Remembering Russell Freedman, Titan of Youth Nonfiction

Russell Freedman. Photo via

 

Russell Freedman has died. Born in San Francisco on October 11, 1929, he was 88 years old.

The author of some 50 distinguished works of nonfiction for young readers, Freedman grew up surrounded by books and discussions about them. In a 2007 interview with the National Endowment for the Humanities, Freedman recalled his literary childhood. “Being a voracious and promiscuous reader was just a normal part of life,” he said, explaining how his father, once the West Coast manager of the Macmillan publishing company, often hosted dinner guests like John Steinbeck, Margaret Mitchell, William Saroyan, and John Masefield. It’s likely they inspired him; Freedman said he always knew he wanted to be a nonfiction writer, and accordingly, he began his career as a reporter and editor for the Associated Press where, as he told Horn Book, he “really learned to write.” Upon his move to New York City, where the literary action was, he took a job writing publicity for the J. Walter Thompson Advertising Agency.

In 1961, Freedman published Teenagers Who Made History, his first book for young readers, which, he told Horn Book, had been inspired by a New York Times article about a 16-year-old blind boy who invented a Braille typewriter. When Freedman discovered the Braille system itself had been invented by another 16-year-old boy, he wondered if there might be other significant achievements by teens, and quickly discovered there were. He hadn’t intended to become a writer for children, he wrote, but when he did, he felt he had found himself “even though [he] hadn’t really known that [he] had been lost.”

The 56-year career that followed was notably successful, distinguished by many prestigious laurels like the Sibert Medal, the Orbis Pictus Award, a National Humanities Medal, and, in 1998, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, presented to an author whose works have made, over a period of years, a substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children. Three Newbery Honor Awards followed for biographies of the Wright Brothers, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Marian Anderson.

But it was his bellwether biography of Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln: a Photobiography, that may be his signal achievement. Not only did it receive the 1988 Newbery Medal —one of only a few nonfiction books to receive that prestigious award—it helped usher in a new age of nonfiction that, as he said in his acceptance speech, eschewed fictionalization and the strictly utilitarian and was distinguished by literary style and carefully researched illustrations that harmonized beautifully with the text. Freedman did his own photo research, explaining this process to the National Endowment for the Humanities as “pairing pictures with text until they are ‘tightly knit together.'” “Every photo I pick,” he said, “is key to a paragraph in my manuscript. It’s like a kind of counterpoint. A good picture should say something that the text doesn’t say, and the text should say something that isn’t evident in the photo.” He described the technique as going back in time.

For the Lincoln biography, he engaged in what he called “eyewitness research,” visiting Lincoln’s log-cabin birthplace in Kentucky, Lincoln’s boyhood home in Indiana, and the reconstructed village of New Salem, Illinois, where Lincoln lived as a young man. “There’s something magic about being able to lay your eyes on the real thing—something you can’t get from your reading alone,” Freedman said.

Little wonder Freedman’s books are such models of accuracy and insight. Nothing was secondhand.

But Freedman bristled at the word nonfiction, calling it an unfortunate, negative term—the opposite of fiction, which “implies art, imagination, creativity.” He felt that “hard-working, nose-to-the-grindstone nonfiction should be just as absorbing as any imaginary story, because, it is, in fact, a story, too.”

Although Freedman will be best-remembered for his biographies and works of history, he also wrote more than 20 books about animals; the first, How Animals Learn, appeared in 1969. “Considering that Russell grew up in a strictly urban milieu,” his friend Frank J. Dempsey wrote in a Horn Book profile, “his later penchant for tusks, fangs, and the Great Plains is a bit puzzling. His only early exposure to animals, he tells us, was represented by a cat named Sally and a dog named Spot, and whatever birds and squirrels were willing to tolerate the yearlong chills and fogs of San Francisco.” Perhaps the key to Freedman’s interest was, appropriately a childhood favorite book: Ernest Thompson Seaton’s Wild Animals I Have Known, published in 1898.

“One of the great joys of writing nonfiction for youngsters,” he said in his Newbery Medal acceptance speech, “is the opportunity to explore almost any subject that excites your interest. I picked Lincoln as a subject because I felt I could offer a fresh perspective for today’s generation of young readers, but mostly I picked him because I wanted to satisfy my own itch to know.”

Freedman’s great, enduing gift to literature for young readers is surely his having inspired them to experience similar itches and then, through his books, giving them the words and information to scratch them. He will be missed.

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About the Author:

Michael Cart has been a Booklist reviewer for over 20 years and is a leading expert on YA literature. He authors the column "Carte Blanche" and has published numerous books. He is the editor of Taking Aim: Teens and Guns (HarperTeen, 2015).

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