What Gets Left Out

Jen Bryant
Jen Bryant

In my three decades as a pro­fes­sion­al author, I’ve writ­ten about many intrigu­ing, accom­plished peo­ple: the Wyeth fam­i­ly of artists, painter Geor­gia O’Keeffe, abo­li­tion­ist Lucre­tia Mott, author Peter Mark Roget, poets William Car­los Williams and Mar­i­anne Moore, self-taught artist Horace Pip­pin, inven­tor Louis Braille, and most recent­ly Pulitzer Prize-win­ning play­wright August Wil­son. In every case, I’ve focused my research on the words and the work of the sub­ject them­selves and have cre­at­ed what I hope are poet­ic and acces­si­ble books about these impor­tant men and women for young readers.

When I choose a bio­graph­i­cal top­ic (or rather, when the top­ic choos­es ME, as it more often seems to do!) it’s because I’m fas­ci­nat­ed about the details of the person’s life, their strug­gles, tri­umphs, dis­cov­er­ies, and, yes, their fail­ures. Fas­ci­nat­ed to the point of obses­sion, which is a GOOD thing, because all of these peo­ple have BIG lives which require months and months of research to com­pre­hend. They have friends, fam­i­lies, pets, col­leagues, jobs, and schools. Many of them excel in mul­ti­ple fields. The The­saurus author Peter Mark Roget, for exam­ple, was a physi­cian, a pub­lic health advo­cate, a math­e­mati­cian (he invent­ed a slide rule and a portable chess set), an expert in optics and botany. The blind inven­tor Louis Braille was a gift­ed organ­ist who was hired by some of the largest church­es in Paris. Geor­gia O’Keeffe held teach­ing posi­tions in var­i­ous schools before she found her spir­i­tu­al home in the desert of New Mexico.

But you won’t find most of those details in the books I wrote. In research­ing every life sto­ry, there are inevitably dozens of peo­ple, events, and achieve­ments that must be left out. That is hard! When an author uncov­ers an inter­est­ing tid­bit or an as-of-yet-unknown aspect of her subject’s life, her impulse is to write it all down and dis­play it like a shiny object on the long shelf of the book’s narrative.

How­ev­er … part of being a pic­ture book biog­ra­ph­er is zero­ing in on just one or two threads of the subject’s life, and twist­ing them togeth­er in a lyri­cal way so that young read­ers get a clear, sharp sense of the per­son. Too many details mud­dy the waters, and there­fore it’s not uncom­mon for chunks of care­ful­ly researched and writ­ten text to be left out of the final man­u­script (but often these CAN be includ­ed, albeit in a less lyri­cal way, in the back mat­ter of the book.)

The Right WordOne good exam­ple is a scene I wrote into the nar­ra­tive of The Right Word: Roget and his The­saurus (Eerd­mans, 2014, illus­trat­ed by Melis­sa Sweet). When Peter Roget grad­u­at­ed med­ical school, he was only 17 years old — too young to become a pro­fes­sion­al doc­tor. He need­ed to fill a few years with oth­er activ­i­ties while he matured. So he took a posi­tion as a lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture tutor to two teenage sons of a wealthy Scot­tish busi­ness­man. Roget’s job was to trav­el with them through France and Switzer­land, help­ing them to learn the cus­toms, lan­guages, geog­ra­phy, etc.

This sounds like a lot of fun, but it was also the time of the Napoleon­ic Wars between France and Eng­land, and Roget’s age and nation­al­i­ty made him vul­ner­a­ble to cap­ture and con­scrip­tion. At one point, Roget and his young charges were trapped in a man­sion in Switzer­land, with no appar­ent way to escape. With the help of a flir­ta­tious and well-con­nect­ed Swiss count­ess, Roget and the boys were able to trav­el at night, dis­guised, through the city where they were stay­ing and on into Ger­many, where they caught a ship and sailed safe­ly back to the U.K.

Fun stuff to research and to write about — and it cer­tain­ly would have been a LOT of fun for Melis­sa Sweet to illus­trate! The prob­lem was that it just didn’t move the cen­ter of the sto­ry for­ward in any help­ful way, a fact that was point­ed out to me by EBYR edi­tor Kath­leen Merz. She was absolute­ly right. The threads of the Roget nar­ra­tive were all about LANGUAGE — how it could be col­lect­ed, savored, shared and used by any­one every­where, and how a shy, obses­sive young man made it his mis­sion to try and cat­a­logue lan­guage and ideas in a sin­gle, prac­ti­cal book. This scene was a side adven­ture, and despite its dra­mat­ic details, was an unnec­es­sary part of the text. We took it out (but it is not­ed in the time­line in the back mat­ter) and that deci­sion made the final book bet­ter than it would have been otherwise.

Feed Your MindWith my lat­est book, I want kids to learn about, and to love, August Wil­son. That’s my goal.

There is so much that gets left out, and yet all of that oth­er research informs the book some­how and makes it rich­er: he had old­er sis­ters and younger broth­ers, and friends and room­mates, he joined the Army for a while, he had a deep father-son-like friend­ship with direc­tor Lloyd Richards, he was mar­ried three times and had two daugh­tersall of that will be includ­ed, I’m sure, in a com­pre­hen­sive adult biog­ra­phy of August Wil­son. I believe a the­ater crit­ic is work­ing on one to be pub­lished in the future.

And much of that is list­ed in the back mat­ter of my book, but it’s not the focus. The focus is on how did Fred­dy find his voice, and how did he teach him­self to write plays.

So — I’m com­ing from it through my own love of lan­guage, my own curios­i­ty about the cre­ative process. This is what I’ve done with sev­en oth­er pic­ture book biogra­phies (O’Keeffe, Mes­si­aen, Moore, William Car­los Williams, Pip­pin, Roget, Braille, about cre­ative peo­ple and one nov­el (Pieces of Geor­gia).

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Marta Magellan
4 years ago

It’s good to hear from a pro about some­thing I’ve just start­ed doing (PB biogra­phies). Thank you.

Joyce Sidman
4 years ago

Jen, so inter­est­ing to here these back­ground sto­ries to your writ­ing process. Your books are won­der­ful avenues into fas­ci­nat­ing lives!

April Halprin Wayland
4 years ago

Thank you, Jen ~ so well explained. (PS the non­fic­tion pan­el you were on at USIBBY in Austin was the stand­out of the con­fer­ence for me);

April Halprin Wayland
Reply to  April Halprin Wayland
4 years ago

Oops…I meant USBBY /IBBY