When researching the life of Charles H. Turner, the pioneering African American entomologist, I learned about Turner’s Circling, the phenomenon where ants meander as they try to find their way home. Turner was the first to describe this action and to draw a picture of Tournoiement de Turner, and today it bears his name. Following a lost ant shows there are no straight lines. Or put more positively, when there’s no path to follow, you can move in any direction. The journey is riskier, frustrating, invigorating, but—if you do find your way home—satisfying. Writing my first picture book biography was definitely a kind of Turner’s Circling. It took awhile to find my way: to navigate through conflicting biographical information, to find the thread underlying Turner’s life and work, and to build a story that engaged but also cleaved to factual research. Like the ant, I gradually, with useful missteps, found my way home.
How to Wander, Meander, and Find Your Trail
- Love your subject. Absolutely. Totally. You are going to spend a lot of research time with the person you’ve selected to write about. Their life must fascinate, obsess, and haunt you. Charles H. Turner fascinated me. He would stay up all night to watch a spider. Not having a well-appointed laboratory or the best in scientific equipment, he made his own: jelly jars, cardboard ramps, paper disks. His inventiveness and imagination resonated with me as a writer, as well as his ongoing attention to the small lives around him: bees, wasps, doodlebugs. Turner’s work shows that every life matters. What could matter more in a time when we are losing so much of our bio-diversity? Loving your subject means that research becomes play, and writing is sharing the story of someone you care about and want to know deeply.
- Buzzing with Questions tries to show how Charles T. Turner’s curiosity seemed boundless. He studied everything from ants and grape leaves to crustaceans and cockroaches. But picturebook biographers need to be a bit more selective. How do you know that you have a good subject for a picturebook biography? There are key questions to ask. Can you easily answer: Why is this individual important and what did they accomplish that changed the world? Secondly, are there significant resources available about your subject? If you can’t answer those questions and you can’t find an answer—back away.
- Turner found that ants use more than one strategy to navigate. Picturebook biographers navigate by using careful, thorough research, that shapes the map that will lead their words into a strong story. No one is surprised that writing a successful biography means reading and reading more. Or that it means using libraries, archives, museums, online resources, and every resource possible to learn about your subject. It also means visiting the physical locations are important to the person you are studying, and, in those locations freeing your senses and your imagination. What was it like? What was it like when your subject lived or worked there? No matter where you are in your research expect frustrations: conflicting information, gaps, inaccurate sources. But also expect rewards, that moment when you find a detail or information that no other writer has used: yes!
- Lost ants circle and wander in every direction trying to find their way. Writing a children’s biography means that you are searching—not for home—but for a way to tell a story about someone’s life. A picturebook biography is not a collection of facts and dates. It’s an engaging story: you want readers to listen, which means finding that golden thread underlying the life. What drives them? If you had to reduce your subject’s life to three words, what would those words be? Once you identify that narrative thread, you build on it by adding scenes from the person’s life. Everything in your story has to relate to that underlying thread: Charles H. Turner never stopped asking questions. That underlying thread also has to hook the child reader.
You are writing a movie. Show your subject in action. Your story must move from picture to picture and not from data point to data point. Finally, as you lift facts, details, and biographical description from the historical record, always remember that you are searching for kid-appealing detail, for incidents that trigger storytelling, for facts that reveal a unique human being versus an abstract encyclopedia entry. Character-revealing details, story-rich anecdotes, evocative images carry the most weight. Look for them and weave them into your writing.
- After writing about an entomologist, of course, I am now fascinated by all things insects. For example, there are gigantic ant cities holding billions of ants. For example, there is a super colony of Argentine ants in southern Europe. Their colony is 3,700 miles wide! Supercolonies are great for a social creature such as an ant. Large, information rich, everything-but-the- kitchen-sink manuscripts do not make the best picturebook biographies. Concision is power. What is the narrative thread that underlies your work? The driving motivation of your subject? Select events, details, and information that highlight, reinforce, or reveal that theme. You have hard choices to make, but make the ones that leave you with a kid-magnetized, compelling story. But what about all that other information you found! What about those weeks and months spent researching! Author’s note. Additional information. Appendix.
- I loved all the different types of ants that Turner studied. But of course, he studied only a few of the 12,000 different ant species on the planet. There’s an ant called the False Honey Ant, which brings me back to the concept of story or narrative nonfiction. Writing a picturebook biography does not mean fictionalized dialogue, or making up facts, or deliberate inaccuracies. Children deserve the same intellectual integrity, in-depth research, and factual accuracy reserved for adult readers. The story you shape has to be true, and so relentless research is absolutely necessary. Build the story from the facts at hand. You are making a contract with the reader: my words are true.
If you are a writer, you already know about Turner Circling. While researching, you wander through libraries and resources. On the page, your words follow the twists and turns of narrative. You will wander, meander, backtrack, and lose your way when revising, but that’s part of the process and the pleasure. If Turner taught me anything about lost ants, it’s that ants don’t give up. They keep moving, using their senses, and patiently searching until they find their way. A wrong turn (okay, several wrong turns) is part of getting where you want to go.
Janice N. Harrington
Janice N. Harrington writes poetry and children’s books. Her newest books are Buzzing with Questions: The Inquisitive Mind of Charles H. Turner and the children’s verse novel, Catching a Storyfish. She also author of the popular The Chicken Chasing Queen of Lamar County and Going North. Harrington has several poetry books for adult readers, including Primitive: The Art and Life of Horace H. Pippin. She curates the blog Space for Image and teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.