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Nonfiction Matters
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Latest from Betsy, Much to Discuss

Read All the Way Through

Chris Barton sent a comment last week asking how to contextualize Seeger’s stand against HUAC. How much is too much? How much is too little, which could result in a kind of unintentional misinformation?

Originally I was drawn to a personal story about Seeger: how his childhood, rich in music but fairly lonely, made him the singer who wanted to get everyone singing together. When I read more about HUAC, I became totally fascinated with the trial. The way certain civil liberties I take for granted were suspended, the incredible damage done to a number of people’s careers and livelihoods, and the moral strength it took Seeger to stand on his First amendment rights, rather than take the Fifth, as many people did.  

Now I’ve had to pull back and ask what I can do in this format. While I’d like to include Seeger going before HUAC, I think I need to focus on a different aspect of his life: how Seeger passionately believed the right music at the right time could create social change. And the pleasure it gave him to be part of that kind of change, and to encourage others. Right now I’m thinking of leading up to two of the great historical events he participated in: the Civil Rights march lead by Martin Luther King, Jr. from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, and the anti-war rally in Washington DC in 1969 where he led hundreds of thousands in singing "Give Peace a Chance."

I’m thinking of ending with the peace march in Washington DC. Because of place, it has a wonderful resonance; one of Seeger’s first jobs was in Washington DC, transcribing folk songs; Marian Anderson sang on the steps of the Jefferson Monument; Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream," speech here. The White House nearby. See the power that holds?

Meanwhile, there’s a big change that will involve this book. The publishing house, Bloomsbury, has laid off a number of people for financial reasons, and my editor Jill Davis has lost her job. I don’t know quite what’s ahead. My plan is to push the manuscript a little further till it feels more solid to me, then put it aside and work on something else while I wait to see what’s next.  

Comments

  1. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Betsy,

    A couple questions–

    Since Pete Seeger lived during the time that your other biographical subjects did–that is, Dorothea Lange, Woody Guthrie, and John Lennon–I’m curious to know how your understanding of them influences your understanding of Seeger.

    Which comes first: form or content? And by that I mean this: do you choose the form you want to work in–picture book vs. juvenile nonfiction vs. young adult nonfiction–or does the content of your research dictate that? Do you anticipate that the scope of this project may grow and change in the writing of it?

    Jonathan

  2. Betsy Partridge says:

    What’s really cool is coming at the information from slightly different directions — it’s like my own 20 century history lesson. Pete Seeger is the only one who stood before HUAC — now I have a new appreciation for the older woman who dropped her voice to whisper to me, “He was CP, you know.” Communist Party. Still, in the 1990s, she whispered the info.
    I also have a deeper understanding of the kind of harassment Lennon faced as he tried to become a permanent resident.

  3. Betsy Partridge says:

    Form or content is dictated by my initial interest — how long do I want to spend on this person? How deep are the layers in her/his life? Then Jill and I set up a contract, and that is supposed to lock in the form. BUT, you’ve put your finger right on my dilemma — can I really do justice to even a sliver of Seeger’s life in this format? Beyond, of course, the wonderful storytelling/singing he did with kids, it gets complicated. Then I question myself: is there a fantastic story in here that I just haven’t pared down to yet, that is complex enough to get kids thinking, one I can do justice to in this format? I’m still optimistically scratching around.

  4. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Betsy,

    One of the things I like about your young adult nonfiction books is that when I have finished reading them I feel like I have not only a firm understanding of your subjects, but also the eras in which they lived. Do you think that kind of balance can be achieved in a picture book text?

    Jonathan

  5. Marc Aronson says:

    Jonathan:

    As Jone MItchell used to sing, “Somethings lost but something’s gained” in the picture book format. For one thing, you get more art, and color art, to help tell your story. So, for example, if some of the context of the era can be communicated visually, the theme suits the format.

  6. Jeannine Atkins says:

    A picture book biography may be a reader’s first encounter with a subject and, as Marc suggests, might not be as inclusive as a longer book intended for older readers, but pictures can go a long way to suggesting the mores and customs of an era. Betsy, the arc you suggested from loneliness to a life dedicated to using song to bring people together is beautiful, and I can imagine a small boy surrounded by empty space to a huge boisterous gathering on the mall reinforcing the theme. And along that arc there’s room to hint at other aspects of Seeger’s life that interested readers may follow up on.

  7. Betsy Partridge says:

    One of the critical questions I ask myself when considering a biography is how compelling the historical context is. Like the Chinese expression: may you be born in interesting times. I’ve done historical fiction picture books, like Oranges on Golden Mountain, where I used a fictional character to tell one story of Chinese immigration to the United States in the 1800s. I loved how much info was carried in the art. Now I’m trying to figure this out for Seeger’s life. Can the HUAC hearings be carried in the art? Not without a fair amount of text. On the other hand, Seeger’s loneliness — as Jeannine just commented — can be hugely, impactfully carried in the art.

    So the format definitely influences my pondering abut how to move forward.

  8. leda schubert says:

    I can’t believe I missed this discussion until now. As some of you know, I’m working on a novel set during McCarthyism. I’ve read (many times) the transcript of Seeger’s testimony before HUAC. While he wasn’t alone in standing up to them, he was the first to use the First Amendment instead of the Fifth, I believe. But you’re right, Betsy. This can’t form the core of a picture book. His power to move people can. There’s a new documentary, “The Power of Song,” that I hope you can see. Seeger has been my hero forever.
    I’m devastated to hear about Jill! I sure hope this project can continue. And I have the perfect illustrator for you, really. Email me and I’ll send details.

  9. Betsy Partridge says:

    Seting a novel during the McCarthy years is a great idea. Lot’s of scope for the complexity of the issues that are there. The Power of Song, the Seeger film, is being shown on American Masters on Wed, Feb. 27 at 8 p.m. (check your local listings, I think the time/date may vary a bit.)

  10. Jonathan Hunt says:

    There was a pretty good novel set in the McCarthy era that was out a couple years ago, CATCH A TIGER BY THE TOE by Ellen Levine. And as Marc has mentioned, James Cross Giblin is working on a biography of McCarthy. There definitely seems to be an interest in the era. I’m also remembering Deirdre Baker’s recent Horn Book article on Cold War novels . . .

    Interesting confluence of books about a similar era . . .

  11. Marc Aronson says:

    I am also working on a book about McCarthyism — the state of fear. Obviously many of us are motivated by a parallel to post 9-11 America: anytime a nation experiences threats, and feels vulnerable, the value of basic legal rights is challenged by the need for security and control. By looking back to the 40s and 50s we also give our readers to think about the present.

  12. Barb Kerley says:

    Great discussion! Leda wrote of Seeger: “He was the first to use the First Amendment instead of the Fifth, I believe. But you’re right, Betsy. This can’t form the core of a picture book. His power to move people can.” And that’s my sense as well. The arc of the story as you’ve described it, Betsy, seems perfect for a picture book format. HOWEVER, and this is where things often get REALLY interesting, there is room for a grand and glorious, free-wheeling, wide-open Author Note, and it would be fascinating to read of Seeger’s HUAC experience there! Thanks for sharing your thought process as you work on this book, Betsy. And Marc, thanks for providing a forum for this discussion.

  13. Betsy Partridge says:

    Barb — Yes, yes, yes to free-wheeling author’s notes. I’ve got a big fat file on my desk and one in my computer titled “afterword.” But this brings up a whole new content issue — what can go in the afterword? What grade level should it be? I want a place to put a picture and paragraph on all the great people Seeger interacts with. I want to put a blurb on the history of the banjo– brought from Africa by the slaves (the ability to make one and make music on it, at least). Maybe I only have a LITTLE room for HUAC. Thank heavens for a Resources section where I can cite Marc Aronson’s and Jim Murphy’s non-fiction books!

  14. Marc Aronson says:

    Betsy: But why shouldn’t we go a step further in this tech age — if you, and I, and Jim, and Chris, and Leda are all writing on similar time and themes, why have us each repeat similar backmatter (keyed slightly differently by age and theme). Why not agree to create a site on McCarthyism for young readers, with resources that suit all of our books, with entry points that link to our several creations, but which, together, is a larger entity teachers can use? In other words, even though we have different publishers and deadlines, we could plan together and create something great.

  15. doctorzoixer says:

    Hello all!!!

    Please, drop this topic….