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Find more The Booklist Top of the List Interview
Russell Freedman has been setting the standard for nonfiction for more than 50 years. His first book, Teenagers Who Made History, was published in 1961. Since then, he has been awarded the Newbery Medal for Lincoln: A Photobiography (1988), the Sibert Award for The Voice That Challenged a Nation: Marian Anderson and the Struggle for Equal Rights (2005), and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for his body of work, among many, many other honors. Booklist recently asked Freedman about Becoming Ben Franklin: How a Candle-Maker’s Son Helped Light the Flame of Liberty, Booklist’s Top of the List—Youth Nonfiction winner, and how his writing process has changed over the years.
Books for youth about Ben Franklin are not in short supply. Why did you decide to write about him?
FREEDMAN: My interest in writing about Franklin began with an anecdote I happened to read about an athletic young man on an eighteenth-century sailing ship, heading back to America from his first trip to England. As the ship catches the wind and heads out to sea, he amuses himself and astounds his fellow passengers by diving off, swimming around the ship, and then climbing cheerfully back onboard. What a character! This was not the portly, balding, bespectacled old fellow I had always imagined, smiling faintly from so many book jackets. Between his adventures as a 17-year-old runaway apprentice and his joie de vivre as a voluble octogenarian who worked out daily with barbells, Ben Franklin led an amazing life that I wanted to explore for my own satisfaction and ultimately share with my readers. He was the most accomplished, complex, and entertaining of the Founding Fathers. Actually, the question should be: Why did I wait so long to write about him?
Years ago, when my biography of Abraham Lincoln was published, people kept asking why I chose to write about him when there were already more books about Lincoln than about any other American. I sometimes replied by asking how many members of my audience were eager to read a biography of President James Buchanan. One day a hand shot up. “What attracts you to James Buchanan?” I asked. “He was one of my ancestors” came the reply, “my great-great-great-uncle.”
Of course, every life is unique and interesting in its own way, but only a few exert a lasting impact on future generations. Because of their legacies, Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin are significant ancestors of us all, and their lives and example offer an enduring meaning to each new generation.
Of all Franklin’s many facets, which are the ones that you find most interesting? Which are the ones that you think contemporary kids will relate to most easily?
FREEDMAN: Franklin’s youthful ambition to become “a tolerable English writer,” his method of improving his writing style by scrambling essays from The Spectator and then rewriting them, and his lifelong efforts to practice and polish his craft are facets of his character that are close to my heart. “Writing,” he wrote, “has been of great use to me in the course of my life.”
His scientific experiments and useful inventions must surely speak to today’s tech-savvy youngsters. Franklin’s electrical experiments, especially, reveal an inquiring mind, an insatiable curiosity, and a resolute personal courage that would express itself later on the political scene. Flying a kite in a thunderstorm may be entertaining to read about, but let’s not forget that a Swedish scientist, not as fortunate as Franklin, was electrocuted while carrying out similar experiments.
You’ve written many books about the Revolutionary period. What draws you back to it? Are there any other figures or events of that period that you’d like to write about?
FREEDMAN: I’ve found that by concentrating on a certain historical period, I gain a deeper understanding of the personalities and events involved and expand my ability to make meaningful connections. The Revolutionary period is populated by some memorable figures, animated by a struggle that lends itself to narrative history, and informed by an idealistic vision that America has been striving to realize ever since. Evidenced by the recent avalanche of adult books on the Revolution, it seems an inexhaustible subject, one that I may return to in the future.
I’ve also written a number of books about the civil rights movement and about Native American history. However, I have never wanted to be locked into a specialty. One of the great pleasures of my work is that I have the freedom to write about any subject that interests me and that I think will interest my readers, and my biographical subjects span the centuries and continents from Confucius to Martha Graham.
There are some fascinating images in the book. How involved were you in choosing the artwork?
FREEDMAN: Images are an essential part of my books, amplifying and illuminating the text. I do my own picture research, select the images I want to include, and present them as a package to my editor and book designer with whom I work closely. Each image is keyed to a specific section of the text. Ideally, that image should appear on the same double-page spread as its textual reference, so the reader’s eyes can move back and forth from the words to the picture. I also write the picture captions. I like to think of the text and images as a kind of counterpoint in which the words say something that isn’t evident in the pictures, and the pictures reveal something that words can’t express.
Not long ago, picture research meant traveling to libraries, museums, and historical societies all over the country, putting your hands in the files, wearing white gloves as you examined fading photographs and fragile transparencies. I often spent days at a time in the Prints and Photographs Reading Room of the Library of Congress, which later became one of the first institutions to digitize its picture collection. Most major collections today are substantially digitized, and a researcher can access and order reproduction images of every imaginable kind from sources all over the world without leaving the computer.
Since you began writing nonfiction there’s been a revolution in ways that research is conducted. How has your process evolved as online sources have become available? Can you walk us through your research process?
FREEDMAN: Except for picture research, my research process still depends primarily on old-fashioned books. Books by reputable scholars and historians provide the depth, breadth, vision, and authenticity that are not necessarily available online. I begin with a few recent, authoritative books that will offer an overview of my subject, such as the Franklin biographies cited in my bibliography. Guided by references, notes, and bibliographies in those books, I begin to work my way back in time, concentrating on memoirs, autobiographies, letters, and firsthand contemporary accounts in newspapers, periodicals, broadsides and other primary materials. This process led me to Franklin’s autobiography, from which I quote extensively. I went online to access details about Franklin’s experiments with heat absorption; the text of his anonymous satire, “Rules by Which a Great Empire May be Reduced to a Small One”; the text of his pamphlet “A Narrative of the Late Massacre”; and the text of the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War.
If my subject is not too distant in time, I try to interview people who have some firsthand knowledge of the people and events I’m writing about. For my biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, for example, I was able to interview two of her grandchildren who grew up in the White House during FDR’s presidency, and for my Martha Graham biography, I interviewed some of her former dancers and associates. Also while working on a book, I try to visit some of the places where the events take place. My Franklin research took me to Benjamin Franklin House in the heart of London, a terraced Georgian house near Trafalgar Square, where Franklin lived for 16 years as an agent of the Pennsylvania Assembly. Now a museum, it is Franklin’s only surviving home. I also visited several Franklin-related sites in Paris, where he spent 9 years as American commissioner to the French court, winning French support for the American Revolution and signing the Treaty of Paris at the Hotel d’York, which stands today.
One afternoon, I had lunch at Le Procope, established in 1686 and little changed since it was a favorite gathering place for Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Paul Jones, and other American as well as French notables. As I drank in the historic atmosphere along with my glass of Sancerre, I could imagine Ben in his element as a sociable bon vivant—sitting over there, perhaps, at that table beneath an oval portrait of Voltaire, raising a glass with his companions, telling jokes, singing songs. “I find I love company, a chat, a laugh, a glass, and even a song, as well as ever,” he told a friend.
How has the place of nonfiction in youth literature changed recently, and where do you see it going?
FREEDMAN: I’ve found that nonfiction attracts a certain kind of reader. Some youngsters are drawn to history and biography just as others are devoted to fantasy or passionate about science fiction. I was aware of this predilection long ago as a fifth-grader in San Francisco engrossed in the pages of Hendrik Van Loon’s The Story of Mankind, and I recognize it now when I hear from kids who identify themselves as history buffs. Nonfiction books for young readers are more inviting today than ever before for a variety of reasons that have been widely noted, and they probably attract more readers than ever. It takes just one compelling book to convert a youngster into a lifelong reader of nonfiction. And if the Common Core has anything to say about it, nonfiction books of literary merit with a distinct author’s voice and point of view will earn an increasingly important place in the school curriculum.
What are you working on now?
FREEDMAN: I am just completing a book about the 54-mile Selma to Montgomery civil rights march that led to the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. Tentatively titled The March That Changed America, it will be published by Holiday House in the fall of 2014. And I am starting work on a book for Clarion about the White Rose resistance movement in Germany during WWII, made up of a secret group of students who defied Hitler and the Nazi government and paid with their lives. It is scheduled for publication in 2015.
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