Biography lets children see lives in context, with an immediacy and intimacy that makes whole periods and whole places come alive.
Joan I. Glazer
Introduction to children’s literature
The term biography comes from two words: bio meaning life and graphy meaning writing. A biography is a book written about someone else’s life. A specialized form of nonfiction, biographies usually focus on famous people. When someone writes his or her own life story, the resulting work is called an autobiography.
Early biographers believed that the biographies written for children should be educational tools. Consequently, many early biographies focused only on the good aspects of the subject, ignoring or glossing over any negative characteristics. Early biographies often presented only the subject’s childhood, sometimes even making up events to make the story more dramatic. Some early biographies more closely resembled novels than true works of biography. The 1960’s saw a move away from these fictionalized biographies as part of the trend towards realism in children’s books.
In an authentic biography virtually everything that happens is documented. Authors of authentic biographies rely heavily on secondary sources such as letters, journals, diaries, court records, and newspaper accounts. They may also interview the subject or those who knew the subject. Authentic biographies should not include any created conversations, events or scenes.
Biographies may be classified by their content. A complete biography covers the subject’s entire life. A partial biography covers only a portion such as the subject’s childhood. Collective biographies focus on several people who are joined by a common thread such as their profession.
Biographies are often grouped by their subjects which can include the following:
- scientists and inventors
- political leaders
- explorers of space and earth
- artists, authors and composers
- sports heroes
- people who preserve or overcome tremendous odds
Teen readers, on the other hand, are often consumed by causes and are ready to read about men and women who pursue ideas and ideals. Sutherland points out that older readers may read a biography out of interest, but they also read for other reasons such as learning more about a cause or movement they’re interested in (438).
Older readers can develop critical thinking skills by reading and then comparing two biographies about the same person. They can note how an author’s viewpoint and writing style influence the tone of the biography. In addition, they can look for differences and similarities including the amount of historical detail included and how much fictionalization is used.
Biographies and autobiographies, like other kinds of writing for young readers, need to be written in an engaging style. The most interesting subject in the world cannot rescue a biography that is written in deadly dull prose. Background material needs to be chosen judiciously and then woven carefully into the story. Writer of biographies for young readers should prefer action and dialogue to long pieces of descriptive writing. A well written biography/autobiography brings its subject to life.
In addition, biographies have three special characteristics that need to be examined closely, accuracy, authenticity and objectivity:
- Accuracy. Everything that is presented as fact within a biography should be verifiable. There should be no glaring omissions or distortions of fact. Some authors may include notes that document statements made in the biography. A bibliography demonstrates the depth of the author’s research and may encourage the reader to further explore the subject.
- Authenticity. Not only should a biography be accurate it must also be authentic. All the details that authors use to build biographies – such as descriptions of clothing or living conditions – must be true to the subject. Any illustrations must also be authentic and show appropriate details.
- Objectivity. It’s virtually impossible for an author to achieve 100 percent objectivity. Everything contained in a biography is filtered through the author’s mind. However, careful writers of biography do not let their personal opinions influence what is included in a book, rather they “let deeds speak for themselves.” (Sutherland, 421) Also, they take care to include both sides of the story, leaving it to readers to draw their own conclusions. Authentic biography takes care to show the reader the human side of its subject avoiding mindless glorification. A poorly written biography “often ignores completely any negative qualities and presents only the good.” (Lukens, 289)
There is an assumption here: that the subject of the biography is “worthy”. That means that the subject is worth the time the writer spends researching and writing, and that the subject has made a significant impact – for better or worse. Norton asks these questions:
Will children have a better understanding of the complexities of human nature after they have read the biography? Will they discover that history is made up of real people when they read the book? Will they appreciate the contributions of their ancestors or their heritage through the life of the person in the biography? (675)
The Value of biographies
Biographies provide an interesting and entertaining way for young readers to learn about the world. The reader of biographies soon discovers that some human qualities, such as courage and perseverance, have always been with us: they remain constant throughout all time. Biographies teach, but in an engaging way.
For young readers, biographies may provide a bridge between fiction and history.
Furthermore, biographies present “models of achievement, compassion and heroism” (Hillman, 191) to their readers. They are, indeed, stories worth reading.
There are several issues surrounding both biographies and autobiographies.
First, is the selection process used to purchase biographies. Donelson and Nilsen equate this problem to Andy Warhol’s statement about everyone having “15 minutes of fame”.
The problem is that it takes more than 15 minutes for a book to be written, published, and purchased, so schools and libraries are usually a step behind. By the time a biography of some new celebrity has gone through a rigorous selection procedure, this subject may no longer be of interest. (214)
The second issue is that there seems to be no limits to the subjects for biographies. And while everyone would agree that younger readers need to be protected from some of the uglier aspects of life, young adult readers seem to be irresistibly drawn towards some of this material. Traditionally, biographies that focus on death and disease, especially when the subject is young, are very popular with teen readers.
But a more recent trend is even more disturbing: that of the debunking biography. In this type of biography, the subjects are heroes who are taken down from their pedestals. The writer of a debunking biography does not treat the subject with any sympathy. As a society we seem to take great glee in finding out that heroes – be they movie stars, politicians or sports heroes – are not perfect. Donelson and Nilsen note that this type of biography can be an effective antidote to “excessive hero worship.” But they also note:
Not to read debunking books is to miss facet of humanity, but to read only debunking books is to produce only debunkers, and that we have already in sufficient numbers (215).
The polar opposite of debunking books is the fawning biography. This type of biography is not balanced as it presents only the subject’s positive characteristics. Princess Diana has been the subject of several fawning biographies that presented distorted pictures of her life.
Another issue is that of “questionable books”. Donelson and Nielsen suggest that it’s better to let teens read the entire book than just “get the smatterings of sexual or violent titillation that appear in the media.” (216)
Mary Mueller makes the argument for taking a realistic approach to prominent people:
We can buy books that treat individuals and occurrences with honesty and insight, even when they contain profanity, examine bad behaviour or dirty tricks, or pose a picture of established heroes having feet of clay. (56)
However, many teen readers still need guidance so that they begin to understand that reading about someone’s life does not mean emulating everything that person did.
A final issue surrounding this genre is that of autobiographies. Often written in a more informal style than a biography, writers of autobiographies rely on their own memories. The key disadvantage of autobiographies is that they are not unbiased and readers must be wary of about what they’re reading. As Donelson and Nilsen point out, “most people are poor witnesses of their lives.” (211) We want to look good to others, so we embroider and embellish the truth. We are reluctant to talk about our embarrassing moments with others.
On the other hand, autobiographies often provide a unique, personal perspective that can’t be found in a biography:
The unique personal perspective of the autobiography can tell us things about a person we will find no place else. Autobiographies also have the advantage of immediacy – if they are written well – of making us feel as if we are right there next to the subject, sharing his or her life experiences.