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Best known as the writer of a wide array of nonfiction books for younger writers that includes extensive visuals, Russell Freedman is an innovator who introduced historical revisionism to children s literature. Instead of sanitized, myth-filled histories often targeted at children, Freedman s ”information books are as readable as fiction books but with complex information presented in an understandable and entertaining fashion with photographs to complement and supplement the text. Among his best-known works is Lincoln: A Photobiography (1987), which won the 1988 Newbery Medal.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Born on October 11, 1929, in San Francisco, California, Russell Bruce Freedman is the son of Louis Nathan and Irene (Gordon) Freedman. Russell’s father was a publishing representative for Macmillan and filled their home with books. In this way Freedman was exposed to literature from an early age, became an avid reader, and, thanks to his father’s professional contacts, was able to meet some of the leading authors of the twentieth century, including John Steinbeck.
As a youth, Freedman’s two favorite books were Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island (1883) and Ernest Thompson Seton’s natural history book Wild Animals I Have Known (1898). Freedman did not distinguish between nonfiction and fiction at the time, but as he grew older, he realized that a nonfiction book like Seton’s could entertain him as thoroughly as a fictional tale. Wild Animals I Have Known became a starting point in his interest for nonfiction reading—an interest that contributed to his decision to become a professional writer.
Served in Korea
Freedman attended San Jose College from 1947 to 1949, then earned his BA from the University of California at Berkeley in 1951. After graduation, he served in the army for two years as a member of the U.S. Army’s Counterintelligence Corps. Freedman spent part of his time in the army serving in Korea during the Korean War. After World War II, Korea was artificially divided between a communist north, influenced by the Soviets, and a democratic south, influenced by the United States. In 1950, North Korean armed forces struck across the demarcation line and into South Korea, launching the war. The United States sent troops in support of South Korea. The seesaw struggle lasted for three years, saw the United States alone suffer 140,000 casualties, and the borders essentially remain the same at the end of the conflict as they were at the beginning.
When he was released from the service, Freedman held a variety of writing positions in which, he later admitted, he learned to write. He took a job as a reporter and editor for the Associated Press in San Francisco from 1953 to 1956. In 1956, Freedman moved to New York City to work in the television-publicity department as a writer for J. Walter Thompson, an advertising agency. Freedman left Thompson in 1960, and joined the Columbia University Press in 1961. There he worked as an associate staff member of the Columbia Encyclopedia.
Inspired by Teens
Freedman published his first book, Teenagers Who Made History in 1961. The book was inspired by a New York Times article about a blind sixteen-year-old who invented a Braille typewriter. Researching further, Freedman learned that Louis Braille had also been sixteen when he invented the Braille alphabet, a system that allows blind people to read with their hands. This information compelled Freedman to wonder what other significant achievements had been made by young people. Based on further research, Teenagers Who Made History offers a collection of biographies of influential young people.
Freedman followed Teenagers with a history of space travel, Two Thousand Years of Space Travel (1965) and the biographies Thomas Alva Edison (1966) and Jules Verne: Portrait of a Prophet (1968). While his writing career was taking off, Freedman held other posts. He was an editor for the Crowell-Collier Educational Corporation from 1964 to 1965. A few years later, in 1969, Freedman joined the faculty of the New School for Social Research. He remained a writing-workshop instructor with the New School until 1986.
In the late 1960s, Freedman began writing the works that make up the bulk of his early career: animal books. He wrote more than twenty such books, sometimes in collaboration with James E. Morriss, which sought to explain, in simple language, some of the scientific concepts of the animal kingdom. These books include How Animals Learn (1969), Animal Instincts (1971), and The Brains of Animals and Man (1972). The titles were well-received by the educational community.
Freedman followed these books with further explorations of the animal kingdom, including The First Days of Life (1974) and How Birds Fly (1977). Some of these works feature detailed drawings that illustrated Freedman’s words. By the end of the 1970s, Freedman switched to photographs to enhance the text and make his books stronger and clearer. Hanging On: How Animals Carry Their Young (1977) was one his first books to utilize photographs.
Focus on History
In 1980, Freedman took a break from chronicling wildlife to write about human beings. While attending a photographic exhibit at the New York Historical Society, Freedman was struck by the photographs of children in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Freedman decided to tell the story behind these photographs, attempting to convey a sense of what life was like at that time. The resulting book was Immigrant Kids (1980). Freedman continued to produce books on animals, but from this point forward he focused more and more of his writings on people. Books like the award-winning Children of the Wild West (1983) and Cowboys of the Wild West (1985) were praised for their accurate portrayal of life in the Old West.
Continuing to separate fact from fiction, Freedman next turned to an intriguing president. In 1987, Freed-man published one of his most lauded works, Lincoln: A Photobiography. Including many photographs, the work examines the man behind the myth and shows Lincoln to be a highly complex and paradoxical figure who is vastly more interesting than the Lincoln of legend and history textbooks. Freedman won the Newbery Medal for the work, one of the few nonfiction titles to be so honored in the history of the award.
Following the success of Lincoln, Freedman continued to write about historical figures in “photobiographies” or ”information books” from the late 1980s to the early 2000s. These works won him numerous awards. These include Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1990), Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor (1994), and The Voice That Challenged a Nation: Marion Anderson and the Struggle for Equal Rights (2005). Many titles were linked to social and historical issues. For example, Kids at Work illustrated the plight of children forced to work in the early 1900s, as revealed by investigative reporter Lewis Hine. Working for the National Child Labor Committee from 1908 to 1918, Hine toured the United States recording visual proof of children doing backbreaking, grueling, and often dangerous work.
Freedman has continued to publish such challenging historical works as The Adventures of Marco Polo (2006) and Who Was First? Discovering the Americas (2007). In 2007, Freedman received a National Humanities medal. He continues to live and work in New York City.
Works in Literary Context
In many of his books, Freedman heightens the interest of his subject by including photographs and other illustrations to accompany the text. Through painstaking research, Freedman finds the most appropriate images available to lend a sense of immediacy to his words. Freedman also
employs a consistently evenhanded, objective approach to subjects that have been distorted and romanticized. He focuses on historical truths rather than myth building. As an author, Freedman was greatly influenced by several books he read in his youth, including Treasure Island, Wild Animals I Have Known ,and Hendrik Willem Van Loon’s The Story of Mankind (1921).
In many of Freedman’s biographies and history books, the author’s primary goal is to set the record straight. For example, in his first biography, Lincoln: A Photobiography, Freedman offered a realistic, complex view of the legendary president, instead of including the usual myths that were often included in books, especially those for younger readers, about Lincoln. Similarly, his Franklin Delano Roosevelt reveals the subject in all his complexity. Without sentiment or pathos, Freed-man looks honestly and directly at the man and his times. Freedman does not overload the facts, but offers a keen sense of balance and form in the composition and arrangement of information. In The Adventures of Marco Polo, Freedman offers an evenhanded examination of this fourteenth-century adventurer who traveled to the Middle East, India, and China. Freedman includes questions about the truths of some of Polo’s alleged escapades. In his book Freedom Walkers: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott (2006), Freedman uses actual recorded words and deeds from participants in the civil rights movement to show everyday truths about the persons involved.
Another characteristic of many of Freedman’s books is the use of photographs and other visuals. The use of pictures adds depth to his story and brings home the reality of many historical situations. While Lincoln: A Photobiography includes only five photographs, they show the ravages of the presidency on the embattled Lincoln during his four years in office. Archival photographs show the extent of Marian Anderson’s life and influence as a singer and civil rights activist in The Voice That Challenged a Nation: Marian Anderson and the Struggle for Equal Rights. Farm Security Administration photographs, including some by well-known photographers Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, document life during the Great Depression in Children of the Great Depression (2005). Not all the pictures are about the harshness of life during this difficult time; Freedman includes references to music and films as diversions. Sometimes Freedman uses paintings and drawings for illustrations if he believes the art would be more effective. For example, in Buffalo Hunt (1988), Freedman employs paintings of artist adventurers who traveled West in the 1800s, when Indians depended on the American bison to fulfill material and spiritual needs, to illustrate his premise. The Adventures of Marco Polo includes maps, illustrations, and photographs to tell a well-rounded story.
Works in Critical Context
Critics have praised Freedman’s compelling and dynamic yet straightforward approach to nonfiction as well as his ability to explain technical subjects in a clear, interesting way. Nearly all of Freedman’s historical works are reviewed positively by critics for their approach to history and their readability. His animal books also receive critical attention for being thorough and engaging studies of animals. Freedman has perhaps been most lauded for his biographies of important figures in American history. Overall, his books are considered informative, well-written, and entertaining.
Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor
Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor was Freedman’s chronicle of child laborers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Reviewing the book for the New York Times Book Review, Iris Tillman Hill writes that Freedman ”has an unerring instinct for the right quotation from the photographer’s own writing. He captures the spirit of Lewis Hine in his vivid text and provides an insightful look at an important era in American labor history.” Critics also laud the way Kids at Work came together. Roger Sutton observes in the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books that Freedman’s ”fluent text” delineates the harshness of the photographic material as well as the decency of Lewis Hine himself. Sutton adds, ”Spaciously designed, the book moves easily between words and pictures.”
Babe Didrickson Zaharis: The Making of a Champion
In Babe Didrickson Zaharis: The Making of a Champion (1999), Freedman tells the story of the remarkable career of Didrickson, who broke records in golf, track and field, and other sports, and all at a time when opportunities for females in athletics were very limited. ”Freedman is on top of his game with this engaging profile of one of this century’s most remarkable athletes and larger-than-life personalities,” writes Luann Toth in a School Library Journal review. Toth concludes, ”Befitting a champion, this superbly crafted, impeccably documented biography ranks head and shoulders above its peers.” A reviewer in Horn Book believes ”Freedman’s measured yet lively style captures the spirit of the great athlete,” and that the plentiful black-and-white photographs ”capture Babe’s spirit and dashing good looks.” A contributor for Publishers Weekly calls Freedman’s biography ”exemplary” and concludes that this ”celebratory work gives readers a chance to cheer Zaharias’s legendary life.”
- Hill, Iris Tillman. Review of Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor. New York Times Book Review (November 13, 1994): 23.
- Review of Babe Didrickson Zaharis: The Making of a Champion. Horn Book (September-October 1999): 623.
- Review of Babe Didrickson Zaharis: The Making of a Champion. Publishers Weekly (July 19, 1999): 196.
- Sutton, Roger. Review of Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor. Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books (1994): 44-45.
- Toth, Luann. Review of Babe Didrickson Zaharis: The Making of a Champion. School Library Journal (July 1999): 106.
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