Searching for Biographies by Mélina Mangal
“Where are the biographies?” I asked at the children’s library in Bordeaux, France.
The librarian looked at me quizzically and asked me to repeat myself. I wondered if it was because my French was a little rusty, since I don’t speak it every day in the U.S. When I asked again, she told me to wait a minute, then went to retrieve the director. The director came out and asked me what I was looking for, and I again repeated myself, this time explaining that I, too, was a children’s librarian, visiting from the U.S., just wanting to see what kinds of biographies they had on the shelves for young readers.
“Ah!” she responded with a glimmer of recognition. “C’est une bibliothèque pour enfants.” This is a children’s library. She went on—We only have books for leisure reading. Summer vacation is for fun!
I thanked her, and perused the shelves, full of fun stories. It was a fantastic library, dedicated exclusively to children and teens. I enjoyed seeing the range—beautifully illustrated folk and fairy tales, les bandes dessineés (graphic novels), fantasy and realistic chapter books, as well as nonfiction books on health, astronomy, and religion among other subjects. But what about the biographies?
I had the same experience at a huge bookstore. When I asked, I was shown a few texts and told they really don’t have much in the way of biographies for children—they learn about that in school. There were many great books though, and I enjoyed seeing the original versions of books like Aya (YA graphic novels by Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie) and seeing how popular English titles were translated.
The biography comments nagged at me though. I’d come back to Bordeaux, the city of my birth, with my mother and family. It was a homecoming. My mother had wanted to revisit her hometown after so many years away. I wanted to show my family where I had been born. It was a wonderful trip. But I was disappointed. Here I was, in a city full of great bookstores and libraries and yet, biographies for children were considered an anomaly.
Biographies were what turned me into a Reader, with a capital ‘R.’ After finding Langston Hughes’ The Big Sea and I Wonder as I Wander at the public library, I could not put books down.
I thought of so many biographies for young readers that I read and recommend to my students. Favorites include photobios like Ain’t Nothing but a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry by Scott Reynolds Nelson and Marc Aronson, about the research involved in finding out about the larger-than-life hero. I loved reading about the process, especially since I teach research as well.
Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and Science by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos captivated me with its global connections and well-documented narrative about one of our most popular foodstuffs, sugar.
George Washington Carver by Tonya Bolden presents a rounded picture of this well-known scientist, not shying away from the harsh details of his birth and early life during the Civil War era. Bolden also takes a new look at Frederick Douglass in her biography Facing Frederick: The Life of Frederick Douglass, Monumental Man. New research drives Bolden’s work, detailing Douglass’s influence across many boundaries.
Picture book biographies offer so much to young readers as well. Not only do they offer entertaining stories that children understand, they present well-written and researched facts that can serve as a springboard to more learning. I read them over and over to students.
Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U. S. Marshal by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson brings to life a real hero, from a time and place in American history when the most famous were often on the other side of the law.
Seeds of Change: Planting a Path to Peace by Jenn Cullerton Johnson and Sonia Lynn Sadler is a beautiful book about Nobel prize-winning environmentalist Wangari Maathai’s life and her work reforesting Kenya.
Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions by Chris Barton and Don Tate is a fun and honest introduction to a contemporary inventor. Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton by Don Tate reveals the heartbreaking and inspiring details of this poet born into slavery.
Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas by Gwendolyn Hooks and Colin Bootman presents the man responsible for one of today’s life-saving medical procedures.
In the book The Flying Girl: How Aida de Acosta Learned to Soar by Margarita Engle and Sara Palacios, young readers are introduced to a tenacious young woman who refused to simply be a passenger.
Chester Nez and the Unbreakable Code : A Navajo Code Talker’s Story by Joseph Bruchac and Liz Amini-Holmes highlights the contributions of a young man, and others like him, whose language skills helped the U.S. during WWII.
Picture book biographies like these inspired me as I researched and wrote the The Vast Wonder of the World: Biologist Ernest Everett Just. Thankfully, through the combination of thorough research, careful word-crafting, and engaging illustrations, picture book biographies are inspiring a generation of readers to think about new possibilities—some that others could only dream of.
Mélina Mangal is a school library teacher and author of biographies and stories for children. Her book The Vast Wonder of the World: Biologist Ernest Everett Just will be available in November of 2018 through Millbrook Press.
What an awesome survey of biographies and reinforcement of their importance in the world of children’s literature. You may have opened a few minds in Bordeaux, too!
I didn’t read much biographies growing up. I don’t read much of them now also. I’ve always been a storyteller kind of guy, fiction being my medicine.
But books are the best gifts we can chance on. Nothing beats a good book I always tell myself. I’m obsessed with storytelling and great stories at that, and yet it seems it starting to matter little.
I’m sorry about my ranting, but I think it edges beyond biographies. I’m from Nigeria, and each day my friends read as little as possible. The culture is what needs reviving… Or so I think.