What Makes a Good Picture Book Biography?

What is a picture book biography? Its simple title gives us everything we need to know: it is a picture book and it is a biography, and it is both of those things simultaneously and symbiotically. Imagine two spotlights on a stage. One light illuminates picture books, where story and style and the turn of the page combine in a book begging to be shared. Another light exposes biography, with authoritative research and impartial presentation offering an informative and compelling biographical portrait. To identify the picture book biography, we look at the books that exist in the space where those two lights overlap. To identify the excellent picture book biography, we look within that shared space, the overlapping lights, to find the books that shine.

Spotlight on picture book elements

First and foremost, a picture book must engage its young readers, talking to and with them, rather than at them. Deborah Hopkinson and John Hendrix fulfill this requirement admirably with their collaboration on Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek. Engaging in direct dialogue with both her audience and her illustrator, Hopkinson invites the reader to speculate about history, to imagine the experience of Abe and Austin, his childhood friend. Illustrator Hendrix complements her tone as he sketches and then re-sketches what might have happened to the two young boys. While biographical purists might dismiss the effort, the engaging meta-narrative provides a very accessible and human introduction to Lincoln where the young reader is as much a player in the story as a recipient of it.

In a well-crafted picture book, text and illustration share the storytelling duties, with the art often adding detail not found in the narrative. A picture book biography offers the illustrator an opportunity to do the same thing, using sophisticated imagery to complement the narrative with a sense of the time and place of the subject’s life. With his illustrations for What to Do About Alice? Edwin Fotheringham does not provide a photographic likeness of Alice Roosevelt. Instead, he shows us her energy and vivacity. His illustrations, rendered in a saturated palette that includes Miss Roosevelt’s signature “Alice blue,” match the lively tone of Barbara Kerley’s text. Stylized depictions of the clothing, hairstyles, modes of transportation, and even child-rearing practices at the turn of the twentieth century inform the reader about the era in which Alice lived, and reflect her youthful exuberance.

Summer Birds, by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Julie Paschkis, about a young naturalist born in Germany in the 1600s, breaks with biographical convention by relating the story in first person. This stylistic choice invites an intimacy between the reader and the text that one expects in a work of fiction. Engle chooses to include much of her biographic detail in an appended historical note, thus leaving the bulk of the text free to engage in the storytelling function. Paschkis’s illustrations are based in a folk-art tradition that puts the viewer in mind of the era in which Maria Merian lived and worked. Her occasional use of bold black backgrounds calls attention to the ever-important dramatic page turn. In addition to providing a biographical story that is both visually and verbally engaging, the author and illustrator together acknowledge their subject’s commitment to carefully observing and recording the natural world. The rich character development adds depth to the story and provides young readers with a valuable insight into scientific methodology.

Biographical elements

All biographers must determine what to include and exclude when writing about an individual’s life. The parameters of the picture book format make these decisions even more crucial and often limit a biography’s scope. While thirty-two or forty-eight pages won’t allow for a comprehensive, cradle-to-grave exploration of a subject’s life, ingenious biographers can communicate the essentials, carefully excerpting struggles and accomplishments, and reinforcing their expression with appropriately resonant words and imagery. In Georgia Rises, author Kathryn Lasky and illustrator Ora Eitan paint an indelible portrait of the artist within a day’s activity. Recounting O’Keeffe’s arthritic morning ritual, pulling on her stockings and arranging her hair, Lasky reveals volumes about the painter’s work ethic and passion. The inspiration derived from a simple encounter with a raven exemplifies O’Keeffe’s life-long relationship with the natural world. For her part, Eitan matches Lasky’s spare, lyrical musings with flat, elegant, determined paintings, capturing the quiet strength of O’Keeffe’s work and the landscapes that inspired it.

While the picture book format invites creative abbreviation, the biography demands the same documentation required of its longer counterparts. A biographical account, however essential, must rest upon a foundation of rigorous research. In Bad News for Outlaws Vaunda Micheaux Nelson and R. Gregory Christie offer a compelling yarn both adventurous and sympathetic — and documented. Nelson supports her candid account with comprehensive back matter: a photograph of the hero at the end of the story signals a transition to the facts, followed by a glossary, a historical timeline, a bibliography for further reading, some background information on other players, and a selected bibliography including some notes about her own research. With such appendices, the book’s veracity is inarguable. But strong documentation need not be straightforward to be effective. The same meta-awareness that enhances the irresistible storytelling in Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek also highlights that book’s informational integrity. By breaking the fourth wall to discuss the story’s origins with the reader, Hopkinson and Hendrix simultaneously document their research and offer the reader a rudimentary lesson in the process of historical inquiry.


Acknowledging the audience

Illuminated within the shared spotlight that defines the picture book biography, there are a variety of titles crafted to inform and delight children of every age. Replete with naive sweetness and scientific substance, Patrick McDonnell’s account of primatologist Jane Goodall’s childhood, Me...Jane, squarely entertains the preschool audience with a simple story designed for sharing. A young Jane, stuffed monkey in tow, investigates the wildlife around her country home, imagining one day traveling to the jungles of Africa to do the same. Period spot illustrations and a collection of Goodall’s own childhood drawings accompany McDonnell’s gentle watercolors, complementing Jane’s genial enthusiasm with a seriousness of purpose. At story’s end, the child Jane goes to sleep in her bedroom and awakes, an adult, in Tanzania. A photo of the naturalist reaching out to a chimpanzee completes a singular picture of a remarkable woman’s fascination with and abiding commitment to the world’s wildlife, perfectly calibrated for the biography’s intended audience.

Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet deliver an equally well-tuned picture book biography for an older child audience in A River of Words. Bryant’s narrative both tells and shows. The text directly conveys information, affording the young reader straightforward facts about the poet’s life and work. At the same time, the spare beauty of the writing communicates the power and influence of poetry in an indirect way. Sweet adds story-extending detail with her round, ebullient collage work. Her inclusion of text in virtually every illustration reinforces the importance of words in the life of William Carlos Williams. Built on ledgers, lined paper, and newsprint evocative of the time when Williams was composing, the illustrations include multiple iterations of his poems, hinting at his relentless dedication to writing. Together, author and illustrator have crafted a book of subtle and layered meaning suited to the growing understandings and aesthetic sensibilities of an older audience.

There are as many opportunities for successful picture book biographies as there are children to consume them. The lives of real people offer countless varieties of inspiration. Some open a page on a forgotten hero. Others expand appreciation of an iconic figure. By offering varied pictures of achievement, from the personal to the monumental, picture book biographies demonstrate that there are countless avenues to individual success. In sharing the literary spotlight, the writers and illustrators of picture book biographies illuminate another type of success as well. Through their efforts to honor two literary traditions within a single book, they shine a light on both genres and allow us the opportunity to celebrate creative cooperation. We can only hope that the two spotlights they have so carefully focused will continue to shine on.

Good Picture Book Biographies

A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams (Eerdmans, 2008) by Jen Bryant; illus. by Melissa Sweet

Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian (Holt, 2010) by Margarita Engle; illus. by Julie Paschkis

Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek: A Tall, Thin Tale (Introducing His Forgotten Frontier Friend) (Schwartz & Wade/Random, 2008) by Deborah Hopkinson; illus. by John Hendrix

What to Do About Alice?: How Alice Roosevelt Broke the Rules, Charmed the World, and Drove Her Father Teddy Crazy! (Scholastic, 2008) by Barbara Kerley; illus. by Edwin Fotheringham

Georgia Rises: A Day in the Life of Georgia O’Keeffe (Kroupa/Farrar, 2009) by Kathryn Lasky; illus. by Ora Eitan

Me...Jane (Little, Brown, 2011) by Patrick McDonnell

Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal (Carolrhoda, 2009) by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson; illus. by R. Gregory Christie

From the March/April 2011 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
Viki Ash and Thom Barthelmess
Viki Ash is coordinator of children’s services at the San Antonio Public Library. She has taught children’s literature at the School of Library and Information Studies, Texas Woman’s University, and has served on multiple award committees. Thom Barthelmess has worked in public libraries across the country and is now a lecturer at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Dominican University and serves as Curator of the Butler Children’s Literature Center.
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