How I Fell In Love With Picture Book Biographies
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Does it surprise you that I love picture book biographies? I’m writing one; in fact I already wrote a picture book biography. If you had told me fifteen years ago that I would author a picture book biography for children and adults to enjoy, I would have choked on my water (because that is about all I was drinking fifteen years ago). I most assuredly loved reading good, living picture books to my students, but I would have been unfamiliar with the term “living book” if you had used it around me.
I have always enjoyed a good story, like most of you. I taught in the public school system for four years and was undoubtedly exposed to some good ones. Nonetheless, my love story does not begin there. In fact, my love for good picture books has developed a lot more since I now have children of my own. It is more about connecting with little humans and big humans and less about analyzing the literature. Now, I think I am in love with well-written picture book biographies. Really.
My love story begins with a book called Six Dots: A Story of Young Louis Braille by Jen Bryant. The year was 2019. I had just listened to a popular reading podcast that inspired me to budget and buy some recommended picture book biographies.
Six Dots: A Story of Young Louis Braille is the story of how Louis Braille came into the world and changed it for better. He was underestimated from a young age, but especially misjudged after an injury and ensuing infection left him blind as a child. Jen Bryant does a fabulous job stretching out the scene of the moment in time when five-year-old Braille’s curiosity got the best of him, changing his life forever. For a young man who saw darkness, Louis Braille’s life story was told so vividly. I felt deep empathy as Bryant used simile to show Braille’s frustration with his sudden blindness. In the narrative, Braille recalls a chained dog in his small French town and identifies with it. It was as if his blindness held him back, like the tightly chained dog.
I felt a connection to him that could not be replicated in the reading of a textbook.
You see, when you read a well-written living book, you do not need to understand simile, metaphor, or iambic pentameter. You certainly can enjoy literary elements, but they are not essential to connecting with the text and the story. You will ascertain beauty, if it is in fact a story that exposes a transformation, connects struggle to a success, or disseminates a moral truth.
Everyone loves a good transformation story.
Louis Braille’s story is one of overcoming the odds. He was the one who created the six-dot system of writing for the blind, enabling them to read anything they wanted to.
When he arrived at the school for the blind in Paris, Louis had limited access to books. Resolving to be one of the best students at the school, the day finally came when Louis earned the right to open the few books the school had. This endeavor proved disappointing. Louis, tracing the outlines of the standard alphabet letters only to read a couple of sentences on one page, wanted more. He wanted to learn. How was he going to learn if each page only had a couple of sentences, and the books were only so long?
The recurring theme in this story is Louis’s aversion to other’s pity for his situation. That aversion and his own determination to learn and live life propelled him forward toward innovation. He dreamed of the chained dog breaking free. He spent hours each night developing a new alphabet that would eventually replace the old way of teaching the blind to read and write.
The story is so good and would be sufficient without beautiful artwork to accompany its pages.
Nonetheless, the picture book biography is a work of art in varying media.
I fell in love with Louis Braille’s story as I gazed at the art depicting his hardship and determination. The words carried most of the weight in telling his story, I will admit. Nonetheless, the pictures certainly breathed life into a time and place I was getting to know. Boris Kulikov has developed his distinct style. His art style makes me think of olden days. I surely do not want to neglect acknowledging the immense contribution visual artists have given our world. They deliver truth, goodness, and beauty in a most palpable way.
The first-person narrative of Louis Braille includes an author’s note, q & a, and resources for further study at the end. In addition, the inside of the back board includes a tidy graphic of the Braille alphabet and numerals.
There is power in a story. A story moves people.
There is connection in a story. A story connects us to the characters. Reading stories aloud and telling stories to our children connects us to one another.
There is art in a picture book. A picture book is like a handheld gallery of beauty and ideas.
I love the power of a story to connect people across different places and times.
I think writing about others appeals more to me than writing about myself. This is one of the reasons I was compelled to write a picture book biography. After some searching, I arrived at my subject: I am honored to tell the story of Ole Kirk Christiansen, LEGO founder. This man was incredibly visionary. I cannot wait to share his story with you! If you look through my list of some of my favorite picture book biographies, I know you are going to love this one. I have already written the book and we are in the editing phase. To follow me on my journey from first draft to first printed copy, you can join my email community. I love being able to communicate these intimate details with my most engaged audience. I hope to inspire and humbly share.
I briefly described here what captivates me in the picture book biography. I am passionate about stories that utilize literary devices to skillfully disseminate beauty, truth, and goodness about a person’s life. I must share a few of my favorites with you. In case you haven’t yet found my booklists on the internet, here is a link.
The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon by Jacqueline Davies; Illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Balderdash! John Newbery and the Boisterous Birth of Children’s Books by Michelle Markel; Illustrated by Nancy Carpenter
Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford; Illustrated by Kadir Nelson
Martin Luther: A Man Who Changed the World by Paul L. Maier; Illustrated by Greg Copeland
Pippo the Fool by Tracey E. Fern; Illustrated by Pau Estrada
Ron’s Big Mission by Rose Blue and Corinne J. Naden Illustrated by Don Tate
Mathematicians are People, Too: Stories from the Lives of Great Mathematicians by Luetta Reimer and Wilbert Reimer
The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons by Natascha Biebow Illustrated by Steven Salerno
Leave It to Abigail! The Revolutionary Life of Abigail Adams By Barb Rosenstock
Until later, fellow biography lovers!