Through books we encounter people who overcame tremendous odds, served humanity, invented and discovered new horizons, or created wonderful works for our enjoyment. There are also those we identify as “anti-heroes” whose example give us pause for discernment. Even the Bible is filled with one biography after another, each one reporting highs and lows of a person’s life. We grow by reading about the lives of others, especially when their stories are presented well. Here are five things to consider when choosing a biography:
I have read about people who are famous, and about ordinary folks just like me. My Great Aunt Arizona by Gloria Houston tells the life and times of a teacher who lived and taught many years ago in the Blue Ridge Mountains. A picture book biography like this can inspire even me to keep teaching! Russell Freedman’s work, Eleanor Roosevelt: A Life of Discovery, can challenge a young reader to discover what else she might want to attempt or dream.
Be familiar with acclaimed children’s book biographers
Among my favorite biographers are those who prepare the book for a specific reading level or who have a unique style. David Adler is a great choice for the younger reader and Susan Bartoletti writes for the older reader. Jean Fritz is well known for her biographies of great Americans. And, Russell Freedman offers a unique view of reality through photographs to authenticate his works.
It is important to select a biography with accurate content. The annual award given for non-fiction books, The Orbis Pictus Award (http://www.ncte.org/awards/orbispictus) is a terrific means of assessing a book. Last year’s medal winner, The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia, by Candace Fleming, is filled with facts, reports, photographs, and the jewels of their lives. Since I grew up in the era of the Cold War, and the rule of Communism in the USSR, this biography of the family and its demise was purely fascinating. Fleming also received an honor award for this book from the American Library Association—the Robert Sibert Award for Information books, (http://www.ala.org/alsc/awardsgrants/bookmedia/sibertmedal). These recognitions can usually assure the reader that the book’s accuracy is without question.
Try multiple books by different authors about the same subject
This allows the reader to compare different points of view, to notice variations in reporting, and to be stretched by more than one writing style. For example, Amelia Earhart has been documented by many: Amelia Earhart: The Legend of the Lost Aviator by Shelley Tanaka, and A Picture Book of Amelia Earhart by David Adler are among dozens of books about this notorious woman.
Collections of biographies are another way to introduce children to this rich genre. Judith St. George and David Small have a few books that present these with humor: So You Want to be President? and So You Want to be an Explorer? among others (these are out of print, but check your library). Another collection of note is Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out created by the National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance. This collection is a rich assortment of stories and illustrations by 110 renowned authors and illustrators who reveal some wonderful truths about this home and its residents.
Don’t stop there
Share your story. Children often wish for a written record of their parents’ childhood or families. After reading a few of these stories, you will see that there is much to be gained from those who lived before us. Leave that treasure for your children and your children’s children. Go, enjoy some great biographies. Then write!
Penny Clawson, Ed.D. Although a resident of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for more than 30 years, Dr. Clawson’s roots in New York City still can be detected if you listen very carefully. Her unique mixture of metropolitan, suburban, and rural experiences brings a varied perspective on life, Christian education, and the Lord. Penny grew up in New York City, attended college in center city Philadelphia, and then taught in York, Pennsylvania, at the Christian School of York for 15 years before coming to Lancaster in 1983 to begin her ministry at Lancaster Bible College. Penny’s love for the Lord, His word, children’s books, and her students is evident in any venue.