Choosing High Quality Children's Literature/Biography
By Beth Constantine and Cheryl Hartman
A biography falls under the category of Non-Fiction/Informational Books. It is a vast category which is usually approached in one of several ways. In the past, biographies were fictionalized because many experts felt that children would not read a biography unless it read like a good story. This approach to biography often fell victim to inaccuracies in order to make the story compelling. In order to meet the needs of children, today's trend in biographies is to approach the story of a subject's life both authentically and in a compelling, entertaining manner. As challenging and technical as this sounds, the biographical author is mostly driven by their primary goal, which is to reveal the subject's inner mind and feelings and get the reader to emotionally connect with the subject, thereby making the subject more human and memorable.
Often confused by the differences among biographies of the same person or event, readers of biographies are left wondering about the authenticity and accuracy of each book. In pursuing the answer to this, I found the answer to be simple. The answer lies in the inherent purpose of the book and the intended audience. There are six categories in biographies. Each offers a different perspective and appeal. All six are listed here with descriptions and examples.
Biographies under this category are mainly directed at young children. They may cover a certain part of the person's life or span the person's whole life. The illustrations carry much of the story and connect the reader emotionally to that person. Many of the facts are woven throughout the story and conveyed through the illustrations. An excellent example of a picture-book biography is Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Kadir Nelson. Weatherford's main purpose of this book is to convey the spiritual journey of Tubman. Nelson's illustrations beautifully portray Tubman's struggle to freedom and the intensity of emotions she experienced along the way.
Created especially for the newly independent or lower skilled readers, simplified biographies tend to provide straightforward accounts of people's lives. These biographies are short and contain many illustrations so they receive high marks for readability. On the other hand, due to the simplistic nature of this category, many of the complexities and details are left out. Because the sentences are manipulated in such a way to make the text more readable, many of these books sound choppy. However an example of a well written biography from this category is F. N. Mojo's I Can Read History Book The One Bad Thing About Father. This story reveals the life of a boy, (Theodore Roosevelt's son) living in the White House with his uncontrollable sister, Alice.
The partial biography covers only a part of a person's life, usually a dramatic or high interest event. Many authors choose this category because of their own interest in a certain event or aspect of the subject's life and because covering the subject's entire life would make the book too long and difficult for primary readers. Many of the partial biographies not only address the events of the subject's life, but act as a social history of what life was like for a group of people. This is the case in the book Rosa by Nikki Giovanni. While this book is specifically about the bus incident of Rosa Parks, it also is a social history of how black Americans struggled long and hard to win their civil rights and what life was like for them in America in the 1950's.
The complete biography covers the subject's entire life. Complete biographies, although typically long and detailed, can also be conveyed in other categories, such as in picture-books and even in fictionalized versions. The reader can expect an in-depth and complex look at both the positive and negative aspects of the subject. Many complete biographies will contain reproductions of original maps, journal entries, direct quotes and photographs. Amos Fortune, Free Man, by Elizabeth Yates is a Newberry Medal winning book revealing the moving story of a man born in Africa, enslaved in America, who managed to purchase his and others' freedom.
Collective Biographies were written to provide a brief explanation about specific groups of people, such as presidents, sports heroes and scientists. Some of these biographies detail the lives of lesser-known individuals who have performed some great contribution to their trade or had a great impact on their culture, others' lives or the world. A notable example from this category is Leagues Apart by Lawrence Ritter. This book reveals the contributions and racial struggles faced by twenty-two African Americans who played baseball in the Negro Leagues.
Under this category we have stories written by the subject about the subject. The reader can expect great insight into the subject's life, although biased and subjective. Most of the books in this category for primary children are partial biographies, meaning they do not cover the subject's entire life. Some of these books are not about the person's personal life, but their work. And still others reveal much about themselves through personal memories, journals, letters and photographs. In terms of journal writings/memoirs, nothing is perhaps more famous than the Diary of Anne Frank. Although written by an older child, it is an example of an autobiographical journal, which recounts her life as a member of the Jewish faith, hiding from Nazis. Especially problematic, autobiographical work recounting very traumatic events in American and World history, such as the Holocaust does not have as welcome of a home within young children's literature as other topics. Publishers of children's literature have struggled in the past to provide as accurate, yet protective personalized view of the Holocaust as Frank in her autobiographical journal. On a more positive note, current trends within this category reflect the child's growing interest in favorite authors. Newberry Honor book, Homesick, My Own Story by Jean Fritz tells a revealing story about life in 1920's China, her father's stories of America and her ensuing desire to go to America, followed by her feelings of displacement once she arrived there.
Criteria for Selecting High Quality Children's Biographies
Donna E. Norton in Through the Eyes of a Child, An Introduction to Children's Literature, suggests the following criteria to use to select Children's Biographies:
- Does the biography meet the criteria for good literature?
- Is the subject of the biography worth reading about?
- Is the biography factually accurate in relation to characters, plots, and settings?
- Does the biographer distinguish between fact and judgment and between fact and fiction?
- Does the biographer use primary sources when conducting research for the text? Are these sources identified in the bibliographies or other notes to the readers?
- Does the biographer include photographs and other documents that increase the credibility of the text?
- If the biographer uses illustrations other than photographs, are the illustrations accurate according to the life and time of the person?
- Does the writing style appeal to the readers?
Suggested Classroom Activities
Compare and Contrast
Select at least two books about the same historical figure for each student to read. Have them work individually or in groups to record information about one or more elements of the biographies:
- Did you find conflicting information? Different versions of the same story?
- What source materials did the authors use? How do you know? Which sources are more likely to be accurate? Which are less likely to be accurate?
- What was the main theme of each biography? How did you determine this?
- What information did the biographer choose to include and how was it presented?
- Is there information about how the author became interested in the historical figure?
Biographies as Writing Models
In their Classroom Connections Journal Article, "Picture-Book Biographies as Writing Models", Sheryl Saunders and Mary McMackin suggest that "Effective instructional strategies that can help students transform their blasè report writing into robust expository prose may be no farther than your school or classroom library." The article goes on to say that, "When teachers analyze what authors have done to create notable leads, transitions, and conclusions, students will discover that these books can serve as exemplars to improve their own nonfiction writing, incorporating similar effective beginnings, middles, and ends into their own reports—and that satisfies both writer and reader." The article lists several quality biographies and provides examples that can be utilized to instruct students on how to write quality texts.
- Frank, Anne (1947). The Diary of Anne Frank (1st ed.). New York: Doubleday.
- Fritz, Jean (1982). Homesick: My Own Story. New York: Doublday.
- Giovanni, Nikki (2005). Rosa. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
- Huck, Charlotte, S., Hepler, Susan, Hickman, Janet, and Kiefer, Barbara, Z. (1997). Children's Literature in the Elementary School (6th ed.). Chicago: Brown & Benchmark Publishers.
- Kremer, L. S. (2004). Children's Literature and the Holocaust. Children's Literature, 32, 252-263.
- Monjo, F. N. (1970). The One Bad Thing About Father. New York: Harper & Row.
- Ritter, Lawrence S. (1995). Leagues Apart. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.
- Tunnell, Michael O. and Jacobs, James S. (2008). Children’s Literature, Briefly, Fourth Edition. Pearson Education, Inc.
- Weatherford, Carole Boston (2006). Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom. New York: Hyperion Books for Children.
- Yates, Elizabeth(1950). Amos Fortune, Free Man. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc.
- Norton, Donna E. (2007). Through the eyes of a child, An introduction to children's literature (p. 464). Columbus, OH: Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall.
- Lauterbach S. & Reynolds M. (2007). Evaluating Biographies with Children. Retrieved May 3, 2007, from John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum Web site: http://www.jfklibrary.org/Education+and+Public+Programs/For+Teachers/Newsletter/2008/Issue+8.Winter+2008/Evaluating+Biographies+with+Children.htm (broken link message on July 1, 2012)
- NSW HSC online Professional Development Node. Retrieved July 21,2006, from NSW HSC Online Web site: http://hsc.csu.edu.au/pro_dev/teaching_online/how_we_learn/cognitive.html (broken link message on July 1, 2012)
- Saunders, S. & McMackin, M. (2004). Picture-Book Biographies as Writing Models. Book Links, 14(1), 25-27.