3-14-12: Reading About Another’s Life … When Your Own is Just Beginning
Baltimore County childrens’ librarian Paula Willey talks with Tom Hall about the best biographies for the under-18 set, from Jimi Hendrix to Juliet Lowe.
You can read all of Paula’s reviews about books for children and young adults at her blog, Pink Me. She’s also a librarian at the Towson Branch of the Baltimore County Public Library and a library consultant.
Books segments made possible by UKazoo.
Here are Paula’s book recommendations:
Why does a kid read a biography?
The most common reason is the old “I have to write a book report on George Washington Carver.” A decent book, written by someone who actually cares about and is interested in George Washington Carver, as opposed to a generic series biography written by someone who got the assignment in an email, will make all the difference for that kid.
Try this: The Groundbreaking, Chance-Taking Life of George Washington Carver and Science and Invention in America by Cheryl Harness. National Geographic Children’s Books. These Cheryl Harness biographies are just the right length for older elementary school students. Heavily illustrated by the author and loaded with extras like timelines and maps, they are interested leisure reads but work for writing reports as well.
Some kids will read biographies by choice: either they’re interested in the subject, and they’re inhaling everything they can find about, say, Jimi Hendrix in every medium available; or they’re that kid who only likes true stories.
Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow: A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix by Gary Golio, illustrated by Javaka Steptoe. Clarion Books. This impressionistic book about Jimi is notable for its wild mixed-media illustrations and for an afterword that addresses his use of drugs and alcohol without being judgmental or whitewashing the facts.
Why do we want kids to read biographies?
Biographies personalize history. When you read the life story of someone like Henry Ford, you understand the circumstances of his life through the choices that he made. Specific facts about specific people are easier to remember than large-scale event timelines.
Biographies are also good for triggering empathy, something that is sometimes in short supply in teens and tweens. “What would I do in that situation?” is a question readers ask themselves.
Biographies also allow us to reflect on our own lives and the lives of people we know.
When I asked my friend Tracy, who teaches 3rd grade, if any recent biographies strike her as being particularly noteworthy, she shrugged. “The Harry Houdini book was really good,” she said, “but mostly I just enjoy reading the biographies the kids write.”
Escape!: The Story of The Great Houdini by Sid Fleischman. Greenwillow Books. Fleischman has also written a long-form kids’ biography of Mark Twain, calledÿThe Trouble Begins at Eight.
Another Twain biography written for kids is The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According To Susy) by Barbara Kerley. Built around a contemporary bio of the writer actually written by his teenage daughter, it is not only a lively portrait of the writer as an eccentric family man, but also includes instructions for writing your own biography.
There are a few authors who consistently apply themselves to fascinating lives:
Jonah Winter is a name to look for when choosing biographies for children. He’s written picture book bios of all kinds of people, from Frida Kahlo to Hildegard von Bingen to Sandy Koufax. He comes by his interest honestly – his mother Jeanette Winter, with whom he collaborated on the Hildegard book and a book about Diego Rivera, also writes picture book bios to watch for. She has done Jane Goodall, Georgia O’Keeffe, Bach, Emily Dickinson and more.
Another terrific author who has something of a specialty in biographies for kids is Kathleen Krull. Wilma Rudolph, Jim Henson, Cesar Chavez and Kubla Khan have each caught her attention. She also has written a series of lively collected biographies – books about musicians, presidents, athletes, pirates, writers taken in context. Look for books with “…and what the neighbors thought” in the title.
Kubla Khan, the Emperor of Everything by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Robert Byrd. Viking Juvenile.
Emily Arnold McCully, who is probably best known for Mirette on the Highwire, for which she won the Caldecott Medal, also writes and illustrates terrific nonfiction. Manjiro: The Boy Who Risked His Life for Two Countries (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) tells about a Japanese boy who helped open up relations between Japan and the U.S. in the 1800’s.
Which brings us to another important point about biographies written for children. What I just wrote about Manjiro makes it sound boring as dirt – but in the hands of a talented writer like Emily Arnold McCully, his story sings with pathos and adventure. The pictures glow and the characters come alive.
Luckily, there are biographies written for children of all ages and all reading levels.
Dan Yaccarino’s book on the ocean environmentalist Jacques Cousteau has no more than two sentences per page, with bright, graphic illustrations. Jonah Winter wrote a lyrical little biography of Frida Kahlo that introduces her life and work to preschoolers.
The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau by Dan Yaccarino. Knopf Books for Young Readers.
Second and third graders can handle a little more text: I love Keep Your Eye on the Kid by Catherine Brighton, about Buster Keaton’s early years. The way this book breaks down Keaton’s pratfalls and early movie-making process, it’s hard not to want to try some of his tricks out for yourself.
More advanced readers get books with 100 to 150 pages. Amelia Lost; First Girl Scout; and the Sterling Biographies series are all good for those readers.
Biographies stick with you
I’ve been asking around, and it seems to me a lot of people can remember maybe one biography that they read as a kid that made a big impression on them. For my husband, it was a book about an ice hockey player called Roger Crozier, Daredevil Goalie.
For me, it was a biography of Roald Amundsen. Like-minded readers today might try Into Thin Air, The Perfect Storm, or a biography of an astronaut or polar explorer.
Onward: A Photobiography of African-American Polar Explorer Matthew Henson by Dolores Johnson. National Geographic Children’s Books.
You never know who is going to inspire a young person. It’s worth asking what they’re interested in, what they want to be when they grow up, what fiction books they read. A kid who likes funny fiction will love the nonfiction stories that children’s author Jon Scieszka tells about growing up with his five brothers.
Knucklehead: True stories and Tall Tales of Growing Up Scieszka, by Jon Scieszka. Viking Juvenile.
People who like princess books will love the light, wonderfully stylish drawings of Audrey Hepburn in the picture book Just Being Audrey, by Margaret Cardillo, illustrated by Julia Denos. Balzer + Bray.Her mother was a baroness! How come I never knew that?
Kid is thinking about law? Why not think big!
Sonia Sotomayor, A Judge Grows in the Bronx by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Edel Rodriguez. Atheneum Books for Young Readers. Bonus for being bilingual!
I’m going to leave off with a woman whose story has captivated us for 80 years. Amelia Lost by Candace Fleming is probably the best of many Amelia Earhart books written for kids. The story of Amelia’s life is told in strong, well-paced chapters, but between each chapter we get the hour-by-hour account of her fatal flight and subsequent rescue efforts. The author has pieced together a great deal of research, and without speculating on the fate of Amelia and her navigator, allows us to imagine her voice desperately calling out over the radio in the empty Pacific.
This is history that you feel.
Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart by Candace Fleming. Schwartz & Wade.