I had never fancied myself a writer for a juvenile audience, so I was surprised to receive an offer from Power Press Books to compose a biography of Stephen F. Austin for a 7th grade reading level. It was one of a planned series of Texas-based biographies. My first response was that they should approach Gregg Cantrell, the reigning Austin authority, but they said they did not want the books written by the reigning authority—even as they did not want me to write about Sam Houston. They wanted fresh perspectives. (The Houston job went to Mac Woodward of the Sam Houston Museum in Huntsville, and his book is terrific).
Coming up with 12,000 words about Austin was easy. However, considering that I have given workshops to school districts on how to make history more relevant and interesting to students, the challenge was that I now had to put my writing skills where my mouth had been. How could I find common ground between today’s 12-year-olds and the Father of Texas?
One way was to describe the relationship between Austin as a child and his almost cruelly overbearing father, Moses Austin. When Stephen was only three, Moses sent him a 30-page letter on how to become a Great Man. Any kid with a little league father or a stage mother could relate to that. Second, now that Texas is a fully bicultural state, I pointed out Austin’s success at functioning suddenly as a minority in a new society, whose rules he had to learn from the ground up. And third, Austin’s life-long honesty and devotion to a cause provided lessons that needed no amplification.
STEPHEN F. AUSTIN was my second piece done as work-for-hire, and my first collaboration with an in-house photo researcher working independent from me. Being a control freak, I was apprehensive, but the relationship was successful and the work is one I am proud of.
©2016 James L. Haley All rights reserved