Tuesday 4 June 2019

Boggled by Biographies - Ciaran Murtagh

This month I have a series of four educational titles published by Rising Stars. They’re called ‘Game Changers’ and each is a series of biographies of people grouped around a theme. There’s Music Makers, Computer Pioneers, Brave Leaders and Hidden Heroes and they were four of the hardest books I’ve ever had to write!

One of the surprisingly tough things about all the books was agreeing who to put in them. Music Makers sparked a lot of debate – I mean, who really changed the game for modern music if you had to narrow it down to six people? And while you’re at it, remember that these biographies are for children in an educational setting so can’t contain any of the usual sex, drugs and rock and roll stories that often pepper the life of a rock star. Then we also have to consider diversity in our choices.  I think we can all agree on some people – Elvis is there, so is Bowie - but would you have chosen Dolly Parton over Patsy Cline? How about Nina Simone over Aretha Franklin? And was there really no room for John Lennon? I look forward to the parental backlash.

The ‘Brave Leaders’ category was also a fun debate and total minefield. We were looking for people who changed the world through their ideas. This was particularly tricky for gender representation. The ‘go to’ brave leader for gender representation used to be Aung San Suu Kyi, but she’s blotted her copy book of late. I pushed hard for Malala Yousafzai, but there was a reluctance to include anyone who wasn’t yet dead for fear they may do an ‘Aung San’ in later life. Mother Teresa might have worked, but we weren't allowed religious figures.  We went for Eva Peron and Emmeline Pankhurst.

Then there's the issue that to change the game as a leader you often have to break the rules a bit. How do you explain to children that it's OK to break the law if it's for a just cause? It's a nuanced debate -  one man's hero is another man's villain after all - and it's only after the passage of time that the true validity of a cause can be appraised. But that's a tricky concept for a 6 year old who may want to fight against the injustice of having to eat broccoli. 


The Hidden Heroes category was also a fun dance. We had to find people who had achieved something game changing but who hadn’t necessarily received the recognition that achievement warranted. A long back and forth was had over how unknown was ‘unknown’ and what constituted a game changing achievement. The Venn diagram overlap of those two was surprisingly small.

Once the subjects had been decided the hard work began. Each book contains at least six biographies and due to the various word counts and language levels that had to be adhered to they were between 400 and 1200 words each. Condensing Martin Luther King and the concept of racial segregation into 1200 age appropriate words was hard, getting Bowie into 400 was even harder. Over the course of four months I researched, condensed and wrote biographies on 30 people.

I learned many things, but perhaps the most valuable thing I learned was where my skills lie. I find it much easier to make something up than make something accurate! Ask me to write 1000 words off the top of my head – give me an hour. Want me to write the right 1000 words about a much revered historical figure -  give me a week.

Game Changers are out on the 28th June. I’m very proud of them. I doubt there’ll be a second series!


Mystica said...

I dont envy you your list, but I think the Beatles should be included. I dare not suggest Elton John!

Ciaran Murtagh said...

I agree Mystica, lots of worthy candidates, but only room for so many blokes!

Susan Price said...

I salute you, Ciaran! I know how well you wrote these books because I'm working on 'Super Scientists' and your books were sent to me as an example to follow!

I've had it somewhat easier, too, as Super Scientists is for an older reading age but there have been many of the same struggles you describe here. It's always hard to write at a short length, but to write a short article and keep it readable and accurate and stay within the guidelines about what can and can't be mentioned -- exhausting and head-nipping.

Sue Purkiss said...

I can just imagine the deliberations!