Marfé Ferguson Delano has written more than a dozen children's books for the National Geographic Society, ranging from award-winning biographies of Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, and Annie Sullivan to her most recent work on global warming. But given the books' audience and length—fewer than 10,000 words—paring down an accomplished life or a complicated subject can be a daunting task.
"With biographies, I try to determine early in the research and writing process a theme that I can build the story around," says Delano. "For Edison, it was his persistence. For Einstein, it was his overwhelming curiosity. And for [Helen Keller's teacher] Sullivan, it was her combination of determination, stubbornness, and creativity."
Delano's most recent book, Earth in the Hot Seat: Bulletins From a Warming World, presented her with another kind of challenge because of the complicated and somewhat controversial subject matter. "I know a few people who are climate-change skeptics, so I was painstaking in my research on what the issues were," she says. "But what I found, and my editors agreed, was that the evidence is overwhelming that humans are responsible for the buildup of greenhouse gases. Rather than present the skeptics' arguments and then refute them—and since I only had about 8,000 words—we agreed not to include them."
Instead, the book is packed with sobering statistics, satellite maps of the warming planet and photos of vanishing rain forests, energy-saving tips, and profiles of environmentalists, including oceanographer and explorer Sylvia Earle A.M. '56, Ph.D. '66, Hon. '93. Although geared for children and young adults, Delano's books are informative primers for readers of all ages.
"One of the best ways to be quickly informed about a topic or a person is to read a good kids' book about them," she says. "All of a sudden you know enough to have a discussion about the subject. One of the nicest reviews that Genius received called it a perfect introduction for adults who want to know more about Einstein."
At Duke, Delano had planned to major in history and pursue a law degree. But soon after enrolling in an English literature survey course taught by Oliver Ferguson, she scrapped those plans and declared herself an English major. "I'd never had a course that pulled apart literature and characters in the way that his class did. Working with him and writing papers for his class helped me focus in on how books are structured."
After graduating, she landed an entry-level job as an editorial assistant in the children's-book department at Charles Scribner's Sons in New York. Later, she honed her writing skills first as a copy editor and then as a staff writer for Time-Life Books. After her two children were born, Delano became a freelance writer. In the late '90s, an editor at National Geographic who was familiar with her work asked her to write a children's book about the sky, Earth's atmosphere, and the weather.
"I've been writing children's books ever since," she says.
She is currently conducting research on slave life at Mount Vernon; she and her husband live in Alexandria, Virginia, on land once owned by George Washington. Delano also finds herself drawn to the rich history surrounding her birthplace of Memphis, Tennessee, from the city's role during the civil rights movement to the indelible influence of the region's country and blues musicians.