Why does a kid read a biography?
A couple of reasons. The most common reason is the old "I have to write a book report on George Washington Carver." Boy do you want to find a peppy, well-illustrated biography of George Washington Carver for that kid. 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.
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 interestingleisure 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. That kid deserves a subscription to the National Geographic Photobiographies series.
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 judgemental or whitewashing the facts.
When I asked my friend Tracy, who teaches 3rd grade, if any recent biographies jump out at her as being particularly noteworthy, she shrugged. "The Harry Houdini book," she said, "but mostly I just enjoy reading the biographies that 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, called The Trouble Begins at 8: A Life of Mark Twain in the Wild, Wild West.
Tracy's response, though, is a great reason to encourage kids to read biographies. Barbara Kerley's The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According To Susy) is a lively portrait of the writer as an eccentric family man, and includes portions of the biography written by his (ultimately tragically ill-fated) daughter Susy. Ms. Kerley also includes a page of entertaining instructions for writing a biography yourself.
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.
Crozier was a "daredevil" because for many years he didn't wear a facemask. I would say maybe he should have.
For me, it was Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft, the story of six men crossing the Pacific on a handmade raft. Like-minded readers today might try Into Thin Air, The Perfect Storm, or a biography of an Arctic explorer.
Onward: A Photobiography of African-American Polar Explorer Matthew Henson (Photobiographies)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. I would like to note that I finally found a name that stumped Maryland Morning host Tom Hall - luckily, Mr. Scieszka's website gives us a handy pronunciation guide!
Knucklehead: Tall Tales and Almost True Stories of Growing up Scieszka, by Jon Scieszka. Viking Juvenile.
People who like princessy books will love the light, wonderfully stylish drawings of Audrey Hepburn in the picture book Just Being Audrey. Her mother was a baroness! How come I never knew that?
Just Being Audrey by Margaret Cardillo, illustrated by Julia Denos. Balzer + Bray.
Kid is thinking about law? Why not think big!
Sonia Sotomayor: A Judge Grows in the Bronx / La juez que crecio en el Bronx by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Edel Rodriguez. Atheneum Books for Young Readers. Bonus for being bilingual!
By the way, 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 L. Frank Baum 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.
Lives of the Athletes: Thrills, Spills (and What the Neighbors Thought) by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt. Harcourt.
Emily Arnold McCully, who is probably best known for Mirette on the High Wire, 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.
Biographies are written for children of all ages and reading abilities. Dan Yaccarino's book on the ocean environmentalist Jacques Cousteau has no more than two sentences per page, with bright, graphic illustrations.
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: The Early Years of Buster Keaton 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.
I'm going to leave off with a book about a woman whose tricks you should maybe not try at home. Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart 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 the subsequent rescue efforts. Author Candace Fleming 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.
Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart by Candace Fleming. Schwartz & Wade.
And be sure to listen to my conversation with host Tom Hall on this Friday's Maryland Morning with Sheilah Kast on Maryland's NPR station, WYPR 88.1 FM. If you're out of the listening area, audio of the segment will be online by the end of the day on Maryland Morning's website.