Sunday, March 11, 2012

Let's Talk Biography - NFPB Challenge

Yikes! I can't believe it's been over a month since my last post and my promise to participate in the Non-Fiction Picture Book Challenge.  I have been reading non-fiction picture books, but I have neglected my blog.  So, without any further excuses.... let's talk biography!

Children's biographies have come a long way over the last several years.  Traditionally, biographies are written in chronological order, with each section or chapter describing an important event in the person's life.  The book usually reads like a timeline and begins at birth or childhood, and ends in adulthood.  I have a basket of these books in my class library.  They are great for second graders because the text structure is so predictable. The only problem is that my students rarely select books from this basket, even after I talk up the titles.  These newer biographies are written like a fiction story.  You might call them literary biographies!  They have proven to be great read alouds in my class.  They entertain with exciting characters who happen to be real people.  They also allow for me to introduce important historical concepts to my younger students.  And I notice students are looking in the Biography basket more often!

The Camping Trip That Changed America written by Barbara Rosenstock and illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein

This book tells the story of how our national parks began.  I am considering it a biography because it introduces two very important historical figures.  

The book describes the camping trip in Yosemite that naturalist John Muir took President Theodore Roosevelt on during the spring of 1903.  This small moment in history is responsible for the creation of our national park system.

I really love how the author begins the book comparing Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir.  They have many differences, but one thing in common.  They both love the outdoors and nature.

The story is told as a simple narrative as the two travel and camp through the Yosemite Valley.  The illustrations and narrative work together to describe the natural setting - from the giant Sequoia, to El Capitan and Half Dome.  The author uses John and Teddy's conversations to weave factual information into the story naturally.  Teddy, as avid outdoors man enjoys his time in the Yosemite Valley and listens to Muir as he describes how the valley was formed and how old the trees are that they sleep under.  Muir shares his concerns about saving this great wilderness for future generations.

As they arrive in the Mariposa Grove, the reader needs to turn the book sideways to show how tall the the mighty sequoia trees were! My favorite part is where the illustrator used 2 pages to paint the giant sequoias.  Teddy and Muir appear as tiny silhouettes on horseback riding through the great trees.

This book does a wonderful job of telling an important, but probably little known story of how our national parks began. but gives the story a personal touch because we get to go on the camping trip with Teddy and John!  

Abe's Honest Words: The Life of Abraham Lincoln written by Doreen Rappaport and illustrated by Kadir Nelson

I absolutely love this book!  It tells the story of Lincoln's growing up in the Midwest, his failures and successes.  It explains how he was self-educated and was always reading.  We learn about Lincoln's first experience with slavery while he is visiting New Orleans.  The painting of slaves chained together is so moving, it brings tears to your eyes.  

The story gives us a sense of how long and sad the Civil War was, and how dedicated Lincoln was to keeping our country together.  What this book does best is show us how human Lincoln was.  He didn't just "free the slaves", as most elementary students can tell you. The book helps the reader get a sense of Lincoln's thinking and beliefs. 

This book was a great conversation starter for my students.  As we read the book, we paused to talk about why Lincoln didn't go to school, why there was slavery, the Civil War, and the emancipation proclamation.  The illustrations captured my students attention.  These were real people and the illustrations brought them to life. The illustrations not only compliment and work with the text - they are a story on their own.  They show such emotion.

Don't wait until next President's Day to read this book to your students!

Words Set Me Free - The Story of Young Frederick Douglas written by Lesa Cline-Ransome and illustrated James E. Ransome

This is such an inspirational and moving story of Frederick Douglas's childhood and growing up, before he became a leader of the anti-slavery movement.

The story is told by little Frederick, which allows the reader to see the world of slavery from his perspective.  This immediately gets my students' attention because a story about a child is more real to them.  My students were riveted as they learned about the horrible hardships of slavery.  As a child of only 6 years old Frederick worked from sun up to sun down.  The illustration of a group of slave children eating from a trough was shocking and helped my second graders understand the inhumanity of slavery. 

But little Frederick is strong, smart and very brave.  He learns to read and write which is very dangerous for a slave.  Throughout the book Frederick reflects on his knowledge of what happens to slaves that learn to read.  At a young age, Frederick realizes that his freedom is connected to his ability to read and write and he secretly meets with other slaves to teach them to read and write as well.  

The author provides a note at the end describing how Frederick eventually becomes free, and tells about important events in his adult life.  

Here Come the Girl Scouts! written by Shana Corey and illustrated by Hadley Hooper

This book tells about the life of Juliette "Daisy" Gordon Low and how she founded the Girl Scouts.  

The Victorian Era and life for little girls and grown up women was very different than life today.  Daisy was very unusual for her time, and this book does a very nice job of showing that.  The book tells how "proper" young ladies are suppose to behave, but Daisy had her own ideas.

The book tells how Daisy got the idea for Girl Scouts and how she started meetings.  You learn about the first uniforms and badges too.  Throughout the book there are quotes from Daisy about Girl Scouts, service and community.  The illustrations are simple and sort of remind me of 50's style drawings.

There is a separate section at the end that tells more about Girl Scouts and their founder, Juliette Gordon Low.

If you were ever a Girl Scout or you know a Girl Scout you must read this book!  


  1. Debra - I so agree with your comment. With so much competing for children's attention and so much done in an engaging format, biographies and nonfiction have to step it up a notch. I am loving the new format which I was calling fictionalized biographies but I like your term too.

  2. Thank you for sharing about these books.

    I am your newest follower and would love for you to come visit me when you get the chance. =)

    Heather's Heart

  3. Thanks for stopping by and following my blog! I will definitely stop by your blog and check it out.