As a longtime Madison journalist, Dean Robbins loved to chase down a good story.
Even though his journalism career ended when he stepped down as editor of Isthmus in 2014, Robbins still chases good stories. But now they have fewer words and a lot more pictures.
Robbins has a new career as a children’s book author, turning true-life tales into colorful books that young readers can enjoy. His first book, “Two Friends,” looks at the friendship between Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, while “Miss Paul and the President” looks at activist Alice Paul’s creative campaign to get President Woodrow Wilson to support the right to vote for women.
His new book, “Margaret and the Moon,” is his first that tells the story of a living subject. Margaret Hamilton was a NASA scientist instrumental in the Apollo space program that landed a man on the moon.
Robbins talked about writing about his heroes, making biographies engaging for young readers and why writing children’s books is a lot like journalism:
How did your career go from journalism to children's books?
I actually started this whole children’s writing journey about a dozen years ago. I’ve always had a huge pantheon of heroes that I’ve been devoted to ever since I was a kid. I had pictures of all these people up on my wall of my elementary-school bedroom — Louis Armstrong, Mark Twain, Susan B. Anthony, Jackie Robinson. To this day they’re still my heroes. I still have framed pictures of them up in my offices.
One of the reasons I wanted to become a writer is that I was interested in learning about these people and telling their stories. As a journalist, I got to do that. I got to write about Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and Jackie Robinson. About a dozen years ago, I hit on the idea of writing children’s books, that maybe I could get kids as interested in these people as I was.
I was at home reading a biography of Babe Ruth, and it had this wonderful anecdote in it. My wife had a friend visiting who was involved with Amazon in their children’s book area. I came downstairs and started telling this story with spittle flying. It was such a great story. She said, "You ought to write a children’s story about that.”
It dawned on me that I was so obsessed with Babe Ruth in that moment, and how fun it would be to get kids as interested in Babe Ruth as I was. So I wrote a story and sent it to Harcourt, which you would never do today. And (the publisher) wrote back and said she liked it and wanted to publish it. Then she asked if I had any other ideas, so I wrote up two more ideas, about Jackie Robinson and Louis Armstrong. She liked them and she bought three books. I was like, “How easy is this?”
That didn’t work out. Houghton Mifflin bought out Harcourt, the publisher left the company, and suddenly these books were orphaned. I thought I could maybe give up on this or, since it was so fun, maybe I would try to do this the conventional way. So I found an agent, and I started writing manuscripts, and I started piling up rejection notices. Which is the normal way that these things happen. By hook or by crook, she sold three books, and they began coming out last year.
I would think it would be hard enough trying to write a full biography of someone and capturing their essence. What’s it like trying to do that in a children’s book?
Being a journalist, and always having to compress everything, was really helpful for this sort of thing. The alternate name for my job as a journalist for 30 years would be “compression.” It’s taking a big thing and making it small, but communicating the essence of it to the reader. For the children’s book, it’s kids. I feel like I remember very vividly what it was like being a kid. I remember what I liked and what I didn’t like, what I understood and what I didn’t understand. I feel like I never really grew up and that’s very helpful in writing for this audience. You just have to think yourself into their heads.
The fun part with me, just as with being a journalist, is throwing yourself into the subject and doing the research. What are the salient elements, what’s the heart of the story, what are the vibrant details? That’s fun.
Do you try to capture a whole life or the most important part?
The three that are published, they zero in on a small moment but try to tell the larger story through that. With “Two Friends,” I like to go on road trips to the places where my heroes lived. I dragged the family on a road trip to Rochester to see Susan B. Anthony’s house and to see where Frederick Douglass lived. I had no idea they knew each other. So when we were touring the Susan B. Anthony house, the tour guide pointed out Susan’s parlor and said Susan would sit here with Frederick Douglass who was her neighbor and have tea. I was like “What?” It was like Jesus Christ and Buddha happened to know each other and worked together. That was the story I decided to tell, Susan inviting Frederick over for tea. It’s really about that blessed moment of serenity, before they go out and face adversity, which they did every single day of their lives, and try to change the world.
How did you come across Margaret, who I assume wasn’t on your wall?
She wasn’t. A couple of years ago, a photograph of her went viral on the internet. She looked like a typical woman from the 1960s, wearing glasses and a charming smile. She’s standing next to this huge pile of paper that goes over her head. That turns out to be the code she wrote for the Project Apollo moon missions. At this point you realize this isn’t an ordinary woman. This is a genius who helped the astronauts get to the moon.
I wanted to learn more. And I wanted to write a story about her because I thought it might be inspiring.
Again, it’s that reporter instinct of knowing you’ve found a good story.
Right, but there was very little information out there about her. I had to start digging, which is also a fun part of being a journalist. I looked around and found an address for her. I wrote her on a hope and a prayer asking if she would be willing to provide information for a children’s book.
She’s the last person who would be interested in self-promotion or publicity. She’s a scientist to the core. But she also has grandchildren who are about the same age as the target audience. So she wrote back and said, "It would be great to have something that I can read to my grandkids.” We talked and we emailed, and she just started telling me all these wonderful stories.
She loved problem solving ever since she was a little kid. Math problems, philosophical problems and even problems that women and girls face in a sexist society. She noticed as a kid that there were only daddy longlegs, so she started calling some of them mommy longlegs. She saw that there weren’t many women doctors and lawyers, and why couldn’t that be? So she decided to try really hard in school so she could be whatever she wanted to be.
Unlike your previous books, which are telling lesser-known stories about famous people, you’re introducing Margaret to the world. Is that a different responsibility as a writer?
Yeah, it was. I really felt like I had to get it right. And luckily Margaret, she’s a scientist, and she’s incredibly thorough. After our talks, she was always sending me new information.
How do you tell the story here? What’s the essence? Margaret wasn’t that helpful with that. Even explaining what she did, I kept saying, “Imagine a first-grader reader that.” I had to figure out that. And you’re talking about computers and science and the space program. It was a lot to try to get right.
What did she think of the end result?
She really liked it. I was really worried, because it is so simplified and she gave me so much technical detail — would she just hate this? But she did like it and she did understand that it was for kids and she got the spirit of the thing.
Do you know what your next book will be?
My agent has got more books out there. I’m always working on new manuscripts. It’s just fun to do. My batting average is incredibly low. You just have to like doing it.
It’s just like with journalism. You think, “Oh, there’s an idea, I could do this story.” And you throw yourself into it. The difference is with journalism, you get published. With this, an incredibly low fraction of books get published.
What’s it like to write a children’s book? Are you thinking of the visuals that will come with it, or are you focused entirely on the words and leaving the pictures to an illustrator?
It would be nice to be an artist, because I do think of how these things will look. It’s the publishers who choose the illustrators. I put in little descriptions of what I imagine. With “Margaret and the Moon,” I can’t believe what (illustrator) Lucy Knisley did. It’s like she read my mind. I had this tricky tone in my mind, that it would be both playful and cosmic. And damned if she didn’t evoke that. I just about keeled over when I saw her first sketches.