It used to be that reading for children was all about fiction. We started them out with nursery rhymes, moved on to fairy tales and folk tales, then picture books and finally on to the very prestigious chapter books. There wasn’t a non-fiction book in sight. About ten years ago educators began to realize that much, if not most of adult reading is about real things. We have to read street signs and contracts, we have to fill out job applications and follow directions to assemble our new computers. Teachers began to ask school librarians to order books about animals, machines, space and how car engines work. Publishers got on board and began to print good non-fiction books about everything real in the world. And biographies and autobiographies were written on thousands of interesting and important people from all around the world. Finally, there began to be a balance for children in their reading choices. They developed a taste for both fiction and non-fiction.
Once non-fiction books became readily available, then reading strategies for non-fiction material had to be taught. In a fiction story the words just keep coming. But in non-fiction it is important to know about illustrations, captions, headings, indexes, maps, blow-ups of pictures that are labeled and much more. There is an art to reading non-fiction. It is a doorway into the real world.
Biographies meld the best of both fiction writing and non-fiction with all of its intricacies. A good biography that tells the life story of a human being is full of drama. Its merits often lie in real-life triumphs over poverty or the hardships and dangers of war, in hard decisions that made all the difference, or the courage to face adversity. Real-life dramas are at the heart of a well-written biography.
In addition to the interest of a real-life story, when children read a biography they are learning about positive character traits that they may want to add to their own lives one day. They are getting a sense of history and time lines. They are beginning to understand what the world was like in a given place and at a given time. They will learn that life is not static, but that the world is ever-changing. Biographies are wonderful for developing the skills of reading comprehension. The story is motivating. The reader wants to know what happens next in their character’s life and wants to understand why he or she lived in a particular way.
Another plus in choosing to read biographies is that there is such a broad array of choices. Kings and queens, explorers, scientists, great artists, sports figures, Native American chiefs, the list goes on and on. There are even biographical series written on current pop stars. It is often argued that the depth of the character read about is only secondarily important to the reader. What IS important is that the child is motivated to spend time reading.
Biographies lend themselves to publication in sets or series. Thus you will find such offerings as the Young Patriot Series in American History, or the Blue Banner Biography Series by Anne Graham Gaines on current world figures. Certain authors such as David Adler in the states are well-known for their biographies written for children. The Lifetime Series by Thameside Press in the UK has a wonderful series of world figures such as Nelson Mandela and Anne Frank. Heinemann has published a series on famous artists with titles such as The Life and Work of Mary Cassatt and Rourke has a series called People Who Made a Difference. Other series tell the life stories of authors, scientists, astronauts, poets and playwrights and virtually any group of people in which your child may develop an interest.
One way to whet your child’s appetite for biographies is to track their current interests or their current courses of study and then supply just the right title for the time. If they are learning to use the microscope in Biology class they may be interested in the life of Van Loewenhook or Madame Curie. If they are studying about India in geography they may be interested in reading about Mother Teresa and her work with the poor and dying of Calcutta. If they take a fancy to the American Civil War then a biography of one of the leading generals is the right choice.
No need for history to be a dull course filled with endless memorization of dates and places. Bring the character and his or her life alive with a biography written at the appropriate reading level for your child. Look at these links to search for the perfect title for your young reader or browse your local library or bookstore for the right book.