I've been obsessed with children's biographies lately as I finalize the revisions on a bio I've been working on for two years! I love children's biography books because there's much creative freedom in how one chooses to write them. You could do a cradle to grave biography or focus on one event in your subject's life. They're easily digestible for young and older readers.
As much as I enjoy reading children's biography books, I must admit to the difficulty I have in actually writing them. It may look easy, but it's not. As with all children's literature, every word must count. I vacillate between leaving something in or taking it out. Is it NECESSARY? How does it sound when I read it aloud? Does it flow? Are my words at the appropriate grade level?
Today I want to discuss two children's books biographies about the same subject. My goal was to break down the biographies and study each author's approach to writing it.
George Ferris’ Grand Idea The Ferris Wheel
By Jenna Glatzer, Illustrated Stephanie Dominguez was published in 2015.
Mr. Ferris And His Wheel by Kathryn Gibbs Davis,
illustrated by Gilbert Ford was published in 2014.
George Ferris' Grand Idea: Starts with George as a boy on his parents' ranch in Nevada. He's thinking of what he might do that would be considered important. As George is thinking and dreaming about this, across the pond (or lake) is a waterwheel he's gazing at. It's implied he must have spent a lot of time looking at that wheel, wondering how it worked, and coming up with all sorts of ideas for his own inventions.
I've noticed many picture book biographies start in the subject's childhood even if it's a just a snippet of something they've said, experienced, or done that will link to their future big thing. I believe it's a way to ground the story and build a connection with children readers. Sometimes, though, it isn't possible to start in the subject's childhood or the author may choose not to.
Mr. Ferris And His Wheel: starts with the impending deadline of the World's Fair - only ten months away! The sidebar is used to state informative facts. Although this book doesn't start with George's childhood, you're immediately placed in the action and frenzy of the day. Even though both biographies are about an event in the subject's life. This biography starts with THE EVENT.
George Ferris' Grand Idea: After this dreamy moment, we follow George into his career as an engineer building tunnels, brides, etc. The author states, "It was very dangerous, stressful work, but George was proud to help people travel safely." This sentence drives home the type of work George did (dangerous) but also how he felt (stressed but proud). It's important to include your subject's feelings even though sometimes that's difficult. If your subject lived in a long ago time setting, there may not be information on how your subject felt about a particular situation. This is when the author may have to infer how the subject felt. I inferred the Praline Lady was hot, and tired from walking all day. I considered the New Orleans heat and the fact she was on her feet trying to sell her goodies and came to this conclusion. Even though the Praline Lady is historical fiction it's based on real life praline ladies.
With the World Fair coming to Chicago, it was important for America to outdo the French's contribution to the fair of the Eiffel Tower. Engineers sent in their ideas from all across America. George's idea was the Ferris wheel. This part of the book brings the tension. George's boss is not on board with him building a Ferris wheel. He claims it'll collapse. George was able to convince him, but now he needed funding. No bank wanted to finance George's invention. More rejection - more tension and higher stakes. How will this Ferris wheel ever get done? Will it ever get done?
Yes, it does thanks to rich investors. All was going well as construction was underway. Then - another PROBLEM for George. The ground is frozen solid. It is winter in Chicago after all. The men keep working and see success until ANOTHER PROBLEM! Quicksand! The author does a great job of increasing the stakes for George, who is on a tight deadline to get this Ferris wheel up and working.
Mr. Ferris And His Wheel: In this version, George is building the Ferris Wheel a "matter of national pride." George felt a competitive nature toward the French and had to defeat them. "He could never allow a French toward to overshadow America's World's Fair." I'm curious if the subject stated this himself or if this was the general feeling of Americans during that time so it's a safe statement to make. Both authors speak about the pride George had in his work.
There are more facts in the sidebar including info about Chicago's Home Insurance building - the first skyscraper. The sidebar is a great tool to put interesting facts about your subject or the time in which your subject lives.
Then we come to George's great idea. He and his partner, William Gronau, work out the blueprint for their invention. Gronau was never mentioned in Glatzer's biography, but this author, Kathryn Gibbs Davis, clearly felt his contribution was important enough to credit.
PROBLEM on the horizon. George meets resistance. No one had ever seen a structure like his before. He's told it will collapse. There is a direct quote from George used in the passage. The side bar has more facts about George's expertise in steel and an explanation of Alloys. Once again, the side bar is expounding on the text and educating the reader.
George finally gets approval to build his Ferris wheel BUT is rejected for financing by multiple banks. The author states the "lenders laughed him into the street." I love this description and can imagine how disappointed George must have felt for being taken a fool. Finally, George has investors and encounters a PROBLEM - frozen ground. The author lets us know the ground is frozen by stating the shovels broke as the workers dug into the ground. This "showing" paints a clear picture of just how cold it must have been! Finally, the Ferris wheel is ready.
There is a quote from George's partner in the sidebar that hits home the frustration and despair they must have felt while trying to finish this astronomical project. I've read many children's book biographies that had no quotes but actually like those that include direct quotes from their subject.
Once the Ferris wheel is up and running, the author references George's childhood and the inspiration that waterwheel must have had on him. Aha! So the author gives George's childhood a snippet frame in the story. Surely staring at that waterwheel played a huge role in his building a Ferris wheel!
Even though both books cover the same subject, George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr's - Ferris Wheel, both authors have their own writing style and POV. Let's compare these two verses.
Mr. Ferris And His Wheel: "Below, more cars were loaded, and after the people had gone two times around and had twenty glorious airborne minutes in motion, powerful brakes brought the wheel to a whisper-soft stop. When the conductor called out "All out!" everyone begged to go around again." Kathryn Gibbs Davis
Kathryn gives the experience of the ride from the passenger's point of view. There's an excitement brewing from within the cabins from the riders and from those waiting on the ground.
George Ferris' Grand Idea: "Finally, on June 11, the Ferris Wheel was ready for a test run. It had taken six months to build. Even though many people were scared it would crash, George's wife, Margaret was brave. She gladly volunteered to be one of the first passengers. It took 20 minutes for the wheel to make two full revolutions, the length of the ride. Margaret was happy that her husband's dream had come true."
In Glatzer's version, she gives the experience of the ride from George's wife's point of view. This was a neat way to "show" the family support George received.
Both biographies were about ONE event in George's life to write about. Neither was a cradle to grave biography. We're not told what George did after the World's Fair or if he had children and lived to be an old man. These types of biographies are popular in children's literature and are my favorite to read.
I enjoyed both versions of this story and the lovely illustrations that take one back in time. These books remind me that there's more than one way to tell a story and we don't have to worry if someone else has already told "our" story because it's impossible. We bring our own lived experiences, imagination, and processes to our writing, making it uniquely ours!