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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | diary

In Her Own Words:
The Impact of Personal Accounts on Biography

I admit it. I am a history nerd.

Like all biographers, I am fascinated by the past. I love learning about the world of long ago: what people wore, what they ate, the jobs they had, the wars they fought.  And nothing thrills me more when I am researching than to discover a firsthand account, a personal writing … a primary source.

How do firsthand accounts help biographers? Here are some examples.

Biographers put their readers “in the moment’ when they use a subject’s own words.

Bold Women of MedicineIn her book, Bold Women of Medicine, author Susan Latta describes the filthy, rat infested hospital Florence Nightingale encountered when she treated soldiers during the Crimean War. Latta details these desperate conditions for her readers, infusing her description with Florence Nightingale’s own words from letters written at the time:

“We have not a basin nor a towel nor a bit of soap nor a broom—I have ordered 300 scrubbing brushes … one half of the Barrack is so sadly out of repair that it is impossible to use a drop of water on the stone floors, which are all laid upon rotten wood, and would give our men fever in no time … I am getting a screen now for the amputations … “

When Latta includes this candid account in her writing, she makes readers sit up and take notice. There is no disputing how awful things were. Nightingale’s own words make the conditions real.

Biographers use personal writings to get a glimpse into their subject’s personality, which helps with the portrayal of the subject.

In my book, Aim for the Skies, I tell the story of an air race between two women, Jerrie Mock and Joan Merriam Smith, in the 1960’s. Because the 1960’s are fairly recent history, I was able to find a great deal of information about the race—from both primary and secondary sources—when I conducted my research. But I wanted more. I wanted to know the pilots. What were they really like? What made them tick?

Three-Eight CharlieJerrie Mock’s autobiography, Three Eight Charlie, gave me the insight I desired.  It gave me a much needed glimpse into Jerrie’s personality. Newspaper accounts portrayed Jerrie as business-like and capable, which she was, but passages from her autobiography revealed more. Not surprisingly, Jerrie had a keen competitive nature:

“I had just kept quiet about the burned-out motor, so that no one would try to stop me. And since I couldn’t maintain radio contact all of the time, I was careful to stay clear of clouds, so I wouldn’t run into another plane. I didn’t know how far back Joan Smith might be, and I didn’t intend to lose a race around the world because of a stupid burned out motor.”

But she also was vulnerable and second guessed herself at times:

“I didn’t like to admit it, but I was nervous. There must have been an overcast, because I couldn’t see any stars. There was no moon either. The soft red glow from the instrument lights was a solitary pool of light in the black night. Outside, Charlie’s three navigation lights and bright, flashing-red beacon would be burning in the empty sky. But they weren’t where I could see them. I felt terribly alone … I said a prayer. Lots of prayers.”

As I researched, I discovered articles authored by Joan Merriam Smith, too. In those writings, Joan provided her own—sometimes very different—account of the race.  Talk about interesting! It was apparent from all these personal writings that Jerrie and Joan were two smart, feisty women.

Biographers use personal writings to reveal the flavor of the times. 

Miss Colfax's LightAs a biographer, getting a sense of the era and my subject’s place in it may be my favorite thing about personal accounts. That certainly was the case with Harriet Colfax, the lighthouse keeper I wrote about in Miss Colfax’s Light.

As part of her lighthouse keeping duties, Harriet Colfax had to keep a daily log. Harriet’s log entries were a treasure trove of information about her life, her work, and the dangers of Great Lakes shipping in the late 1800’s. They were full of Harriet’s musings—and occasional complaints. I read through decades of Harriet’s log entries, ultimately coming to the conclusion that the refrain I used in the book of “I can do this,” was something Harriet definitely would have repeated over and over.

In addition to providing great facts, though, Harriet’s log entries showcased the language of the day: traditional words and phrases, and an overall formality.  A number of log entries are included in the book so young readers can get a sense of how differently people spoke in the late 1800’s.

Miss Colfax's Light

Miss Colfax's Light

Personal accounts allow biographers to add richness and authenticity to their work. They provide a true sense of a subject’s view of the world. They provide historical facts and context. All of which makes the biographer’s job easier.

And, let’s face it, personal accounts are just plain fun to read.

They are a little gift to the history nerd in all of us. 

Tips for Students

How can students learn to mine the rich territory of a firsthand account (and experience the thrill biographers get when they are lucky enough to discover such a source)? Here are some questions students and teachers can ask that will help them glean more than just the facts:

  1. What was the writer’s purpose for writing this personal account? Does this purpose make you think the writing is more or less truthful?
  2. What historical facts does the writer include in the personal account? How is the writer’s world different from today? How is it the same?
  3. What do the language, grammar, and word usage in the personal account tell us about the writer? Was the writer poor, rich, well-educated?  
  4. If the writer is describing an event from history, why is the writer’s point of view important?
  5. What else can you tell about the writer from this personal account?

Bookstorm: Catherine, Called Birdy

Catherine Called Birdy Bookstorm

In this Bookstorm™:

Catherine, Called BirdyCatherine, Called Birdy

written by Karen Cushman
published by Clarion Books, 1994
Newbery Honor book

“Corpus Bones! I utterly loathe my life.”

Catherine feels trapped. Her father is determined to marry her off to a rich man–any rich man, no matter how awful. But by wit, trickery, and luck, Catherine manages to send several would-be husbands packing. Then a shaggy-bearded suitor from the north comes to call–by far the oldest, ugliest, most revolting suitor of them all. Unfortunately, he is also the richest. Can a sharp-tongued, high-spirited, clever young maiden with a mind of her own actually lose the battle against an ill-mannered, pig-like lord and an unimaginative, greedy toad of a father? Deus! Not if Catherine has anything to say about it!” 

Arranged Marriages. From the beginning of Catherine, Called Birdy, our heroine is aware that she will be married off to a man who can bring her father more land and more worldly goods, an alliance, something of monetary value. She is particularly determined not to let this happen. We recommend other books written for teens about arranged marriages. 

Birds. Catherine has many birdcages filled with winged friends in her bedroom. They bring her peace of mind and she treasures them. From true stories about birds, field guides, to alarm over the disappearance of songbirds, there are bird books to introduce to your readers. 

Crusades. With many eyes focused on the Middle East, it is likely that you’re finding interest in the history of the conflicts there. Catherine, Called Birdy is set at a time when religious and military warriors are returning to England from the Crusades. We recommend several excellent nobels and biographies set during this time. 

Embroidery. The women in Birdy’s home embroider. They couldn’t go out and buy ready-made clothes so the only way to make clothes prettier was to decorate them with patterns of thread. Does someone in your class already embroider? Will you schedule an embroidery demonstration for your classroom? You’ll find some books with patterns that will appeal to the crafters among your students. 

Fleas. Hygiene wasn’t as well-known in Birdy’s day. House were not as protected from the elements. Fleas were a fact of life. They caused personal discomfort but they also caused plagues and changed politics. Certainly there will be those students in your classroom who will be intrigued. 

Illuminated Manuscripts. Birdy’s brother works at a monastery where they are illuminating manuscripts. We recommend several websites that will help you demonstrate this forerunner of the printing press. 

Journals/Diaries. Catherine’s story is told in first person in the form of a diary she’s keeping. Many students are asked to keep journals. Here are several favorite books told in this format. 

Judaism: the Edict of Expulsion. Few people realize that Edward I ordered all Jews to leave England forever on July 18, 1290. Birdy meets a group of Jews who are departing and finds it hard to understand how they are any different than she and her family. We reference articles that will give more background on this topic. 

Medieval Life. Novels, picture books, and true stories for young readers have often been set in the medieval world. We offer suggestions for a number of them, ranging from Adam of the Road, published in 1943, to Stephen Biesty’s Cross-Sections Castle from 2013. 

Peerage and Nobility. Whether you’re fascinated by the titles used in England or you find them confusing, here are a few guides to enhance your students’ understanding. 

Saints Days. Birdy prefaces each of her journal entries with the reflection of a saint whose day was celebrated on that day. We’ve found a few references that will explain who these people were and why they became saints from an historical viewpoint. 

Women’s History/Coming of Age. At the heart of Birdy’s story is the fact that she is leaving childhood behind and becoming a young woman. We’ve included recommendations for books on this theme that include fictional and true stories over a wide span of years..

Techniques for using each book:



Gifted: The Matchbox Diary

When a young girl visits her great-grandfather for the first time, her imagination swirls with everything she sees in his antique shop. He asks her to pick out her favorite item and he will tell her a story about it. She chooses a cigar box filled with match boxes. As it turns out, this is […]