Focus on History Classroom Connections


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Focus on History

Classroom Connections

Biography Day

by Patricia Austin

Many schools celebrate Biography Day, a ritual that becomes part of the lore of the school. Every year a given group, perhaps the first-, second-, or third-graders, spend weeks in preparation for the event. Each student selects a person to study, researches that famous person, and, as a culmination to the research, dresses up as that historical figure.

Backstage, the excitement is palpable as the eager scientists, world leaders, sports figures, musicians, artists and the like get ready to present facts about themselves in a who-am-I format to a school-wide assembly. Audience members have a chance to guess who each student is portraying. (Some students will want to stump the audience and thus enjoy choosing not-so-famous but important people.) Teachers and librarians know that in addition to gaining general knowledge of the genre of biography and specific knowledge about the selected person, students also have the experience of developing presentation skills. For the kids, no doubt, it’s all about the costume. Such experiences in school, while valuable academic endeavors, are also the stuff of memories.

One of the keys to making the most of events such as Biography Day is having enough quality resources available and also teaching students about the process of research and the importance of selecting accurate sources. When students read at least two biographies about the same person, they may begin to detect both minor and major differences within accounts, and this will sharpen their critical skills. Even young students can be taught to be aware of the author’s credentials, author’s notes, and a list of sources, among other elements which contribute to the accuracy of the biography.

Listed below are biographies about important people from all walks of life, from all parts of the world, and spanning many centuries. When students read more than one book, they note differing points of view, voice, style, tone, and organization, which in turn give a fuller perspective on the person they’ve chosen to study. These are but a few of many picture-book biographies that will launch the project of exploring the lives of important people and their contributions to society.


Mary Anning

Atkins, Jeannine. Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon. Illus. by Michael Dooling. 1999. 32p. Farrar, $16 (0-374-34840-5).

Gr. 1–3. At age 11, Mary helped support her family by digging for what her father called “curiosities” to sell to tourists. Only much later did Mary realize that she was finding fossils and that this would become her life’s work. Atkins’ story interprets what Mary’s first discovery of the ichthyosaur might have been like, conveying Anning’s dogged patience and persistence.

Brown, Don. Rare Treasure: Mary Anning and Her Remarkable Discoveries. 1999. 32p. Houghton, $15 (0-395-92286-0); paper, $5.95 (0-618-31081-9).

Gr. 1–3. Beginning with rich metaphors embedded in geology, Brown tells how Mary Anning’s father spawned his daughter’s lifelong interest in fossil hunting. At age 12, Mary discovered a nearly perfect ichthyosaur; in later years, she unearthed the first complete plesiosaur. A self-taught scientist, Anning earned the respect of experts although her own schooling ended when she was only 11.

John J. Audubon

Armstrong, Jennifer. Audubon: Painter of Birds in the Wild Frontier. Illus. by Joseph A. Smith. 2003. 40p. Abrams, $17.95 (0-8109-4238-0).

Gr. 2–5. In Audubon’s journals, Armstrong found several gripping adventures, which she portrays here to add a suspenseful element to the biography of this renowned wildlife artist. In addition to relating how Audubon painted as he trekked through the woods, both Armstrong and Smith provide lengthy notes explaining their own research processes.

Burleigh, Robert. Into the Woods: John James Audubon Lives His Dream. Illus. by Wendell Minor. 2003. 40p. Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, $16.95 (0-689-83040-8).

Gr. 2–5. Burleigh employs passages from Audubon’s journals (which are included) to create an imaginary conversation in which the famed artist and woodsman convinces his father why he must follow his own dream rather than his father’s wishes. Interspersed with Minor’s luminous paintings are drawings and paintings by Audubon.

Ruby Bridges

Bridges, Ruby. Through My Eyes. 1999. 64p. Scholastic, $16.95 (0-590-18923-9).

Gr. 3–9. Bridges shares her family background, offers her feelings about being the only black child to attend a formerly all-white school in New Orleans, provides information about other aspects of the civil rights movement, and reflects on her role in integrating schools. Sepia-toned period photos enhance this inspirational story.

Coles, Robert. The Story of Ruby Bridges. Illus. by George Ford. 1995. 32p. Scholastic, $15.95 (0-590-43967-7).

Gr. 1–3. In 1960, when Bridges was six years old, she was among the first to integrate New Orleans’ schools. The only African-American child to go to Frantz Elementary, she was accompanied by federal marshals past the jeering crowd. Coles interviewed Bridges in 1960 and here tells the story of her courage and faith.

Cesar Chavez

Cedeno, Maria E. Cesar Chavez: Labor Leader. 1993. 32p. Millbrook, o.p.

Gr. 3–6. Tracing the accomplishments of Chavez as he fought to improve the working conditions for the Mexican-American immigrant farmer, Cedeno also provides background about the labor leader’s early life and adds file photos. Also included are a time line of events, a short list of resources, and an index.

Krull, Kathleen. Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez. Illus. by Yuyi Morales. 2003. 48p. Harcourt, $17 (0-15-201437-3).

Gr. 1–4. In a picture-book format with rich language and lusciously colorful acrylic paintings, Krull and Morales show the change from Chavez’s family’s comfortable early life on a ranch to life as desperately poor migrant farm workers. Because Chavez was shy and teased mercilessly in school, he dropped out in eighth grade but realized the need to fight for change.

Bessie Coleman

Grimes, Nikki. Talkin’ about Bessie: The Story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman. Illus. by E. B. Lewis. 2002. 48p. Orchard, $16.95 (0-439-35243-6).

Gr. 2–6. In a series of poems written from the perspective of Coleman’s family members, friends, and acquaintances as they gather to mourn her death and share memories, Grimes chronologically portrays both events in Coleman’s life and attitudes about this barrier-breaking aviator. Although fictional in form, the facts are true, based on extensive source material noted by the author. Lewis’ evocative watercolors add warmth and depth.

Joseph, Lynn. Fly, Bessie, Fly. Illus. by Yvonne Buchanan. 1998. 32p. Simon & Schuster, $16 (0-689-81339-2).

Gr. 1–3. Born in 1901 in Texas, Bessie Coleman dreamed of growing up and doing something great, and indeed she does when she becomes the first black woman to earn a pilot’s license. Unable to train in the U.S. because Jim Crow laws barred blacks from pilot schools, she trained in France and returned to perform in air shows in the U.S. Expressionist watercolors capture the aviator’s spunky nature.

Christopher Columbus

Adler, David A. A Picture Book of Christopher Columbus. Illus. by John and Alexandra Wallner. 1991. 32p. Holiday, paper, $6.95 (0-8234-0949-X).

Gr. 3–5. As a boy, Christopher Columbus loved to dream and had a spirit of adventure. He believed that by sailing west he could reach east but had difficulties obtaining a sponsor to fund his first voyage. Realistic pen-and-ink drawings enhance the somewhat lengthy text that details Columbus’ four voyages.

Sís, Peter. Follow the Dream: The Story of Christopher Columbus. 1991; reissued 2003. 40p. Knopf, $15.95 (0-679-80628-8).

Gr. 2–4. With a much briefer text and smaller scope, Sís uses a fresco painting technique, old maps, and accounts of the day, as well as contemporary sources, to evoke the fifteenth century. He enables readers to imagine what life might have been like for Columbus as he overcame obstacles and the commonly held beliefs of the day to follow his dream of reaching the Orient by a new route.


Demi. Gandhi. 2001. 40p. Simon & Schuster/Margaret K. McElderry, $19.95 (0-689-84149-3).

Gr. 2–5. On textured rice paper, colorful watercolors capture the richness of Indian culture in this accessible biography of one of the world’s most influential political and social leaders. Demi creates a human portrait, relating incidents about Gandhi’s early failures in school and his awkward shyness. She includes direct quotes from Gandhi’s writing as she explores how he evolved his theory that “hatred can only be overcome by love.”

Fisher, Leonard Everett. Gandhi. 1995. 32p. Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, o.p.

Gr. 3–5. Placing Gandhi’s life and career within the context of India’s history, Fisher enlarges students’ understanding of the leader and his accomplishments, most specifically his campaign of peaceful resistance to combat violence. Illustrated with acrylic paintings in shades of gray, black, and white, the book echoes the austerity of Gandhi’s lifestyle.

Joan of Arc

Poole, Josephine. Joan of Arc. Illus. by Angela Barrett. 1998. 32p. Random/Dragonfly, paper, $6.99 (0-375-80355-6).

Gr. 2–4. Joan was 13 when she began to hear voices that led her to believe God had chosen her to save Orleans. Poole conveys Joan’s story with a sense of immediacy, and Barrett’s illustrations, with the muted colors of an aged tapestry, are both ethereal and, in the battle scenes, filled with motion. The book closes on a note that projects Joan’s canonization some 500 hundred years later in 1920.

Stanley, Diane. Joan of Arc. 1998. 48p. HarperCollins, $16.95 (0-688-14329-6); HarperTrophy, paper, $6.95 (0-06-443748-5).

Gr. 3–8. Stanley provides a much deeper sense of the historical era in which Joan of Arc lived, giving the context of the Hundred Years’ War, yet she involves young readers by beginning the story in second person. Joan’s peasant life as well as her feats in battle are thoroughly described and documented by an extensive bibliography. Highly stylized illustrations using a deep, rich palette and sharp-edged detail evoke medieval paintings. Readers may be intrigued to compare a very different illustration style in Ann Tompert's Joan of Arc: Heroine of France, illustrated by Michael Garland. (Boyds Mills, 2003).

Sor Juana Ines

Martinez, Elizabeth Coonrod. Sor Juana Ines De La Cruz: A Trailblazing Thinker. 1994. 32p. Millbrook, $23.90 (1-56294-406-1).

Gr. 3–5. Juana was born in Mexico in 1648 and became a nun, managed to attend university, and became a poet, playwright, and accomplished scholar of languages, science, music, and philosophy. This factual biography from the Hispanic Heritage series gives a thorough portrait of a great thinker, despite a discrepancy regarding her birth date as listed in the text and on a time line of important dates.

Mora, Pat. A Library for Juana: The World of Sor Juana Ines. Illus. by Beatriz Vidal. 2002. 40p. Knopf, $15.95 (0-375-90643-1).

Gr. 2–4. In an author’s note, Mora reveals that few facts are known about this child prodigy who could read at the age of three and was an accomplished scholar by age 15. This biography reads like a picture storybook and includes a great deal of conversation. Using an illustration technique similar to that found in illuminated manuscripts, Vidal creates Juana’s world in colorful detail.

Frida Kahlo

Turner, Robyn Montana. Frida Kahlo. 1993. 32p. Little, Brown, o.p.

Gr. 4–8. Kahlo was born in 1907, when women’s opportunities were limited, but her photographer father nurtured her creativity. Turner explains the symbolism in Kahlo’s reproduced paintings—her loyalty to her Mexican heritage, her exploration of her physical pain, and the stormy nature of her marriage to artist Diego Rivera, in this title from the Portraits of Women Artists for Children series.

Winter, Jonah. Frida. Illus. by Ana Juan. 2002. 32p. Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine, $16.95 (0-590-20320-7).

Gr. 2–5. With few words and few explicit details about her life, Winter’s spare, poetic text shows how art was Kahlo’s savior from loneliness and pain. Juan’s illustrations utilize a Mexican folk-art style and convey both the images that would have surrounded Kahlo as a child and the kinds of colorful, symbolic art that Kahlo created herself.

Martin Luther King

Farris, Christine King. My Brother Martin: A Sister Remembers Growing Up with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Illus. by Chris Soentpiet. 2003. 40p. Simon & Schuster, $17.95 (0-689-84387-9).

Gr. 1–4. King’s older sister shows a sometimes mischievous Martin in this warmly told memoir of growing up with Dr. King. Martin confronted prejudice as a boy and prophetically declared to his mother, “Mother Dear, one day I’m going to turn the world upside down.” Soentpiet created his radiant paintings with input from the King family.

Rappaport, Doreen. Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Illus. by Bryan Collier. 2001. 40p. Hyperion/Jump at the Sun, $15.99 (0-7868-0714-8).

Gr. 1–4. Weaving Martin Luther King’s own words into his life’s story and conveying the narrative with stunning layered, textured collages, Rappaport and Collier capture the spirit of America’s most famous civil rights leader.

Abraham Lincoln

Cohn, Amy L., and Suzy Schmidt. Abraham Lincoln. Illus. by David A. Johnson. 2002. 40p. Scholastic, $16.95 (0-590-93566-6).

Gr. 1–4. Embodying Lincoln’s rough-hewn beginnings, Cohn addresses readers with a conversational telling of the life of the sixteenth president. Accompanied by pale pastel watercolors, the engaging story exemplifies good storytelling and would make a great read-aloud.

Van Steenwyk, Elizabeth. When Abraham Talked to the Trees. Illus. by Bill Farnsworth. 2000. 32p. Eerdmans, $16 (0-8028-5191-6); paper, $8 (0-8028-5233-5).

Gr. 1–4. Lincoln used his love of words to sustain himself through boyhood years filled with arduous work and sadness. Farnsworth’s earth-tone paintings echo Steenwyk’s story of this American icon. A book with a similar approach is Abe Lincoln: The Boy Who Loved Books by Kay Winters (Simon & Schuster, 2003).

Rosa Parks

Greenfield, Eloise. Rosa Parks. Illus. by Gil Ashby. 1973; reissued 1995. 64p. HarperTrophy, paper, $4.25 (0-06-442025-6).

Gr. 2–4. Greenfield integrates information about the civil rights movement into the telling of Parks’ story as an activist. Her childhood experience of prejudice precipitated her work with the NAACP and the Voter’s League, and later, her refusal to give up her bus seat to a white person, which led to the year-long Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott.

Parks, Rosa, and Jim Haskins. I Am Rosa Parks. Illus. by Wil Clay. 1997. 48p. Dial, $13.99 (0-8037-1206-5); Puffin, paper, $3.99 (0-14-130710-2).

Gr. 1–3. In an easy-to-read format, Parks narrates her story of getting arrested, emphasizing that she kept her seat not just because she was tired, but because she was “tired of giving in.” She credits many people who fought for civil rights, is glad to have been part of the movement, and concludes with the hope for change among the “many people who have not changed their hearts.”

Beatrix Potter

Wallner, Alexandra. Beatrix Potter. 1995. 32p. Holiday, $15.95 (0-8234-1181-8); paper, $6.95 (0-8234-1407-8).

Gr. 1–3. Wallner includes quotes from Potter’s diaries and letters to tell the story of this beloved children’s author. A lonely and unhappy child raised by strict parents, Potter loved to draw and spent much time studying flora and fauna. Her famed story, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, began as a letter to the son of a former governess. Quaint, folksy illustrations enhance the story.

Winter, Jeanette. Beatrix. 2003. 64p. Farrar/Frances Foster, $15 (0-374-30655-9).

Gr. 1–3. Winter tells Potter’s story in a first-person narrative using exact quotes, which she indicates through italics. A small book for small hands, just as Potter’s own books were, the few words per page and accompanying colorful illustrations focus on Potter’s internal landscape, letting readers imagine what the author thought and felt.

Jackie Robinson

Golenbock, Peter. Teammates. Illus. by Paul Bacon. 1990. 32p. Harcourt/Gulliver, $16 (0-15-200603-6); paper, $7 (0-15-284286-1).

Gr. 2–5. Until the 1940s, baseball was segregated, but Branch Rickey, manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was determined to change that. In 1947, he approached Jackie Robinson with the idea of “the great experiment”—integrating major league baseball. Early in the season, shortstop Pee Wee Reese stood with Robinson against hateful fans proclaiming, “This man is my teammate.” Actual photos coupled with watercolor illustrations heighten the impact of this title.

Schaefer, Lola M. Jackie Robinson. 2002. 24p. Capstone/Pebble Books, $10.95 (0-7368-1435-3).

K–Gr. 2. This first biography captures the high points of Robinson’s life and career as the ballplayer who broke the color barrier in major league baseball. Large print, brief text, a time line, and an index make this book an excellent choice for beginning readers. More advanced readers will enjoy David A. Adler's A Picture Book of Jackie Robinson. Illus. by Robert Casilla (Holiday House, 1994).

Will Rogers

Keating, Frank. Will Rogers. Illus. by Mike Wimmer. 2002. 32p. Harcourt/SilverWhistle, $16 (0-15-202405-0).

Gr. 2–5. Rich oil paintings set an ebullient tone for this story that is enriched with direct quotes from the popular American humorist. The typewriter font and ingenious format let readers appreciate the multitalented Rogers, who entertained the public through radio broadcasts, movies, a newspaper column, and books.

Schott, Jane A. Will Rogers. Illus. by David Charles Brandon. 1996. 64p. Carolrhoda, $22.60 (0-87614-983-2).

Gr. 1–3. As a boy, Will Rogers wanted to be a cowboy and loved performing rope tricks. When he grew up, he was a cowboy for a brief time but ended up in show business, cracking jokes and throwing ropes in the Ziegfeld follies. Illustrated in bright watercolors, this factual title from the On My Own Biographies series is written in an easy-to-read format.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Adler, David A. A Picture Book of Eleanor Roosevelt. Illus. by Robert Casilla. 1991. 32p. Holiday, $16.95 (0-8234-0856-6); paper, $6.95 (0-8234-1157-5).

Gr. 1–3. In a concise manner, Adler traces Eleanor Roosevelt from shy, withdrawn youth to outspoken leader for civil rights and wife of President Franklin Roosevelt. Colorful, realistic paintings show Roosevelt in her many roles: wife, mother, First Lady, daily newspaper columnist, host of a radio program, and, finally, U.S. representative to the United Nations.

Cooney, Barbara. Eleanor. 1996. 40p. Viking, $15.99 (0-670-86159-6); Puffin, paper, $6.99 (0-14-055583-8).

Gr. 2–4. With her signature folk-art style illustrations accompanying a lyrical text, Cooney details Roosevelt’s childhood. An awkward, plain child, and a disappointment to her mother, Eleanor was orphaned by the age of nine. Raised by her grandmother and aunts, she did not come into her own until she went to boarding school in London. An afterword details Eleanor’s accomplishments in her adult life.

Vincent van Gogh

Holub, Joan. Vincent van Gogh: Sunflowers and Swirly Stars. 2001. 32p. Grosset & Dunlap, $14.89 (0-448-42612-9); paper, $5.99 (0-448-42521-1).

Gr. 1–4. Written from the perspective of a child writing a report on van Gogh, this delightful account of the artist’s life and work from the Smart about Art series interjects irreverent humor, captures the kind of details that children will appreciate, and is illustrated both with cartoons and reproductions of van Gogh’s most famous paintings.

Rubin, Susan Goldman. The Yellow House: Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gaugin Side by Side. Illus. by Joseph A. Smith. 2001. 40p. Abrams, $17.95 (0-8109-4588-6).

Gr. 1–3. During a brief period in France in 1888, van Gogh and Gaugin worked side by side. Using a narrative style, Rubin not only humanizes these great artists but also compares and contrasts their artistic styles and sources of inspiration. Appendices include extended biographical sketches about both artists and notes about the author’s and illustrator’s research processes.

Citation: Austin, P. (2003). Biography Day. Book Links, 13 (1), 57-62.


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