In a million years I’d never have thought my first children’s book would be a picture book. While I was working mostly on YA historical novels during my MFA program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, a friend teased and said picture books would be my future.
I write picture book biographies. Well, no, that’s not quite right. I write picture book historical fiction, because I invent dialogue based on real-life stories. And I did the unthinkable in my picture book, Goldie Takes a Stand! Golda Meir’s First Crusade—I wrote it in first person. The version I submitted to publisher Kar-Ben, the Jewish imprint of Lerner Publishing, was 1400 words (don’t worry, it got slashed).
There was no other way to write about Golda than in first person, because her voice was so strong. I had many other picture book drafts, but I knew I had something special with Golda. It all began when I was attending two weeks of retreat at the Highlights Foundation. Between the two weeks I had to attend an event at the Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island. I perused the shelves at the Highlights farmhouse and saw Golda’s autobiography, My Life (which I learned recently she didn’t write). Over the weekend, I read it and found a snippet about how as a child, Golda staged a fundraising event in Milwaukee, where she and her family had settled as immigrants from Russia, to buy schoolbooks for classmates. She mentioned a newspaper article had appeared about the event. Back home, I contacted the Jewish Historical Society of Milwaukee and the archivist knew exactly which article I was talking about. He sent it to me.
I wrote the draft on a Saturday night. Initially, I wrote it in third person, but that didn’t seem quite right. When I changed to first, the voice and story fell into place. I interpreted a true event but had to fill in the gaps to present the problem Golda and her friends faced. I invented dialogue. But the event itself was true and documented.
I drafted the story in October 2011. I took it to workshops. I submitted the manuscript to Kar-Ben the following April and received an offer in June 2012. The book was published in August 2014.
I had been researching the story of the MS St. Louis since 2010, when I interviewed eight survivors of the ill-fated voyage. In 1939, this ship of nearly 1,000 German-Jewish refugees left Germany for safe haven from Nazism in Cuba. But when it arrived there, the passengers weren’t allowed to disembark. Denied refuge, the ship roamed the Atlantic until a philanthropic organization negotiated landing in Antwerp and distribution of the passengers to England, France, the Netherlands, and Belgium.
One of the women I interviewed, Liesl Joseph Loeb, was the daughter of the head of the passenger committee. I wrote a middle-grade narrative, but the story was difficult to tell, because so much happened that children on board wouldn’t have known about. Then it dawned on me to focus on Liesl in a picture book. That became Liesl’s Ocean Rescue, coming out very soon from Gihon River Press, a specialized Holocaust publisher. Again, I took dramatic license with Liesl’s story, but it is based on her interview and true events.
What I learned is absolutely true:
- Go with your gut. If something doesn’t feel quite right, change it.
- Make a weakness a strength. Some publishers rejected my manuscript, because it was in first person. I decided to make that my story’s strength.
- Keep trying. I graduated from VCFA in 2006. Eight years later my first children’s book appeared. I still have those YA historical novels under the bed. Maybe they’ll make it out some day, but for right now, my focus is on picture book biographies.
- Get your manuscript vetted. Even though my picture books are fictionalized, they are based on true events. I needed to find subject matter experts who could vet the manuscripts.
- Write a biography only if the subject wrote an autobiography. Since these two picture books, I’ve drafted a few biographies, now with my agent. But these stories are true—and are in first person.
Barbara Krasner holds an M.B.A. in Marketing from Rutgers University and an M.F.A. in Writing for Children & Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA). She is currently an adjunct professor in the English department at William Paterson University, teaching introductory and advanced creative writing, fiction writing, and children’s literature. GOLDIE TAKES A STAND: GOLDA MEIR’S FIRST CRUSADE, released in 2014 with Kar-Ben Publishers, is her debut picture book. LIESEL’S OCEAN RESCUE is due from Gihon River Press this December.
Barbara is giving away a copy of GOLDIE TAKES A STAND!
This prize will be given away at the conclusion of PiBoIdMo. You are eligible for this prize if:
- You have registered for PiBoIdMo.
- You have commented ONCE ONLY on today’s post.
- You have completed the PiBoIdMo challenge. (You will have to sign the PiBoIdMo Pledge at the end of the event.)
Good luck, everyone!