Looking to infuse more nonfiction into my reader's workshop,* but wanting a break from non-narrative informational texts, I decided to give biographies a try. After all, while my students can spout every statistic about the pop star du jour, they know little about historic leaders, artists, scientists, and thinkers. And by reading biographies, they can also learn about admirable character traits, history, and research skills.
This week, I’ll share a book list of my favorite read-aloud biographies. Next week in part 2 I’ll share some of the accompanying lessons and resources from the unit, and in part 3 I’ll share our exciting culminating biography project, so stay tuned!
*With the changes from the Common Core State Standards, my school has decided to try for a 40/60 percent fiction/nonfiction split this year — that’s a lot of nonfiction! The CCSS suggest an even distribution of literary and informational reading in elementary school.
Let me tell you, biographies have come a long way from the musty yellowed books of my childhood. Those dry tomes were crammed with dates and facts about presidents and male inventors with a few black and white portraits. Yuck!
And after scanning the biography shelf at a local bookstore, I realized that this is a genre that deserves to be resurrected in my classroom. The new biographies out there are juicy, colorful, and inspiring! To update the sorry looking biography baskets in my classroom without breaking the bank, I created a DonorsChoose.org project and received over 60 new books from donors. To learn more about using DonorsChoose.org to request classroom materials, see my blog post "Giving Thanks." We now have six baskets of biographies in my classroom library, so narrowing down this list wasn’t easy!
In addition to biography baskets in our classroom library, reading e-books from the Biography shelf on Storia is a highlight for my students!
I prefer to pick biographies to share with my class about more obscure historical figures. During their own research, my students gravitate towards the usual suspects, and the chapter book biographies on their reading levels tend to be somewhat limited in scope. Confident that my students will read about Amelia Earhart, Harriet Tubman, George Washington, and Albert Einstein during their own reading, I generally skip such mainstream subjects for my read-alouds.
The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins by Barbara Kerley — The gorgeous, saturated illustrations by Brian Selznick would be reason enough to share this book. However, the text is also fascinating with enough historical detail to please older elementary students. Waterhouse Hawkins was a scientifically minded artist who created the first life-sized models of dinosaurs during the mid-1800s. This book speaks to both the artists and dino-obsessed scientists in my class. (Be sure to check out this illustrator note by Selznick about his inspiration for the book.)
Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor by Emily Arnold McCully — The story of this obscure inventor packs a punch. Mattie overcame a poor childhood in the Lowell Mills, naysayers who didn’t believe a woman could invent new technologies, and even a sleazy patent thief. This book sends a warm message about female empowerment, and it celebrates the rewards of hard work rather than “born genius,” making Mattie truly inspiring. I like to bring in flat-bottomed paper bags for the students to inspect — they are Mattie’s invention!
Mermaid Queen: The Spectacular True Story Of Annette Kellerman, Who Swam Her Way to Fame, Fortune & Swimsuit History! by Shana Corey — Another strong woman who made waves (this time literally), Annette Kellerman popularized swimming as a coed sport in the early 1900s before women were allowed to compete in the Olympics. Not only did she set swimming records and overcome a debilitating childhood illness, Annette also created the precursor to the modern women’s swimsuit — a vast improvement over the Victorian “bathing costumes.” My students compare and contrast Mattie Knight and Annette Kellerman after I read both books.
Alvin Ailey by Andrea Davis Pinkney — This biography seamlessly weaves together ideas about the Jazz Age, gospel music, the history of segregation, and the evolution of modern dance without breaking the flow of the story. Pinkney builds such a strong sense of time and place that even young students can trace how formative experiences influenced Ailey’s later work. And as a successful black male dancer/choreographer, Ailey’s story broadens my students’ horizons and challenges some of their assumptions. I like to show my students video clips from Ailey’s iconic dance, Revelations, after we read this book.
The Getting to Know Series — Mike Venezia has written light-hearted yet factual picture book biographies that focus on a wide range of presidents, artists, musicians, scientists, and inventors. My students particularly enjoy the silly cartoons that reinforce the information in the books.
The Who Was . . . ? Series — This is a definite favorite among my students. The books provide more information and context than easy-reader biographies, but are still comfortable for middle-elementary students who aren’t ready for more intense biographies. The time lines, informational sidebars, and plentiful sketches grab their attention.
The Wicked History Series — The graffiti-inspired covers and spare-no-punches factual narratives make this an ideal series for my “too cool” students. I found the boys particularly enjoyed this series with its suggestion of nefarious notoriety. This is a more challenging series that requires historical background knowledge or a willingness to wade into murky waters.
The Graphic Library Biographies Series — For the reluctant readers in my class, these comic book style biographies are the perfect entry point to the genre. While looking at cartoon illustrations, dialogue bubbles, and detailed narration boxes, students learn at least as much about the books’ subjects as from more traditional biographies.
My students are now totally hooked on biographies — it is one of the most popular genres in my classroom! Here are some of their biography recommendations . . .
For a great project that teaches students how to research, take notes, and write their own biography reports, please check out fellow blogger Genia Connell's Black History Month and Presidents' Day Biography Reports.
What are your favorite children’s book biographies? Do you teach a biography genre study in your classroom? Share your thoughts in the comments section below, and visit next week for biography lesson plans and project ideas.
Biographies can introduce students to a whole new world of historical figures and different eras. Studying them can also inspire students as they read about people who overcame problems, faced obstacles and criticism, but persevered to succeed.