The Power of Biographies for Young Readers

by | Feb 26, 2019

Non-fiction has the reputation of being boring. In my own youth I thought of history, for example, as boring. It focused so much on wars, treaties and what I think of as “big men,” meaning leaders, mostly white men, and was entirely fact based. But who were these people? I always felt embarrassed about wanting more of the little side stories. I wanted to know more about George Washington’s wooden teeth and the cherry tree but was made to feel like those trivial things were not the point of history.

Even as a graduate student in archaeology, I was more intrigued by what toys children of Mesopotamia played with than with the rule of Hammurabi.

Why did I want those stories? Because they humanize.

When people think non-fiction, they think facts. And facts are boring. Yes, facts are still facts, despite what some in these days of “alternative facts” might say. But facts are not story. And story is what entices, intrigues and grabs the reader, pulling them into the book and making them lose track of where they are and what they were doing.

But if you wrap non-fiction in a narrative — storytelling — format, you can engage readers in much the way you do when writing fiction.

I blame textbooks. At least in my day, we learned history by memorizing dates. Dates of battles, dates of when a certain man was president, dates when laws were passed. I remember very clearly being bored by these facts. The dates didn’t string together in any kind of narrative. We didn’t learn that Hamilton was a brash outsider with a brilliant mind. That Jefferson was a jumble of contradictions, trumpeting all men are created equal while keeping enslaved people. If I knew those stories, if I understand what challenges these individuals faced, what their goal, their dream, their hopes were and what obstacles they overcame, or didn’t. Well, then history would be fascinating. You tie in one person’s compelling story to what is happening in the country as a whole and suddenly dates make sense. But dates, whether of battles or treaties, are not the whole story. Not even close. That is not the place to start.

Why do we hope our kids love reading? We hope from reading they learn compassion and understanding. They put themselves in the shoes of others, figuratively. We hope that they learn to overcome challenges and make friends like Harry Potter. We hope they recognize that it’s great to be smart, like Hermione. And that they are true to themselves, like Ferdinand the Bull, or learn to work together with others, like Leo Leonni’s Swimmy

But you’ll notice those are all fiction stories. I believe — with all my heart—  that readers can learn the same lessons from non-fiction, specifically biographies. In fact, I would argue that those stories, when written well, are even more compelling than fiction. These are people who did something remarkable, but they started out just like you or me. How can that not be inspirational?

Biographies also can give young readers a window into what is possible, but only if we introduce them to books about people they’ve never heard of. It is probably no surprise that there are at least 15 books for young readers about people like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Amelia Earhart and Madame Curie and half a dozen on Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks.

One of the first non-fiction books I remember reading was a biography of Madame Curie. How could I ever be like her? She suffered endlessly and sacrificed absolutely everything, including her husband and her own life in her pursuit of knowledge. Well, no way was I going to be like that. Up on a pedestal she goes. All my life I figured famous people were somehow different and I could never achieve the kinds of things they did.

But if I had also known about mere mortals who had pursued science and followed their curiosity but led more ordinary lives, well then, perhaps I would have imagined that would be a path for me. That means people like Snowflake Bentley or Waterhouse Hawkins or oceanographer Sylvia Earle or inventor Lonnie Johnson or ophthalmologist and inventor Patricia Bath.

Or if I had known that, in addition to Amelia Earhart, there were dozens of women who learned to fly, who were stunt pilots or transport pilots or adventurers just like her. Well, then, suddenly she was not the aberration, she was practically the norm. That changes the frame entirely. Likewise, if the only person you read about who spends their life with animals is Jane Goodall, you might not envision yourself spending your entire life camping in the jungles of a far off land, but if you also knew about Joan Proctor, Dragon Doctor, you could then imagine devoting yourself to animals without necessarily leaving all creature comforts behind.

Reading about people they’ve never heard of, ordinary people, doing extraordinary things will help young readers broaden the world view and, in the process, help them envision their own path.

Here are some of my favorites, in no particular order. Also, you’ll notice that they are almost all picture books. There’s a reason for that; even for older readers the best picture books give them a strong sense or understanding of the individual. If they want to learn more they can, but often (at least for me) a picture book is a fantastic introduction to a singular person.

My list:

The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynchby Chris Barton and Don Tate

Girl from the Tar Paper School: Barbara Rose Johns and the Advent of the Civil Rights Movement by Teri Kanefield

It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Drawby Don Tate illustrated by R. Gregory Christie

Basketball Belles: How Two Teams and One Scrappy Player Put Women’s Hoops on the Mapby Sue Macy illustrated by Matt Collins

Honeybee Man, by Lela Nargi and Kyrsten Brooker

Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remixby Jacqueline Briggs Martin and June Jo Lee illustrated by Man One

Snowflake Bentleyby Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illustrated by Mary Azarian

Carter Reads the Newspaperby Deborah Hopkinson illustrated by Don Tate

Tomboy of the Air: Daredevil Pilot Blanche Stuart Scottby Julie Cummins

The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins, by Barbara Kerley, illustrated by Brian Selznick

Joan Proctor, Dragon Doctor, by Patricia Valdez, illustrated by Felecita Sala

book cover of Joan Proctor Animal Doctor

Alexandra the Great book cover

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