Posted by Rebecca G. Aguilar, M.Ed. on December 5, 2014
For the Birds: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson
By Peggy Thomas; Illustrated By Laura Jacques
Publisher: Calkins Creek Books
Publication date: 11/1/2011
Peggy Thomas is the award-winning author of the picture book biographies For the Birds: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson and Farmer George Plants a Nation. She has also co-authored Anatomy of Nonfiction: Writing True Stories for Children from Writer’s Institute Publications with her mother, Margery Facklam.
Peggy recently shared a few thoughts about writing true stories for children.
For the Birds: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson is about a little known person who made a big impact. How did you help younger readers connect with his extraordinary life?
I think kids connect with an adult character if you show the person as a child. Roger was a lot like many kids. He was teased and he didn’t like school. But he had an inexhaustible interest in a subject—birds. Nothing deterred him from spending more time with birds and he taught himself how to identify them and how to draw them. The more he pursued his passion, the more successful he became. That’s what I hope kids take away from the story. If you follow your interests, you will succeed.
Farmer George Plants a Nation
By Peggy Thomas; Illustrated By Layne Johnson
Publisher: Calkins Creek Books
Publication date: 2/28/2008
In Farmer George Plants a Nation, you take a fresh look at a familiar subject. What kinds of questions did you start with when you began researching George Washington?
I took a scatter-shot approach, researching everything agricultural in his life. While reading his journals and letters, I looked for every passage that discussed farming in some way. The more information I gathered I began to see a pattern to his interests.
Then I honed in on individual topics to see how they fit into the chronology of his life. It’s not the fastest means of research, but it was fun and led me to the conclusion that his efforts to free the United States from Great Britain mirrored his efforts to make Mount Vernon self-sustaining.
What singular strand will you focus on in the life of Thomas Jefferson, your next picture book biography?
Thomas was all about bigger, better, more. He was always rebuilding his house and adding rooms. His “inventions” were mostly improvements on someone else’s device. And he was obsessed with growing things. I had a hard time paring down this story, but in the end, it is all about his passion for growing. He grew crops, he grew democracy, he grew knowledge, and he grew the country with the Louisiana Purchase. So, that’s what Thomas Jefferson Grows a Nation is all about.
Have you ever considered writing a biography about an infamous person? If so, who and why?
No. Although I admire writers who delve into despicable characters, I’d hate to spend my time in that darker world.
You’ve spoken about developing an image system (or word register) when writing your biographies. Please explain how this image system helps tell the story.
If I have a strong, clear focus that has a big vocabulary (like farming), I can use those words to create subtle images that help carry my theme throughout the story. For example, in Thomas Jefferson Grows a Nation, I have a passage where TJ refutes bad press from a French naturalist.
“Thomas envisioned a nation of farmers. But one weed threatened Thomas’s vision. For years, famous French naturalist Count Buffon had been belittling America… [a paragraph of specifics]… So Thomas did what he did best. He pulled out his pen, uprooted every mistake in Buffon’s book and planted the truth in his own book, Notes on the State of Virginia… ”
This works best when I’m trying to connect an anecdote that isn’t, at first glance, obviously about growing things, but actually is. Buffon said we had puny wildlife and feeble plants. TJ worried that these comments would slow trade and prevent Europeans from coming to the United States. So his goal was to correct the mistakes, improve trade and inspire people to emigrate—to grow the economy. So, I call Buffon’s comments “weeds.” Instead of saying he corrected every mistake, I say, “uprooted.” Instead of saying wrote the truth, he “planted.” It follows the same principle of choosing strong, active verbs to do the maximum amount of work.
These three farming words are spread over two pages. I don’t hammer the reader over the head using them in every sentence. It would become cumbersome and annoying. So, an image system works best when it’s subtle, almost subliminal.
You’ve said editors have a genius for bringing illustrators and writers together on picture book projects. How do you think the collaboration came about between you and the illustrator Laura Jacques? Between you and the illustrator Layne Johnson?
Laura Jacques is primarily a wildlife artist who has done several books featuring birds—Baby Owl’s Rescue, Whistling Wings—so I think that is why Carolyn Yoder, the editor, thought Laura would be perfect for illustrating a book on Roger Tory Peterson, a bird guy. Actually, the original sketches featured Roger more than the birds and Laura was asked to flip that around, to feature birds even more.
Layne Johnson, who is an awesome illustrator, had worked with Boyds Mills Press before on other projects. He does exceptional rendering and that was the look that the editor was going for. I think the rich colors and the panoramic, fish-eye lens perspective made Farmer George the success that it is. Everyone who sees the book says it’s stunning. I only wish he had won an award for those illustrations. He deserved it.
For more on Peggy Thomas, please visit http://peggythomaswrites.com.
The U.S. history imprint of Boyds Mills Press, Calkins Creek Books publishes picture books, chapter books and novels for ages 8-18.