Bringing Life to Words (and Pictures): picturebook biographies for children

This blog complements another written for my employer’s site (visit us on Twitter: @Herts English).  In that blog, I offer up some advice on helping children to demonstrate a particular standard in statutory writing assessments. I won’t get caught up in further detail here, other than to say that the other blog includes a section on recounts, which includes biographical  writing.  This blog looks at some high quality  – frankly brilliant – texts that would go very far in supporting children’s development in this area of writing. Where the other blog looks at the mechanics of the writing, here we’ll consider some inspiration points. 

Lives Less Ordinary

Much as in this earlier blog on short stories, I wanted to share a little on a form that, to date, I have only really discussed with fellow enthusiasts (notably, picturebook fiend, Simon Smith, and literary maestro, James Clements).   The form in question? The picturebook biography.

Picturebooks can attract a degree of sniffiness from some quarters.  Often it falls to a misunderstanding around the integral role of pictures in picturebooks, and the role (or more accurately, use) of pictures in books that support learning to read.  It’s a shame, but if any former-sniffers fancy being converted, I think the picturebook biography might be a good place to start.

For those of us that are converted, this blog might serve simply to highlight some titles that you may have missed,  remind you of some that you had forgotten, or celebrate some that you hold dear and have shared whenever the opportunity has arisen.

Rather than offer up a list as I did with the short stories blog, here are some pictures of some personal favourites, together with some commentary.  Feel free to get in touch via twitter (@galwaymr) if one of these piques your curiosity, and you would like to know more about it.

biog coll 1pic biog 2favourite biogs

How do I love these?  Let me count the ways.  Each takes a life less ordinary and sets about rendering them artfully through a mix of conventional (and – in the scat-influenced phrasing of the Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington titles –  unconventional) prose and a range of artistic styles.   Muhammad Ali is rendered in painterly strokes.  Ada Lovelace in Ada’s Ideas is fashioned in paper cuts outs – a Victorian paperdoll straining to burst from its confines.  Some offer up overviews of whole lives; others take notable fragments.  Henry’s Box of Freedom for example.  A Caldecott Honor book, Henry’s Box of Freedom is made up of the most striking images, the work of the very exciting Kadir Nelson.  Two spreads in particular (both involving enforced familial separation) are incredibly powerful and a session comparing these two similar, but distinctly different moments, can lead to intensely rich dialogue.

The bottom photo isolates my two particular favourite picturebook biographies:

  • Some Writer – The Story of E. B White by Melissa Sweet (another Caldecott winner)
  • enormous  SMALLNESS  – A story of E.E. Cummings by Matthew Burgess, illustrated by Kris Di Giacomo.

Some Writer can be dealt with swiftly.  Firstly, it’s simply very good, and in that simple respect, E.B. White would surely approve.  It has significantly more text than most of the other titles, and it draws together a mix of biography, illustration, collage, photographs and letters from key protagonists in the writer’s journey to greatness.  I am a huge fan of E. B. White so this no doubt influences my love of the book, but regardless of subject, it is so beautifully crafted and insightful that it really deserves a place in far more school libraries than currently is the case.  While we’re on the subject of distribution, may I just restate my well-worn plea that every child hears or reads White’s Charlotte’s Web  before they leave primary school.  It should be statutory by now – never mind modal verbs and the like.

enormous SMALLNESS is thoroughly clever but never annoyingly so.  I think it might be my favourite picturebook of the past few years.  That’s saying quite a lot.  It is certainly one of the best designed.  It is not just the images that carry the aesthetic load.   Clever type and graphic work pays tribute to e.e. cummings’ own experimentation with punctuation and typeset.  As the book progresses and cummings takes on the conventions of presentation, rhythm, and rhyme, so too the biography becomes freer and freer in form.  It makes for a dynamic book, but also a book grounded in a love of language, and the emotions that run through cummings’ work. It includes a number of cummings’ poems and – like many of the other titles pictured above – has a conventional, continuous prose biography of cummings’ life in its final pages – perfect for research.

It is a really special book.  Carve out some budget for it.  Or add it to a Christmas list.

Lives Even Less Ordinary

Here are two biographies that bear closer scrutiny in different ways.

pic biogs to use

I’ll begin with The Pilot and the Little Prince.    I have selected this for special mention because it operates on a number of levels, and rewards the eagle-eyed. It tells the extraordinary story of Antoine De Saint-Exupery  – writer, adventurer, and war hero.  Just take a look at these illustrative examples from the book:

little prince 1little prince 2little prince 3


We can see, in the top image, nods to Georges Melies in the illustrations.  As we move down, voice and perspective comes into play as the biography takes on a multi-dimensional interweaving of narrative, commentary and additional detail.  This last is most evident in the final image.  The multimodal nature of the book opens it up to  a range of reading challenge, and thanks to its additional note-form details, could quite easily serve to fuel biographical writing in class. It’s a layered book – and speaks of a  more traditional notion of greater depths.

Now to close with Queen of the Falls.  Once again, there is a lot to love here.  In my writing on greater depth, I talk about the renewed focus this year on the influence of reading in children’s writing.  For those of us that have taught literacy or English for a number of years the reading-into-writing dynamic is pretty much axiomatic (word of the week, it seems).   That said, the past two years of primary assessment jiggery-pokery has messed with that somewhat: “By all means read a great book and squeeze some nice writing out of it, but could you squeeze a colon and hyphen in there? Thank you kindly.” That stops here.  I go in to more detail in the @HertsEnglish blog but despite what some naysayers out there are claiming, the more prescriptive elements of the Teacher Assessment Framework have disappeared.  Purpose and effect are back in vogue.  With this in mind, Queen of the Falls is a great text to exemplify a more literary approach to biographical writing, and will help your more ambitious writers to see  how the boundaries of the form can be extended.

It starts with a striking image.  Not-too-surprisingly, given that this is the work of  Chris Van Allsburg, one of the most highly-regarded picturebook creators out there. (Where do we begin? Jumanji, The Polar Express, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, and above all else, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.  I’ll just allow the reverential hush to linger a moment longer).

Here it is together with the opening text:

Imagine being as small as a flea, standing on the pavement next to an open fire hydrant. This is how visitors to the waterfalls at Niagara feel. The water drops from a height that is as tall as a seventeen-story building, roaring like a locomotive and sending up an endless cloud of mist as it crashes onto the rocks and water below.  The earth at its base practically shakes, terrifying and thrilling anyone who goes there.

Queen of the Falls

Chris Van Allsburg

The page continues in this vein, studiously ignoring the codes and conventions of the primary version of biography.  Where’s the subject?  Where are the adverbs of time? Worry not.  All good things to those that wait.   Let’s just paint a picture.  Then let’s repaint it in words.  It is unquestionably literary.  It is an ideal model for your aspirant, ambitious writer.  How to linger.  How to build something.  How to withhold the main event because the author has  something to say here, if you don’t mind – but they’ll do their best to make it interesting. It makes the lie, this book and many of the others, of claims that picturebooks lack in challenge.  It makes the lie, and rips it to shreds.

Having  established the might of the falls, we are ready to be introduced to the singular, difficult, complex, and utterly foolhardy main attraction: Annie Edison Taylor – the first person to go over the falls in a barrel and – I love this next part – a teacher.  A charm school teacher, granted, but a teacher nonetheless.  Like me, like many teachers I imagine, Annie is worried about her finances for retirement.  What is a nearing-retirement, charm school teacher to do?  You can possibly guess the rest.  The rest of the book concerns itself with Annie’s steely determination to conquer the might of the falls in the most spectacular fashion.  I won’t spoil the book by posting further images, nor will I give away the details of the plot  – which has some surprising ups and downs and some frankly unethical behaviour.  I will, however, urge you to linger on the illustrations.  Some are literal and give forensic clues about both Annie’s maddening determination and also the snide and dismissive  responses she either rose above or roundly ignored.  Some illustrate figurative stretches – a curious decision in that it serves a literal understanding of the words rather than helps the child to understand the imagery.  I don’t think that’s a bad thing here.  It does help. Here are some words.  Here is what those words would look like.  How does that relate to Annie’s possible fate?  That’s a discussion worth having.  At the same time, as the biography unfolds, the children are once again exposed to all the language features that take the parts and make a whole – the prepositions, those unfairly-maligned adverbials that take the fragments and construct a vision of life for us.  The transferable elements that will allow your students to turn to the lives that speak to them (or the lives that spring from our curricular studies) and bring them to vivid, wordy life.

One response to “Bringing Life to Words (and Pictures): picturebook biographies for children”

  1. […] blog, much like my last post on picturebook biographies, is another complement to a blog I am turning to next, written for my employers @HertsEnglish.  […]


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