Any body who has seen me talk about picturebooks will know that I have a particular fascination with picturebook biographies.
As people we are fundamentally drawn to story. We remember story, we embrace, story. In my opinion a great school curriculum is one that is infused by story. Curriculum should sit on a bed of stories both, fictional and true. Learning stuff and building knowledge should be a framework for hanging our stories on, learning stuff should be a key part in helping us understand those stories. Dates, times, events, facts, vocabulary should all be part of helping us understand story.
Story is also our route into understanding viewpoint and perspective it helps us step outside our world and into the shoes of others.
I was struck this week having read two books The first was “ The World was Ours” by Liz Kessler an powerful holocaust story about three children, the second book was “ Nicky and Vera” by Peter Sis a biographical picturebook account of how Sir Nicholas Winton saved the lives of 669 children from Prague just before the second world war. (There is a rather wonderful That’s Life video about this). There was a point where both stories intersect in Prague and the two stories together provide us with a clarity of the impact of Sir Nicholas’s actions and also the aftermath for those he could not save. The impact of the stories together was intensely powerful and what was evident was how both stories had been meticulously researched.
Most of the most amazing and inspirational stories are to be found in real life.
And there is a lot to be learnt from the achievements of people who have gone before. But how did these figures reach their goals and what prompted them to act the ways they did?
Picture book biographies peel back history and bring to life the true stories for a younger generation of readers. The best show true understanding of their muse and are often playful in form which allows to dig even deeper into their life, story and impact. They can give us perspective and viewpoint and can add a personal point to our narratives. As my good friend Paul Watson pointed out to me when he reading a draft of this, ” We all have a story and the power is ours to make it worth telling”
Here are a few my favourite picturebook biographies, I like them because they encourage, discussion and thought about the person rather than just telling the story.
The Wall by Peter Sis is a fantastic look at life growing up behind the Iron Curtain. In this autobiographical book Sis allows us to see his inspiration, his quiet rebellion and most importantly and understanding and perspective of life for him during that time.
On Wings of Words by Jennifer Berne and Becca Stadtlander explores the life of Emily Dickenson. The book is visually arresting and encouraged me to look at her poetry in a renewed light, impacting on both my understanding and appreciation for her work.
Radiant Child by Javanka Steptoe A wonderful vibrant picturebook, that explores Basquiat’s childhood but also encourages us to realise that art and creativity can be messy and doesn’t always stay within the lines.
Elvis is King by Jonah Winter and Red Nose Studios is fantastic picture of the passion, determination and drive that is required to make it. The model art is a joy to behold. Stunning
The Oldest Student by Rita Lorraine Hubbard and Oge Mora tells the inspiring story of Mary Walker who learnt to read aged 114. What is also does is take through a century of social, political change and civil rights and explores that change and the impact it has on a Mary herself.
Silent Days, Silent Dreams by Allen Say is a stunningly powerful biography of Deaf artist James Castle. It highlights the horrendousness of the school system for children with profound learning difficulties, bullied and discarded James ultimately was still able to communicate through his art. A profound story for all.
I’m the only person I know who owns two picturebooks about photographer Dorothea Lange. Dorothea’s Eyes by Bob Rosenstock and Gerard Dubois and Dorothea Lange by Carole Boston Weatherford and Sarah Green explore the life and impact of a photographer who opened America’s eyes to the poverty and neglect that existed during the great depression. The books encourage us all to be brave enough to see.
Enormous Smallness by Matthew Burgess and Kris Di Giacomo is a tells the story of E.E.Cummings, what is brilliant about it is how it encourages children to be playful with language form and words. Definitely one of my favourites.
Counting on Katherine by Helaine Becker and Dow Phumirux is a rightfully popular Picturebook, crossing boundaries and barriers to show and opening doors to possibilities.
You can find lots more on twitter under the hashtag #PicturebookBiographies
Her are a few others I love…