Want to know more about writing and publishing biography for young readers? The Whole Megillah caught up with Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg author Shelley Sommer and Calkins Creek editor Carolyn Yoder to find out more.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): What prompted the interest in Hank Greenberg?
Shelley Sommer (SS): I have a 16-year-old son, who has played a lot of baseball! A few years ago, when I was thinking about a new subject for a biography (after writing about President Kennedy), my son was reading all kinds of books about baseball players. Sometimes I would pick one up and begin reading it, and it wasn’t long before I noticed references to Hank Greenberg. I am not Jewish, but the story engaged me on many levels. First, I was curious why there wasn’t more available for young readers about this Jewish baseball star playing during such an eventful time in our history. I kept thinking about how interesting it was that in 1936, Jewish athletes were excluded from the Olympic Games in Berlin, but in this country, one of the most prominent baseball players was a Jewish man who was the son of immigrants.
Also, as an elementary school librarian, I know how inspired kids are by stories about people who encountered adversity and persevered. Hank Greenberg is definitely one of those people.
TWM: Please describe your research process, including photos.
SS: Thank goodness for the Baseball Hall of Fame! The Hall of Fame keeps newspaper articles about player who has been inducted. During a visit to Cooperstown, New York, I looked at hundreds of newspaper stories from Greenberg’s time with the Detroit Tigers — and lots of wonderful photographs. The photographs were especially interesting, not just the pictures of games, but the pictures of the fans who dressed much more formally than fans at today’s games. No t-shirts or shorts! Fans dressed up for an afternoon at the park.
Hank Greenberg’s own book (written with Ira Berkow,) The Story of My Life, was especially helpful. Reading it, I could imagine Greenberg sitting at a table and telling stories about his early days in New York City, enduring anti-Semitic taunts on and off the baseball field, his time in the military, being on two World Series-winning teams and meeting Jackie Robinson.
TWM: How prevalent were Jewish themes as you wrote this book?
SS: Hank Greenberg was not the first Jewish baseball player, but he was the most prominent.
I was very aware of how important that was to his fans. Some of my favorite anecdotes about Greenberg are those about young Jewish fans who were inspired by the big man at first base.
It’s been particularly rewarding to talk with Jewish students about Greenberg. Several young people have told me that their grandparents were fans of the Detroit Tigers because of Hank Greenberg.
TWM: Tell us about your writing process. Did you develop an outline first? How long did it take to write the manuscript? What was your greatest challenge?
SS: I’m a pretty organized person which makes writing a biography more manageable. I always tell my middle school students that the saying about proper preparation is true.
My note cards — and my post-it notes — were color coded. I began by reading lots of articles, using different colors of highlighters of course. I also went on a used book shopping spree with Amazon.com and ordered lots of books about the Detroit Tigers and Jewish athletes. After collecting as much information as possible, I began writing an outline.
I began by writing a very rough draft of the whole book. Carolyn Yoder, my editor, went through it, and made suggestions about what to emphasize and where more information was needed.
TWM: Carolyn, what appealed to you about Shelley’s manuscript?
Carolyn Yoder (CY): Calkins Creek is all about American history but many authors feel that that means the tried and true — biographies of the familiar, coverage of well-known events — and the same popular periods, such as the Revolutionary War era, the Civil War period, etc. I am always excited to receive a manuscript on an important little-known individual — Hank Greenberg — and even more excited to receive a manuscript that combines sports history— baseball — with the history of the times — Great Depression, World War II, chiefly. Historical context is key at Calkins Creek.
TWM: How important do you think the first-hand accounts were to the success of the manuscript?
CY: Original research is also key at Calkins Creek. We require that authors rely on the classic resources as well as the most up-to-date. Primary research is essential as is working closely with experts in the field.
Quotations from the subject not only add insights but bring that individual to life. It is also important that the research and the book also include insights and quotations from other people. No one lives alone!
TWM: What do you look for in a biography?
CY: First and foremost is why is this biography being written. What makes the individual interesting, passionate, essential? I also need to see “focus” and “tone.” I need to see the author in the biography. Also, how is the individual a product of his/her times — what and who made him or her tick. Again, historical context is key. This is what drew me to Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg – he was influenced by his heritage, family, hometown, times, etc. Shelley wove in that historical and cultural context effortlessly.
TWM: Let’s talk about the editorial process for Hammerin’ Hank. Were there any challenges or surprises?
SS: I was lucky to have such a respected and committed editor. Carolyn Yoder has high standards and working with her made me a better writer. There were times when I felt a bit overwhelmed, but each time I looked back at Carolyn’s questions or comments, I knew she was right — and her suggestions made the book stronger.
CY: What I love about the process is working closely with an author molding a book. Shelley was willing to work hard. I can be quite demanding — no apologies here — and Shelley was willing to review the research, rewrite and reshape the manuscript at various stages, and make sure the manuscript was beyond 100 percent.
TWM: I noticed the photo captions give information not found in the main text. Is that something you routinely do? If so, why?
CY: I would like to say that nothing is routine at Calkins Creek. That’s the beauty of a small imprint! That said, photo captions should stand on their own. They should address the photo itself — what’s in the photo and who took it, etc. They should make the reader think and look at the image. Sometimes material is hard to blend into the narrative and the captions offer opportunities to offer new material — sort of like sidebars. We purposely did not include sidebars, wanting the reader to follow closely Greenberg’s evolution as a baseball player.
TWM: How important are source notes?
CY: Research is as important at Calkins Creek as writing style and direction. Our books tend to have extensive back matters — filled with further resources, source notes, and bibliographies. I want readers to realize that writing history is an exacting science but it can also be fun — what can be better than uncovering information!
TWM: What’s been the reaction to the book?
CY: It’s been very positive and people have responded to how well Shelley placed Greenberg in his world. How he reacted to the times he lived in. People also appreciate a book on a little known hero.
TWM: Shelley, what advice would you give to writers wanting to write biography?
SS: As cliché as it sounds, my advice to writers who want to write biography is to read biographies. I have always loved stories about people’s lives and remember reading countless biographies when I was young. A successful biography is wonderful because even though the reader is inspired by someone else’s story, they are also gaining insights into their own life.
TWM: What’s up next for you?
SS: Right now, I’m enjoying talking with students about Hank Greenberg and writing about books on my blog.
TWM: And finally, Carolyn, how can writers submit to you?
CY: I believe our writer guidelines are listed on www.boydsmillspress.com. We accept manuscript from agents and unsolicited manuscripts – but manuscripts must combine original research with original writing. We are looking for nothing in particular. I would encourage authors to look at our list for style, direction, tone, and research. I’ve been told we aren’t for the faint of heart!