Biographies for Young Readers: Dip into the Minds of the Greats

| June 20, 2014 | 2 Comments

Nina Schuyler | The Children’s Book Review | June 20, 2014

What was Amelia Earhart like as a kid? Did the painter Vasya Kadinsky always see the world differently? I don’t read enough biographies, and I felt that again after reading these biographies written for a young audience. Biographies daringly dip into the minds of the greats, reminding you it’s far too easy to stay within the confines of your own life, to think like those around you, to succumb to external pressures, such as family, friends, society, about what is right, proper and of value.

There’s a fine art to turning a great life into something digestible for a child. The art lies in finding the essence, an almost haiku-like writing that condenses, getting only the most salient details on the page. Each of the following biographies rises to that fine art.

I am Amelia Earhart by Brad MeltzerI am Amelia Earhart

By Brad Meltzer; Illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos

In I am Amelia Earhart, by Brad Meltzer and illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos, young Amelia’s passion for flying appears early on. When she was seven years old, she built her own roller coaster in the backyard, using two planks of wood placed against the side of a tool shed. The cab was a wooden packing box with roller-skate wheels. She greased the wood with lard and climbed into the cab and “I was flying!” She continued to defy the suffocating and constricting expectations for women by signing up for flight lessons. Interestingly, and perhaps the message of this book, is that she wasn’t very good: she just tried harder than everyone else.

Ages 5-8 | Publisher: Dial | Jan. 14, 2014 | ISBN 978-0803740822

A Home for Mr EmersonA Home for Mr. Emerson

By Barbara Kerley and Edwin Fotheringham

I love Ralph Waldo Emerson’s writing, so I wondered how Barbara Kerley and Edwin Fotheringham, authors of A Home for Mr. Emerson, would translate his rich thinking into something for a child. The authors wonderfully convey his life and his views, including many of his memorable aphorisms. In college, he recorded his new thoughts in a journal he called, “The Wide World.” (what a great title!). He built a family and a life around thinking and community. And the Emersons settled into, as he put it, “The lukewarm milky dog days of common village life.” Evenings were spent with neighbors and friends talking about literature, theology, self-reliance and freedom, evenings of grand discussion. He lectured widely, telling his audience to believe in “the integrity of your own mind.” A Home for Mr. Emerson provides so much richness, so many subjects for you and your children to create your own evenings of grand discussion.

Ages 8-12 | Publisher: Scholastic Press | Feb. 25, 2014 | ISBN 978-0545350884

The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky's Abstract Art By Barb RosenstockThe Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art

By Barb Rosenstock; Illustrated by Mary GrandPre

Step into the world of the abstract painter, Vasily Kandinsky with The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art, by Barb Rosenstock and illustrated by Mary GrandPre. While learning to be a proper Russian boy, Vasya discovered painting. “Every proper Russian boy should appreciate art,” said Auntie,” who gave him the paint set. As he mixed color, he heard sounds. He began to paint the sound of colors. (Ah, another great artist who has synethesia). Yellow “clinked like the highest notes on the keyboard. He brushed a powerful navy rectangle that vibrated deeply like the lowest cello strings.” When he grew up, he became a lawyer and stopped painting. Still, colors sang to him. One evening, at the orchestra, the music painted lines and arches and circles in his mind. He quit his job and began to paint abstractly, which few people understood. It is a story of obsession, of shedding societal constraints and expectations to follow one’s destiny. “I could hear the hiss of the colors as they mingled,” said Kandinsky.

Ages 4-8 | Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers | Feb. 11, 2014 | ISBN 978-0307978486

A Taste of Freedom: Gandhi and the Great Salt March By Elizabeth Cody KimmelA Taste of Freedom: Gandhi and the Great Salt March

By Elizabeth Cody Kimmel; Illustrated by Giuliano Ferri

What about an encounter with a great person? How might that change someone’s life? In A Taste of Freedom: Gandhi and the Great Salt March, by Elizabeth Cody Kimmel and illustrated by Giuliano Ferri, a young boy hears Gandhi, the Mahatma, speak at his village. “Gandhi is explaining that the way we will fight the British without hurting them is using salt.” Using salt? The boy is intrigued. Prior to the British, Indians would make their own salt. Now the boy’s mother must buy it from the British. Gandhi tells the crowd he is going to march to the sea, many miles away, and when he gets there, he will make salt on the beach, though the British law forbids it. He will fight the Raj, but only through peaceful actions. The boy and his brother, along with hundreds of thousands of Indians, join Gandhi on his walk. A Taste of Freedom shows the power of one individual to bring about societal change.

Ages 6-9 | Publisher: Walker Childrens |Feb 10, 2014 | ISBN 978-0802794673

For more wonderful biography books for children, follow along with our Biographies tag.

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Category: Ages 4-8, Ages 9-12, Book Lists, Cultural Wisdom, Picture Books

About the Author ()

Nina Schulyer’s new novel, The Translator, has received starred reviews from Booklist and Shelf Awareness. Her first novel, The Painting, was nominated for the Northern California Book Award and was named a ‘Best Book’ by the San Francisco Chronicle. She teaches creative writing at the University of San Francisco. For more information, visit her at www.ninaschuyler.com.

Comments (2)

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  1. I Love the sound of these books a really great way for kids to learn about important people and history and also get a little insight into their lives. These books sound so interesting and I am sure kids will really enjoy them. A really fantastic and fun way to learn history and a great age range on them too. I will be looking out for these for my 7year old daughter for sure.

    • Nina says:

      Thank you for your comment. In the great spectrum of children’s books, I’m finding biographies a great addition and one that I’ve overlooked.
      Nina

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