I was fortunate to interview Jeri Chase Ferris, the award-winning author of 12 biographies for children. She has won numerous awards in this field, including the 2000 Susan B. Anthony Award for "exceptional literary contributions to women’s history”, the 1995 Author-Illustrator Human and Civil Rights Award presented by the National Education Association, and she is a three-time winner of the Carter G. Woodson Award for the most distinguished books for young readers depicting ethnic diversity in the United States.
Q. You’ve had eleven biographies published, and a new one about Noah Webster is coming out in 2011. How did you get interested in writing biographies for young people?
A. I taught grades 2-4 in the inner city in LA for almost 30 years. About ten years into my teaching I saw (late, I know) a huge need. I wanted books with wonderful life role models for my students. Back in the 80s there weren’t many biographies of minority men and women who had made a difference in our world. So I decided to write one myself. After all, I thought, how hard can it be? As it turns out, pretty hard. After making some dismal attempts I enrolled in a NF for Children class at UCLA taught by Caroline Arnold. With her instructions in mind I wrote GO FREE OR DIE, the story of Harriet Tubman. Carolrhoda Books bought the manuscript, an editor flew to LA, we “did lunch,” and she asked me to write three more biographies: Sojourner Truth, Benjamin Banneker, and Noah Webster. In the following years I also wrote biographies of Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Biddy Mason, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Susan LaFlesche Picotte, Matthew Henson, and Marian Anderson. Most of my biographies are about minority figures, and they all stem from my wonderful years in the inner-city classroom.
Q. What was the most difficult biography you’ve written? What made it difficult?
A. As a historian, it’s pure joy to research the lives of my subjects and the times in which they lived. My most difficult biography was that of the first Native American woman doctor, because of the richness and the differentness (to me) of the Native American culture, and because of the unspeakable destruction of that culture by my own race. I must become the person I’m writing about to the fullest extent possible. Also, it is critical to render cultures accurately, honestly, knowingly. I lived in fear that I would be found out as an outsider. With the help of the tribal historian, who also wrote the introduction, Susan LaFlesche Picotte lives authentically in this book.
Q. Your biography of Noah Webster is a non-fiction picture book. Have you ever considered other picture books?
A. My NF picture book biography of Noah Webster will be out in spring 2012 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Noah was a great character to write about, full of quirkiness and opinions, and with so much more to his story than “merely” the first American dictionary. It was such a joy to capture his voice (I hope) for younger children that I would love to do another picture book biography. Even very young readers can be swept away in the life of another person. Let’s hear lots of five-year-olds saying, “I too can make a difference!”
Q. Your most recent book is historical fiction about the siege of Leningrad. What made you decide to switch from biography to fiction?
A. Because I needed to tell this story. Russia is my passion. The history is accurate; the characters are a combination of several Russian friends who survived the siege. I think historical fiction is absolutely the best of both my writing loves: historical research and accuracy, and the fun of creating fictional characters to live out a real time in real history.
Q. You and your late husband made over 30 trips to Russia and collected memorabilia and artifacts and documents that you donated to the Slavic Department at the University of Southern California. Do you still travel to Russia?
A. My husband Tom taught Russian Studies at Beverly Hills High School. We began traveling to the Soviet Union in 1970. Its history, culture, art, literature, language, music, people, and tragedy were like a magnetic force drawing us into the heart of Russia. (I am still working on the language.) Our Ferris Russian Collection, described as “unmatched in the western world,” is now housed in the Shrine Auditorium, adjacent to USC. You can have a look via a link on my website. As for traveling to Russia, alas, I have not been there since 2000 due to family issues including the death of my husband and a move to northern California. However, maybe – next year in Russia.
Q. As a reader, when you were a child, did you gravitate to fiction or nonfiction?
A. When I was young, in Lincoln, Nebraska, I rode my horse to the Carnegie Library on the outskirts of town and loaded my saddle bags with books – fiction like The Black Stallion and Misty of Chincoteague and Lassie and non-fiction like Horseman’s Encyclopedia (the first book I ever bought, by the way, and here on my shelf as we speak). Embarrassing for a NF historian to say, but back then I was most definitely drawn to fiction. Also back then it simply never occurred to me that an actual person wrote the books I was soaking up like a sponge. I thought they just appeared on the shelves for me to read. In my defense, this was in the days before authors made school visits. I had never seen or met an author, and the only person I connected with books was my beloved librarian. The black stallion was real to me, Walter Farley the author was not.
Q. What books have made a difference in your life?
A. This is tough! I had a long list of adult books, but decided to stick with the important ones – children’s books. When I was little, anything about horses, the Black Stallion series, of course, Pam’s Paradise Ranch, Narnia, Mary Poppins. Books that made a difference in my writing include Charlotte’s Web, Tuck Everlasting, Hatchet, The Single Shard, Johnny Tremain. I remember reading Sarah, Plain and Tall, and almost weeping because I knew I could never write such a small and perfect book. Anything by Katherine Paterson or Richard Peck or Linda Sue Park or Deborah Wiles or James Marshall or William Steig or Jean Fritz or …. There are simply too many superb authors and books to list. Every award winner is a wonder and a lesson in how to do it right.
Q. What advice would you give a writer who wants to write biographies for children?
A. Read biographies for children. Read all the Newbery books. Read all local and national award-winning books. Be in a good, solid critique group. Join SCBWI and attend local and national conferences. Become familiar with the age group for which you’re writing. Decide whether you’re going to write a full life biography, or a slice of life in which your character achieved his/her most important accomplishments. Love research! Make your librarian your new best friend. Travel to sites your character inhabited. Haunt libraries, museums, and historical societies. Correspond with the experts in the field. Use the internet very carefully. Trace down primary sources such as letters, diaries, photos, newspapers of the time. Present your character as a real person by showing his/her flaws, doubts, and fears (in a balanced way). As much as is humanly possible, be your character as you tell his/her story. Develop your own unique style and voice. Constantly study award-winning biographies for children to learn how to create a fully alive character, in a real environment, living and interacting with historical events, and, very likely, influencing those events. Have your facts vetted by specialists. These specialists may even write introductions and blurbs for you, too.
Above all, enjoy with a passion what and who you are writing about. Your passion will make your character come alive on the page!
Jeri Chase Ferris can be contacted through her website, http://jerichaseferris.com/ , where you can learn more about her books, her awards, school visits, and the Ferris Russian Collection (under "links").
Meanwhile, for those reading this post, what books have made a difference to you in your life, and what biographies for children would you like to find on bookshelves?