Whitney Stewart (1959–) Biography
Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Writings, Work in Progress, Sidelights
Born 1959, in Boston, MA; Education: Brown University, graduated, 1983. Hobbies and other interests: Traveling, reading, meditation, yoga, running.
Agent—c/o Author Mail, Lerner Publishing Group, 1251 Washington Ave N., Minneapolis, MN 55401.
Children's book writer and freelance editor. Formerly worked as a travel agent.
Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, Authors' Guild, Author's League.
BIOGRAPHIES; FOR CHILDREN
To the Lion Throne: The Story of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Snow Lion, 1990.
The 14th Dalai Lama: Spiritual Leader of Tibet, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1996.
Edmund Hillary: To Everest and Beyond, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1996.
Aung San Suu Kyi: Fearless Voice of Burma, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 1996.
Deng Xiaoping: Leader in a Changing China, Lerner (Minneapolis, MN), 2001.
Becoming Buddha, illustrated by Sally Rippin, Lothian (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia), 2005.
Mao Zedong, Twenty-first Century Books (Minneapolis, MN), 2006.
(Editor, with Vicki Lewelling and Paula Conru) Speaking of Language: An International Guide to Language Service Organizations (adult linguistics text), Prentice-Hall, 1993.
Jammin' on the Avenue: Going to New Orleans, Four Corners Publishing (New Orleans, LA), 2001.
Blues across the Bay: Going to San Francisco, Four Corners Publishing (New York, NY), 2001.
Contributor of short fiction to Highlights for Children.
Stewart's papers are held at the deGrummond Collection, University of Southern Mississippi.
Work in Progress
Beyond: A Writer's Memoir; an early reader set on Nantucket; Mr. Lincoln's Gift, for Hildene, forthcoming.
Whitney Stewart is an author of biographies for younger readers that draws on her interest in Eastern history and culture. In Deng Ziaoping: Leader in a Changing China, Mao Zedong, and Aung San Suu Kyi: Fearless Voice of Burma she profiles influential political leaders while in The 14th Dalai Lama: Spiritual Leader of Tibet she outlines the life of Tenzin Gyatso, who as the religious leader of Tibet won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. Stewart views the opportunities she has been given to write her biographies as "miracles": she has met with the Dalai Lama four times, has climbed mountains in Nepal with Sir Edmund Hillary (the first person to climb to the summit of Mount Everest), and has interviewed Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of Burma's democracy movement. In an interview with Patricia Austin in Teaching and Learning Literature, Stewart said of her books, "I have to choose a subject I can live with for a long time. It's hard and it's involving, so I have to pick people who inspire me."
Stewart began writing in high school through a correspondence course offered by the Children's Literature Institute. While attending Brown University a few years later, she met as many authors and editors as she could. Because Brown offered no formal children's literature program, Stewart designed her own independent major and thesis. When a professor suggested that she focus on children's biographies, Stewart recalled the biographies of her youth: "awful—fictionalized and full of made-up conversation." The historical works of well-known children's author Jean Fritz quickly changed her opinion about biographies, though, and Stewart began a correspondence with Fritz that ultimately helped launch her own career.
After graduating from Brown, Stewart indulged in her love of travel by getting a job at a travel agency, and combined it with her interest in rock climbing by spending a year planning a trip to the Himalaya. She read about Tibetan history and philosophy, then made her first trip there in 1986 with her mother. While there, Stewart was greatly inspired by the story of the Dalai Lama and his philosophy and proposed writing a book about him for Snow Lion Publications. The publisher's acceptance resulted in letters of introduction on her behalf and eventually four interviews with the Tibetan leader.
For her next children's biography, Edmund Hillary: To Everest and Beyond, Stewart collaborated with photographer Anne Keiser. Lerner accepted this title, as well as another biography on the Dalai Lama. These two titles became the first in Lerner's "Newsmakers" series. Stewart was impressed by Sir Edmund Hillary, not only for his extraordinary achievements as a mountaineer—with expeditions to the trans-Antarctic in New Zealand, travels up the Ganges River, and a search for the Himalayan yeti—but also for his humanitarian work to help the Sherpa people of the Himalayan region improve their lives and environment.
When Stewart decided to write about a woman for her next book, she bypassed the entertainer-type subjects suggested to her by teachers and librarians, and chose Aung San Suu Kyi, founder of the National League of Democracy in Burma and winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. The same week Stewart's book proposal was accepted by Lerner, Suu Kyi was released by Burma's military government after spending six years under house arrest.
Using the Internet, Stewart was able in three weeks' time to find Burmese scholars to contact for information on Suu Kyi. However, she soon found that arranging the trip to Burma and an interview with this controversial subject would not be as easy as her trips to Tibet. Since it is a punishable crime to criticize the Burmese government, Stewart had to tell Burmese authorities that she was visiting Burma to meditate at Buddhist temples. In the two weeks she spent in Burma, Stewart felt as if she were being followed. Her one-page letter to Suu Kyi requesting an interview cost Stewart seventy dollars and had to be delivered by courier. The two finally met, but for only thirty-five minutes. When she finished writing the manuscript that would become Aung San Suu Kyi, Stewart became concerned about the accuracy of details in her work and asked three Burmese scholars to read over her manuscript. In Booklist, Ilene Cooper called Stewart's book "a thorough, well-documented effort."
Writing Deng Xiaoping presented Stewart with new challenges. First, as she explained to Peg Kohlepp in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, although she found his life inspiring, his alliance with Mao Zedong's communist principles and his role in ordering the massacre of students in Tianamen Square in June of 1989 made Deng less "ethically or spiritually inspiring" than her other subjects. Deng had also passed away, so no interview was possible; in addition, most information about the Chinese leader's life was published only in Chinese, which Stewart does not read. Ultimately, however, the understanding she gained through her research made Deng fascinating; as she told Kohlepp, for Deng "to work alongside Mao Zedong—that in itself would have been one of the hardest challenges of his life." Her biography, which follows Deng's life from his slow rise to a position of influence within Mao's government, his ability to weather a series of political setbacks, and his involvement in Communist China's invasion of Tibet in 1950, is framed by the history of China in the twentieth century. While noting that Stewart "has a slight tendency to generalize," Barbara Scotto wrote in a School Library Journal review that Deng Xiaoping provides middle-grade students with "a good introduction to a complicated and important 20th-century figure."
Discussing her decision to write biographies for younger readers, Stewart once told SATA: "I hope to introduce children to people and to ideas that can change my readers' orientation to life. With global understanding comes peace. If I can contribute to that understanding, I am fulfilled.
"In 2005, I published my first picture book. Becoming Buddha was a collaboration with my friend, Australian author/illustrator Sally Rippin. Working with Sally was a joy, and I love reaching a younger audience. My second picture book, Mr. Lincoln's Gift, a story about Lincoln's portrait artist Frank Carpenter, took three years of research."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Amoss, Berthe, and Eric Suben, Ten Steps to Publishing Children's Books, Writer's Digest Books, 1997.
Booklist, December 1, 1990, p. 755; April 1, 1997, Ilene Cooper, review of Aung San Suu Kyi: Fearless Voice of Burma, p. 1321.
Far Eastern Economic Review, September 11, 1997, Bertil Lintner, review of Aung San Suu Kyi, p. 52.
School Library Journal, June, 1996, p. 165; May, 1997, Judy R. Johnston, review of Aung San Suu Kyi, p. 150; July, 2001, Barbara Scotto, review of Deng Xiaoping: Leader in a Changing China, p. 132.
Teaching and Learning Literature, September-October, 1996, Patricia Austin, "Whitney Stewart, Biographer," pp. 41-48.
Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA), January 25, 1996; February 25, 1996; May 12, 1996; April 15, 2001, Matt Berman, "'Going to' New Awleens: Whitney Stewart Gives Kids a Primer on Our Good Life"; April 16, 2001, Peg Kohlepp, review of Deng Xiaoping.
Voice of Youth Advocates, December, 1997, review of Aung San Suu Kyi, p. 338.
Whitney Stewart Home Page, http://www.whitneystewart.com (January 3, 2006).
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