A story to tell
Jeri Chase Ferris aims to inspire a younger generation of readers through biographies of people who made a difference
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Jeri Chase Ferris is the author of 11 biographies for children. She writes especially about minority figures and women. Her 2012 picture book, Noah Webster and His Words, won the 2013 Golden Kite Award for Best Nonfiction from the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators. She’s also penned biographies of Biddy Mason, arctic explorer Matthew Henson, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Abigail Adams.
Tell me about your childhood. Well, I grew up in Lincoln, Neb., on the farm. My best friend was my horse. I had an Arabian mare, and my second-best friend was my duck. I was very introverted and practically lived in the local library on the edge of town. I rode my horse there, and I’d tie her outside while I went in to get my books.
Did you always want to write? I grew up a reader, never thought of writing. In the third grade I wrote what I thought was a wonderful story. I found it recently, and it’s really awful. It’s filled with grammatical mistakes, spelling mistakes. I remember my third-grade teacher said, You will never be a writer. Today, teachers would never say anything like that to kids, but that really stuck with me.
Were you interested in history? No. I was interested in horses and ducks. I fell in love with history, but it was much later, when I was getting my master’s degree in history and education. I began seeing people made history, then I got interested in it. That’s why I write about the people who made a difference. Because when kids get into the story of a person, they’ll understand what that person did.
What made you interested in writing about women and minority figures? I taught for 30 years in inner-city Los Angeles, and my kids were all black. I looked very seriously for books, for role models for my kids: not just sports figures, but people who have really made a difference in our country, in our world. I couldn’t find any. So I took a class in writing at UCLA, and my thesis for the class was a biography of Harriet Tubman. That became my first published book in 1988. It is still in print.
How did that work? I found a publisher that realized there was a need for these books. So I signed a contract for four biographies with this publisher.
How do you decide who to write about? I write about minority figures or women, people who have done great things. If it’s a person who’s done questionable things, or someone I just don’t like, I don’t write about that person. I have fallen in love with all of the people I’ve written about.
I want kids to know when they read about my people, my people made mistakes. I make mistakes. Kids are gonna make mistakes, but they can go on and make a difference in our world.
Why Noah Webster? He’s not a woman or a minority. Why did I write about a white man? Everybody knows Webster’s dictionary, but nobody knows what else Noah Webster did for our country.
You quote Webster saying, “We aren’t to think of ourselves as people of one state but as Americans.” Why is that important? In 1785 we did not yet have a president. The 13 states were very competitive, very divisive. So Noah was afraid America would fall into 13 pieces. He wrote his first book, The Blue Back Speller, because people were spelling words all different ways. He wanted to have a uniformity for American children, for American spellers. He wrote reading books, history books, spelling books, even health books. The dictionary was a 20-year project. All these other things he did first were important in uniting our country.
How do you do your research? I love the research. I always go back to where the person lived. I go to the historical societies. I contact the specialists. For Matthew Henson I contacted the people who knew about Arctic exploration and the people who might have been connected with him.
How about secondary sources? You have to go to primary sources. When I researched the book on the first female Native American doctor, one secondary source said she graduated at the top of her class in medical school. I thought, Wow, that’s terrific. Let me write this down. Then I thought, Wait a minute, I better check. I contacted the medical school, and it had her grades from 1880. She did well, she had 90s, but she was not at the top of her class. If I had copied that other source, I would have been wrong. That’s why you have to go to a primary source.
What’s one thing you want children to learn from your books? I want kids to know when they read about my people, my people made mistakes. I make mistakes. Kids are gonna make mistakes, but they can go on and make a difference in our world. That’s what I want them to get. When I talk to kids about the era of slavery and how slave owners didn’t want their slaves to learn to read, I tell them once you know how to read, you can learn everything. I really want them to get that.
You sometimes talk to the descendants of your subjects. Biddy Mason was a slave in Mississippi. She walked behind her master’s wagons and ended up in Southern California. She got her freedom and became one of the richest women in Southern California. She didn’t buy silk dresses and big hats and sit home and eat chocolates. She went to the prisons, started schools, and she did everything with open hands. That’s her theme. Because she was a slave, she never learned to read. She had three children and was very involved in getting them to school. Last year, I met her great-great-great-great-granddaughter at the University of Southern California, where I was speaking about Biddy Mason. I met this woman, Dr. Robynn Cox, a professor at USC. It almost made me cry. I thought how proud Biddy would be.
We find our passion, and we develop that passion, and we use that passion to make the world a better place.
Do you look for ways to highlight the Christian faith of your subjects? Oh, I do. For example, Harriet Tubman brought 300 people safely out of slavery, and someone asked her at the end of her life, How did you do that? And she said, “I went only where the Lord led me.” I thought that was a great comment. And Sojourner Truth—that was not her slave name. After she gained her freedom, she said, “I’m not gonna use my slave name. I am a sojourner. So my name will be Sojourner, but I don’t have a master anymore. I don’t have a last name anymore. I do have a master. God is my master. And His name is Truth.” So that’s where her name came from.
A lot of parents want to tell their children that we live in a great country. And yet when you read about people like Matthew Henson, you see the great injustices done to him. What would you say to parents who don’t understand how you can both show the injustice of the past and also say this is a great country? How do you thread that needle? Well, how do we learn? We learn from our mistakes. Those attitudes of the past were definitely mistakes. That was part of our country. We cannot deny it, and we shouldn’t deny it because what we’re doing now is correcting these things. I have a book on Marian Anderson, one of the greatest contraltos of her day. She was not allowed to dine in a restaurant. She was not allowed to ride in a regular elevator. If she was speaking at a conference, she had to go up in the freight elevator. This is unimaginable to us. It really is. And yet these things happened, but she persevered. And what Marian Anderson said at the end of her life was, “What I had was singing.” That’s the title of the book, actually, What I Had Was Singing. So we find our passion, and we develop that passion, and we use that passion to make the world a better place.
Do you think if you hadn’t had the experience teaching in inner-city schools, you would have been drawn to stories of the unrecognized and unappreciated? I wouldn’t have seen the lack, the need for the role models for my kids. I’m reading a book right now on race. And a woman in this book said we white people have a “free pass.” I’d never thought of that term before. We have a free pass in our society. These people I write about did not have a free pass in American society.
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