Source: Yona Zeldis McDonough
Andy Warhol (famously) said that in the future, everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes. Well, he was wrong: the future seems to be a time when everyone is famous for fifteen seconds. Or less. Never has fame, and its handmaiden, celebrity, been so important, so sought after. Everyone wants to be famous and it hardly matters for what. Case in point: Paris Hilton. Ditto Kim Kardashian who, it should be pointed out, commanded a higher speaker's fee than Toni Morrison at Rutgers. Need I say more?
Our kids-and our tweens especially-are naturally curious about and susceptible to the fame factory. With tween stars in film, television, music and fashion, paraded before them constantly, they too want to partake of the Kool Aid and be famous. But for what? That's where we as parents-and I as both parent and writer-step in.
I am the author of nineteen books for kids, many of them biographies. And it's in my role as a biographer that I feel I can make the most difference-both to other people's children and my own. I have written biographies on subjects as diverse as Nelson Mandela, Anne Frank, Emily Dickinson, Helen Keller, Louisa May Alcott, Hank Greenberg, Harriet Tubman, John F. Kennedy, Margaret Mead, Mary Cassatt and Mozart. But no matter how divergent these subjects might seem, there is a common thread uniting them. As I tell the tweens to whom I often speak at schools and libraries: There is a difference between fame and celebrity for their own sake, and real accomplishment. I'm interested in reading and writing about people whom I respect and admire for things they have done. Fame may be the by-product, but it is not the goal.
How did Helen Keller manage to overcome huge physical obstacles to devote her life to helping the blind? What gave John Kennedy the strength of character to swim miles with a wounded man on his back rather than leave him to drown? What is the secret of Anne Frank's enduring importance, of Emily Dickinson's hidden gift, of Mozart's musical magic? All these are the questions that biography attempts to answer, and the issue of fame underlies them all.
Then I turn the discussion over to the kids. "If you were writing a biography, who would be your choice-and why?" The hands always shoot up in the air and wave madly. The all have ideas and they're eager to share them. We talk about their picks, we weigh the options. It is, I think, a useful and illuminating exercise for all of us.
We as parents, teachers and citizens of the world have a responsibility to articulate the difference between true accomplishment and mere fame, especially since the line grows fuzzier by the day. Let's remind our kids of the difference too-why we continue to admire some people and why others-admittedly famous and rich to boot-might inspire something less than admiration. If we can do that, then maybe we'll raise a generation smart and savvy enough to know the difference between the two. And to cast their own young lot on the right side of the equation.
Yona Zeldis McDonough’s most recent biography, Louisa: A Life of Louisa May Alcott was selected as one of ten finalists for the Texas Bluebonnet Prize. Her chapter book, The Cats In the Doll Shop, is due out from Viking in November.