Picture Book Biographies

Recently, my son reported that he would be writing a biography about one of his grandparents for a school assignment. As I mentioned in a previous post, I've been building Pinterest boards that I hope will be useful to parents, teachers and home schoolers. One of those boards is a Picture Book Biographies board, so of course my ears perked up when he mentioned this assignment. Even though he isn't writing a picture book, per se, published picture books serve as great models for this assignment.

I reached out to his teachers and told them about my Pinterest boards in case they would be helpful. I also asked if my writing and teaching experience might be useful to them for this assignment. What I learned is that openings (leads) and closings are places that their students seem to have difficulty. They asked if I had any suggestions for how to help their students improve in those areas.

What follows is one suggestion for working on leads and endings.

There are four picture book biographies written about Wangari Maathi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Four!




What a perfect opportunity for teachers to examine an author's ideas, organization, voice, word choice, etc. Each of these books is about the same person, yet none of them describes her life and accomplishments in exactly the same way. Yes, the facts are the same, but the authors made many different choices about how to present those facts.

In this particular case, I'd start by having students examine how each author chose to open their biography by reading the openings and talking about the devises the authors used to open them.

Did they open with dialogue? An anecdote? Something else? What is the tone? Do you understand the author's "topic sentence" without it being stated directly as in, "Wangari Maathi helped return the trees to East Africa and empowered women." (Blah. Boring). How did the author pique your interest (or not)? Which book has the strongest opening?

Teaching strategy: If this is a new approach for your students, model it first. Read the opening of one book and ask them to answer the questions. Get them to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the writing while you record their responses. If they've done this kind of work before, you could send them off to work alone or in pairs to identify the answers and then come back to share it in a whole group setting.  (Each student/pair could be given one of the versions, being sure all versions are covered. When you share, they can teach each other what they learned from their book).

In any case, I strongly recommend making a list on chart paper that you can hang on the wall and leave visible the entire time they work on their biographies. Students can reference their lists to help improve their own writing.

Once you've identified strong leads, you can repeat the process with closings. Did the author "bring the story back around"? Leave the reader with an interesting question? End with a summary statement? Something else? Which ending was more satisfying?

Of course, once students have done all of this investigation, ask them to choose some of the devises they identified to be used in their own writing.

Art Connection: Each of these books has a different artist. You could also consider the decisions the artists had to make when creating the illustrations for books. Some artists include an "Artist's Note" in the book that may answer students' questions. Other illustrators describe their processes on their blogs/websites.

There are many other people who have had multiple picture book biographies written about them. (There are 2 wonderful ones about Jacques Cousteau, for example). Many of these books are on my Pinterest Board and I discover more every day. I hope you'll hop over to see my suggestions. And if you have a book to suggest, please leave it in the comments or send me an email at michelle(at)michellecusolito(dot)com.

Have you tried this approach? What tips would you like to add?

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