Writers and Real Estate

I’ve been thinking about Betsy Bird’s excellent Fuse #8 entry entitled, “The Nuanced Picture Book Biography,” (Sept. 6, 2016). In it, she raises the question, “Are [picture book biographies] capable of showing several sides of an individual or are they, by definition, only able to show the good sides of their subjects and never the bad?”

People are, of course, nuanced. All people. Living, dead; famous, obscure; good, bad. (I hesitate to even use those terms because they lack…nuance.) It’s pretty hard to write a story that inspires emulation of a real person that is comprehensive, honest, and nuanced.

Betsy refers to bio subjects’ “less than stellar qualities” and their “personal failings.” I call these simply “problem areas,” meaning topics that may or may not be within the grasp of understanding and interest for the child-reader (the primary audience) and topics that may or may not cause outrage/discomfort for the secondary audience (parents, teacher, librarians). The “less than stellar qualities” that crop up (or are left out) in the books Betsy examines are drug addiction, sex, infidelity, mental illness, and flim-flamming. What a list!

And her conclusion is that it’s the purpose of the picture book that makes these topics problematic. She writes “…[picture books] are also, by their very design, meant to inspire as well as inform.  If you take away that initial intent, do you do harm to the form itself?”

I’m going to throw something else into the pot to stir around. What about the form of the picture book, rather than the purpose of it as the limiting factor? The form is: short and…well...to state the obvious…illustrated. Don’t those two aspects of the form create challenges for the creators of picture book biographies in terms of what is deemed “problematic”? Complex issues, by their very nature, require space on the page. (I call it “real estate.”) Picture books have a very limited amount of real estate. How much real estate will you devote to one aspect of your subject, recognizing that your decision affects the amount of real estate left for other (more important?) aspects of the character?

And what will the pictures show? Picture book illustrators are allowed to go abstract or go off-text, but still, there must be an image that in some way strengthens the words on the page. What will those words be and how will the illustrator work with them in the pictures?

When I was writing (and then revising and revising and revising) The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon, there were so many topics that fell into the problematic basket. His illegitimate birth; his de facto desertion of his wife and children (whom he loved dearly) to follow his artistic dream and ambitions; his tendency to exaggerate to the point of out-and-out lying.

Because the story I was telling was extremely limited (one year in the life of a teenage boy), I was able to avoid most of these “problem areas” without compromising the integrity of the history I was telling. (But did I do enough to create a truthful and nuanced portrait of the main character?)

However, the thing that tripped me up the most was how to handle the fact that Audubon (as a boy, young man, and adult) killed thousands of birds. That in a single day, he might shoot and kill up to three hundred birds. That he carried a gun every time he went outside.

Audubon loved birds. He devoted his life to studying them, painting them, writing about them, teaching about them. He genuinely revered birds, and yet saw nothing contradictory in killing them by the score to learn about them, understand them, and capture them in his paintings. His dream was to share the beauty and wonder of birds—and to do that, he had to kill a whole slew of ’em.

I tried. I really did. I tried to find a way to explain to twenty-first century, animal loving, conservation aware child-readers how he could do this. But there wasn’t enough real estate. If I devoted enough space on the page to explain fully why he killed so many birds, there wasn’t room to talk about his contribution to scientific theory, or the complicated relationship he had with his father, or his isolation in America. Nuance can’t be conveyed quickly. It takes space. The picture book form doesn’t provide the luxury of space.

And pictures? Well, it’s problematic to show a teenage boy carrying a long rifle, as Audubon would have every time he left the house. Again, the form (sometimes) works against nuance. More, I would argue, even than the purpose of the picture book.

Do I think we (writers of picture book biographies) should stop trying? No! The opposite. We have to redouble our efforts. We have to get better at doing what we do. If I were writing The Boy Who Drew Birds today, I might do it differently. I might be a better writer now than I was then, and so I might be able to figure out how to include this “problem” in a way that would make sense to today’s child-reader.

I think about it often. Sometimes, the decisions you make in your books haunt you.