Behind the Scenes with Deborah Heiligman

Last October I attended the workshop "Books that Rise Above," presented by the Highlights Foundation in Honesdale, PA. I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming being under the same roof (in the cozy yet spacious "barn") with the esteemed presenters, Patricia Lee Gauch, Linda Sue Park, Leonard Marcus, Betsy Bird and
Deborah Heiligman. Also in attendance were some of the editors of Highlights for Children magazine; Kent Brown visited often, and the staff and other attendees were inspirational. Tours of the magazine headquarters and Boyds Mill Press were fun and enlightening.

Sign up for a Highlights Foundation Workshop

This series is drawing to a close this month with only a few posts left. Before I delve into this month's topic, "Behind the Scenes with Deborah Heiligman," I'd like to encourage readers to attend any Highlights Foundation workshop possible. It will be well worth it. Prior, ample information was sent by staff members on details of our stay. The warm welcome, delicious food, comfy private cabin and more, were second to none. Included were biosketches of the presenters with some of their book titles. I read as many as I could before attending. That was a big help in understanding the topics they discussed. I have continued to read their work long after the workshop, now for pure enjoyment.

Window into the Life of a Biographer

Deborah Heiligman's award-winning book, Charles and Emma: Darwins' Leap of Faith, is one of my all-time favorite books. First, I couldn't put it down. I loved it so much, perhaps because of the love Deb infused in each word, that I identified my own special relationship in Charles and Emma's story. Though a children's book, oddly I found Charles and Emma in the Adult Biography section of my local library.

Having dabbled in biography myself from biosketches I wrote for the library journal Biography Today, I had an inkling of Deb's monumental task. Her research was based on personal journals and letters and two versions of Darwin's autobiography; in addition to  databases, websites, and reference and secondary books. Also, she gathered information while visiting the Darwins' home in England. Deborah's feat, in my mind, is how seamlessly she wove dialogue together with explanation. It is as if her book was written from modern-day interviews, not from passages written during a bygone era.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Anyone who has approached such a big topic as Charles Darwin might find the sheer bulk of material overwhelming. Indeed, all of the material was so fascinating Deb wanted to include it all. Focusing on one guiding principle or theme helped to narrow the subject down. Once she decided to make her book a love story her job became clear. Thus, the weaving began of piecing Charles and Emma's stories together.

Deborah's take-away:  Every writer has a theme, Deborah quoted Tom Wolfe as saying. His is status. Mine is love. Charles and Emma is a love story. Write a book from your heart, about the particular person you are. Mine: I feel fortunate and privileged to have had the opportunity to hear the behind-the-scenes approach on how Deborah writes her biographies. After what I learned I have nothing but admiration for the great amounts of love, devotion, tenaciousness, effort, attention-to-detail--have I forgotten anything?-- Deb goes through to arrive at her incredible works.

If you would like to read past posts in this series, please visit:

Part One: Two Ways to Hook and Keep Your Reader
Deborah Heiligman's Biography
Deborah Heiligman's Blog

Next month: Part Seven: Deborah Heiligman's Casual Scream
In future posts: A link to the complete list of "Books that Rise Above" will appear at the end of this series.

Linda Wilson, a former elementary teacher and ICL graduate, has published over 40 articles for children and adults, six short stories for children, and is in the final editing stages of her first book, a mystery story for 7-9 year olds. Publishing credits include seven biosketches for the library journal, Biography Today, which include Troy Aikman, Stephen King, and William Shatner; Pockets; Hopscotch; and true stories told to her by police officers about children in distress receiving teddy bears, which she fictionalized for her column, "Teddy Bear Corner," for the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office Crime Prevention Newsletter, Dayton, Ohio. Follow Linda on Facebook. 


Karen Cioffi said...

Linda, I envy you the experience. I'd love to do a HF workshop! Thanks for sharing the useful information.

Magdalena Ball said...

Realy thorough overview Linda - it has been great to work through all your articles.

Linda Wilson said...

Thank you so much, Karen and Maggie. I can't sing their praises enough!

Mary Jo Guglielmo said...

I've done a Highlights workshop and it was incredible. If you ever get the chance to attend one, it's well worth it.

Linda Wilson said...

Yes, Mary Jo, you wrote a terrific post about your experience which is in my "links." I'll check to make sure the link is still there.

Linda Wilson said...

Here's the link to Mary Jo's post:

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