When I get sent nonfiction children’s biographies, I read them with a few things in mind. Of course, I want to see good writing. But more than that, I need to know why I should care.
Lately, there’s a trend in publishing to write nonfiction biographies about someone who overcame an obstacle in their life. Okay. But, so what? Why should I care? And how does this connect to readers? There needs to be something that hooks us as readers.
Honestly, I’m getting tired of formulaic, didactic biographies. They’re heavy handed. Kids aren’t stupid. They don’t need to be force fed story after story where someone overcame adversity. These stories should be moving, emotional, and engaging yet often times, they aren’t. Again, I ask –why? Why should we care about this person? Readers need to be inspired, entertained, educated, but mostly told a good story. Anything else is patronizing.
Okay, I’ll hop off the soap box now. Hopefully, that tells you a bit more about the great books made this list and what they are not. 🙂
Latest Children’s Nonfiction Biographies (spring 2018)
Chester Nez and the Unbreakable Code: A Navajo Cose Talker’s Story by Joesph Bruchac, illustrated by Liz Amini-Holmes
Important, heart-breaking, confusing, inspiring. This story is all of those things. As you probably know, but your kids don’t so that’s why this book exists, is that Navajo kids were sent to boarding schools and forbidden to speak their language. Ironically, when the Army needed help, the Navajo forbidden language became an significant part of the Allies winning WW II because of its uniqueness and the code the Navajo soldiers developed using it. This picture book does a good job of not vilifying or blaming (although it could have) but simply sharing the history. I like how it ends with Chester’s family helping him to heal after the war. We can use this story to teach history as well as talk about many topics including kindness, empathy, and forgiveness.
The Secrets of Tutankhamun Egypt’s Boy King and His Incredible Tomb by Patricia Cleveland-Peck, illustrated by Isabel Greenberg
Kids won’t want to put down this compelling narrative about the boy king for the first half of the book with his tomb’s discovery in the second. Great writing peppered with dialogue and facts make the text flow at a good pace. Illustrations on every page add support and depth. This will be a necessary addition to classroom and homeschool Egyptian studies. I really like this book.
Fairy Spell How Two Girls Convinced the World That Fairies Are Real by Marc Tyler Nobleman, illustrated by Eliza Wheeler
You will want to believe that these two English girls really did see fairies as they claimed. They even convinced the famous Conan Doyle that they did. But, you’ll eventually learn that it was all a hoax— revealed only when the girls became old women. The delicate illustrations help tell this enchanting true story. You’ll also see the black and white photos the girls took to document their fairy sightings.
Little Great Lives Amelia Earhart by Isabel Thomas, illustrated by Dalia Adillon
If I judged this book by the cover, I wouldn’t have read it. I’d have missed the richness of the text. But, I ignored my first perception and found a treasure. The way the author wrote this biography totally engaged me— I learned more in this book than on any other Earhart biography I remember reading. I like the interior blue and yellow illustrations, too. Get this book for your classrooms and library.
Little Guides to Great Lives Nelson Mandela by Isabel Thomas, illustrated by Hannah Warren
Excellent! Written more like a narrative story, this is a little book with a fast-paced, informative story about one of the world’s most admired activists and leaders. (And like the previous title, I’d vote for a different cover!)
Midnight Teacher Lilly Ann Granderson and Her Secret School by Janet Halfmann, illustrated by London Ladd
This is a traditionally written nonfiction picture book biography in the sense that it’s very factual and sequential without a narrative flow. However, the story is worth knowing as we must know our history so we can learn from it.
Little Sid: The Tiny Prince Who Became Buddha by Ian Lendler, illustrated by Xanthe Bouma
Sid was a spoiled prince whose parents catered to his every need. But he wasn’t happy. So Sid left his castle to look for Happiness. After he almost dies, things change. Sid changes. He no longer wants material things, just to be. Pastels and browns, dialogue bubbles, and accessible text make this a decent introduction to the boy who became Buddha.
This is not a picture book, it’s a detailed and thorough biography written for ages 10+, about Maria’s childhood and adult life from her stepfather who taught her to paint and her first caterpillar observational study at age 13 to her later years of careful observational studies and art in the Netherlands and Surinam. The book includes detailed illustrations and photographs of her actual drawings and the insect and plant specimens she observed plus occasional informational insets describing the world around her at the time— the first museums, the role of women, and science before photography, just to name a few. Maria’s dogged passion for the natural world, insects, in particular, led to being one of the first naturalists to document a butterfly’s metamorphosis. Her story is fascinating and inspirational. I love this book!
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