the texture and the complexity of a subject without dumbing it down. That’s the art. There have been a lot of people whose work I leaned on when I started. Jean Fritz, for example. She was a master. She really used her humor and wit to get you right up close to a subject.
RS: She was a pioneer in making sure nonfiction for children was nonfiction.
DR: Absolutely. There are also incredible people writing nonfiction for kids today. Andrea Pinkney, Melissa Sweet, Jen Bryant. And Russell Freedman sets the standard for tracking down every detail.
RS: You have most recently been writing in the picture book format for younger children. How do you think that is different from what Russell needs to do in his books for older kids?
DR: I have to find the kernel of the subject’s life that’s going to work for kids without eliminating that person’s complexities. I read ten biographies of Roosevelt. I went to his house in New York. I read all of the books he wrote. His memoirs. His books about hunting. I read his letters. That gives you the juice.
RS: Something I think is really admirable about To Dare Mighty Things, and about your other picture book biographies, is that there isn’t an undue emphasis on the childhood of the subject.
DR: No, I try to connect the childhood as a kind of foundation that the person rebelled against, as did Eleanor Roosevelt [Eleanor, Quiet No More, illustrated by Gary Kelley], or that he or she built upon. For example, Helen Keller’s childhood relationship with Annie Sullivan [Helen’s Big World: The Life of Helen Keller, illustrated by Matt Tavares] did really influence her understanding of the world. The young Teddy Roosevelt’s determination and physicality and intellectual voraciousness — what a great example for kids. But you want to get into what they did. For my book about Helen Keller, I wish I could have gotten into even more about her political activism.
RS: Yes, there really has been a new picture of her emerging.
DR: I worked with the archivist from the American Foundation for the Blind. I went to the office and touched her typewriter.
DR: And touched her hats that she wore, and saw her early photographs. I read in a book the letters that she wrote as a kid, and then I saw those actual letters.
RS: What does being able to actually see and touch the objects that were important to the subject do for a biographer?
DR: It gives me a sense of place. It gives me a sense of feel. It makes me closer to the subject. For Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust, I went to Auschwitz. I saw the toilets. I saw the shacks. I went to Sobibor. I saw the devastation. I saw what was left of the bunkers in Warsaw.
RS: Do you have to pay much attention to changes in curriculum?
DR: No, I don’t pay any attention. I write about who or what I think is important, and if I can sell the idea, great. If not, I put it in my file and I hope maybe in a few years I can try again.
RS: Right, when the winds change again.
DR: Now nonfiction is really hot, right?
RS: That’s what they tell us.
DR: I know, now I’m sizzling. I do think a lot of the Common Core is very good. During a Skype visit with kids in Fort Wayne, I asked: what is the theme of all the Harry Potter books, what’s the theme of The Hunger Games? Then I asked about the theme of a variety of my books, and they came up with the same answer: survival and empowerment.
RS: I think in the hands of a good teacher the Common Core will be able to do great things.
DR: I just feel bad that students are going to be tested on all of this, because that to me is the biggest nonsense in the world — testing. The good teachers know their kids. But teachers have gotten terribly battered. They really have.
RS: Well, they get it from all sides, it seems.
DR: Yes, they do. What is your background?
DR: It’s a great field, isn’t it? To read all these wonderful books.
RS: You seem like you must be a pretty voracious reader yourself.
DR: I am. What I don’t read as much anymore, if I’m in the middle of working on a book, is adult fiction. It’s too hard to concentrate. But I read a lot of adult nonfiction, and I try to keep up with the good children’s nonfiction to see how other writers are handling things and to try to build bridges with these writers. We try to be supportive of each other. I love Tanya Lee Stone’s work; her books on Barbie and the women astronauts were so wonderful. So I wrote her a letter. I’m a civil rights-nik. I’m a community person. And I’m a teacher, and teachers work in communities, so I feel nourished by knowing other writers.
RS: Well, I think that you and Tanya Lee Stone and others are creating books that aren’t simply there to supplement a curriculum. If a book isn’t worthy of being picked up for its own sake, maybe it’s not really worthy of being picked up.
DR: Right. That’s true. That’s where the educational publishers come in. They put out series that are responsive to the curriculum. But the dilemma is that good books cannot be written and produced quickly.
RS: Are you involved much with the design of your books?
DR: I am completely involved. I am blessed to have a say in the choice of the artist.
RS: Wow. You rate!
DR: That wasn’t true in the old days! When I see the sketches, and then the finished art, I may expand on something in the text, or I may eliminate it. Or I may reorder the sentences to match the pictures better. The artists do a lot of research. They get into the period.
RS: Yes, Matt Tavares wrote an article for The Horn Book’s March/April 2011 special nonfiction issue about researching the pictures that he draws, focusing on your book Lady Liberty: A Biography.
DR: Matt Tavares did a huge amount of research for Lady Liberty. Matt Faulkner is illustrating my book on Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the suffragists called Elizabeth Started All the Trouble. I asked for him because he’s so funny and he’s so good. I wrote to him saying, “Dear Matt: These are my notes, do whatever you want,” because I’m not going to tell him what to do. But I did say that I wanted kids to understand that it wasn’t just Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone and Sojourner Truth. There were many women who were suffragists and went around and spoke. Too much of history has been told by focusing just on the people who became famous.
RS: Right. And an old lefty can’t have that.
DR: No, an old lefty cannot have that. Can’t I be a young lefty? No, I’m too old to be a young lefty.