Deborah Heiligman '80, a prize-winning children's author, received the 2010 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award, which honors one young adult nonfiction book each year. Heiligman's book, "Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith," was picked from a list of five finalists.
Heiligman's book follows the story of Charles Darwin and his wife, Emma, and focuses on how Darwin's marriage affected his approach to his work. Heiligman said she wondered how the two managed to maintain a "close and loving relationship" in the face of rising barriers between them. Specifically, the two remained devoted to each other as Charles prepared to challenge the church in front of his deeply religious wife.
Though Heiligman had the idea for "Charles and Emma" for a long time, she researched and wrote the book in about a year and a half — allowing it to be published in 2009, the year of the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of "On the Origin of Species."
"Charles and Emma" is also a Michael L. Printz Honor book and a National Book Award finalist.
Heiligman said she did not set out to be an award-winning author. She graduated from Brown with a degree in religious studies not knowing exactly what she wanted to do.
Writing was not something she studied in depth at Brown, though the essays she wrote for religious studies courses developed her interest and skill in nonfiction, she said. Her favorite class was a required introductory course for religious studies concentrators, taught by Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies John Reeder, which she said opened up her world "in a huge way."
After graduating from Brown, Heiligman went on to work for the independent Jewish magazine Moment. From there, she got a job working for Scholastic, where she spent most of her days writing magazine articles for children and young adults. She truly learned to write for children while working at Scholastic, Heiligman said. She eventually left that job to become a freelance writer.
Though Heiligman said she always wanted to be a writer, she initially did not know where to begin.
"I didn't think real people could be authors," she said. Yet, after a day of reading children's books to her first son, she woke up from a nap with "words in (her) head" — words that then became her first book. She went on to write several other children's books, including the 10 books in her "Holidays Around the World" series, before writing "Charles and Emma."
At the moment, Heiligman has a new nonfiction picture book, titled "The Boy Who Loved Math," and a new young adult novel in the works.
Though Heiligman said she "happened into writing for children," she quickly fell in love with it.
Heiligman said she felt she could make more of a difference by writing books for children than by writing for adults. "Books matter to kids in a way they don't matter to adults," she said.