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Real People

by Ann A. Flowers

Those who remember the earnest, carefully bowdlerized, extremely boring biographies of their childhoods must be happy with the advent of some glorious, carefully researched, handsomely presented, and fun-to-read biographies being published today. It is hard to say whether the times — so much more open to the straightforward presentation of human beings, warts and all — or simply the adventitious presence among us of excellent biographers has more to do with this satisfactory state of affairs. But one way or the other, it is a hopeful trend in the art of biography for children.

And it is certainly an art to present a human being so that we think we know him, can comprehend his shortcomings and successes, and understand what it was about him that made him stand out from the general mass of humanity. A juvenile biography has certain problems that make these goals even harder to achieve than in adult biography, such as limits on length — which make it imperative to select the telling detail out of a multitude — and the challenge of reducing complex issues and ideas to simple but not condescending terms.

Some early biography was well thought of in its time — Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire, for example, wrote and illustrated a series of juvenile biographies in the 1930s and 1940s. Their biography of Abraham Lincoln won the Caldecott Medal in 1940. But today we see that the texts of these biographies glossed over or avoided hardships, difficulties, and tragedies; the illustrations were decorative and folkloric; no sources or documentation were provided; and the end result was more legendary than realistic. Although attractive in appearance, the books talked down to children. And these were the best of the lot.

The trend toward finer juvenile biographies seems to have started about twenty years ago with the short, but amusing and historically accurate, biographies by Jean Fritz and F. N. Monjo. Jean Fritz’s biography, And Then What Happened, Paul Revere? (Coward), came as a bolt from the blue to bored children and jaded librarians and teachers. Lively, funny, a piece of history as well as biography, it made the man and the period come alive. This delightful work was followed by many other books by Fritz, and by Monjo’s amusing views of Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt as seen through the eyes of a young family member. The Glorious Flight: Across the Channel with Louis Bleriot July 25, 1909 (Viking) by Alice and Martin Provensen gives a minute slice of history wrapped up in a small parcel of biography, with nostalgic illustrations. Other fine biographies have appeared during the last twenty years: Monjo’s Letters to Horseface: Young Mozart’s Travels in Italy (Puffin); Use Koehn’s Mischling, Second Degree: My Childhood in Nazi Germany (Greenwillow) and Upon the Head of the Goat: A Childhood in Hungary 1939–1944 (Farrar) by Aranka Siegal, both unsparing autobiographies set in World War II. Frank autobiographies by authors such as Beverly Cleary and Roald Dahl and illustrators such as Trina Schart Hyman and Bill Peet have given children a look at the creative process.

More recently, we have seen further improvements in biographies. There are now biographies of women architects, African-American labor union organizers, and other individuals who in the past may not have been considered by biographers. Also, biographies are now encompassing a wide range of age groups, including picture books about Nijinsky and Haydn for very young readers. In 1987 readers were favored with Russell Freedman’s Newbery Medal-winning Abraham Lincoln: A Photobiography (Clarion), in which the treatment of Lincoln’s life is superbly realistic, yet simple, and illustrated entirely in period photographs. The comparison with the d’Aulaires’ Abraham Lincoln (Doubleday) is striking — a real human being versus a child’s hero.

And in this very issue, two impressive new biographies appear. Jean Fritz has written Bully for You, Teddy Roosevelt! (Putnam), a biography as bursting with energy as its hero. Roosevelt practically jumps off the page at the reader — riding, birdwatching, fighting, legislating, running the country. And yet characteristics that we may no longer find appealing, such as his love of hunting, are presented as well. Russell Freedman’s The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane (Holiday) is noteworthy in every way. Freedman has managed to combine a great deal of technical information in an easily understood form with a fascinating account of the lives of two most unusual, reclusive, and brilliant inventors. Both aspects of the biography are equally interesting; the research is commendable; and the photographs perfectly support the narrative. It is a cheering book, exemplifying in real people what most Americans feel are our strongest and best national characteristics. With books like these, the hope arises that juvenile biography will continue to take an ever more estimable place among children’s books.

From the Fall 1991 issue of The Horn Book Guide

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