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Parent Guide to Book Genres: Biography, Autobiography, and Memoir

Learning about the lives of others helps celebrate where we came from … and inspires us to determine where we’re going next.

Learning Benefits

Hover over each Learning Benefit below for a detailed explanation.
Critical Thinking
Reading Comprehension

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Just Behave, Pablo Picasso!
Just Behave, Pablo Picasso!
by Jonah Winter Illustrated by Kevin Hawkes
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Whether your child aspires to be an astronaut or a teacher, a firefighter or a ballerina, you can encourage her interest by providing books about others' lives. Biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs celebrate history while also enabling children to see the world from a fresh perspective. Give your budding Beethoven or curious Curie a book, step back, and watch inspiration take hold.

Why They're Worthwhile
Biographies help kids to understand history through the lens of one person's experience. Books like Eleanor by Barbara Cooney (about the childhood of Eleanor Roosevelt), Abraham Lincoln by Ingri and Edgar Parin D'Aulaire, or the series In Their Own Words (featuring books on Thomas Edison, Betsy Ross, and more famous figures) make history come alive by introducing your child to famous people from all walks of life.

Exposing your child to a variety of biographies has academic advantages as well. Topics you can explore together include science, art, math, space, medicine, drama, and sports, to name a few.

Talking the Talk
Taking note of the biographies your child selects can help you encourage her interests. A good starting point is the A Very Young... series by Jill Krementz, which uses photos and interviews to provide a glimpse into the lives of kids who are dancers, gymnasts, horseback riders, and more. Titles such as Amelia to Zora: Twenty-Six Women Who Changed the World by Cynthia Chin-Lee or the Great Black Heroes series also provide some stellar role models.

When your child chooses a book about a favorite artist, author, or athlete, talk to him about his choice. Ask questions: What do you like about that person? What was that person like as a kid? What made her famous? Does she like some of the things that you do?

Beyond the Books
Biographies don't have to be just about books. Try a few of the ideas below when you're ready to extend the fun.

  • Explain to your child that there are different points of view to every life story. For example, the biography The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles and the autobiography Through My Eyes by Ruby Bridges both describe the same events and experiences, but from varying angles. Talk about how you might remember a recent event differently than your child and encourage her to think of some examples.
  • Research your family history. Search the passenger records on the Ellis Island Foundation website or look at old photographs, family trees, and home videos. Have your child interview aunts, uncles, grandparents, and great-grandparents to create your family's own oral history.
  • Series like Dear AmericaMy Name Is America, and The Royal Diaries use fictional characters to describe moments in history. What would your child want his own autobiography to say? Make a scrapbook together, using photos, magazine cut-outs, quotes, and more to capture your child's interests and feelings.

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