Why do you write children’s books? It’s pretty clear Barbara Rosenstock does because she loves history and people. Two perfect interests for someone who writes picture book biographies. Whether writing about historical figures from the past or modern figures from more recent times, Rosenstock brings the stories of her characters to life for her young audience through her writing. She’s a multiple award winning author. Her book, The Noisy Paint Box, with illustrator Mary GrandPré, is a 2015 Caldecott Honor book.
Narrative Nonfiction vs. Historical Fiction
Narrative nonfiction uses a classic plot structure and storytelling techniques - a beginning, middle and end; a story arc, scenes, dialogue - all based on accurate, verifiable evidence. It is possible to use creative storytelling to tell a true story.
Historical fiction uses the author’s imagination to invent or reinvent characters, scenes and dialogue to tell a fictional story based on real people, a true event or time period.
In Fearless: The Story of Racing Legend Louise Smith, Rosenstock brings to readers a little known part of American race car history, the story of the first competitive female race car driver. Rev up your engines! This story is action packed and inspirational for free spirited, daring girls who follow their dreams.
The Noisy Paint Box is the story of the Russian abstract artist Vasya Kandinsky. The events are true, but the dialogue is imagined by the author. It paints a story with words that speak to our senses.
The Heartbeat of a Story
In addition to the bones of a story – a beginning, middle, and end – a picture book biography must also have a heartbeat. The story is, after all, about a person. And it’s important for the biographer to know how a young audience will connect to their subject’s life, experiences and or achievements to the larger human condition. The answer to this question is vital: Why does this person’s contribution to the world matter? Rosenstock's books are great examples to show how she focused her writing to do just that. For example:
In 1814 the British burned the Washington D.C. capitol and Thomas Jefferson’s books from his personal library rebuilt the Library of Congress.
“Thomas Jefferson learned to read. And then, he never stopped.” - Thomas Jefferson Builds A Library
President Teddy Roosevelt left Washington D. C. to go camping in Yosemite with California naturalist John Muir. That trip inspired the campaign to protect and preserve the nation’s wilderness through the establishment of our National Parks.
“Teedie and Johnnie didn’t have much in common – but they shared a love of the outdoors. They both loved a good story, too. And that was enough to change America.”- The Camping Trip That Changed America
In one interview, Rosenstock talks about the struggle to find the focus of her story about Dorothea Lange. Although she felt Dorothea was an interesting character, she couldn’t find the hook for kids. Then she listened to an interview where Lange talked about ‘seeing’ and it clicked.
Rosenstock realized the focus should be about "...an unseen little girl who observes the world and using a camera, creates art with her eyes and heart. Will there ever be another Dorothea Lange? No. But are there children on the planet today whose unique way of seeing could someday create art that helps others? Yes. Yes. Yes.” - Barbara Rosenstock
“Dorothea opens her grey-green eyes. They are special eyes. They see what others miss…” - Dorothea’s Eyes
See Barbara Rosenstock’ s YouTube Channel book trailers for more about how she hooks readers so they long to learn more about the people she writes about.
Picture book biographies are typically written as birth to death stories or are focused on a key event in the subject’s life.
In Vincent Can’t Sleep, Rosenstock used lyrical language and imagery, to tell the life story of Vincent Van Gogh and his insomnia to show how he created his art.
Ben Franklin’s Big Splash: The Mostly True Story of His First Invention is the fictionalized story of a young Benjamin Franklin. His curiosity about why fish swim better than humans led to Ben's first invention, fins. That experience inspired a lifelong passion in Franklin.
Back matter differs from book to book and adds in-depth historically and or culturally relevant context to a story. It allows writers to include interesting information important to a person’s life that doesn’t fit in the narrative arc of a 32 or 40 page book.
The extensive back matter in Streak: How Joe DiMaggioBecame America’s Hero, takes up all 4 pages on 2 spreads. It includes an author’s note, statistics, source notes for quotations, newspaper headlines, a bibliography, articles, websites, and additional sources and acknowledgments. The amount of information provided is a testament to the exhaustive research Rosenstock conducted to write this story.
Rosenstock found the inspiration for her books when reading an obituary in the dentist office, on a research trip for another book idea, and from one line in a book about the Bible. In her SCBWI artist statement she wrote, “By writing and presenting on true events, historical people and reverberations through history, I hope to give children and their parents or teachers a sense of their importance to the world’s story as well as to inspire the future. History is important. Our individual stories make up history.”
Barbara Rosenstock's books are a must read for anyone interested in writing a picture book biography.
Author's note: More about Barb
! She was born on April Fools’ Day.
! As a child she felt 2 was a soft, baby number, 4 was insanely organized
and 6 was just plain mean and nasty.
! She’s published with Mary GrandPré, illustrator of the Harry Potter books.
! She likes animals, has two poodles and hundreds of poodle figurines.
! Her favorite dessert is vanilla bean ice cream with fresh strawberries
! She worked in advertising and education before becoming a writer.
Happy reading research!