Stewart, Whitney 1959-
Stewart, Whitney 1959-
Born February 3, 1959, in Boston, MA; daughter of Richard R. (a lawyer) and Carlin Whitney Scherer; married Hans C. Andersson, September 17, 1988; children: Christoph Reiner. Ethnicity: "Caucasian." Education: Brown University, B.A. (with honors), 1983. Religion: Buddhist. Hobbies and other interests: Travel, reading, meditation, yoga, bicycling, skiing, trekking.
Les Marionettes d'Avignon, Avignon, France, puppeteer, 1977-78; Providence Athenaeum, Providence, RI, children's librarian, 1982-83; Parrish Travel, New Orleans, LA, travel agent and travel writer, 1983-86; American University, Washington, DC, newsletter editor for College of Arts and Sciences, 1987; ERIC Clearinghouse for Languages and Linguistics, Washington, DC, publications coordinator and editor at Center for Applied Linguistics, 1988-91; children's book writer and freelance editor, 1991—. Performs as storyteller and presenter of cultural slide shows.
Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, Authors Guild, Authors League of America.
Citation for notable trade book in the field of social studies, Children's Book Council, for Aung San Suu Kyi: Fearless Voice of Burma.
To the Lion Throne: The Story of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Snow Lion (Ithaca, NY), 1990.
Sir Edmund Hillary: To Everest and Beyond, Lerner Publications (Minneapolis, MN), 1996.
The Dalai Lama: Spiritual Leader of Tibet, Lerner Publications (Minneapolis, MN), 1996.
Aung San Suu Kyi: Fearless Voice of Burma, Lerner Publications (Minneapolis, MN), 1996.
The 14th Dalai Lama: Spiritual Leader of Tibet, Lerner Publications (Minneapolis, MN), 1996.
Deng Xiaoping: Leader in a Changing China, Lerner Publications (Minneapolis, MN), 2000.
Jammin' on the Avenue: Going to New Orleans (novel), Four Corners Publishing (New York, NY), 2001.
Becoming Buddha: The Story of Siddhartha, foreword by the Dalai Lama, illustrated by Sally Rippin, Heian International (Berkeley, CA), 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, Prentice Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1993.
Contributor of articles and reviews to periodicals, including AustralAsian, World and I, Tricycle, L.A. Parent, BlueEar, and Highlights for Children.
Whitney Stewart has referred to the opportunities she has been given to write her biographies as "miracles." These fortunate events have included meeting the Dalai Lama four times, climbing mountains in Nepal with Sir Edmund Hillary (the first person to climb to the summit of Mount Everest), and interviewing Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of Burma's democracy movement. In an interview with Patricia Austin in Teaching and Learning Literature, Stewart said about 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, remembering them to seem more fictional than real. The historical works of Jean Fritz quickly changed her opinion about biographies, though, and Stewart began a correspondence with Fritz which inspired her own career.
Upon graduating from Brown, Stewart had a desire to travel. From her athletic and rock-climbing interests in college, she had always wanted to go to the Himalayas. After spending a year planning and reading about Tibetan history and philosophy, she made her first trip there in 1986 with her mother. While there, she 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 Sir Edmund Hillary: To Everest and Beyond, Stewart collaborated with photographer Anne Keiser. Lerner Publications 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 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 (now Myanmar) 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 was 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 spent in Burma, Stewart felt as if she were being followed. Her one-page letter to Suu Kyi requesting an interview cost Stewart $70.00 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: Fearless Voice of Burma, Stewart became concerned about the accuracy of details in her work and asked three Burmese scholars to read over her manuscript.
Though her interview with the Burmese leader was brief, Stewart did get Suu Kyi to agree to answer questions from fourth-grade students in New Orleans about her time spent in house arrest. The children's questions ranged from "Did you cry a lot?" and "How did you get your food?" to "Are you mad at the military government?" Along with the tape recorded reply to the students, Stewart presented a slide show to the class showing pictures of Suu Kyi and the life and culture of the people of Burma.
Stewart's commitment to accuracy is evident in other writings as well. The biography Deng Xiaoping: Leader in a Changing China posed new problems for the author, because she could not interview the subject, who died in 1997, or contact people who knew him, because of China's policy of protecting information about its prominent personalities. Since Deng had rarely granted interviews, she could not even mine many secondary sources for clues to the man's nature and personality, an important part of the research for her earlier books. Still, Stewart was determined to offer young people a biography of a controversial figure who, on the one hand, was associated with horrors such as the massacre of students at Tiananmen Square in 1989 and, on the other, was a consummate politician who survived several ups and downs during the time of Mao Zedong and was instrumental in Communist China's struggle to establish economic stability during a period of enormous upheaval and change.
Another biography, Becoming Buddha: The Story of Siddhartha, delves into the distant past of India to introduce young readers to Prince Siddhartha, who was destined for greatness from the time of his birth. Even though he was raised in a pampered and protected environment, Stewart writes, the child was able to see the pain and injustice in the world and to search for a path to healing. Stewart tells the traditional story of Siddhartha's quest for enlightenment and his transformation into Buddha, the spiritual leader of millions. The book also includes a simple meditation exercise designed for beginners.
Jammin' on the Avenue: Going to New Orleans represents a departure for Stewart. It is a novel about a teenage musician who travels unaccompanied to New Orleans to participate in a guitar contest and encounters a whole new world. Eric meets new people through his host family and learns about the rigors—and suspense—of a competition that some people might do anything to win. Most of all, perhaps, Eric encounters New Orleans in all its pre-hurricane glory, described with love by an author who lives there and knows the city intimately. Stewart, who was the mother of a teenage musician at the time of her writing, consulted him regarding the music, the language, and the perspective of a teenager to ensure that the book would accurately reflect the world of her teenage readers. An extra bonus, according to reviewers, is an appendix—a tour guide to the city, in Eric's words and, therefore, a guide to points of interest that would appeal especially to her youthful audience.
Stewart commented: "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."
The author once told CA: "Writing helps me explore and sometimes answer internal questions that arise each day. If those questions stopped flowing, perhaps I would stop writing—perhaps. I write biographies because I wonder about the questions and motivating ideas of other people—the Dalai Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi, Sir Edmund Hillary, Deng Xiaoping, and the Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi of China. Why did they get out of bed each day? What do they think about when peeling an apple? I write fiction to entertain my mind and to revisit my favorite people and places in the world."
More recently Stewart told CA: "In writing fiction, I sit at my desk and try to embody my characters. I mentally experience how they move, breathe, eat, walk, and talk. I imagine their inner moods and their physical obstacles. After I understand my characters, I follow them into the plot. I rarely know what my characters will do until I write a scene. I don't map out my novels before I start, and I am always startled by where my characters take me.
"In writing biography, I choose subjects who will inspire or confound me. I want to know what drives a Nobel Peace Prize-winner, what keeps explorers on the move, and what troubles political leaders. When I choose a biographical subject, I know I am going to live with that person for many years. If his or her life is dull, so is my research and writing. If it is colorful, I can work tirelessly.
"I write to understand the world—to understand people, nature, sound, beauty, ugliness, emotion, and motivation. I travel for my work. I need to see the places where my biographical subjects or my fictional characters live. But when I am home, I work every weekday. I go to my desk as soon as my family is out the door, and I stay there until late afternoon when I collect my child from school. If I get up to make tea or eat yogurt, I continue to write sentences in my head. I wash dishes or sweep the floor whenever I can't find a word, and when I am really stumped, I lie on the floor and visualize the scene I want to describe. Writing is physical. When my body is tense, words won't come to me. If I can't see, hear, or feel something, I can't write about it."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, October 1, 2005, Gillian Engberg, review of Becoming Buddha: The Story of Siddhartha, p. 68.
Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 2005, review of Becoming Buddha, p. 1035.
New Orleans Times-Picayune, April 15, 2001, Matt Berman, review of Jammin' on the Avenue: Going to New Orleans; April 16, 2001, Peg Kohlepp, review of Deng Xiaoping: Leader in a Changing China.
School Library Journal, June, 1996, Susan Middleton, review of The 14th Dalai Lama: Spiritual Leader of Tibet, p. 165; July, 2001, Barbara Scotto, review of Deng Xiaoping, p. 132; November, 2005, Coop Renner, review of Becoming Buddha, p. 122.
Teaching and Learning Literature, September-October, 1996, interview by Patricia Austin, pp. 41-48.
Whitney Stewart: Children's Book Author,http://www.whitneystewart.com (March 10, 2007).