The author David Adler was interviewed by Scholastic students.
How do you choose the subject for a biography?
I write about people I think are interesting, and then I discuss it with my editor and she decides if she thinks it will be interesting to children as well. If I have no great interest in the subject, I find the work to be terribly boring. And if I find the person interesting, I love the research part and, by extension, the writing as well.
How do you research a subject's life or the time they lived?
I go to different sources depending on the person. One of my favorite things to do if I'm doing research about a person who lived 100 years ago is I get an encyclopedia from 100 years ago. I look up the place they lived in, and then I can find out what the place they lived in was like in. By reading an encyclopedia I have a 1906 encyclopedia, a 1911 encyclopedia. If I looked at a current encyclopedia, I couldn't find out what Milwaukee was like in 1905, but if I look at a 1905 encyclopedia, I can find that out! I try to go to newspapers of the time. And, of course, I go to books other biographies and other materials.
Do you use the Internet for any of your research?
I don't. I don't trust it. I don't know where it came from.
Have you ever found out something about one of your subjects that surprised you?
I have I don't really want to discuss it because I didn't put them in the books. But I find as I do more research, there are some subjects I like more and more and some I like less.
Should a biography always begin with when the subject was born?
My earlier biographies did, my more current ones often don't. It's important to begin a biography or any book or story with something to draw the reader in. Often, the day someone was born on isn't all that interesting. So, while my earlier books began that way, some of my later ones don't.
How do you write a biography which can be full of weighty facts and make it read like a good story?
Well, what I try to do is teach as much about the subject through incidents, rather than through a listing of facts. If I must list facts, the next paragraph will be an incident that is interesting, but is an example of one of the facts I just listed. Just a listing of facts is more of an encyclopedia article than a book. I also try to use the voice of the subject as much as possible using quotes. So, even if I don't tell the reader everything about the subject, I want the reader to know what the subject was like as a person. The reader may not know everything an inventor invented, but I want them to get a sense of what the person was really like.
Why did you choose to become an author?
I love to write. I used to be a math teacher. And I like the idea that other people could write about the same subjects, but no one would write it just the way I do. It's very individual a child could write the same story as somebody else, but it wouldn't come out the same.
How do you find out what a person you're researching looked like? What if you don't have access to photographs?
All the people I've worked on I think there are photographs or paintings of all of them. I think Christopher Columbus goes the farthest back, and I looked at engravings and etchings and paintings. But most of the people came from the 1700s forward, so there are photographs or paintings of most of them.
How closely do you work with the illustrators of your biographies?
I don't work closely with them at all. Susana Natti has worked on all of the Cam Jansen books, and I've never met her! I work on the manuscripts, and I send them to the editors, and they send it to the illustrator. And while the illustrator is working on that book, I'm working on another book.
How did you get started with the Cam Jansen series?
I just wrote the first one and sent it to a publisher and they said they wanted to do a whole series. For the first book, I based it on a boy I knew in first and second grade at school, whom we thought had a photographic memory. I based the first one or two stories on him, and then I based the next stories on those first books. The Andy Russell books are based on things that go on in my family. In the first Andy Russell, about 50 gerbils get loose that actually happened in my house. A snake got loose, too. In most households, that's a great calamity. Here it was a great calamity, but also the beginning of a new series.
Before, writing a biography, do you write a short biographical sketch?
I don't. It's in my head. I do an overview of the subject, but I don't write it out. I do that with my fiction I write a very detailed outline, but not generally with my nonfiction.
Do you plan to write some biographies of people who lived closer to present-day times?
I do have one scheduled of a 20th-century president, and I have one already written about someone who lived in the 20th century. I did one on Rosa Parks, who's still alive. I also did one on Gertrude Ederly, the first woman to swim the English Channel. She lives in New Jersey now. That's as current as I get. I don't plan on writing biographies of great sports stars who are still playing ball. But I did write one on Jackie Robinson, who was playing ball in the 20th century.
How long does it take you to write a biography? Have some taken longer than others?
Well, I just finished a biography that I worked on for almost two years. It's for older kids.
Some take longer than others, especially if it's someone who's not that familiar to me, such as Simón Bolívar. I had to do a lot of research on South American history. It's hard to say it depends on the person. I knew a lot about George Washington, so that didn't take as long. I didn't know as much about Sitting Bull, or Simón Bolívar so those took longer.
How do you deal with facts from different sources that conflict?
What I do now is I try to find what I think is the real fact by checking with autobiographies or with sources I consider reliable. Then I usually put a note in the back of the book explaining where I got the fact. So, if someone sees a conflicting fact elsewhere, at least they know where I got my fact.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up on Long Island, New York, in a big house, filled with brothers, sisters, and books. I had three brothers and two sisters.
Will you ever write your own autobiography?
I've already written it. It's called My Writing Day. It's a part of a series of autobiographies of children's authors. That book didn't take that long to research!
When deciding on a biography to write, do you try to pick people of diverse cultures?
Yes, I do. If you look at the list of people I've written about, there are men and women, all different races, and many different eras from the early 1700s forward. I think it's important for kids to be exposed to people from all different cultures, but it's also interesting for me to write about people from different backgrounds.
Do you have a favorite time period that you've researched and written about?
My favorite time period is the Depression era the time between the First and Second World Wars from the 1920s to the 1930s. I've done some biographies from that era, but I did a book of fiction, The Babe and I, which really deals with that era. I have a big collection of radio tapes from that era, which gets me into the mood to write about that time period.
How do you keep your research materials organized when writing a biography?
What I tend to do is I do the overview, and then I work on one chapter at a time, while I do the research. So, I research and write, research and write, so I don't end up with a huge amount of information that I have to incorporate into a book. I go one section at a time, writing as I research.
Of all of the people whose biography you have written, which one would you like to meet?
Benjamin Franklin, Lou Gehrig, Gertrude Ederly, Jesse Owens, Martin Luther King, Jr., and probably every other person I've written about! Helen Keller would also be fascinating to meet, and Eleanor Roosevelt if I had no interest in meeting these people, I wouldn't want to write about them.
What was your favorite subject in school?
Math. And history. But math was my favorite. I was a math teacher: I'm a licensed math and history teacher, and I taught math for nine years, and history for about half a year, until the school realized they needed a math teacher more than history teachers. I taught junior high school.
Is it ever difficult for you to write? If so, what do you do?
Sometimes the hardest time to write is generally Monday morning, so I usually schedule my speeches for Monday. So, then Sunday becomes hardest. When I have trouble beginning, I usually read what I've already written. So I start not by writing, but by rewriting so that warms me up and gets me ready for what I'll be writing as the day progresses.
Who were your favorite authors that you read when you were young?
Duane Decker he wrote some wonderful baseball stories about a fictional team called the Blue Sox. I loved the stories by Robert McCloskey. I liked some of the early Dr. Seuss stories Bartholomew and His 500 Hats and The Kings Stilts. And I liked to read biographies when I was young.
What do you think is the best thing about writing?
I think the best thing about writing not just professional but children too is that no one would say it the way we would. The child, myself we each have our own voice, and there's something very special about knowing that no one would do it exactly the same.
What do you think is the hardest thing about writing?
Starting a new book finding the voice of the story. I have some wonderful stories that I'm planning to write and I've tried to write, but I haven't found the voice, the tone. That's why series are sometimes easier, because I've already found the voice. For books that stand alone or for the first book in a series, it's sometimes hard to find the voice.
The ideas are not difficult, finding the right voice is.
What makes a person's life worth writing about?
Probably everyone's life is worth writing about. I judge it by how many people would be interested in reading about it. If there's something there that goes beyond what they did, if it fits into a bigger picture in history .For example, with the biography of Gertrude Ederly, her story isn't just a story of a woman swimming the English Channel. It's a story of the beginnings of the women's rights movement, and her story fits into that era. The story of Lou Gehrig will teach kids about courage and facing a crisis; it's a story with a moral and a lesson. Anne Frank it's the story of her life, but by learning about Anne Frank, kids learn about the Holocaust and about the dangers of hatred and prejudice and what happens when people hate.
Do you keep a diary or journal?
I do keep a journal, but I don't keep it religiously. It's there, but I don't write in it as often as I should.
Do you have a special place where you write?
Yes. I actually have two special places. I have an office in my house, which is where I am right now. I also have a special place in my local library where I work every afternoon. The reason I love the library, besides all the great books, is that I don't bring a telephone, so I can work without interruptions.
Did you daydream a lot when you were young?
I still do. I did then, and I do now. I got in trouble for it I did, and I still do. There's no place better to be than our own daydreams, our own imaginations.
You've written a ton of biographies: specifically, which ones seem to be the most popular? Who are your readers interested in?
Martin Luther King, Jr., Lou Gehrig, Abe Lincoln, George Washington, Gertrude Ederly, Hellen Keller, Anne Frank, and Christopher Columbus. And Harriet Tubman. And Sojourner Truth. I think those are the most popular. Each one represents more than simply their own lives, when you read about Harriet Tubman, you learn about slavery and how one person can make a difference. I think that's true of every person I've mentioned.
Why are biographies important?
I think it's an enjoyable way to learn about history to learn about it through someone else's eyes.
How emotionally involved do you get in the story line when you're writing your books?
Lately, I've tried to get more emotionally involved I want the reader to feel something about the subject. So, for the reader to get involved, I have to get involved too. I get more involved now than I did when I first started writing.
Who are some of your favorite authors now?
For children, Johanna Hurwitz; for adults, David Halberstam.
Have you ever wanted to do a film based on one of the subjects of your biographies?
Right now. I'd love to. I'd love to do TV or movies on Cam Jansen. A few times, people have bought options, but it didn't work out. A few of my books have been on TV, a book called Jeffrey's Ghost and the Leftover Baseball Team, and another was on Reading Rainbow. But I'd love to do Cam Jansen I think she and Andy Russell should have their own programs.
How much rewriting do you do?
An enormous amount I do a lot of rewriting. And knowing I'm going to do so much rewriting, it makes the first draft easier. If I were to teach writing, I would tell students to start off by writing a lousy story and then just rewrite it. I don't show anyone my first drafts. I keep rewriting all the way through a book.
What was the first story you can remember writing? What was it about?
The first story I wrote was A Little at a Time. I sent it to Random House and they published it. Then it went out of print, but it's just been signed up to be reprinted, so it'll be in print again in about two years. Before that I was a math teacher.
What's next for Cam Jensen?
There was a book that just came out yesterday, Young Cam Jansen and the Library Mystery, and this fall, Cam Jansen and the School Play Mystery. And beyond that, I don't know. Oh, there's another young Cam Jansen, that I haven't written just the outline. It takes place on a beach and it's coming out in spring of 2002. And that's as much as I know about her adventures!
Which of your characters is your favorite?
Andy Russell and Cam Jansen. Andy Russell is based on my son, and Cam Jansen I've known for more than 20 years if I didn't like her, I couldn't have written about her for so long! And with Andy, he sees everything from the other side. When the gerbils escape, we think the best thing to do is capture them. Andy thought we should leave bowls of food all over the house, so they'd always have something to eat. I think sometimes his view is more humane than mine. And that's what my son really did.
How many books have you written?
So far, I've had 156 published. And then I have others that I've written that aren't published yet, ones that are coming out in the next year or two. Always “one more.”
What do you like to do when you're not writing?
I love to listen to old radio tapes from the 30s and 40s. I love to paint and draw. And I love to spend time with my children.
Do you find it difficult to write biographies on a level that children can understand?
There are difficulties because sometimes it's hard to explain to children not only what the person did (such as Simón Bolívar), but also the context of what the person did. I couldn't just write about Washington, but I had to explain about the Revolution. With children, I can't assume they know something and that they are encountering the subject for the first time. With Anne Frank, I couldn't just say she was going into hiding, I had to explain why she went into hiding and what was going on at the time.
What does the A in your name stand for?
It stands for my middle name. My middle name is Abraham.
If you weren't a writer, what would you be?
I was a math teacher, so maybe I'd still be a math teacher. I always wanted to be a cartoonist, and I was for a short while.
Who are you planning to write another biography about?
A picture book of Harriet Beecher Stowe is coming out next.
What advice can you give young writers?
To be willing to take suggestions from other people, to do a lot of rewriting, and to read like a writer, not a reader. When you read something and you like it, ask “why did I like it?” If you don't like what you read, ask “why didn't I like it?” So, instead of just reading, you'll learn something why you did or did not like it.
David Adler Interview Transcript
PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8
The author David Adler was interviewed by Scholastic students.