April 23, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Russell Freedman Brought History to Life For Kids

Abraham Lincoln. Eleanor Roosevelt. Martha Graham. The Wright Brothers. Marian Anderson. Vietnam. World War II. The Civil Rights Movement.

Photo by Evans Chan

Russell Freedman made history and historic figures interesting and accessible to young readers for decades. The award-winning children’s nonfiction writer died on March 16 at age 88.

Word of Freedman’s death spread on social media over the weekend, with friends, colleagues, and admirers posting messages.

“RIP Russell Freedman,” author Linda Sue Park tweeted. “So fortunate to have known you as a friend. A Sibert Honor in ’17 at 86 yrs old!!– with a book of great relevance today. Thank you for leaving us your tremendous body of work. I will miss you.”

Holiday House Publishing confirmed the death, releasing an obituary on Tuesday:

“Russell Freedman, one of America’s most honored writers of nonfiction books for young readers, passed away peacefully on March 16, 2018 in New York City. He is survived by his husband, filmmaker Evans Chan, his sister Carol, a San Jose-based artist, her husband George Hutchinson, and their three children and seven grandchildren. The immediate cause of Freedman’s death was a series of strokes he suffered on March 3; he never regained consciousness.

“Russell Freedman grew up in San Francisco and graduated from the University of California at Berkeley. After serving with the Second Infantry Division during the Korean War, he worked as a reporter and editor for the Associated Press, and later as a publicist for several network television shows. His first book, Teenagers Who Made History, was published by Holiday House in 1961.”

A memorial service is planned for October 11 in New York City, on what would have been Freedman’s 89th birthday, according to Holiday House.

Freedman’s books continue to be topical and are often found on recommended reading lists. We Will Not Be Silent: The White Rose Student Resistance Movement that Defied Hitler, The Voice That Challenged a Nation: Marian Anderson and the Struggle for Equal Rights, and Freedom Walkers: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott all discuss important people and movements that readers can connect to current events.

Freedman’s biographies were carefully researched and thoughtfully constructed, with the author spending as much time on what to put in a text as what to leave out. In a 2002 interview with The Horn Book, Freedman explained how to best write about historic figures for children.

“A biography for young readers, if it’s successful, is a feat of imaginative storytelling that is informed by the historical record,” he said. “As I’ve said before, it has to be a distillation. You’re writing for a reader who hopefully will be motivated to go on to a longer and more comprehensive work. A children’s biography doesn’t have to be comprehensive, and it doesn’t have to be definitive. It does have to be accurate, to the extent that’s possible. And most of all, it has to be a piece of literature, a compelling read. I want the reader to discover the joy of reading.”

His efforts earned him many awards, including the 1988 Newbery Medal for Lincoln: A Photobiography and three Newbery Honors for Eleanor Roosevelt: A Life of Discovery (1994), The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane (1992), and The Voice That Challenged a Nation: Marian Anderson and the Struggle for Equal Rights (2005).

He had not slowed down, either, earning a 2017 Sibert Honor for We Will Not Be Silent: The White Rose Student Resistance Movement that Defied Hitler. The Robert F. Sibert is given to the author and illustrator of the most distinguished informational book. He was recognized three times by the Sibert committee, earning an honor in 2011 with Lafayette and the American Revolution and winning the Sibert in 2005 for The Voice that Challenged a Nation: Marian Anderson and the Struggle for Equal Rights.

In the obituary, Freedman’s Holiday House editor Mary Cash talked about his work, and the man.

“Editing Russell was a privilege and a joy,” she said. “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.”

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Kara Yorio About Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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