My volunteer gig takes place at Leo Politi Elementary school, which is named after the famous children’s book author. The students are primarily Hispanic and Latino. Most of the books we read are about people who don’t look like us. But every month, we connect with fantastic stories and lose ourselves in fiction and nonfiction.
My favorite tales to share with the kids are the biographies. It amazes me how, time after time, we can read a book about a person born centuries ago and a half a world away from Downtown Los Angeles, and the children are completely fascinated and intrigued by their story. Sometimes the kids even share how they plan to extend the concepts explored in these stories in their own lives.
As I worked on my own picture book biography, TAKE A PICTURE OF ME, JAMES VANDERZEE, I thought a lot about my Saturday reading club kids. How could a seven-year-old relate to the struggles of an elderly portrait photographer in Harlem? While James VanDerZee’s story fascinated me, how could I get that enthusiasm across to children?
The answer came from my own childhood.
“An angel!” I thought, “Someone went through the trouble to create an angel who looked just like me!” I had to know who took that photo. And, more importantly, why he made it. That is when I first saw the name “James VanDerZee”.
Years later, as I read stacks of books and articles on the life of James VanDerZee, I found myself falling deeper into admiration and adoration for this man whose life seemed to be motivated by a love of beauty and the beauty of love. But when first I tried to share all that beauty, love, and joy in prose — what a mess!
In my early drafts of the book, I focused on the milestones of his life — his first camera, his first photography jobs, his first marriage, etc. But James lived for 96 years. Soon I found myself overwhelmed by a pile of disconnected events spanning over a century! My poor manuscript became something between an obituary and a Wikipedia entry. Yuck! That wasn’t what I wanted to share at all.
So instead of focusing so much on WHAT had happened, I focused more on HOW James VanDerZee felt about the events in his life. And that’s how I discovered my specific narrative within his complete life story.
While I found James VanDerZee’s artistic esthetic to be unique and charming, I was inspired by how the obstacles and defeats he faced never seemed to dim his sunny outlook. His life was filled with tragedy — he’d outlived his entire family and two of his wives. Some of his siblings and both of his own children perished before adulthood. He faced staggering losses in his career, saw his many of his greatest hopes and dreams “pop like soap bubbles”, and yet, he came back from each adversity with a chuckle and a smile.
In fact, the more I read about his life, the clearer it became that his cheerful disposition was deeply connected to the disappointments in his life. He’d spent so much time finding the sunny side of bad situations, it became an essential element of his character. And his personal character shines through every picture in his life’s work.
So in my telling of James VanDerZee’s story, I decided to focus on his resiliency, perseverance, and optimism. I found that these simple emotional qualities could resonate with many readers — including second graders.
The emotional journey of a character is important in any story, but especially in a biography or historical account. Facts can tell us what happened, but the emotional journey of the character addresses HOW it happened or WHY. This crucial element of the narrative can open a portal into history and invite us into the experiences, thoughts, and feelings of people long gone.
Then we are no longer just watching history — we’re immersed in it. Then we’re experiencing it and reliving it along with the original participants. Once we take history into our own hearts and minds, it can become a part of us and a part of our own stories.
If my second graders are any indication, I’m pretty sure it already has.