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. Classics like Eleanor by Barbara Cooney (about the childhood of Eleanor Roosevelt) and Abraham Lincoln by Ingri and Edgar Parin D'Aulaire, or the In Their Own Words series (featuring books on Thomas Edison, Betsy Ross, and more famous figures) make history come alive by introducing your child to significant people who made an impact on the world 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 Who Was? series, featuring iconic figures within a variety of categories, from music (The Beatles) to royalty (Queen Elizabeth), also provide 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 America and The Royal Diaries use fictional characters to describe moments in history. Explore creating different types of biographies together with your child. Have them write the biography of a family member of their choosing, or create their own autobiography. What would your child want his own autobiography to say? Make a scrapbook together, using photos, magazine cut-outs, quotes, and other embellishments to capture your child's interests and feelings.
Top Titles to Try
Start building your biography bookshelf with these standouts — from inspiring women and courageous African Americans to great presidents and amazing athletes, there's a little something for everyone.
For younger readers:
- Me...Jane by Patrick McDonnell. Learn about the colorful childhood of Jane Gooddall, an inspiring conservationist, environmentalist and animal activist, accompanied by lovely paintings and Jane's toy chimpanzee.
- The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq by Jeanette Winter. This story about a librarian in war-torn Iraq who tries to save her city's collection of thirty-thousand books before it's destroyed forever will touch your heart and speak volumes about the importance and love of literature.
- When I Grow Up: Benjamin Franklin by AnnMarie Anderson. Introduce your child to one of America's most loved Founding Fathers and his many talents in this easy-to-read and engaging biography.
- Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin. Discover the story of Wilson Bentley, whose passion for nature and science in the 19th century fueled his enthusiasm for capturing snowflakes with his camera, in this charming Caldecott Medal winner.
For older readers:
- The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba. Be inspired to dream big with 14-year-old William Kamkwamba, who figured out how to bring electricty to his village and build a working windmill after his village suffered from a drought.
- Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jiang. This autobiography of Ji-Li Jiang, who grew up amidst the terrifying reality of the Cultural Revolution and the effect it had on her and her family in Communist China, is both moving and poignant.
- 26 Fairmount Avenue by Tomie dePaola. Tomie dePaola recounts his childhood memories when his family starts building a new home in 1938, just before a hurricane hits, in this sweet and funny Newbery Honor award-winner.
- Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker by Patricia Hruby Powell. This is a vibrant and fitting tribute to the life of Josephine Baker, a strong, spirited and glamorous dancer who worked her way up from poverty in the USA to stardom in France while advocating for civil rights and speaking out against segregation.
For younger readers:
- Now & Ben by Gene Barretta. This informative and colorful book brings to life the many ideas and inventions of Benjamin Franklin, from hospitals to daylight savings time, that shaped America as it is today.
- Florence Nightingale (Rookie Biographies) by Carol Alexander. Learn about the determined nurse who followed her dream despite her family's disapproval, and changed the world of medicine, devoting her life to help ease others' suffering.
- Martin de Porres: The Rose in the Desert by Gary D. Schmidt. This heartwarming story traces the life of Martin de Porres, the biracial, illegitimate son of a Spanish nobleman and an African slave, who dreamed of becoming a priest even in the face of poverty, prejudice, and racism in 17th-century Peru.
- Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian by Margarita Engle. This is the bright and beautifully-illustrated tale of a girl who went against the scientific theories of her time, and carefully documented the life cycles of caterpillars, butterflies, and other insects, thereby disproving the centuries-old belief of where insects come from.
For older readers:
- Isaac Newton (Giants of Science) by Kathleen Krull. Discover what one of the most influential figures of science was like in this gripping account of his life, inventions and contradictions during the turbulence of 17th-century England.
- The Abracadabra Kid by Sid Fleischman. This autobiography, filled with tips for aspiring writers, details the early years of award-winning author Sid Fleischman, who set out to be a magician before finding his true calling in writing.
- Shark Lady by Ann McGovern. Follow famous ichthyologist Eugenia Clark as she explores the underwater world, goes diving with sharks, and explores shark caves in this adventurous and exciting biography.
- Alexander the Great Rocks the World by Vicky Alvear Shecter. This quirky biography, embellished with maps, photos and funny drawings, depicts Alexander's grand and unusual life in which he rules a country by age sixteen, conquers Greece by age twenty, and takes on the world.