CHILDREN'S AUTHOR & ILLUSTRATOR
Don Brown's Biography:
Don Brown is a professional author-illustrator. His first children's book, RUTH LAW THRILLS A NATION, was a Reading Rainbow feature selection and an NCSS-CBC Notable Children's Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies. His second book, ALICE RAMSEY'S GRAND ADVENTURE, received starred reviews in THE BULLETIN, KIRKUS REVIEWS, and SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL. School Library Journal has called him "a current pacesetter who has put the finishing touches on the standards for storyographies." His most recent book, RARE TREASURE, was selected as a NCSS-CBC Notable Childrenís Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies.
Interview with Don Brown: by
Julie Cummins. (Book Links.
With the publication of his
first book, Ruth Law Thrills a Nation, Brown was at the forefront in
establishing picture-book biographies as a genre, setting the gold standard for
the surge that was to come. His
intriguing accounts combine succinct language, dramatic storytelling, and
beautiful, spare watercolor-and-ink art that depict his subjectís remarkable
Brown was fascinated with
cartooning as a young boy. Now his
comic use of line in his picture books puts a human face on individuals mostly
unknown to young readers. Hits
engaging text and effective visual perspective create snapshots of famous and
not-so-famous people from the past whom children might not discover their own.
Witty and entertaining,
Brownís inimitable style and approach present history in a down-to-earth
fashion that connects to studentsí lives and explores the nature of
perseverance and its importance to achievement.
JC: Of your dozen picture-book biographies, many are about heroic women. Is that accidental or intentional?
Originally it was intentional.
I had two small daughters and I wanted to read to them about real women
who did brave, heroic things.
But I couldnít find anything, so I decided to write the books myself.
Thatís how the one about Ruth Law came about and then one about Alice
After that, my publisher was happy for me to write about women, a it
filled a certain niche in the marketplace and on library shelves.
Many of these people arenít well known, and I have a particular taste
for people who were overlooked in history.
How do you select the people you want to write about?
I read a lot of history. And
usually, I come across an event, a person, or some time in history that tickles
me. Iíll do preliminary research
to see if I can make a book out of it. Sometimes
itís a great story, but the source material or the information I can gather
doesnít warrant a book. I want
the stories to be real. History
stands on its own Ė young donít have to invent it. I donít have to invent the words and itís important to be
Some people would describe many of your subjects as odd.
Is there something about their quirkiness that appeals to you.
Of course theyíre quirkyówhatís better than quirky?
Some things these people would do, especially in the time period.
If youíre a woman pilot like Ruth Law in 1916, what else are you other
than quirky, given the state of a womanís place in the world at that time?
Even Alice Ramsey, driving a car cross-country, had to be unconventional.
Any thereís Mary Kingsley Ė forget about a man going to Africa the,
let alone a woman, and at the risk of her own life. So the quirkiness drew them to whatever personal quest they
were out to accomplish. The two go
How do you approach your research to ferret out facts and make a story?
I like to find multiple sources for the same information.
I keep looking until I see sources pointing in the same direction.
Also, if you can get an original source, thatís really great.
And how do you take that abundance of research and synthesize it into a
smooth narrative for a picture-book format?
My books tend to be 1,200-1,400 words.
Thatís all kids will sit still for.
There are no studies to prove it, itís just a gut feeling on my part,
so I try to keep my books that short. Within
that space, I have the arc of the story. Along
the journey, you have to include enough vivid moments about the personís life
to keep the reader interested, and the brevity of the text is always a struggle.
Life being what it is, the coolest thing, the greatest anecdote that you
want to put in the most, sometimes gets thrown out.
It breaks your heart, but if it doesnít work, youíve got to get rid
of it. It took a long time for me
to be able to have confidence in deciding what to throw out.
Which come first Ė words or pictures?
definitely come first; otherwise the tail ends up wagging the dog. At first, I try not to think of the pictures at all.
I try to put that out of my mind and focus on the manuscript.
But when I come across something in someoneís life thatís begging to
be illustrated, I canít help but put it in, and Iíll tweak the manuscript to
I write the manuscript, I do thumbnail sketches.
You would mistake them for incomprehensible scribbles, but they make
sense to me. In the thumbnails, I
figure out what illustrations happen on which page and where the line breaks
are. After that, Iíll do a
full-blown dummy, same size and shape as the real book, and then do the
illustrations. Iíll take the
sketches and paste them down, do the text on the computer, cut that out, and
paste it on the dummy. A weird
alchemy happens when you join words and pictures together, and I want to see
that before I commit to the final illustrations.
Being a self-taught artist, I founder around a bit, anywhere from two
hours to two weeks. Then Iíll do
the final art. I donít go from page 1 to 32, instead I bounce all around--- it
depends on how I feel that day. Some
of the illustrations I know will be hard, and with human nature, I put those off
to the end.
How involved are you with the design of the book?
Very involved, because the illustrations imply where the text goes.
The art director and I have a discussion about all of the elements of
typeface, leading and text size.
When you were growing up, you were interested in comics and cartooning.
How has that evolved into your style today?
Brown: Iím still a cartoonist at heart. Iíll never be able to do watercolors like Jerry Pinkney. The Provensensí Caldecott-winning The Glorious Flight (Viking, 1983) was a great inspiration to me I wanted to write nonfiction, but I had deluded myself that you had to do realistic art, and their book was anything but that. I was incredibly uplifting and in a way it set me free and disabused me of my preconceived notions. Then I came across other books where style slides around between realistic and cartoon, is a great memoir. Itís not diminished by the cartoony look, and for me it retains that human element that I spoke about. Thereís been a change in my illustrations since the Ruth Law bookóthey are certainly less cartoony and they continue that way. Iíll never be able to get that out of my hand, but itís okay because I think it works for the subject matter.
Brown: Bringing Historical Figures to Life
The creator of numerous
picture-book biographies of historical figures, Don Brown explained how he found
his niche. "I have always loved to read history and have a particular bent
for forgotten or unusual history," he said. "I think that who history
forgets and who history remembers is a rather serendipitous thing." And, he
discovered, there are many people in the former category who should be better
known than they are. This belief, coupled with his quest to find books to read
to his daughters which, in his words, "focused on real women who did brave
and heroic things and would send great messages to them," led him to this
publishing path: "I realize this is a hackneyed tale, but because I didn't
find many books that fit this description, I decided to write one."
The resulting biography was
Ruth Law Thrills a Nation, the story of the woman who set a record flying solo
from Chicago to New York. Brown subsequently published biographies of such women
as paleontologist Mary Anning, British explorer Mary Kingsley and pioneer and
suffragist Anna Howard Shaw.
Yet Brown has also written
books about Neil Armstrong and Mark Twain--and this season he spotlights another
familiar figure in Odd Boy Out: Young Albert Einstein (Houghton, Aug.). Having
read a number of books about Einstein (memorably Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip
Across America with Einstein's Brain by Michael Paterniti), Brown recalled
"the thought of doing a kids' book about Einstein was percolating in the
back of my mind. And then I read David Bodanis's. A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation, which
collected stories of scientists over the years. The book profiles a French woman
mathematician living around the time of the French Revolution and I thought
about doing a book about her, but there wasn't enough information about her. So
then, in what was probably my 'eureka!' moment, I thought, 'Why not do a book on
He subsequently read
"every Einstein biography I could find, looking for common threads."
As is his usual research modus operandi, he did not consult original sources.
"Since the text of picture-book biographies are only 1,200 words, I can't
examine the characters with the same depth and breadth as do classical
biographies," he said.
For his second title this
season, Kid Blink Beats the World (Roaring Brook, Sept.), Brown turned his
attention to a younger historical figure. In the summer of 1899, Kid Blink and
his fellow New York City "newsiest" went on strike to protest the
decision of the owners of The Journal and The World to charge newsboys and
newsgirls an extra penny per paper. Brown was drawn to this topic because
"there is something about the turn of the last century [in New York City]
that fascinates me. It was at that time the most densely populated place on the
planet and was a weird political, sociological and economic stew."
His research tools for this
book included the city's two newspapers--the New York Times and New York Tribune
--that did not hike the price of their papers and, Brown stated, "took
great pleasure in reporting on the troubles of their rival papers. Researching
this topic also gave me an excuse to read relatively obscure novels of the era
that gave me a good sense of both the time and place. Sometimes fiction can give
you a flavor that straight nonfiction cannot. Of course excellent nonfiction in
narrative form, rather than today's data-driven nonfiction, will give that same
Brown is currently at work on a picture-book adaptation of a chapter from Beryl Markham's autobiography, West with the Night, entitled The Good Lion, which Houghton Mifflin will publish; and Bright Path, the story of Olympian athlete Jim Thorpe, due from Roaring Brook.
Sally Lodge. Publishers Weekly. Vol. 251 Issue 43, p21, 2p, 1bw
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Brown begins his beautifully constructed picture-book biography with young Samís dangerous escapade on the frozen Mississippi River. Focusing on childhood incidents that will later appear in Twainís books, Brown cunningly recalls the opening event in his conclusion: "Bye and bye, he remembered his boyhood, the glad morning of his life. As if skating ice cakes on a frozen river, Sam skipped from memory to memory and wove together great tales. . . . " Brownís eloquent, old-fashioned language echoes Twainís own words, also generously sprinkled throughout. "My literature attracted the townís attention, but not its admiration," Brown quotes. Like his subject, Brown also skips from incident to incident, telling just enough to hold the readerís interest, and like Twain, he makes the reader think, with his handling of such incidents as young Samís response to slavery, and his friendship with the outcast Tom Blankenship (the model for Huck Finn). Lively watercolors deftly depict Clemensís exuberant character and youthful shenanigans, while their subdued tones are nostalgic. Includes bibliography and authorís note. (Picture book/biography. 8-10)
Kim Southwell/Book Review Assignment:
2003. American Boy, The Adventures of Mark Twain. Boston:
Houghton Mifflin Company. ISBN: 0618179976. Age Range: 6-10.
Don Brown gives another picture-book biography that gives
enormous appeal to the young and once upon a time, Mark Twain was a boy named
Sam Clemens. Born on November 30,
1835, a natural dreamer, prankster, and most of all, a lover of great tales.
Sam Clemens spent his boyhood years living out adventures along the banks
of the Mississippi River. He was
poor, played hooky from school and often snuck out of his bed to roam the sleepy
town of Hannibal, Missouri. The
young Sam Clemens found himself in trouble a good bit of the time, explored
haunted McDowellís Cave, and nearly drowning nine times in the Mississippi
River before he wised-up and finally learned to swim. One of his favorite
past-times was listening to the creative stories of Uncle Daníl, a wise old
slave and imaginative storyteller who captured young Samís attention.
Bored by school at fifteen, Sam quit his formal schooling and chose to
spend his time being an apprentice to a printer, left home and was an
unsuccessful Confederate soldier before becoming the legendary Tom Sawyer. Inspiring and entertaining for readers of all ages. This
renowned tale illustrated with pleasant watercolors and rich text compliments
the fine work of Brown. A great
acknowledgement of a legendary storyteller at his finest.
Mack Made Movies:
Mack Sennett was born in Richmond, Canada on January 17, 1880. His family moved to the Northampton, Massachusetts when Mack was a teenager and he became a laborer at a New England iron works. But for reasons even Mack couldn't adequately explain, he dreamed of a life as an opera singer. After consulting with a town lawyer, the future U.S. President Calvin Coolidge, Mack headed for New York City. But his dream was short-lived when he discovered that training for the opera would take years and offered no guarantee of success. Mack turned to burlesque, a style of low-brow entertainment that was wildly popular, and took work as a theater stagehand. When an actor failed to appear one night, Mack was drafted to replace him. From that accidental beginning Mack eventually made modest theatrical career as a singer and comic. But saw little hope for greater success, and decided to gamble on the movies.
seemed to be opening everywhere and the demand for new movies to exhibit in them
was enormous. New York City blossomed with movie makers, due on part to its pool
of performers but also to the city's proximity to Thomas Edison's New Jersey
lab. Although Edison hadn't invented motion pictures, he had acquired patents to
the technology and movie cameras had to be rented from him. In 1909, Mack joined
Biography films and met director D.W. Griffith who was pioneering techniques of
motion picture storytelling. The following year, Mack began directing films and
found a large and enthusiastic audience for his slapstick comedies. His success
rivaled that of his mentor Griffith, but Biography never embraced comedy. When
an offer to be a partner in his own company arrived, Mack leaped at the
established Keystone Pictures in 1912 and moved to California, joining a stream
of movie-makers who were attracted by southern California's fair weather and
cheap land, crucial elements for building successful studios.
An added incentive was the hope of escaping Thomas Edison's heavy-handed
enforcement of his patents.
Sennett's comedies became world-famous on the strength of his superb sense of
comic timing and great eye for talent. His break-neck pacing left audiences
breathless and he discovered stars such as Mabel Normand, Fatty Arbuckle, Ben
Turpin, Gloria Swanson, W.C. Fields, and Carole Lombard. In 1914, Mack launched
the film career of Charlie Chaplin, perhaps the greatest comedian of all time.
And it was on a Sennett stage that the most enduring of all slapstick gags, a
pie in the face, was invented.
bought out his partners in 1915, renaming the studio Mack Sennet Studio. But the
movie business was risky and in 1935 the studio went bankrupt. Mack lived the
rest of his life in retirement; he died in 1960.
From its alliterative title and a narrative as precise as comic timing, to a cinematic beginning that spotlights Sennett donning the horse suit, this is like watching a pie-in-the-face routine; it simply smacks with delight. Ingeniously staged and picture perfect, it's Brown's best book yet"
This is a thoroughly enjoyable and accessible introduction to the life of the "King of Comedy" and to the history of early moviemaking in America.
Odd Boy Out: Young Albert Einstein; illus. by the author 32 pp. Houghton 9/04 ISBN 0-618-49298-4 16.00 g (Primary)
Brown maintains a delicate tension between his accessible presentation (a straightforward text and uncluttered illustrations) and his extraordinary subject (the legendary twentieth-century physicist whose complex ideas revolutionized science and daily life). For someone whose name is synonymous with genius, Albert Einstein's early years were far from auspicious. Brown carefully and effectively summarizes events, choosing telling details to paint a portrait of an introspective child who struggles in school and whose frustrated teachers wonder if Albert is "dull-witted." In the somber watercolor and ink illustrations, young Albert's physical separation from other figures emphasizes his psychological disconnection from the goings on around him (as do his almost-always-closed eyes). Brown introduces Einstein's famous theories with a light touch, keeping the focus on the boy/young man. The book's message about different ways of and approaches to learning is clear and will surely be appreciated by the intended audience. An author's note debunks a few myths surrounding the man and his work, and a short bibliography rounds out this inspired picture-book biography. K.F.
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