Librarian’s Corner: Biographies

by Jeanette Larson on November 20, 2012

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Many of us love reading biographies, the history of all or part of a person’s life. Maybe it is the urge to live vicariously or the need to satisfy our curiosity about how someone developed into the person they became. I grew up reading the Childhood of Famous Americans series (Sacagawea, Bird Girl) and the Landmark History books (Custer’s Last Stand). The books were appealing because they wove facts into a good story narrative; they were story as history. By today’s publishing standards, those books are more fiction than biography, in part because the writer’s made up too much of the story. However, they also set the stage for many excellent biographies, like these mentioned here, that tell a story  filled with documentable facts that will inspire, intrigue, and delight young readers.

For the youngest readers:

MONSIERU MARCEAU: Actor Without Words by Leda Schubert and illustrated by Gerard DuBois

Children may recognize Marceau from videos of his character Bip, or they may not have a clue who he is. Doesn’t matter. The opening lines introduce the man and mime and lead readers through an interesting, exciting, and sometimes tragic life. The story is written in a poetic style with an economy of words and the pastel illustrations reflect the mood of the moment, either joyous and jubilant or somber and sad. Biographies for the youngest readers have to be simplified to be accessible but there is nothing simplistic about this picture book biography of the master of mime.

For the transitional readers:

ELECTRIC BEN: The Amazing Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin by Robert Byrd (Dial, 2012)

What is truly amazing about this story is that Byrd reveals information that most of us never knew about someone about whom so much has been written. Considered by some to be the first American celebrity, the book is jam-packed with information about Franklin and his life and work. The simple narrative, two column layout that is reminiscent of a newspaper, and embedded illustrations keep the book from feeling cluttered while readers discover Franklin’s many amazing accomplishments.

For the older readers:

THE PLANT HUNTERS: True Stories of Their Daring Adventures to the Far Corners of the Earth by Anita Silvey (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2012)

Think Indiana Jones! The introduction to this collection of biographies tells us that one explorer was eaten by tigers, another fell to his death, and many others faced horrid deaths by other means. What reader wouldn’t want to know more? The plant hunters, mostly men, were more adventurers than botanists, and they braved extreme dangers journeying into the unknown to find plants there were useful for medicine, commerce, and science. The focus is as much on the exploration, the hunt, and the close encounters with danger as on biography but readers discover the roots of each explorer’s passion and the results of their work. The book is enriched by maps, photographs, and sketches that illustrate the biodiversity of the world and the people who helped identify and catalog it. And the journey continues today with modern “plant geeks” and their journeys.

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