Michelangelo is a familiar name in the world of renaissance painting and sculpture, but did you know he was also a poet, architect and engineer? Simonetta Carr couples her experience as an elementary school teacher with her background in Italian art to bring this extraordinary man to young readers in her new book, Michelangelo for Kids. Here is a thoughtfully written, readily accessible, and beautifully illustrated immersion in the life of this extraordinary artist whose talents influenced the history of Western art .
How did your background in varied cultures, and Italian art in particular, together you’re your experience as a teacher, influence your choice of Michelangelo and impact the content of your book?
I was having an email exchange with Lisa Reardon, senior editor at Chicago Review Press, when she mentioned they had been looking for someone to write about Michelangelo. It just seemed like a perfect fit.
I was born and raised in Italy, a country that is often described as “an open-air museum,” and grew up with a natural love for both art and history. I also attended the School of Applied Arts at the Sforza Castle in Milan, where I learned to appreciate different techniques and styles. All this was obviously a tremendous help in writing this book.
Equally important was my background as primary school teacher, both in public schools and our home-school. Besides, my knowledge of Italian allowed me to read the primary sources for this book in their original language. Last but not least, I had already written several biographies set around the time of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations, and had done extensive research on this subject.
How does your career as a writer influence other areas of your life and vice versa?
It’s not really a career – not yet at least. I have always loved writing. My mother was an excellent writer who taught junior-high Italian. She wrote several books and filled me with a passion for literature since a very young age. She spent much time teaching me how to write. She kept encouraging me to write a book but I didn’t think I had enough to say. I wrote articles for newspapers and magazines and, after I married an American and improved my knowledge of the English language, I translated books from English into Italian.
In the meantime, I had eight children, so writing took a secondary place in my life. It was something I enjoyed, and – in my opinion – cultivating a personal passion is important even for busy mothers. I communicated my passion for reading, writing, and researching to my children, and they taught me how to simplify my language and hold their attention.
Once I started to write books, my life as a mother has directed my choices of subject, format and style. My first book was actually a family effort. It was born as an attempt to fill a vacuum – producing books I wished I could find on the market – and my children have been my best critics and advisers.
Now my kids are all grown up, but I still try to spend much time with children and enlist many of them as editors and consultants.
What do you do when you are not writing?
Writing still occupies a small portion of my life. Financially speaking, I haven’t been able to turn it into a career. Even if most of my children live on their own, I still have a large house to clean and meals to cook for my husband and the kids that are still at home. Plus, with two kids still in college, one in high school, and very uncertain retirement prospects, I like to carry a small share of the financial burden by devoting much time to teaching Italian and translating. I am hoping to spend most of my time writing one day soon. I have a wonderful friend who has been able to do just that (Nancy Sanders), and has produced great resources to help other writers to do so.
Briefly, what's your book about?
It’s a biography of Michelangelo Buonarroti, who has been universally recognized as one of the greatest artists of all time. The book includes an overview of the times in which he lived and how they affected his works.
What would you like readers to take from it?
I hope my readers will gain a greater appreciation for Michelangelo and art in general. I hope they will discover Michelangelo as a man, friend, father, son, and uncle as well as a sculptor, painter, architect, and poet. And I hope they will be as inspired as I was to see his attention to details, his commitment to excellence, and his faithfulness to chip away at blocks of marble, day after day, in spite of obstacles and disappointments.
What other books have you written and published?
I have started a series of books called Christian Biographies for Young Readers, published by Reformation Heritage Books. As I said, this series was inspired by a need I and other parents had noticed. For children who are born in Christian families, well researched and accurate books on the history of Christian thought are important tools to help them reflect on what they believe and why. Their value, however, is not limited to followers of one religion. Christianity occupies much of our history and these books have been successfully used by teachers as part of their history curriculum.
Presently, the series includes eight volumes: Augustine, Athanasius, Anselm of Canterbury, John Calvin, Lady Jane Grey, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, and Marie Durand. The next title, to be published in October, will be Martin Luther. Three of these books have been finalists for the San Diego Book Awards. Anselm of Canterbury has won first prize as best biography at the 2014 San Diego Book Awards, and first prize at the 2014 Athanatos Christian Writing Contest.
Besides this series, I have written a short biography of Renée of France, published by Evangelical Press, and a piece of historical fiction for young adults, The Weight of a Flame: The Passion of Olympia Morata, published by P&R.
What are your current/future projects?
For Chicago Review Press, I am writing a book entitled Cleopatra and Ancient Egypt for Kids. For my series of biographies, I am writing on John Newton.
The life and work of Michelangelo is such a large topic. How did you go about making it accessible for young audiences?
I think the most important thing was getting a sense of this great man and capturing all the excitement of his life story. Watching documentaries and lectures given by enthusiastic scholars helped. I had to be passionate about this subject to communicate the same passion to the children. After that, structuring the book became easier because I knew what needed to be emphasized and what could afford a simple mention.
What is your writing process? Do you follow a regular routine?
I like to write in the morning while my mind is fresh. If I am not out teaching, I write some more in the evening when I need to sit down anyhow. Since I love writing, I see it as a reward after finishing my other tasks.
My process is methodical. I devote different days to different projects so I don’t have to clutter my author’s backburner. For each biography, after researching the subject and structuring the book, I calculate how much I need to write each month to meet my deadline and then start writing one chapter one at a time.
What book(s)/author(s) have influenced your writing and how?
I love reading biographies and stand in awe at the talent and expertise of most contemporary biographers. For my research, I mostly read biographies aimed at an adult audience, but the principles of good writing are the same. It’s hard to name authors because the list would be endless. When I wrote about Michelangelo, I learned (or tried to learn), in different ways, from William Wallace, A. Victor Coonin, John Spike, and Antonio Forcellino. William Wallace is absolutely a giant, both in his knowledge of Michelangelo and in his ability to inspire and engage the reader.
As for children’s biographies, I have learned much from James Cross Giblin (who hasn’t?). For my series for young readers, I was inspired by Mike Venezia and have learned a lot from him on communicating effectively with kids and on condensing information without sacrificing historical context and art or music appreciation. I still read some of his books before my final review of my biographies for young readers. It helps me to see how far I have strayed from a simple and concise language.
What did you find to be the most important elements of good writing when approaching a project such as Michelangelo for Kids?
I already mentioned passion – finding exciting elements of a person’s life I want to run to tell the kids. As I said, my kids are grown up but I still grab them from time to time. If not, I pester my husband, who listens patiently.
Structure and organization are also very important, especially for some projects. For example, right now I am writing Cleopatra and Ancient Egypt. Ancient Egypt is a 3,000-year old civilization! Also, Cleopatra’s life was inseparably tangled with the history of Rome – particularly the end of the republic and the beginning of the empire. In this case, organization is essential. I have to be very careful to find a balance between Cleopatra’s exciting life story, her historical context, and an overview of the colossal ancient nation she ruled.
Another very important element of good writing is describing the character’s emotions, preferably letting them speak through their own words. With Michelangelo, that was quite easy because we have a large number of his letters and poems. We don’t have anything from Cleopatra’s pen and very little from her people around her, so that will definitely be more of a challenge.
What's one essential piece of advice about writing or publishing you'd like to pass on to readers and writers?
I am not sure if I am the right person to give advice. When I wrote my first book, I saw a need for it, sent a proposal to all the children’s publishers I could find, and then waited. I was not particularly worried about it. If everyone had said no, I wouldn’t have been crushed. Since I really believed in the importance of this type of books, if everyone had said no I might have tried a different approach. Eventually, however, a publisher said yes, and it was definitely the right one because the book (and the series that ensued) turned out much better than I had ever imagined. I don’t know if this approach works for everyone.
Anything else you'd like readers to know about you and/or your book?