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An Interview with Russell Freedman

Russell Freedman has illuminated the crossroads of the biographical and the historical in more than forty nonfiction books for young people. He spoke with Roger Sutton last June in New York City.

Photo by Evans Chan

Photo by Evans Chan

ROGER SUTTON: For this special issue we asked a number of writers to give us the unanswered question from history that most nags at them. What’s yours?

RUSSELL FREEDMAN: Actually, I have several. I’d like to ask Eleanor Roosevelt what she regrets most, because I think that might reveal something that I didn’t catch on to while I was writing my book and, hopefully, that would start a conversation. And I would love to ask James Madison about the Bill of Rights (which I’ve just finished a book about, called In Defense of Liberty). Specifically, what the Eighth Amendment’s “cruel and unusual punishment” means. The Supreme Court keeps revising the definition. So far, it doesn’t include capital punishment, although in most other industrialized democracies, the death penalty is considered cruel and unusual. I’d also like to ask James Madison which rights are reserved to the states by the Tenth Amendment. That’s something else that has never been determined by the courts. There are plenty of questions about the Bill of Rights I’d want to ask if I had James Madison sitting here.

RS: Do you think we’d always want to know his answer?

RF: Maybe not, and the Framers understood that. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights were deliberately written so that they could be amended or reinterpreted as times changed, as ideas changed. Madison might give the same answer that, in effect, the Supreme Court has given: “cruel and unusual punishment” is what popular opinion considers it to be, and that of course changes over the years.

As a matter of fact, standards of historical accuracy also change over the years. Viewpoints change. You can’t write history solely from the point of view of dead white males any longer. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights were all written by affluent white males, but to discuss them in any meaningful way, you have to bring in the roles of African Americans — the enslaved blacks and the free blacks — and the roles of women, who were scarcely acknowledged by those documents, and of the disenfranchised. You have to discuss why slavery wasn’t outlawed by the Constitution, why women weren’t given the votes, why Native Americans weren’t even considered citizens. The Bill of Rights isn’t about dead white males anymore, and it’s not just about live white males either; it’s about every minority group that exists.

RS: It’s interesting that one of your nagging questions is pretty straightforwardly factual — what did you mean by this? — and the other one is much more personal and psychological — what do you regret the most? How do you balance, when you’re writing about someone, Eleanor Roosevelt, for example, the facts of what she did and why she did it, either according to her own point of view or a recorded point of view, and your own speculation?

RF: Well, I try not to speculate. I try to find clues in the documented record — from the subject’s own testimony, from the testimony of other people. When you’re writing a biography, you’re trying to understand your subject in the same way that you try to understand one of your friends, and that effort at understanding is always very imperfect. I mean, can you really understand anyone? Can you understand yourself? It’s difficult to nail down motivations exactly, so you try to go by the record — what Eleanor Roosevelt says about why she did what she did, what other people say, what the actual behavior was. I try to avoid personal speculation because I think it can contaminate the historical record. Scholars who are doing original research in their chosen field may be uncovering all sorts of new information and may come up with some astounding new take on what happened and why it happened — that’s a good time to speculate. I do original research, too — I interviewed some of Eleanor Roosevelt’s grandchildren, for example, and read many of her letters and newspaper columns. That’s essential. But digging up new information and speculating on it isn’t your primary purpose when you’re writing a biography intended for young readers, unless you find compelling evidence that departs from the accepted wisdom. A biography for young people calls for the demanding art of distillation, the art of storytelling, and your responsibility is to stick as closely as possible to the documented record.

RS: We’re much stricter now than we used to be about speculating and fictionalizing, two things that can kind of blur into each other.

RF: Well, fictionalizing is no longer a controversial subject: you simply don’t do it. That’s been a total change since I first started writing. My first book, Teenagers Who Made History, which was published in 1961, is full of invented dialogue. That was the standard of the time, and, in fact it was fun to write, but I’m glad the standard has changed. I think that today’s books, in which every quote, every conversation, is taken from a memoir, an autobiography, an interview, or what-have-you, are much more convincing. Fictionalization has been out for quite a while.

RS: Except I think it’s coming back in an interesting way. Not in children’s books in particular, but in some “postmodern” thinking about the past, where “history” imposes an arbitrary narrative out of chaos.

RF: Now you’re getting into the subject of historical objectivity. Is there any such thing? Of course there isn’t.

RS: Is history what happened or the record of what happened?

RF: Let’s say that history is what happened. The record of what happened is how each individual happens to see those events. They’ve already been filtered. When the historian or biographer takes over, history is no longer exactly what happened, because there has been a process of selection going on; it’s impossible to write about anyone, any event, in any period of time, without in some way imposing, even unconsciously, your own standards, your own values. You simply can’t avoid that. The historian strives for objectivity, does the best he or she can, but the result inevitably reflects the life experience and the values of the person writing the book. Abraham Lincoln lived twenty-four hours a day for fifty-six years. How much of that time has come down to us in the record? A tiny percentage. Now, of all of the material we have about Lincoln, what percentage of that can a biographer actually include in a book, and most especially in a book for kids? So you not only have a partial record, a very incomplete record of a life, but by the time you finish deciding what to include and what to leave out, it’s even more incomplete. In fact, that’s where I would say that speculation takes place, in the process of selectivity. Deciding what to include and what to leave out is like picking stocks. You’re trying to guess what will pay the best dividend in terms of helping evoke a world, and create a character. And every biographer makes different choices. Every book I’ve ever read about Eleanor Roosevelt is about a somewhat different person. And that’s even more true about Lincoln, especially with the generational shifts. Every ten years Lincoln changes character quite dramatically.

RS: Now there’s even some controversy about his friendship with this fellow Joshua Speed — they roomed together, slept in the same bed, conducted secret correspondence, etc. Were they or weren’t they?

RF: Well, now, that’s interesting, but it doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Sharing a bed was a common practice back in those days, and until very recently we didn’t think a thing about it. I remember reading that Ben Franklin and his fellow travelers slept three or four to a bed at roadside inns.

RS: You and I wrangled with this question in regard to your book about Babe Didrikson Zaharias (see “Letters to the Editor,” January/February 2000). It seems to me so difficult to take your contemporary self back to another era. Whether it’s thirty years ago or two hundred years ago, you’re bringing, as a twenty-first-century person, so many assumptions that it must be hard to even know when they are assumptions. If Babe were around today, people would speculate openly about her relationship with Betty Dodd.

RF: They speculated then, too, but not openly. It just wasn’t permissible to use certain words or to come right out and say it. People questioned Babe’s femininity; they made fun of her appearance, her close-cropped hair, her tailored clothes. There was a lot of innuendo, a lot of snide hinting on the part of male sportswriters, who thought that she shouldn’t be playing all these sports anyway. I went back and looked at my book just yesterday, to see how I had handled all that. I tried to say everything about Babe’s relationship with Betty Dodd that I could find in the record. I used the term “intimate friendship,” wrote that they were “inseparable,” did everything together. The chapter on Betty Dodd is called “Partners.” But I didn’t feel as though I could go beyond the documented record.

RS: But readers who were sophisticated enough to ask the question had enough information to ask, “Was Babe gay?”

RF: That’s the whole point. If you’re doing a good job as author, then you get the reader to engage in whatever speculation might be called for. And it’s much more meaningful for the reader, if he or she comes up with the questions. By today’s standards, Abraham Lincoln might be called a racist. He supported a plan to colonize African Americans outside the country. But by the standards of the 1860s, he was the Great Emancipator. Is it fair to use our standards and values to judge what someone did long ago? No, it isn’t. But is it fair to use what we think we know today, hindsight, in order to interpret? Judging and interpreting are quite different, and hopefully we do learn something from history, otherwise why bother? And certainly hindsight provides certain insights, so I think it’s fair to interpret, to try to understand in the light of how we feel and what we think today, but it’s very unfair to judge. Thomas Jefferson once said, “Women shouldn’t wrinkle their pretty little foreheads with politics.” Now does that mean he was a sexist, or was he just expressing what most males, and maybe most females, felt at that time? Or are both true?

RS: A recent picture-book biography of Lincoln by Amy Cohn and Suzy Schmitz states that the Emancipation Proclamation declared “all slaves free,” when, of course, the Emancipation Proclamation freed only some slaves, only the slaves under Southern control. How do you decide when simplification becomes distortion?

RF: Anyone writing a picture-book biography of Lincoln has a different set of responsibilities from someone writing a biography for sixth-graders, say, or from a Lincoln scholar writing an academic book on Lincoln. Each of these writers has a different audience and different goals. That’s obvious. A picture-book biography can’t deal with the same complexities and nuances as a 150-page biography for older kids. You can’t use the picture-book format if you want to go into all those complications, and yet, you still want to capture a sense of a life being lived. In some respects, I suppose, a picture-book biography is actually harder to write.

With the audience I write for, I want to make sure that the reader is eagerly turning every page. I want each of my books to be an absorbing reading experience, an authentic piece of literature. The worst thing that can happen is for a book to have a chilling effect on the reader, to have a kid pick it up and look at a bunch of footnotes and think, No, I’m not going to read this, it’s too intimidating. Or even worse — if I thought that I was writing books just so that kids could write classroom reports, I’d quit. I’m not interested in doing that. I want to write books that a ten-year-old or a teenager or maybe their grandmother will pick up and sit up all night reading, and then can’t wait until they go on to a longer book about the same subject.

On the other hand, someone once told me that including source notes, endnotes, shows your readers how history is made. I’m not sure what the answer is. At one time I felt that my books were getting too long and intimidating, so when I started my biography of Louis Braille, I thought, “Now here’s a perfect chance to do a small book that looks and reads just like a story.” When I discussed it with [my editor] Dorothy Briley, I said, “I don’t want to include a bibliography or anything like that — I want this to be a book that a kid will carry around in his pack and take out and read and love.” Well, you can’t get away with that today, not with nonfiction. I was really roasted for not including a bibliography. The next book I wrote was Babe. I looked at it yesterday; there are twenty pages of chapter notes in the back. I did that to demonstrate that I was doing a responsible job, but does that really encourage a kid to read biography? Does it show how history is written? Maybe, maybe not.

RS: If we look at fiction for children, at least ninety percent is about children, at least as the central character. In a biography, how do you avoid giving undue emphasis to what might be child-appealing aspects at the expense of adult achievements?

RF: In the case of Eleanor Roosevelt, it was easy. Her childhood is fascinating because it was so horrible. It gave her so much to overcome. With material like that, you can hook the reader right away, and by the time Eleanor is out on her own, the reader doesn’t want to stop. I mean, why do kids read biographies? Why does anyone read them? I think it’s because we’re all trying to learn how to live our lives. We want to see how other people have lived and how they have overcome tough problems. A kid reading a novel might want a protagonist his own age or a little older, but a youngster reading a biography has a different motivation, I think. That reader wants to see how the subject of the biography got along in life. If you can establish the conflicts, the problems, the hurdles, at the beginning — in the case of Eleanor it’s easy; and with Lincoln, too, the log cabin, the dirt floor, reading by the fireplace — then I think you can carry the reader through.

RS: It’s almost a way of fortunetelling. You’re reading about this other child and thinking, This is how her life was like mine, this is how it was different; I wish my life was like that, I’m glad my life isn’t like that. If the writer is good, the reader will become invested in that person and want to know, okay, so what happened from this, what happened to her? Which is a way of asking, What’s going to happen to me?

RF: The letters I get from kids are almost never about the childhood of the subject. They’re about something that Eleanor or Lincoln or Crazy Horse did as an adult. That’s what they want to know. Plenty of kids are fascinated by biographies, thank heavens. I get letters from two kinds of readers. History buffs, who love to read history and biography for fun, and then kids who want to be writers but who rarely come out and say so in their letters. You can tell by the questions they ask — How did you get your first book published? How long do you spend on a book? — that sort of thing. So I guess those are the readers that I’m writing for — kids who enjoy that kind of book, because they’re interested in history, in other people’s lives, in what has happened in the world and in what’s going to happen. I believe that they’re the ones who are going to be the movers and shakers.

RS: Who do you see as the audience for your book on Martha Graham?

RF: I chose Martha Graham as a subject because I wanted to write a biography of a major American artist, and because I personally was interested in dance. I had been going to dance performances in New York for years, and while I usually enjoyed them, I didn’t always know what was going on up there on the stage. It was like watching a baseball game without knowing all the rules. So I figured, if I plunge into a biography of Martha Graham, I’ll learn a lot about dance and enhance my own theatre-going life. And that’s what happened. I attended dance performances of every imaginable kind while I was working on the book. And I learned to watch dance with an entirely different set of eyes. That’s what I tried to get across to my readers — why dance can exert such a powerful hold on one’s imagination, and how a great artist strives for perfection. So to answer your answer—who are those readers? There are plenty of kids out there, boys included, who are fascinated by or curious about dance. And there are many more who want to know how and why a great creative artist works and succeeds. So let’s say that they’re my audience. I never thought that Martha Graham would be a huge seller. But I did think that I’ve paid my dues to the extent that I can now pick an offbeat subject once in a while, simply because I happen to be particularly interested in it.

RS: What’s the difference between biography for kids and that for adults?

RF: I was very curious when the Penguin short biographies [for adults] started coming out, because they’re about the same length as many biographies for young readers. So I read several of them. And they have a lot to learn from children’s writers. Not a single one I read is as evocative, as convincing, as a really successful biography on the same subject aimed at kids. And they’re all written by very accomplished, reputable, adult authors. Writing history and biography for kids calls for special skills that can only be acquired through practice and that are different from those required for an adult audience.

RS: How would you articulate that difference?

RF: A biography for kids has to be lean and approachable. You don’t have eight hundred pages to work with. Blanche Wiesen Cook’s two volumes so far on Eleanor Roosevelt amount to some twelve hundred pages, and they only go as far as 1936, I believe, when Eleanor hadn’t fully hit her stride yet. There’s a third volume on the way. Now those books serve an important purpose. They involve original research, they strive to be definitive, and they will become sources for all future historians and biographers. But a biography for young readers, if it’s successful, is a feat of imaginative storytelling that is informed by the historical record. As I’ve said before, it has to be a distillation. You’re writing for a reader who hopefully will be motivated to go on to a longer and more comprehensive work. A children’s biography doesn’t have to be comprehensive, and it doesn’t have to be definitive. It does have to be accurate, to the extent that’s possible. And most of all, it has to be a piece of literature, a compelling read. I want the reader to discover the joy of reading.

RS: What’s the difference between biography and history?

RF: If there is a difference, then it must be a matter of emphasis, particularly if you’re talking about the kind of narrative history most commonly addressed to young readers. History per se attempts to identify and discuss certain social, political, economic, religious, and environmental forces that affect the course of events, but to make that discussion truly meaningful, you have to show how those forces affect everyday life, the lives of individuals, and also how those forces may have been influenced, in turn, by the actions of certain individuals. My Bill of Rights book is a good example. It deals with the origins of our civil liberties, with the often-disputed meanings of the various amendments and Supreme Court decisions interpreting them, and with the continuous and ongoing struggle to fully realize the ideals expressed in the Bill of Rights. That’s a lot of history, and to give it a sense of life, I’ve tried to discuss the historic and legal significance of each amendment by telling the stories of ordinary citizens, individuals whose lives have been deeply affected by civil rights issues, and who have had the courage and persistence to stand up for their rights, often at great personal risk.

Biography, of course, focuses on a particular individual, but to make that story meaningful, you have to pay close attention to all those same social, political, economic, religious, environmental, etc., forces that define that individual’s world and influence her/his outlook, values, understanding, and sensibility. My biography of Abraham Lincoln tells the story of an ambitious, self-educated man who goes from a log cabin to the White House, but at the same time, it’s also a story about slavery, racism, class privilege, and economic and political forces. In one of his novels, Benjamin Disraeli has a character say: “Read no history; read nothing but biography, for that is life without theory.” But if you don’t fill in the “historic” background, then the story of the life is suspended in a vacuum.

From the November/December 2002 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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