Thursday, March 21, 2024

Donna Janell Bowman discusses her newest nonfiction biography for children and her writing process


By Suma Subramaniam

I'm thrilled to welcome Donna Janell Bowman to the SCBWI Blog today.

We're eager to learn about your new book, Wings Of An Eagle, illustrated by S.D. Nelson (Hachette Book Group, 2024). Could you tell us what it is about?

Billy Mills and I can't wait to share this book with the world! His autobiographical story recounts, in free verse, how Billy (Oglala Lakota) faced being orphaned, poverty, health challenges, and systemic racism, by doggedly chasing a dream. In 1964, his dedication and persistence paid off when he became the first (and still only) man from the Western Hemisphere to win Olympic gold in the 10,000-meter event. In fact, as of this writing, he and Jim Thorpe (Sac and Fox, 1912) are the only Native America athletes to have won Olympic gold medals in any track and field event.

Billy's Olympic win is still considered one of the most stunning surprises in Olympic history.  But what makes his story even more wonderful is how his Olympic success inspired his traditional Lakota Giveaway. He co-founded a charitable organization that provides educational and cultural resources, and, most importantly, supports the immediate survival needs of Indigenous communities around the country. For decades, Billy has used his platform to better the lives of others.

Does writing nonfiction biographies for children give you a different perspective about history and historical figures? If so, how?

Oh, how I love this question! Everybody is more than what we see or assume. It reminds me of a time, as a kid, when I was in the grocery store with my mother. We turned down an aisle and saw--gasp!--my teacher! I asked her what she was doing there. Why wasn't she at school? Kids think everybody is one-dimensional. Unfortunately, we retain some of that limited mindset as adults. When we don't consider the full, complicated kaleidoscope of a person's inner and outer life, we cannot relate. We cannot connect. As a writer, I try to uncover as much as possible about what made my characters tick.

Every time I learn about another person and their journey, I can't help but also learn about myself, the world, and humanity. We are all shaped by the complexity of our lives and the generational triumphs and tragedies that linger in our DNA and communities. I know that the more open I am to the perspectives of other people, the more my own perspective broadens. However, pervasive revisionist history presents a unique challenge. There are ample examples of historical figures being sanitized in print to teach morals or achieve political or social favor. I faced similar alterations when I researched Native American history and realized just how deeply the history textbooks of my youth were flawed, with intentional falsehoods and omissions. I am appalled! And don't get me started about the racist and historically inaccurate depictions of Indigenous people in TV westerns, then and now. Changing or omitting difficult truths is wrong and dangerous. We must be honest with young readers if we want them to grow as critical thinkers and compassionate individuals. They live in a gloriously diverse world. By honoring the perspectives of others, we can show them how to bridge divides. Open-hearted books are a great place to start.

For your books, do you interview your subjects?

Interviews are one part of the research process, but they can provide some of the most valuable information when I'm working on a new project. For two of my previous books, I tracked down descendants who, during interviews, dispelled mistruths and provided information not available anywhere else.

My collaboration with Billy is a rare example of how an interview can blossom into much more. I became fascinated with Billy's story while researching a different project in 2015. However, because I am not from his culture, I knew it would be inappropriate and insensitive for me to publish a book about Billy without his blessings and direct involvement. It took me two years of creative outreach to make contact. Suddenly, I had a one-shot opportunity to visit Billy in-person during a short break in his speaking schedule. My college athlete son and I flew to California for a day at the Mills' home. The hours-long conversation with Billy and Pat became personal and deep. 

I began to understand Billy, his beliefs, his voice, his mannerisms, his heart. By the time he gave us a tour of his Olympic memorabalia and slid his gold medal over my head, we were bonded in an unexpected way. But other children's book writers had also contacted Billy. I told him that I would understand if he preferred to work with a Native writer. It would make sense. Whether I was involved in a book about him or not, his story was meaningful to me. But he and Pat had already discussed it. They chose me. We would closely collaborate on Wings Of An Eagle. It was an enormous honor and a responsibility that I take seriously! The book, publishing on July 2nd, 2024, would not have been possible without that first interview and the many telephone and Zoom conversations that followed. Today, I count Billy and Pat Mills as friends.

What is your writing process like? What do you find to be the most challenging part of writing?

Oh, geez, I learn from scratch with each book. Nonfiction can be especially challenging because we can't make anything up. With picture book biographies, our character is a bazillion-piece puzzle made up of many smaller puzzles that represent different aspects of their life. Once we zero in on our nonfiction story focus, we must stick to the actual puzzle pieces in front of us. Sure, we can rearrange the pieces for our desired structure, adn we can add logical connective details, but we can't invent stuff. That is both liberating and constraining.

I'm a big fan of outlining, for all genres and formats. To me, it's like knowing my destination before I start a journey. I also spend a lot of time NOT writing as part of my writing process. While I do other things away from my project, my brain plays with narrative ideas, metaphors, story, voice. It is helpful to my writing when I go for extra walks, play pickleball, shampoo the dogs at midnight, or fiddle with a different book. Once I sit down to write, a crummy and overwritten first draft lands on the page. From there, I can trim, mold, shape, and layer the narrative for as long as it takes, often for months or more.

What would you like to say to writers who are reading this interview and wondering if they can keep working on their nonfiction projects and if their voices and visions for their stories matter?

Firstly, I would remind writers that it's normal to feel the full range of emotions while working on a book-- from despair and frustration to blissful elation. As Henri Matisse once said, "Creativity takes courage." Hang in there! Whether your book gets published or not, you are already doing something that most people cannot do. You're writing a book! Pat yourself on the back, give yourself a high-five, and be kind to yourself! Above all, choose to invest your time and skill in the projects that mean something to you and your inner reader. That way, if your manuscript is not acquired for publication, you will still love it without resentment, and you will appreciate it for what it taught you.

The publishing landscape, amid book bans and censorship, is in flux. But readers need your voice and perspective more than ever! Remember that, even in "normal" times, the industry is cyclical. When you hear that the market for this or that genre is saturated, it's temporary. Maintain your momentum so that, when the pendulum swings back, you'll be ready for it. And so will your readers. 

Donna Janell Bowman is an award-winning Central Texas author, speaker, and editor. She's especially drawn to true stories that, like lightning bugs, are too irresistible not to follow. Her books for young readers include STEP RIGHT UP: HOW DOC AND JIM KEY TAUGHT THE WORLD ABOUT KINDNESS, illustrated by S.D. Schindler; KING OF THE TIGHTROPE: WHEN THE GREAT BLONDIN RULED NIAGARA, illustrated by Adam Gustavson; and the forthcoming WINGS OF AN EAGLE: THE GOLD MEDAL DREAMS OF BILLY MILLS, co-authored with Billy Mills and illustrated by S.D. Nelson. Donna's books have garnered such accolades as starred reviews, NCTE Orbis Pictus Recommendation, a Carter G. Woodson Award Honor from NCSS, inclusion on ALA/ALSC and NCSS Notable lists, multiple best-of-the-year lists, Junior Library Guild selection, Writers League of Texas book awards, and book fair inclusion. Her books have also won state book awards after being nominated by a dozen states, including Texas. Donna has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and she lives in central Texas.

Suma Subramaniam is a recruiter by day and a children's book author by night. Her picture books include Namaste is a Greeting (2023 Crystal Kite and 2023 Northern Lights Book Award Winner), She Sang for India (2023 Northern Lights Book Award Winner and 2022 NYPL Diverse Voices Book), The Runaway Dosa, and more. Suma is also the contributing author of The Hero Next Door (Finalist-Massachusetts Book Award). Her poems have been published in Poetry Foundation's Poetry Magazine, What is Hope?, and another anthologies for children. She lives in Seattle with her family and a dog who will do anything for Indian sweets and snacks. Learn more at

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