||Lives for Children - Frieda Wishinsky speaks with Sydell Waxman
by Frieda Wishinsky
Many children are dragged, moaning and groaning, to the biography shelves, by a school assignment. Ask any librarian and that's what you'll hear.
Why? After all, many of the same elements that attract children or adults to any good story are present in biographies. They tell about fascinating people who have led intriguing, often dramatic, lives. Many of these people have changed the course of world events.
Yet, despite that, children view biographies with about as much relish as they view a plate of broccoli.
But a biography, like broccoli, doesn't have to be bland or boring. If well presented, it can have the same elements that inspire us to read any good story: fascinating plot, believable character, problems and resolutions.
Many biographies present readers primarily with facts. Sometimes the facts are so dense and disconnected, they overwhelm the story. Often there isn't even a story, just dates and accomplishments. What child, or adult, can relate to that?
Writers like Sydell Waxman understand the problem. They know that you have to reach beyond facts to write a lively book for young people. They recognize that you have to use dynamic techniques like storytelling to fashion facts into a compelling narrative.
Waxman used all these tools to shape her first book, Changing The Pattern: The Life Of Emily Stowe, for readers in grade five and up.
Written in clear, crisp sentences, Changing The Pattern, published this spring by Napoleon, follows the tumultuous life story of Stowe (1831-1903), who was the first practising Canadian woman doctor .
Why Emily Stowe?
"I loved the time of history in which Emily lived," Waxman explains, "and I loved her courage to do something that had never been done before and for which the backlash was enormous. She had this direct, clear thinking that enabled her to see things far ahead of her time."
The era in which Stowe grew up and worked, the mid to late 1800s, was a time of great change. The industrial revolution was in full swing and some women were reconsidering their traditional roles. The suffragist movement was in its infancy. Women like Stowe made an enormous impact on their time and opened doors for those who came after.
But Waxman's path to Emily Stowe was neither immediate nor straightforward. It began when she was a child reading the biography of another pioneer nurse, Florence Nightingale. In her she discovered a strong, courageous role model: a woman who ventured into an area women had never tried before. Yearning to read biographies of other famous women, she combed the shelves of her library, but found few that were for children-especially about Canadian women.
In the 1960s, Waxman, now a young married woman, heard Betty Friedan discuss her book The Feminine Mystique. Although she found her an inspiring speaker, she realized that Friedan wasn't the first person to talk about changing women's roles. "The media said Friedan had invented this way of thinking but it wasn't true," says Waxman. "Feminist thought had started and was very active during the late 1800s. There were people, like Emily Stowe, who had struggled earlier with the very same issues. But I wondered why we didn't know about them. Why have they not been publicized? Why does a person like Friedan come along a generation later, and we think she's invented the wheel?"
A women's studies course in university was the next propelling event. This led Waxman to the excellent Women's Resource Centre at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. There she read about other Canadian women, including Emily Stowe. She was immediately drawn to Stowe and her story. "Emily acted out my own struggles on a larger stage and in a more difficult time," she says.
That interest led her to research Stowe for three magazine articles, published in Canada and the United States, and subsequently to write this book for young readers. With each new stage came more research, new discoveries about Stowe's life, and a broader awareness of the turbulent times in which she lived.
But research is only one part of the task of organizing biographical information into a cohesive, readable, engaging story. Writers soon realize that real lives don't follow the traditional paths of a story. They don't proceed with an orderly beginning, middle, and end, with an exciting climax and a tidy resolution. Real lives often take strange twists and turns and don't always end with a clear-cut resolution. As the well-known children's book author Katherine Paterson puts it: "That's the trouble with real life. It tends to be deficient when it comes to offering up adequate plots."
Yet as a writer you have to focus your tale, so the reader isn't distracted by too much information and pulled in multiple directions. As a writer you have to edit a life while keeping its essence. And it's not always easy or clear how to achieve this delicate balance. Sometimes it's like walking a tightrope.
For the story of Emily Stowe's life, Waxman discovered her theme and focus in the concept of a changing pattern. And the symbol of that pattern became a quilt. She and the book designer, Pamela Kinney, carefully threaded the quilt motif all through the book, linking past and present.
What made them choose this particular approach? "The material dictated the format," says Waxman. "It was a developmental process, not predetermined."
And in a collaboration that's unusual for illustrated books, her text changed with the designer's early input.
"We needed something to say what Emily's life meant, what impact she had in a few words that could focus the whole story," she explains.
After watching a quilting display, Kinney was inspired to add quilt patterns to the layout. Waxman felt that quilts and the idea of a changing pattern should also reverberate in the text. Her challenge was to figure out how to integrate an illustrative concept into a story of a real life. At first unsure, she soon found that quilting and patterns were a natural link in the story of a woman who changed the pattern of her life. Excitedly she called her publisher. "I told her I knew it would work," she says. "I liked the concrete quality of the quilt and its natural historical importance in the lives of women."
Now came other aspects of the book, such as chapter divisions and titles. Waxman turned each of the text's pages into a mini-chapter, complete with its own title. Sidebars, describing related events, individuals, ideas, and outlooks were added, as well as drawings and archival photographs. The final book is designed to work on many levels: as a story, as a source of historical information, and as a book that can be read in one sitting or dipped into in many.
It's obvious that Stowe's determination in the face of ridicule and opposition has made a strong impact on her new biographer. Waxman hopes to share that impact with young readers who are just beginning to weave the pattern of their own lives.