Russell Freedman, 88, children's non-fiction author -- Newbery for Lincoln bio,
(too old to reply)
That Derek
2018-03-22 23:29:02 UTC

Obituary: Russell Freedman

By Shannon Maughan | Mar 20, 2018

Award-winning author Russell Freedman, widely lauded for his entertaining and thoroughly researched nonfiction and revealing biographies, including the Newbery Medal-winning Lincoln: A Photobiography (Clarion, 1987), died on Friday, March 16, in New York City, after suffering a series of strokes on March 3. Freedman had previously survived bouts with both laryngeal and pancreatic cancer. He was 88.

Freedman was born October 11, 1929 in San Francisco to parents already steeped in the book business and ready to encourage their son’s literary pursuits. His father was a publishing representative at Macmillan and his mother had been working as a clerk in a bookstore, which was where the couple first met. In his Newbery acceptance speech, Freedman told the audience of his father’s storytelling talents. “The problem was, we never knew for sure whether the stories he told were fiction or nonfiction,” he joked. Freedman often spoke of his childhood home as a creative place filled with books, and his parents as gracious hosts to such author guests as John Steinbeck, Margaret Mitchell, and William Saroyan.

By 1947, Freedman was studying at San Jose State College, where he spent two years, and then graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 1951 with a B.A. in English. After college, Freedman served in the U.S. Counter Intelligence Corps during the Korean War, including some combat duty with the 2nd Infantry Division.

Back in San Francisco after his military service, Freedman made his first foray into writing professionally, becoming a reporter and editor with the Associated Press. In 1956 he changed coasts when he took a position at advertising agency J. Walter Thompson in New York, where he did publicity writing for television. During this time, Freedman came across some information that helped set the path for his book-writing career. As he told PW in a 1993 interview, he had read an article in the New York Times about a 16-year-old boy who had created a Braille typewriter, and subsequently discovered that Louis Braille was only 16 when he developed the Braille tactile writing system for the blind. Those accounts of successful and enterprising boys sparked a book idea. Freedman’s father knew legendary publishing sales rep George Scheer, who sold for independent children’s publisher Holiday House, and Scheer helped get Freedman’s manuscript seen at that house. The result was his first published book, Teenagers Who Made History (Holiday House, 1961).

Brief writing and editing stints followed at Columbia Encyclopedia and Crowell-Collier Educational Corp., but Freedman also pursued projects as a freelance writer, and by 1965 was writing more or less full-time. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, he published prolifically with Holiday House, creating a series of nonfiction books on animal behavior—a topic that held deep personal interest for him—illustrated by various artists.

Freedman began to shift his writing focus in the 1980s, transitioning from animal subjects to human and historical ones, beginning with Immigrant Kids (Dutton, 1980). In a 1988 interview with the Horn Book, Freedman said that photographs of children in 19th- and early 20th-century America in exhibit at the New-York Historical Society inspired that book. Subsequent titles chronicled history and notable figures from the American West (Cowboys of the Old West, Clarion, 1985) and several books centered on prominent Native Americans, including Indian Chiefs (Holiday House, 1987).

In 1988, his Lincoln: A Photobiography became the first nonfiction book in more than 30 years to be awarded the Newbery Medal, and established a new heavily illustrated format for which Freedman had coined the name “photobiography.” He brought his signature style of blending history, biography, and many primary sources and photographs to a number of topics in the 1990s and 2000s, ranging from Martha Graham: A Dancer’s Life (Clarion, 1998) and Confucius: The Golden Rule (Scholastic/Levine, 2002) to Because They Marched: The People’s Campaign for Voting Rights That Changed America (Holiday House, 2014). A number of his biographical subjects were arguably controversial figures in some way. He explained that focus in the 1993 PW interview: “I think I’m attracted to subjects who had a strong sense of injustice and felt in a very deep personal sense that there were things that are wrong that have to be fixed. And because of that they’re controversial; they’re stepping on toes and threatening the status quo.”

Over the span of his career, Freedman’s books received numerous awards, including three Newbery Honors. In all, he wrote more than 60 nonfiction books for young readers.

Freedman was also a writing workshop instructor at the New School for Social Research (now New School University) for many years, from 1969 to 1986.

In noting great admiration for Freedman’s work ethic, his husband and partner of 32 years, filmmaker Evans Chan, recalled the author’s steadfastness during the lengthy recovery from a difficult cancer surgery in 2015. “For him to finalize the manuscript, I personally brought the Vietnam [Vietnam: A History of the War (Holiday House, 2016)] galleys to the rehab hospital, where Russ was close to death,” Chan said. “I was profoundly touched by his dedication to his own work.”

John Briggs, publisher of Holiday House from 1965 to 2016, who oversaw the release of most of Freedman’s many books for the house, offered this reflection: “My relationship with Russell spanned 51 years. His record speaks for itself. Perhaps not so apparent are his character and integrity, which are as evident in his work as is his talent as a writer. He was a dear friend, a blessing in my life.” In 2000, on the occasion of a Holiday House milestone, Freedman wrote a noteworthy history of the company, Holiday House: The First Sixty-Five Years.

Also at Holiday House, editor-in-chief Mary Cash paid tribute by saying, “Editing Russell was a privilege and a joy. Each of his books illuminated the topic and provided multiple alternative perspectives, all in stunning, crystal clear prose. On top of that he was one of the loveliest and most conscientious people I’ve ever met.”

And Freedman’s longtime editor at Clarion Books, Dinah Stevenson, remembered her author and friend with these words: “Russell was a man of strict principles and had an opinion about everything from politics to history to cooking corn on the cob (‘Three minutes!’). In his work and in person he was a master storyteller. All of his books were narrative nonfiction, long before the term came into use, and will live on as classics of the genre.”

A memorial service is planned for October 11 in New York City, on what would have been Freedman’s 89th birthday.
2018-03-23 19:41:50 UTC
(Horn Book short death notice)

(School Library Journal obit)

(Booklist obit)


...“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.”...

(short obit - scroll halfway down)

(short notice and descriptions of seven of his books)

(photos & book covers)

(includes his awards and resume)


(Kirkus reviews)

(reader reviews)

(videos - some include him)

Most of the birthday post I wrote for him in 2009:

He also received Newbery Honors for the 1994 "Eleanor Roosevelt: A
Life of Discovery" and the 1992 "The Wright Brothers: How They
Invented the Airplane."

From "Authors and Artists for Young Adults":

Early biographies for children often fictionalized accounts of a
person's life, and Freedman has fond memories of the ways they were
written. "I grew up during the cherry-tree era of children's
biography," Freedman confessed in his Newbery speech. "Recently I
looked again at a Lincoln biography I read as a boy; it contains my
favorite example of invented dialogue. Abe is eleven years old in this
scene, and his father is bawling him out: 'Books!' said his father.
'Always books! What is all this studying going to do for you? What do
you think you are going to be?' 'Why," said Abe, 'I'm going to be


"One of the great joys of writing nonfiction for youngsters is the
opportunity to explore almost any subject that excites your interest,"
Freedman wrote in his Newbery acceptance speech. Freedman decided to
write a biography about Abraham Lincoln after hearing a remark about
the former president's melancholy disposition. What struck Freedman
was that Lincoln would have had such a multi-layered and moody
personality. "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,"
he related. The result was Lincoln: A Photobiography.

Because so much has been written about Lincoln, Freedman faced the
daunting challenge of writing from a fresh perspective. Through the
proprietor of a Lincoln-related bookshop, Freedman was able to focus
his research and pinpoint the documents he wanted to emphasize. Still,
writing the book turned out to be more difficult than Freedman had
originally anticipated. The problem was that the more he looked into
Lincoln's life, the more complex the man became. "The man himself
turned out to be vastly more interesting than the myth. Of course, I
was never able to understand him completely. I doubt if it's possible
to understand anyone fully, and Lincoln was harder to figure out than
most people, 'the most secretive--reticent-- shutmouthed man that ever
lived,' according to his law partner, William Herndon, who knew him as
well as anyone. That's something I wanted to get across to my readers--
a sense of the mysteries of personality, the fascinating
inconsistencies of character," he related in his Newbery speech.


(bio and partial booklist)

More recent books:

Babe Didrikson Zaharias: The Making of a Champion, Clarion Books (New
York, NY), 1999.
Give Me Liberty! The Story of the Declaration of Independence, Holiday
House, (New York, NY), 2000.
In the Days of the Vaqueros: America's First True Cowboys, Clarion
Books (New York, NY), 2001.
Confucius: The Golden Rule, illustrated by Frederic Clement, A.A.
Levine Books (New York, NY), 2002.
In Defense of Liberty: The Story of America's Bill of Rights, Holiday
House (New York, NY), 2003.
The Voice that Challenged a Nation: Marian Anderson and the Struggle
for Equal Rights, Clarion Books (New York, NY), 2004.
Children of the Great Depression, Clarion Books (New York, NY), 2005.
The Adventures of Marco Polo, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline, A.A.
Levine Books (New York, NY), 2006.
Freedom Walkers: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Holiday
House (New York, NY), 2006.
Who Was First? Discovering the Americas, Clarion Books (New York, NY),
Washington at Valley Forge, Holiday House (New York, NY), 2008.

(interview by Scholastic students about the book "Confucius: The
Golden Rule")


"I'm in fourth grade. Why would students my age like your new book?"

"I believe that anyone interested in human beings and human behavior
and human history, anyone interested in the world and life would be
interested in reading about someone like Confucius - or about any of
the people I write about; that's why I pick those subjects."

(interview about the recent "Freedom Walkers: The Story of the
Montgomery Bus Boycott")

(2-minute trailer for "In the Days of the Vaqueros: America's First
True Cowboys")

2018-03-23 19:50:40 UTC
From "Lincoln: A Photobiography":

...Artists and writers tried to capture the “real” Lincoln that the camera missed, but something about the man always escaped them. His changeable features, his tones, gestures, and expressions, seemed to defy description.

Today it’s hard to imagine Lincoln as he really was. And he never cared to reveal much about himself. In company he was witty and talkative, but he rarely
betrayed his inner feelings. According to William Herndon, his law partner, he was the “most secretive-­‐reticent-­‐shut-­‐mouthed man that ever lived.”

In his own time, Lincoln was never fully understood even by his closest friends. Since then, his life story has been told and retold so many times; he has become as much a legend as a flesh-­‐and-­‐blood human being. While the legend is based on truth it is only partly true. And it hides the man behind it like a disguise...

2018-03-25 20:09:52 UTC
Freedman had four entries in the "Something About the Author" encyclopedia series and a long entry in volume 71 (from the year 2002, I think) of the "Children's Literature Review" encyclopedia series. (Many obscure writers and illustrators get one or even two entries in SATA, but only the cream of the crop get listed in CLR - and no more than once, I believe.)
Post by l***@yahoo.com
Early biographies for children often fictionalized accounts of a
person's life, and Freedman has fond memories of the ways they were
written. "I grew up during the cherry-tree era of children's
biography," Freedman confessed in his Newbery speech. "Recently I
looked again at a Lincoln biography I read as a boy; it contains my
favorite example of invented dialogue. Abe is eleven years old in this
scene, and his father is bawling him out: 'Books!' said his father.
'Always books! What is all this studying going to do for you? What do
you think you are going to be?' 'Why," said Abe, 'I'm going to be
I looked that up. The book was "Abe Lincoln: Frontier Boy" (1932) by Augusta Stevenson (1869-1976). It was reprinted(!) in 1986 as "Abraham Lincoln: The Great Emancipator."

Book covers for that one:


Other book covers of hers:


2018-04-02 21:46:17 UTC
Finally, from the New York Times (it includes a photo of Freedman receiving the National Humanities Medal at the White House in 2007):


MARCH 29, 2018

First paragraphs:

Russell Freedman, who brought readable, relatable history to young readers in dozens of well-researched, generously illustrated books, died on March 16 in Manhattan. He was 88.

He had suffered a series of strokes, Holiday House, his publisher for some of those books, said in announcing his death.

Beginning in 1961, Mr. Freedman wrote more than 60 books, most of them about the people, movements and events that shaped the world, and especially the United States. There were biographies like “Eleanor Roosevelt: A Life of Discovery” (1993) and “Becoming Ben Franklin” (2013). There were books about conflicts, like “The War to End All Wars” (2010), about World War I; and “Vietnam” (2016). There were books about young people who did impressive or courageous things, like “We Will Not Be Silent: The White Rose Student Resistance Movement That Defied Adolf Hitler” (2016).

Mr. Freedman related these stories in an engaging prose that was expertly pitched to pre-adult readers, avoiding condescension while finding angles and anecdotes that resonated with his audience.

“Opening the first page of his biography of Eleanor Roosevelt is be transported into her child-life,” Lisa Von Drasek, curator of the children’s literature research collections at the University of Minnesota Libraries, said by email. “When I’ve read it aloud to fifth graders, they vocally identified with her feelings of being unloved and isolated in the shadow of a family of extroverts.”

“And,” added Ms. Von Drasek, whose university archive is a repository of Mr. Freedman’s papers, “he was the original ‘crossover’ writer, publishing for children and young adults but perfect for an adult just entering into the subject matter.”

That was by design, Mr. Freedman indicated.

“If my grown-up friends cannot read one of my books with interest and respect,” he said in an interview when he won a National Humanities Medal in 2007, “then it’s not a good book for kids.”...


That reminds me of what writer/artist Sandra Boynton said when her musical career took off in 2002 with "Philadelphia Chickens." She said, about "children's music": "If it isn't good enough for adults, it isn't good enough for children."