National Humanities Medal
Children’s nonfiction author Russell Freedman says writing for children is no different from writing for adults. “I write for anyone who can read . . . up to senility. A good book for kids is also a good book for their parents and grandparents. If my grown-up friends cannot read one of my books with interest and respect, then it’s not a good book for kids.”
That rule, combined with a childlike curiosity, has guided Freedman’s career, which spans more than fifty years and fifty books, including the Newbery Medal-winning Lincoln: A Photobiography, and Newbery Honor Books on the Wright Brothers, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Marian Anderson.
As a boy, Freedman was immersed in writing. His father, the West Coast manager of the Macmillan publishing company, would host dinner guests such as John Steinbeck and Margaret Mitchell, and the house brimmed with books and book talk. His own copy of Treasure Island shared shelf space with his father’s collection of signed first editions. “Being a voracious and promiscuous reader,” he says, was “just a normal part of life.”
Freedman went to Berkeley in the early Fifties, “a rather repressive time,” he says—a time when Berkeley professors were made to sign loyalty oaths. “I got a job stocking the shelves at Montgomery Ward, and I had to sign a loyalty oath in order to do that.” His indignation led him to protest and would later inspire In Defense of Liberty: The Story of America’s Bill of Rights.
always knew he wanted to be a nonfiction writer, but he fell into children’s writing almost by accident. When working as a reporter for the Associated Press, he came across a newspaper article about the invention of a Braille typewriter by a fifteen-year-old boy. It became the inspiration for his first book, Teenagers Who Made History in 1961. “Because of its subject,” Freedman says, “the publisher was interested in marketing it as a book for young readers. So that was nothing I had really planned.”
Freedman calls his 2003 In Defense of Liberty his greatest personal success. “What is more important than the Bill of Rights to America?” he asks. “Nothing! And I got to try to convey this information to a new generation.” It was also his biggest challenge, he says: “You’re dealing with legalisms, to some extent, and abstractions, and you have to put them into human terms.”
He works a similar transformation in Lincoln: A Photobiography. “The Lincoln that I grew up with was a paragon,” Freedman says. “And the Lincoln I discovered when I was working on the book was a person who had trouble making decisions, who was prone to fits of depression, and who had a capacity for change that is quite admirable and quite fascinating to watch develop.”
Freedman’s work is distinguished as much by its writing as by its meticulous integration of words and images. He does his own photo research, and pairs pictures with paragraphs until they are “tightly knit together.” “Every photo I pick is key to a paragraph in my manuscript,” he says. “It’s like a kind of counterpoint. A good picture should say something that the text doesn’t say, and the text should say something that isn’t evident in the photo.”
He has described his research technique as going “back in time through bibliography,” starting with the most recent scholarship and moving toward primary sources. Keeping up with the latest sources is important because “you’re writing to people who are living now, and who are living in a culture that’s very different from the culture that existed when Carl Sandburg wrote about Lincoln.”
Freedman says history education in the United States is failing. He complains of bland textbooks written by committees and says that history should be written with “a point of view.” He wants students to be reading history “that has a cutting edge, that deals with real values and real controversy, and for that reason can engage the reader’s interest and maybe even the reader’s passions.”
By Daniel Scheuerman