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Russell Freedman Wilder profile

By James Cross Giblin

Russell Freedman might well have had a successful career in broadcast journalism, following in the footsteps of reporters like Edward R. Murrow. His deep, rather solemn voice, lightened by frequent touches of humor, makes him a compelling speaker. One attendee at a recent Clarion sales conference, hearing Russell present his latest book, a biography of the great modern dancer Martha Graham, said: “He reminds me of one of my favorite college professors. I could sit and listen to him for hours.”

Fortunately for young readers, Russell decided to pursue a different profession. Since 1961, he has written more than forty nonfiction books for children and been honored with just about every major award a writer can receive: the John Newbery Medal for Lincoln: A Photobiography (1987); two Newbery Honors, for The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane (1991) and Eleanor Roosevelt: A Life of Discovery (1993); the Washington Post / Children’s Book Guild Nonfiction Award; the Regina Medal of the Catholic Library Association; and now, capping the others, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for his body of work.

All of these honors have not gone to Russell’s head. As he said recently, “I’m grateful for the awards I’ve won, but you don’t write with awards in mind. You write because you have something you want to say. If there’s a secret to writing, that must be it. The most satisfying award is a letter from some kid who has been touched by one of your books.”

Although he appreciates fine food and well-cut clothes, Russell Freedman is basically a man of modest tastes. He has lived for more than thirty years in a roomy and comfortable, but completely unpretentious, apartment on New York City’s Upper West Side.

If I had to choose a single word to characterize Russell, it would be loyal. He is loyal to his friends, keeping in close touch, for example, with his five best college friends from the University of California, Berkeley. Whenever any of them comes to New York, he knows he’ll be welcome to stay at Russell’s apartment. He is loyal to his publishers (a decided rarity these days). Holiday House brought out his first book, Teenagers Who Made History, in 1961, and Russell has been a regular on that list ever since. He has also published steadily with Clarion Books since the early 1980s. Above all, Russell has remained loyal to himself — to his interests, his talent, his integrity as a writer and as a human being.

One of Russell’s Berkeley friends, the late Frank J. Dempsey, wrote a witty and insightful profile of Russell that appeared in this journal along with Russell’s Newbery acceptance for Lincoln (July/August 1988 Horn Book Magazine). I won’t repeat here the information about his family background, college years, and army experiences that Dempsey covered so well. Instead, I’ll pick up the story in the fall of 1960 when a mutual friend introduced Russell and me. At that time, he was in the midst of writing Teenagers Who Made History and looking for part-time work to pay the rent (his five-hundred-dollar advance on the book having been exhausted). I was a beginning editor of children’s books at Criterion Books, a long-vanished imprint, and had some freelance copyediting jobs to give out. Thus began what Russell recently reminded me is his “oldest publishing friendship.”

Our paths diverged somewhat in the next few years. Russell published one book after another with Holiday House and began the series of animal books — Animal Architects, How Birds Fly, Animal Fathers, etc. — that would occupy him for most of the 1970s. I went from assistant editor at Criterion to associate editor at Lothrop, Lee & Shepard to editor-in-chief of children’s books at The Seabury Press — the list that eventually became Clarion Books. I didn’t forget Russell, though, and when I arrived at Seabury I approached him about writing a book for the list. We had several meetings to discuss the idea, but he ultimately decided he was too busy with his Holiday House projects and a new list of books he was developing with Ann Troy, senior editor at E. P. Dutton.

Then, in 1980, Ann joined Clarion as senior editor and said she’d like to bring Russell to the list; and of course I was delighted. By then, Russell had turned away from animal books and begun to focus on American historical subjects, starting with Immigrant Kids (Dutton, 1980). His first book for Clarion, Children of the Wild West (1983), was in this vein, and Russell followed it with a well-received companion volume, Cowboys of the Wild West (1985). And after that, in l987, came Lincoln — the last of his books to be edited by Ann Troy, who died in 1989.

Russell sees a definite link between his animal behavior titles and his subsequent historical explorations and biographies.

“When I was writing the animal books, I learned how to do photo research, and how to lay out a book so that the photos and text are synchronized, forming a kind of counterpoint with each other,” he says.

A photographic exhibit inspired Immigrant Kids. As Russell tells it, “In 1978, I went to an exhibit at the New-York Historical Society commemorating the 125th anniversary of the Children’s Aid Society. The walls of the exhibit rooms were lined with big, blown-up photos dating back to the mid-nineteenth century showing children playing, working, going to school, in tenement apartments, and just hanging out on the New York City streets of that era.

“I was impressed by the magnetic power of those old photographs,” he continues, “by the way they seemed to defy the passage of time. Far from being faded and musty shadows of the past, they made the past come alive, and I realized as I lingered at the exhibit that archival photos can evoke the past in a way that nothing else can.”

Archival photos played a crucial role in the success of such later titles as Children of the Wild West and Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor (1994). And when Russell started to write biographies, unusual and revealing photographs of the subjects figured significantly in the way the books were conceived.

Russell’s switch in the 1980s to a more visual approach couldn’t have been better timed. His books, with a striking photograph or work of art on almost every other page, appealed greatly to a generation that was accustomed to getting much of its information from television. Vivid illustrations also helped Russell to sharpen and focus his writing even more succinctly, and to achieve effects that came close to poetry in such titles as Buffalo Hunt (Holiday, 1988) and An Indian Winter (Holiday, 1992).

When he finishes writing a book and assembling the illustrations for it, Russell tries to take a long trip before starting the next one.

“Traveling to some distant place helps clear my mind and offers a fresh point of view,” he says. “Seeing people and places for the first time gives you a chance to look at the world with the eyes of a child, to recapture some of that childish curiosity.”

Accompanied by his friend Evans Chan, a Chinese-American filmmaker, Russell has traveled in recent years to Indonesia, Australia, China, Europe, and Mexico. “A couple of years ago I was in the ancient Chinese city of Lijiang, in the foothills of the Himalayas,” he says. “There I met a blind masseur, a young man who was learning to read Braille as adapted to Chinese ideograms. This encounter was especially meaningful to me because I had just finished writing a biography of Louis Braille.”

Russell bristles when he’s asked, as he often is, if he wouldn’t prefer to write for adults. “A writer of books for children has an impact on readers’ minds and imaginations that very few writers for adults can match. But beyond that, writing nonfiction for children gives me, or any writer, tremendous artistic freedom. I can write about almost any subject that interests me and that I believe will interest children. I can be a generalist rather than a specialist.”

As he warms to his subject, Russell’s voice becomes even more intense. “It’s a much greater challenge to convey the spirit and essence of a life in a hundred pages than to write a 600- or 800-page ‘definitive’ tome that includes every known detail about that life,” he says. “A nonfiction children’s book requires concision, selection, judgment, lucidity, unwavering focus, and the most artful use of language and storytelling techniques. I regard such books as a specialized and demanding art form.”

If they’d won as many awards as Russell has, some writers might be tempted to take things easier, to rest on their laurels. But not Russell. “When I begin a book, I have an ideal image in mind of the way that book is going to turn out. It never does. Every book falls short in some way. But,” he goes on, “there’s always the next one. When people ask which of my books is my favorite, I always answer, quite honestly, ‘The one I’m working on now. That’s the one that’s really going to be good!’”

Russell Freedman is the winner of the 1998 Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal. From the July/August 1998 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


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