Monday, January 21, 2013

It's that time of year - biographies!

By In Helmolt, H.F., ed. History of the World.
New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1902.
Author unknown, [Public domain or Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
Whether you're a school media specialist, a public librarian, a parent or a teacher,

if you know children over the age of 7, you're familiar with "the biography assignment."  It comes around every year, and depending one's perspective, it may be a source of excitement, drudgery, irritation, disappointment, interest, or a mixture of all.

Some thoughts on "the biography assignment"

Children need to understand the difference between an autobiography and a biography.  Many students arrive at the library insistent that their teacher has assigned an autobiography and a biography will not suffice.  I always try to comply with their request, however, there are few autobiographies written for children, though if the child is slightly older, I will always recommend Jon Scieszka's, Knucklehead (hands down, the best and funniest autobiography for children). For older kids, Walter Dean Myers and Gary Paulsen have both written excellent memoirs.  In most cases, the teacher will accept either an autobiography or a biography, but children don't always realize that.

Graphic novels biographies are perfect in certain circumstances and I wish more people would give them a try.  A reluctant reader might love Terry Collins', King of Pop: The Story of Michael Jackson, or any title from the American Graphic Biography Collection, or other similar offerings. Just because they have panels, that doesn't make them less true, less valuable, less informative.
Picture book biographies are not just for very young children - in fact, seldom are.  There are so many wonderful and informative picture book biographies.  I urge teachers to read a few and give them a chance.  Demi's books are not only informative, but beautiful and evocative - Marco Polo, for example is simply stunning.  Or how about Bill The Boy Wonder by Marc Tyler Nobleman? Or Michelle Markel's, The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau?  I could go on for days ...

The most important thing to look for in a biography is veracity.  Are there source notes, back matter, photo credits, suggestions for additional reading - in short, all of the things that indicate the author has thoroughly researched the subject? Has the author taken "artistic license?"  That's not necessarily a bad thing, however, older students should be trained to look for it.

The point is, I understand the dictates of local, state and national policies on what must be taught to children, however, within the parameters of those dictates, there is, hopefully, some room for flexibility - some leeway for children to choose different formats, different topics, different means of delivery. To this day, I don't like the poetry of Percy Bysse Shelley.  Why?  Because when I was in grammar school, I wanted to do my "famous poet" report on Edgar Allen Poe. I was forced to choose Percy Bysse Shelley.  I've long forgotten that teacher's name, and I still don't like Shelley.   In another year, a wonderful teacher allowed me to choose Edgar Allen Poe.  Her name was Ms. Romano and I still read Poe from time to time.  See how it works?

When the biography assignment rolls around, keep your options open!

One more thing:

I haven't had one in hand yet, but Abdo Publishing has a new series of Children's Author biographies. Tell me what young boy given a biography assignment would not want to choose, Dav Pilkey?


Related posts:


Today's Nonfiction Monday roundup is at The LibrariYan.  Check it out.

4 comments:

  1. I love Shelley- mostly because my favourite movie is The Saint (cheesy, yes I know!). I have to say though, how creepy is the reclining nude statue of him, commissioned by his daughter-in-law? I hope when I go neither my children nor their spouses decide to have my naked body on display in perpetuity!

    That being said, I too remember being forced to write and present a biography on Margaret Thatcher instead of Debbie Gibson (just dated myself!). I hate Margaret Thatcher now, but that is in her own right! :)

    Thanks for the great biography suggestions, I think with common core there will be a lot more coming out over the next year or so too!

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  2. What far-reaching consequences a school assignment can have! ;)

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  3. Love this post! You have offered some valuable information. I love picture book biographies. Thanks for the suggestions on the autobiographies for kids. I was not aware of any of them.

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  4. I love KNUCKLEHEAD! Great tips here:>)

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