Friday, March 30, 2012

The Value of Picture Book Biographies

March 30 - Today’s post by Jennifer Brown of Twenty by Jenny and Shelf Awareness

The Value of Picture Book Biographies
By Jennifer M. Brown

A librarian friend I deeply respect said to me recently that she wasn’t sure what purpose a picture-book biography serves. I immediately thought of many ways to celebrate and defend it as a form, but the most compelling reason is that a picture book biography done well will lead youngest readers to find out more about the person at its heart. And during women’s history month, here are a few favorites to bring youngest readers on board.

Georgia in Hawaii: When Georgia O’Keeffe Painted What She Pleased by Amy Novesky, illustrated by Yuyi Morales (Harcourt/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99 hardcover, 9780152054205) is an excellent example of a picture book biography that may well lead young readers to further investigation. Novesky chooses one episode in Georgia O’Keeffe’s career—when the Hawaiian Pineapple Company (later known as Dole) brings her to Hawaii to create two paintings of a pineapple—and she refuses to paint the fruit on their terms. She wants to live among the pineapple workers; the company won’t let her. So she travels the islands and paints “what she pleases.” In the end, back in New York, she does paint a pineapple, but she paints it her way. Novesky convincingly chronicles O’Keeffe’s change of heart, and the illustrations by Morales capture the essence of O’Keeffe’s trademark combination of close observations of nature while making them entirely her own. O’Keeffe’s paintings make us see flowers and sky—and yes, a pineapple—differently, and Morales evokes that same feeling.

Children who respond to Georgia in Hawaii, may then pick up My Name Is Georgia by Jeanette Winter (Sandpiper/HMH), which shows the artist’s early leanings toward her career from childhood, when she traced pictures out of books in her local library in Wisconsin. The picture book follows her through to adulthood, and Winter peppers the narrative with quotes from the artist as spare as her artwork. Young people can easily find a role model in O’Keeffe—the way she trusted her early calling and stuck with it her entire life. It makes a strong statement next to her steadfast stand with the pineapple company in the previous book.

The picture-book biography that prompted the remark from my friend was Jazz Age Josephine by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman (Atheneum/S&S, $16.99, 9781416961239), and while I acknowledge that Josephine Baker’s sensual dances as an adult might be a bit more than a child could handle, Winter does an extraordinary job of conveying her early experimentation in dance as well as how the race riots of her St. Louis childhood prompted her flight to France and planted the seeds for her involvement in the French Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement. Without giving these influences short shrift or delivering them with a heavy hand, Winter creates a portrait of a playful, inventive and principled young woman, and Marjorie Priceman’s kinetic illustrations convey Josephine’s charisma and talent.

One of the most fortuitous examples of a picture-book biography leading to further study is the collaboration between Pam Muñoz Ryan and Brian Selznick, Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride (Scholastic). Ryan and Selznick encapsulate in one evening’s adventure two women whose strength and fearlessness broke open gender boundaries during their lifetime. After First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt invites “First Lady of the Air” Amelia Earhart to dinner at the White House, Earhart repays her hostess’s kindness by offering her a night flight over the capital. The book gets across a sense of why these women were such icons and also why they became such good friends. (Those who wish to read more about Earhart or Roosevelt may turn to Candace Fleming’s Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart,Schwartz & Wade/Random House; and Fleming’s Our Eleanor: A Scrapbook Look at Eleanor Roosevelt’s Remarkable Life, Atheneum/S&S.)

That book led to further exploration by Ryan and Selznick, and another episode in Eleanor Roosevelt’s life, When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson(Scholastic). An African-American opera singer at a time when America was still in the throes of segregation, Marian Anderson took the stage all over the world—except when she returned to her homeland. When the singer was denied entry to Constitution Hall, Eleanor Roosevelt stepped in and arranged for Anderson to perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The notes at the back of this picture book let young readers know how Amelia and Eleanor led to the picture-book collaboration about Marian Anderson and Eleanor. What a power of example for where curious minds and creativity can lead.

Editor’s Note:
Jennifer M. Brown is the children’s editor for Shelf Awareness, an e-newsletter for the book trade that recently launched an edition aimed at consumers. She also writes for Kirkus Reviews and School Library Journal’s Curriculum Connections. Jenny is the founder of Twenty by Jenny, a Web site that helps families build their children’s libraries one book at a time.


  1. Absolutely! Picture books have this power to cut straight to the emotional heart of a topic. I think they are incredibly useful in the classroom at any age.

  2. Thanks for your support of these books, Malory.

    With all my best,

  3. What a fascinating comment about the value of the p.b. biography & one worth exploring more.
    I read the Josephine Baker one & thought it was quite cool. Some day I hope at a history fair, a child who read it in elementary school, will decide to present on her at the middle or high school history fair event.

    Earlier this spring a respected member of our area children's literature community said that she had never bought or checked out a picture book biography for her young daughters. That is, until they were required in school.
    This amazed me, as she is a talented writer & editor & a big consumer of reading materials in all formats. But it was truth, she had gone for the rhyming picture books for run & the bedtime books & so forth. One reason, she said, is that they were isolated over there in Biography.
    And it didn't occur to her, to take the kids there.

    The Hawaii experience of O'Keefe is fascinating. And how cool for young readers to learn early on that there are adults who follow their own artistic path, including in research.
    Wonder what the company folks didn't want her to see? Sounds like a wonderful story to share.
    On a light note, makes me wish I had a can of pineapple now for this lunchtime munch!

    Thank you for suggesting all these titles.

  4. Thank you for posting this topic, I have long wanted a way to introduce my son to famous people but I have found non-fiction books for the preschool set to be difficult to access. Also as part of a nature class I introduced my son to Georgia O'Keefe and now I'm off to see if my local library carries Georgia in Hawaii.