Sunday, September 28, 2008

Biography and Autobiography

The children's author, Jean Fritz, has said, "We cannot afford to forget that the past is not just a series of events; it is people doing things." The stories of a life can become a biography (or autobiography). Collect enough biographies together and you begin to have a history. And history; "our history;" is one of the means by which people define themselves. It is for this reason that there are so many issues attached to the genre of biography. When selecting biographies for your child to read and enjoy, there are many factors to consider. As a busy parent, it can be a huge barrier of entry, trying to navigate between what is true and accurate versus what is a loosely scripted polemic, between what is positive versus what is self-destructive, between what are legitimate questions of style and form versus academic nit-picking. (See Biographies and Autobiographies book list)

Another reason for the importance of biographies is that, indirectly, they generally serve as some sort of ambassador for behavior and values. We hold up individuals that we admire in the hope that our children will absorb some comprehension of the importance of those values and behaviors. We don't necessarily want our children to be like George Washington because he was the first president but rather because he was such an exemplar of the values of integrity, duty, perseverance, etc.

Just as a culture goes through a literary evolution from folktales to myths (unverifiable tales of unverifiable events purported to be real) to legends (unverifiable tales of verifiable events) to factual and documented stories; so too, do children go through a reading evolution. At their earliest ages, they have no historical framework or body of knowledge on which to build. Any story for the youngest crowd is going to typically focus on the barest bones of a life, often a single event, and will lack almost any sort of context. There simply is not a capacity for reference, nuance, or critical thinking. As a child grows and lays down layer after layer of knowledge, these capacities do also grow (in large part because of those simple early stories).

As a parent you are left with a challenge that does not have an obvious answer as you try and balance two different objectives. On the one hand you want stories that are gripping and will feed the habit of reading. On the other hand, you want to have stories that are reasonably accurate. You need something more than "truthiness" to borrow Stephen Colbert's term. Sometimes these objectives go together well; many times they do not. George Washington chopping down his father's cherry tree makes a great tale for a five year old and the refrain "I cannot tell a lie" a very useful object lesson at that particular age. Young children engage with this simple morality tale to which they can relate and it gives them a story that does reinforce the attested and essential truth about the foundation of Washington's character, his sense of duty and integrity. The fact that it probably did not happen, as they discover in their teens, sure is inconvenient.

This conundrum, the balancing of enthusiasm about reading with a desire for factual accuracy, is further inflamed by an overlay of academic nuance and political movements. Many books of even a decade or two ago are now roundly criticized as either questionable or straight out inappropriate based on depictions of race, ethnicity, gender, or class stereotypes. The unfortunate consequence, were we to take all of these criticisms seriously (and some of them do have merit), is that there would be hardly any books for children to read, and certainly few that they would want to read.

Even when the story being related is factually accurate, an author, when writing for a younger audience, must focus the narrative on a few essentials which means there is little capacity for balance or nuance. James Daugherty's Daniel Boone, (1939), was a Newberry Medal winner (among other prizes) and was long enjoyed by children at the independent reader level for the exciting tale it told and the energetic illustrations by the author. Not being the focus of the story, Native Americans were, however, pretty much depicted as the undifferentiated "other", the savage danger out there on the frontier. In today's context, that depiction is harshly criticized within the halls of academia and the book is no longer in print. But what are we left with? I am not sure there is anything currently available that comes close to Daugherty's version in terms of ability to grip a child.

What counts as a biography (auto or otherwise)? Can it be just a segment of the person's life or does it have to cover all of it? Can it be a diary or journal? Does it have to be a single person or can it cover a group of people? Does historical fiction count as biography? All good questions.

All or a segment? - At the picture book level there is a good exemplar of this as an issue. Kate Shelley: Bound for Legend tells the tale of a young fifteen-year old woman, Kate Shelley, and her role in averting a potentially disastrous train wreck in the middle of a rainstorm as well as the subsequent rescue of an engineering crew. The narrative gives a couple of paragraphs on her background and two or three on what happened in the rest of her life but the overwhelming bulk of the story is centered on her actions the night of that storm. Biography? - I would say in this instance, yes on the grounds that it does give a context of her whole life.

In general, as you move up the reading curve, from picture books to independent readers to young adult, we have, in the following book list, tended to focus on more complete lives rather than just segments.

How about diaries and journals? - With a couple of notable exceptions, we have broadly omitted diaries and journals as I think they warrant a category of their own.

Single person versus a group? - Walter Lord (writing for adults and whose work is especially suitable for young adults) was a master of this approach to historical writing as best exemplified in his wonderful, A Night to Remember, about the sinking of the Titanic. He researches and follows the stories of a dozen or more key characters at the center of the story: Captain Smith, Second Officer Lightoller, ship's architect Thomas Andrews, and many others. In most cases, he gives a short potted history of their life before the night as well as what happened to them afterwards. When this is done well, as he does, it serves as a marvelous group biography, illuminating much more than a single life and giving a snapshot of an era. Done poorly and you have a disjointed narrative that becomes hard to follow. We have included a handful of group narratives in the following list.

How about historical fiction? - Unlike Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland ("When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less"), we do have to abide by words meaning what they actually mean. So by definition, historical fiction is out. Which is not to say that it doesn't play an important role in building a child's knowledge of history and people. We'll just have to tackle it in a different book list.

Another issue in which a parent can get entrapped is that of contrasting approaches to history. One approach, popular in the 19th century and still resilient today, is that of the Great Man theory as originally propounded by the British essayist and historian, Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle's argument was that history is effectively the sum of actions of a handful of great individuals (usually men). If you want to understand the American Revolution, you focus on Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Henry, Hamilton, etc. The Great Man theory lends itself to stirring narratives and therefore is fairly prevalent in children's literature.

The alternative philosophies of history discount biographies of individuals and focus much more on the broad sweep of forces and trends, often emphasizing minutiae such as how people went about their daily lives, what they ate, the technologies they used, what they wore, etc. While this sounds pretty boring, (and done badly, it is), it can actually be pretty interesting. However, dependent as it is on broad knowledge and detail, it takes a certain level of talent and creativity to make this approach to history work for children. A few manage it. Anne Millard's A Street Through Time, illustrated by Steve Noon, might be a good example of the more current approach to history writing, that is made to work for children.

As with so many contretemps in academia, the truth usually lies between the extreme positions. Individuals matter and so do broad trends - it is the intersection between the two where things get really interesting. Barbara Tuchman did a wonderful job in A Distant Mirror, in building her tale around an individual but making the story come to life through the details of daily living. If you are wedded to one approach or another, you will find both examples represented in this book list but because of the nature of biography (which focuses on individuals) and the emphasis on engaging narratives, you will find a predominance of stories about individuals.

This leads into another arena of controversy, (who knew that there were so many sink-holes in children's literature?) Through the 1950's and 1960's, history as a compilation of Great Men narratives was well served in the children's literature arena. There were lots of books about great men in history: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Charlemagne, Henry the Eighth, Sir Francis Drake, Stanley and Livingstone, FDR, Winston Churchill, Genghis Khan, Daniel Boone, etc. There was even a handful of Great Women of history such as Queen Elizabeth I, Madame Curie, Boadicea, Pocahontas, et al.

This list of great figures was predominantly white and predominantly male. From the 1970's on there has been a strong tide, not to refute the Great Man theory per se, but rather to broaden it to include more Great Women, Great African-Americans, Great Hispanics, etc. While right, I think, in general direction of injecting some balance, it has set up some peculiar consequences. One tendency is to dramatically exaggerate accomplishments: an assistant lab technician becomes a scientific genius; a previously inconsequential member of the expedition becomes the critical member on whom all success hangs. Another consequence has been one of balance. There are so many stories of women soldiers in the American Revolutionary army that you would think that there was hardly a need for them to disguise themselves as men. Some of these historical fiction stories are really good, it is just that in aggregate they can create a false impression.

Another trend prevalent in recent years, particularly at the young adult level, is for autobiographies as confessionals of self-destructive behavior – see all the abuse I suffered, my bout with drugs, I was a teenage alcoholic, etc. One of the progenitors of this trend was the 1970's book Go Ask Alice by Anonymous about a runaway girl that gets into drugs and street life. The consensus has latterly come around to the view that this is a fictional account rather than a true diary/autobiography. There clearly is some market for these type of books but I am afraid I have little tolerance for them. It seems to me that one or two might serve as an object lesson for how badly some people can make a mess of their lives. Beyond that though, there is a danger of creating an impression that these self-destructive behaviors are some sort of norm. While we carry these books should they need to be used for a particular purpose, they are not on this recommended book list.

What we have created below is a mix of books that are broadly accurate, have strong narratives that attract children's interests and which impart both factual historical information as well as highlight admirable individuals who exhibited traits we would wish our children to emulate. Beyond the individual books listed, there are fortunately a handful of authors (Russell Freedman, Jean Fritz, and Diane Stanley in particular) who produce really good narrative biographical stories. There is also a series, Childhoods of Famous Americans that is really good for early independent readers. It is an extensive series, has been in print for some sixty years, and covers all periods of US history. While each book is written by a single author, there is a stable of some dozen core authors over the entire series. Each book is written focusing on the famous person's childhood, usually finding something in that childhood that foreshadowed their later accomplishments. There are some 175 books in the series, though not all are in print. All three of our children enjoyed this series which is a tribute to its catholic appeal given their very different reading tastes.

Let us know of biographies and autobiographies which your children have especially enjoyed.

Picture Books

Johnny Appleseed by Reeve Lindbergh Highly Recommended

A Street Through Time by Anne Millard and illustrated by Steve Noon Highly Recommended

The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles and illustrated by George Ford Recommended

Where Was Patrick Henry on the 29th of May? by Jean Fritz and illustrated by Margot Tomes Recommended

And Then What Happened, Paul Revere? by Jean Fritz Recommended

Paul Cezanne by Robert Burleigh & National Gallery of Art Suggested

Can't You Make Them Behave, King George by Jean Fritz and illustrated by Tomie dePaola Suggested

The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein Suggested

Johnny Appleseed by Steven Kellogg Suggested

Independent Reader

Going Solo by Roald Dahl Highly Recommended

Lincoln by Russell Freedman Highly Recommended

Indian Chiefs by Russell Freedman Highly Recommended

Cheaper By The Dozen by Frank B. Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey Highly Recommended

Belles on Their Toes by Frank B. Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey Highly Recommended

Rocket Boys by Homer H. Hickam Highly Recommended

A Night To Remember by Walter Lord Highly Recommended

My Life and Hard Times by James Thurber Highly Recommended

Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
and illustrated by Garth Williams Highly Recommended

Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
and illustrated by Garth Williams Highly Recommended

A Weed Is a Flower by Aliki Recommended

Boy by Roald Dahl Recommended

Confucius by Russell Freedman and illustrated by Frederic Clement Recommended

Eleanor Roosevelt by Russell Freedman Recommended

The Wright Brothers by Russell Freedman Recommended

Bully for You, Teddy Roosevelt! by Jean Fritz and illustrated by Mike Wimmer Recommended

Homesick by Jean Fritz and illustrated by Margot Tomes Recommended

And Then What Happened, Paul Revere? by Jean Fritz Recommended

Traitor by Jean Fritz Recommended

The Endless Steppe by Esther Rudomin Hautzig Recommended

All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot Recommended

Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and illustrated by Mary Azarian Recommended

Bill Peet by Bill Peet Recommended

The Glorious Flight by Alice Provensen and Martin Provensen Recommended

Traveling Man by James Rumford Recommended

Peter the Great by Diane Stanley Recommended

Saladin by Diane Stanley Recommended

Mary on Horseback by Rosemary Wells Recommended

Young Adult

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell Highly Recommended

Good-Bye to All That by Robert Graves Highly Recommended

Sagittarius Rising by Cecil Lewis Highly Recommended

A Distant Mirror by Barbara Wertheim Tuchman Highly Recommended

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank and Otto H. Frank and Mirjam Pressler Recommended

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer Recommended

The Discoverers by Daniel J. Boorstin Suggested

All over but the Shoutin' by Rick Bragg Suggested

I Could Never Be So Lucky Again by James H. Doolittle Suggested

Two Lives of Charlemagne by Nofker the Stammerer and Einhard the Frank Suggested

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin Suggested

An Autobiography by Mahatma Gandhi Suggested

Empires Of Light by Jill Jonnes Suggested

The Color of Water by James McBride Suggested

The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester Suggested

The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester Suggested

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