“Biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man. The biography of the man himself cannot be written.” Mark Twain
“When you write biographies, whether it’s about Ben Franklin or Einstein, you discover something amazing: They are human.” Walter Isaacson
“I seldom read anything that is not of a factual nature because I want to invest my time wisely in the things that will improve my life. Don’t misunderstand; there is nothing wrong with reading purely for the joy of it. Novels have their place, but biographies of famous men and women contain information that can change lives.” Zig Ziglar
This is not just an exceptionally strong year for biographies, but there’s quite a range of styles to consider what makes for excellent presentation to a child audience. Many of these were published in the late summer or early fall so I’m not sure how many readers each book will have yet. It’s likely we’ll pull a couple later in the season for a more intensive discussion.
SAMURAI RISING by Pamela Turner . . . Have you read it yet? If there were 15 boy readers on the Newbery committee, I think this one would win hands down, and it wouldn’t even be close. At this point in the year, this is the only book that has a guaranteed spot on my ballot. Turner has really outdone herself here, taking what little we know about this great samurai, and giving color and shape to his life and times. I’m sure we’ll have a chorus of voices trying to argue that it’s too old for the Newbery, and Leonard Kim called it morally repugnant on a previous thread. Do we have our first cat fight of the season on our hands with this one?
PRESENTING BUFFALO BILL by Candace Fleming . . . Oh, William Cody! What are we going to do with you? You did some good stuff regarding American Indians and you did some bad stuff regarding American Indians, and you embellished everything you ever did whether it included American Indians or not. This is quicksand territory for a biographer, but Fleming acquits herself well, particularly in “Panning for the Truth” sidebars which challenge Cody’s narrative and explore these issues through a more modern sensibility.
THE PLOT TO KILL HITLER by Patricia McCormick . . . This book is comprised of very short chapters which do a fabulous job of propelling readers through the formative childhood years of the subject but do not fully capture the suspense and intrigue of the plotting in the latter half of the book. While that second half feels like more telling and less showing than adult readers would like, I think there are child readers who will appreciate the brisk pacing throughout. I’d love to put this book in the hands of child readers to see if they can convince me that my concerns are not necessarily grounded in their abilities, understandings, and appreciations.
SOME WRITER! by Melissa Sweet . . . With two Sibert Medals to her credit for picture book biographies, Sweet looks to challenge for the Newbery attention with this extended biography of beloved children’s author E.B. White. The visual presentation here is fabulous, and since Sweet’s artwork incorporates words into her text, the committee could be able to discuss that more positively than they otherwise might. Perhaps my biggest–and only–question about this title is whether I’m enamored with the subject rather than the writing itself. Hmmm.
I’ve still got FLORENCE NIGHTINGALE by Catherine Reef, SACHIKO by Caren Stelson, and BLOOD BROTHER by Rich Wallace and Sandra Neil Wallace in my pile of books to read, and of course, we’ve said nothing of the several fine picture book biographies that have been published this year. Do you see any of these as serious contenders?
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About Jonathan Hunt
Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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