March 19, 2020
One of the most common forms of narrative nonfiction is the biography. Biographies can be found in long form novels, long-form highly illustrated books, chapter books, early readers and picture books.
Picture book biographies normally take one of two forms. One is the "biography for report writers" that include historical information that might be of use to a child writing a school report on the subject. Examples of this form of biography include the "A Picture Book of" series by David Adler (published by Holiday House). The most recent of these is A Picture Book of Alexander Hamilton and includes Hamilton's role in the American Revolution, his position as Secretary of the Treasury, and his death by dueling with Aaron Burr. In other words, these books hit the highlights of the subject's life in order to give the reader valuable information in a simple format.
This more general format, designed to assist the young report writer, doesn't eliminate the storytelling moments in the books. For instance, A Picture Book of Alexander Hamilton begins with these words: "Early on July 11, 1804, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr stood twenty feet apart in an open field. Each held a loaded pistol pointed at the other." Certainly a story doesn't begin with more tension that that! But after the initial snapshot in the field, the book immediately goes back in time to catch the reader up on the events of Hamilton's life. Because it is a picture book biography, the author is keenly aware of the need for interesting visuals, and the biography depends a bit more on visuals in the text itself than you normally see in a picture book.
Within the text we find descriptions of Hamilton's birthplace, a Caribbean island with "white sand beaches" and hills with "mango, orange, and lemon trees." These kinds of visuals help make the facts of Hamilton's life feel more concrete for the reader and are a frequent choice in narrative nonfiction, but the tone of this kind of picture book is very factual and straightforward.
The second type of picture book biography focuses on a single narrative, a snapshot from the subject's life and is often written in much more poetic style. Writing the second type of biography is more appealing for the storyteller in us. Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin is an excellent example of this style of biography. Consider the opening lines of this book: "In the days when farmers worked with ox and sled and cut the dark with lantern light, there lived a boy who loved snow more than anything in the world." Listen to the strong storyteller voice in that opening. This storytelling voice is a frequent part of this kind of narrative nonfiction picture book. The story is still nonfiction. The author doesn't make things up, but the tone is very different from the book written to support early report writing efforts.
Another trait of this kind of picture book is focus. While the general biographies cover the key moments in the subject's life, the focused, lyrical biography keeps the scope of the book on one thing. Snowflake Bentley focuses on the subject’s fascination with snow and his discovery that no two snowflakes are exactly alike. One lyrical picture book that mixes careful research with the author's imagination would be Georgia Rises, a Day in the Life of Georgia O'Keefe by Kathryn Laskey. Laskey used well-researched facts to build a possible single day in Georgia's life. The day is imagined, but the facts are not.
For still another example of a focused picture book biography, check out Full of Beans, Henry Ford Grows a Car by Peggy Thomas which focuses on Ford's concern for desperate farmers hurt by the Great Depression and how Ford researched ways to use soybeans in the manufacture of his cars. These picture books share a sense of immediacy by focusing tightly on a single day or a single element of the subject's total life. These picture books also use specific, concrete details and action to capture reader attention and provide the kind of illustration opportunities picture books need.
Notice in all of these, the subjects are on some kind of journey. The journey may be toward finding their true passion, as with Snowflake Bentley or solving a problem as with Full of Beans. Sometimes the journey is only a single day where an artist finds inspiration in the life she loves. But the journeys will be emotional, because the best picture books invoke feeling in the reader by showing emotion on the page. Also, each of these picture books have a feeling of wholeness. A good picture book doesn't simply peter out. As with any story, it needs a beginning, middle, and end. The end doesn't come simply because the author stopped writing, it comes because the whole of the narrative was moving toward that point.
So if picture book biographies are the kind of narrative nonfiction that calls to you, spend time reading the best available. Read new and old biographies. Then look for the unique journey you can bring forth from your biographical subject. Do that, and you'll have a book that captivates readers and stands the test of time.
Jan Fields is a former Institute of Children's Literature Instructor and a full-time, freelance author.
Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Click here to let us help you write your book.