Award-winning author Russell Freedman, widely lauded for his entertaining and thoroughly researched nonfiction and revealing biographies, including the Newbery Medal-winning Lincoln: A Photobiography (Clarion, 1987), died on Friday, March 16, in New York City, after suffering a series of strokes on March 3. Freedman had previously survived bouts with both laryngeal and pancreatic cancer. He was 88.
Freedman was born October 11, 1929 in San Francisco to parents already steeped in the book business and ready to encourage their son’s literary pursuits. His father was a publishing representative at Macmillan and his mother had been working as a clerk in a bookstore, which was where the couple first met. In his Newbery acceptance speech, Freedman told the audience of his father’s storytelling talents. “The problem was, we never knew for sure whether the stories he told were fiction or nonfiction,” he joked. Freedman often spoke of his childhood home as a creative place filled with books, and his parents as gracious hosts to such author guests as John Steinbeck, Margaret Mitchell, and William Saroyan.
By 1947, Freedman was studying at San Jose State College, where he spent two years, and then graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 1951 with a B.A. in English. After college, Freedman served in the U.S. Counter Intelligence Corps during the Korean War, including some combat duty with the 2nd Infantry Division.
Back in San Francisco after his military service, Freedman made his first foray into writing professionally, becoming a reporter and editor with the Associated Press. In 1956 he changed coasts when he took a position at advertising agency J. Walter Thompson in New York, where he did publicity writing for television. During this time, Freedman came across some information that helped set the path for his book-writing career. As he told PW in a 1993 interview, he had read an article in the New York Times about a 16-year-old boy who had created a Braille typewriter, and subsequently discovered that Louis Braille was only 16 when he developed the Braille tactile writing system for the blind. Those accounts of successful and enterprising boys sparked a book idea. Freedman’s father knew legendary publishing sales rep George Scheer, who sold for independent children’s publisher Holiday House, and Scheer helped get Freedman’s manuscript seen at that house. The result was his first published book, Teenagers Who Made History (Holiday House, 1961).
Brief writing and editing stints followed at Columbia Encyclopedia and Crowell-Collier Educational Corp., but Freedman also pursued projects as a freelance writer, and by 1965 was writing more or less full-time. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, he published prolifically with Holiday House, creating a series of nonfiction books on animal behavior—a topic that held deep personal interest for him—illustrated by various artists.
Freedman began to shift his writing focus in the 1980s, transitioning from animal subjects to human and historical ones, beginning with Immigrant Kids (Dutton, 1980). In a 1988 interview with the Horn Book, Freedman said that photographs of children in 19th- and early 20th-century America in exhibit at the New-York Historical Society inspired that book. Subsequent titles chronicled history and notable figures from the American West (Cowboys of the Old West, Clarion, 1985) and several books centered on prominent Native Americans, including Indian Chiefs (Holiday House, 1987).
In 1988, his Lincoln: A Photobiography became the first nonfiction book in more than 30 years to be awarded the Newbery Medal, and established a new heavily illustrated format for which Freedman had coined the name “photobiography.” He brought his signature style of blending history, biography, and many primary sources and photographs to a number of topics in the 1990s and 2000s, ranging from Martha Graham: A Dancer’s Life (Clarion, 1998) and Confucius: The Golden Rule (Scholastic/Levine, 2002) to Because They Marched: The People’s Campaign for Voting Rights That Changed America (Holiday House, 2014). A number of his biographical subjects were arguably controversial figures in some way. He explained that focus in the 1993 PW interview: “I think I’m attracted to subjects who had a strong sense of injustice and felt in a very deep personal sense that there were things that are wrong that have to be fixed. And because of that they’re controversial; they’re stepping on toes and threatening the status quo.”
Over the span of his career, Freedman’s books received numerous awards, including three Newbery Honors. In all, he wrote more than 60 nonfiction books for young readers.
Freedman was also a writing workshop instructor at the New School for Social Research (now New School University) for many years, from 1969 to 1986.
In noting great admiration for Freedman’s work ethic, his husband and partner of 32 years, filmmaker Evans Chan, recalled the author’s steadfastness during the lengthy recovery from a difficult cancer surgery in 2015. “For him to finalize the manuscript, I personally brought the Vietnam [Vietnam: A History of the War (Holiday House, 2016)] galleys to the rehab hospital, where Russ was close to death,” Chan said. “I was profoundly touched by his dedication to his own work.”
John Briggs, publisher of Holiday House from 1965 to 2016, who oversaw the release of most of Freedman’s many books for the house, offered this reflection: “My relationship with Russell spanned 51 years. His record speaks for itself. Perhaps not so apparent are his character and integrity, which are as evident in his work as is his talent as a writer. He was a dear friend, a blessing in my life.” In 2000, on the occasion of a Holiday House milestone, Freedman wrote a noteworthy history of the company, Holiday House: The First Sixty-Five Years.
Also at Holiday House, editor-in-chief Mary Cash paid tribute by saying, “Editing Russell was a privilege and a joy. Each of his books illuminated the topic and provided multiple alternative perspectives, all in stunning, crystal clear prose. On top of that he was one of the loveliest and most conscientious people I’ve ever met.”
And Freedman’s longtime editor at Clarion Books, Dinah Stevenson, remembered her author and friend with these words: “Russell was a man of strict principles and had an opinion about everything from politics to history to cooking corn on the cob (‘Three minutes!’). In his work and in person he was a master storyteller. All of his books were narrative nonfiction, long before the term came into use, and will live on as classics of the genre.”
A memorial service is planned for October 11 in New York City, on what would have been Freedman’s 89th birthday.