Monday, February 9, 2015

Biographies: Boring No Longer by Pat Miller

If you think biographies are boring, then you haven’t read any recent ones. Long gone are birth-to-death yawners of two-dimensional dead guys.

Current biographies are attention grabbers. The recent ALA Youth Media Awards included 12 biographies. Titles like The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jen Bryant won multiple awards.

Today’s biographies are like potato chips—it’s hard to read just one. And they offer new details and fresh perspectives on people you may think you know.

For example, here are five fresh looks at our Founding Father:
  • Anne Rockwell wrote Big George: How a Shy Boy Became President. She surprises us with the story of how George mastered his hot temper and overcame his shyness.
  • GEORGE: George Washington, Our Founding Father  by Frank Keating relates Washington’s life in first person, bringing George vividly to life. Included are some of the rules he used to guide his life. “Rule 56: Associate yourself with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation, for ‘tis better to be alone than in bad company.”

  • Farmer George Plants a Nation by Peggy Thomas reveals that George had three loves—his country was number three. Martha and farming were closest to his heart. Thomas details George’s passion for farming, including his labor-saving inventions and agricultural innovations

  • George Washington’s Teeth by Debora Chandra and Madeleine Comora relates the amazing chronology of Washington’s dental disease and loss alongside his accomplishments. Considering he was in chronic mouth pain, Washington’s achievements are even more remarkable.

  •  The House That George Built by Suzanne Slade divulges that the White House was Washington’s “baby”. He chose its location and helped survey the lot. He held a design contest and chose James Hoban, an Irish immigrant, as winner. Washington then set out to improve the design. Throughout his two busy terms as president, he kept a close eye on the construction and was responsible for bringing it in on time and under budget. However, completion came too late for Washington to spend a single night under its roof.

  • Besides adding personality to the well-known, biographers are resurrecting well-researched stories of forgotten women who risked their reputations, their fortunes, and their future.
        • Rough, Tough Charley by Verla Kay tells of a shy orphan who was good with horses and eventually gained fame as a fearless and expert stagecoach driver. Even when a horse kicked him in the face and he lost an eye, Charley continued to drive a dangerous route, losing not a single passenger or coach. After retiring, Charley raised cattle and ran a stage stop. At his death, it was discovered that Charley was a woman. Despite the discovery, Charley remained an esteemed member of the Oddfellows Club. She had voted 52 years before the federal government gave women the right to vote!

        • Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto by Susan Goldman Rubin is a heart-pounding story of a nurse who smuggled doomed Jewish children from Warsaw literally beneath the prying eyes of the Germans.

        • Cheryl Harness tells of a remarkable woman in Mary Walker Wears the Pants: The True Story of the Doctor, Reformer, and Civil War Hero. It will be difficult for children to imagine how shameful it was for women to wear pants—but Mary did. A skilled surgeon, Mary fought prejudice and red tape to serve on the front lines of the Civil War. She is still the only woman to have earned the Congressional Medal of Honor. 

        • Wild Women of the Wild West by Jonah Winter is one wild read. Fifteen women from Calamity Jane to Esther Morris are portrayed in two pages each. One of them, Mary Ellen Pleasant, became rich by operating a high-end boarding house where she was known as the best cook in San Francisco. She made smart financial investments and became a wealthy member of high society. When she was 51 the Civil War ended and Mary Ellen revealed her African American heritage and early life as a slave. She sued the city for discrimination on cable cars—and won. What she didn't reveal was that she provided the last station on the Underground Railroad for most of the slaves that escaped to San Francisco, providing them with jobs, shelter, and freedom.

    Of all the biographies I read in the last few months, my favorite is The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & The Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming. It has been named a 2015 Siebert Honor Book, Orbis Pictus Award winner, and a YALSA finalist for Excellence in Nonfiction. This is deeply researched book that reads like a novel, building detail upon ominous detail until the Romanov story becomes a Jenga tower. The tragedy is compounded because of all the ways it could have been avoided. This is one biography you can’t put down, and it’s a great example of all that is well with biographies today.

    Candace Fleming and Peggy Thomas are two of the speakers at the  NF 4 NF Nonfiction Conference for Children's Writers. Join us!


    1. I like your simile-that today's biographies are like potato chips! I have a lot of reading to do. Thanks for sharing these!

    2. These books seem fresh and engaging. I look forward to reading your recommendations, Pat. Biographies that capture and hook the reader by telling a story are such creative nonfiction. ~Suzy

    3. Great post. You've chosen some noteworthy biographies. I believe they're coming into their own as we writers learn how to make people and events come alive.

    4. Pat,
      This is such a great post! Your snappy, fun writing reminds me of the 'new' biographies. As a librarian, I am thrilled to see fantastic new biographies coming out; and not just of the famous men, but forgotten women too! I was thrilled to see the ALA awards noting several of these too. As a writer, this makes me doubly happy. I think in terms of non-fiction and biography. For the time being, the pendulum has swung back towards non-fiction and that's just fine with me. Thank you for highlighting some of the best. I haven't had a chance to read the Romanov book yet, but sure plan soon as I can get it back on the shelf in our library!

    5. I'm loving the boom in terrific biographies. I'm going to check out the five biographies of George Washington -- it will make for a fascinating study of how to narrow focus when writing a biography. Thanks, Pat!

    6. Hi Pat,
      I like the way you have woven together important & outstanding but disparate bios in this seamless story. It's always intriguing to read about people who mask their identity. I didn't know several of these folks, including Mary Ellen Pleasant.
      Appreciations for this visit with these good titles.