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Doreen Rappaport has written numerous award-winning books for children, including: "Freedom Ship, The School Is Not White, Martin's Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.," a Caldecott Honor Book and Coretta Scott King Honor Book; and "John's Secret Dreams: The Life of John Lennon." She is the author of "Abe's Honest Words: The Life of Abraham Lincoln" (Hyperion, 2008), illustrated by Kadir Nelson and the latest biography in the "Big Words" series. She lives in upstate New York.

Previous National Book Festival Appearances

The Scoop

From the 2008 National Book Festival

What sparked your imagination for your newest book Abe’s Honest Words: The Life of Abraham Lincoln?

The choice of subject came up because we are into the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth. The approach to the book was revealed slowly as I read and re-read Lincoln’s speeches and marveled at his precise, eloquent language, a model for all writers of all ages. He didn’t like being called “Honest Abe,” but the truth was he was honest and decent and direct and led this country through one of its most difficult experiences.

Kadir Nelson illustrated Abe’s Honest Words. What is it like to collaborate with an illustrator?

It’s always exhilarating to work with fine artists. Kadir submitted sketches for each of the spreads; I look at them; the editor looks at them; the art directors looks at them. Each of us critiques them from our unique perspective. We are all working together to make the finest book possible.

What challenges do you face in the writing process? How do you overcome them?

Finding a way to tell a story for a particular age group is the challenge. How do you find a way into the heart of another person’s life and accomplishments, a way that will resonate with children? How do you simplify without “dumbing” down? How do you give the dignity a subject deserves? I do it by constantly re-reading what I have done to make sure that each sentence counts and that each sentence is essential.

What writers have inspired you? What tips or advice can you share with young students who hope to start writing?

Jean Fritz taught me about point of view and attitude in writing about history. Mildred Taylor showed me how to tell a complex story in a poetic way. Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon confirmed that “less is more.”

Can you suggest a fun writing topic to get them started?

I don’t think it’s a matter of a “fun” topic. It’s a matter of kids writing about what’s important to them, what’s puzzling to them. Get it down on paper and you learn about what’s really important in your life and then you revise it because you WANT to make it better.

How do you decide on themes for your books?

I have to answer this question by saying that I only write about people I admire, people who struggled, people who persisted in their dreams and work despite all odds. All my books are about this theme.

How important is research in the development of your books? Can you explain the process as well?

Research is all. The shape of a book, the focus, the language become clear when you do extensive research. I always read primary sources--for the Lincoln biography that included all his speeches, etc.—plus many books by the great historians who spent their lives writing about the particular subject I am exploring.

What is your list of favorite children or teen books?

  • Goodnight Moon
  • Mirette on the High Wire
  • Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
  • The Well
  • Why Don’t You Get A Horse, Sam Adams?

If you were not writing, what do you think you would be doing?

I would be a cabaret singer, and I still may become one.

What is your advice to parents for passing the joys of reading on to their children?

If you want your children to read, read to them.

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