"The question I am most often asked," Jean Fritz says, "is how do I find my ideas? The answer is: I don't. Ideas find me. A character in history will suddenly step right out of the past and demand a book. Generally people don't bother to speak to me unless there's a good chance that I'll take them on." Throughout almost four decades of writing about history, Jean Fritz has taken on plenty of people, starting with George Washington in The Cabin Faced West (1958). Since then, her refreshingly informal historical biographies for children have been widely acclaimed as "unconventional," "good-humored," "witty," "irrepressible," and "extraordinary."
In her role as biographer, Jean Fritz researches the past like a journalist, attempting to uncover the adventures and personalities behind each character featured in her books. "Once my character and I have reached an understanding," she explains, "then I begin the detective work—reading old books, old letters, old newspapers, and visiting the places where my subject lived. Often I turn up surprises and of course I pass these on."
"History is full of gossip; it's real people and emotion," says Fritz, who is especially interested in the quirks of people who shaped the past. It is this penchant for making distant historical figures seem real that brings the characters to life and makes the biographies entertaining, informative, and filled with natural appeal.
In her biographies, Jean Fritz never invents dialogue. Instead, she draws on real letters, diaries, and journals, using only words actually spoken or written. This practice can make writing scenes and conversations difficult, but Fritz feels it keeps her writing true to the people involved.
Until she was twelve years old, Fritz and her family lived in China, where she relied on stories and writing to ease her loneliness. In those early years she kept a journal to record her feelings about people and life. When she grew up, she held a number of jobs that involved writing. She also tried to get some of her children's stories published, at first with little success. Eventually she worked as a children's librarian for two years, gaining a deeper understanding of the craft of writing for children. She began sending her stories out again, and this time they began to be published. That was nearly fifty years ago, and Fritz's writing career is still going strong!
An original and lively thinker, as well as an inspiration to children and adults, Jean Fritz is undeniably a master of her craft. She was awarded the Regina Medal by the Catholic Library Association, presented with the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award by the American Library Association for her "substantial and lasting contribution to children's literature," and honored with the Knickerbocker Award for Juvenile Literature, which was presented by the New York State Library Association for her body of work.
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