Tuesday, February 23, 2021

The Best Picture Book Biographies Get Personal

By Laura Backes

Let's do a quick exercise. Imagine your favorite picture book—fiction or nonfiction—from when you were a kid. Now write one sentence describing why you loved this book. Just one sentence—no cheating.

Done? Look at that sentence you wrote. Chances are, you described how the book made you feel. Bonus points if this feeling was linked to the first time you were introduced to a big idea that invited you to think about the world a little differently. Perhaps that idea was something as simple as You are always loved, or as complex as Two people can have different opinions, and they can both be right. Books that managed to connect these new ideas to your life in a deeply personal way are the ones that made indelible imprints on your childhood, and still resonate with you today.

Picture book biographies are full of big, new ideas. Through their human subjects, biographies link us to the past, illuminate the present, introduce us to ordinary people who did extraordinary things, and celebrate how even small past achievements ripple through time to influence our lives today. They are ready-made for classroom use, putting a human face on history and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math) topics. All of this means writing a successful picture book biography should be a slam dunk, right?

Not always. You may be passionate about your subject and excited to share this person's accomplishments with young readers. But unless you can draw a line from your subject to your reader's life right now, you're not likely to make that emotional connection. If readers can see a little of themselves in your subject, then your picture book biography moves beyond being just an information delivery system. It becomes a three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood, real-life story.

This emotional connection can be complicated by two things: if you're writing about a person from the past, the achievements of your subject may have had tremendous impact on the world at the time, but could now be so ingrained in our culture that your readers will take them for granted. Also, many subjects' greatest feats happened when they were adults. So your job is to get readers to care about something a grown-up most likely did before they were born. Simply telling readers that a topic is meaningful isn't enough. You have to show them. 

To build that emotional bridge between your readers' lives and your topic, start in your subject's childhood whenever possible. Even if your biography spans several decades of your subject's life, find something from their early life that set them on their path to greatness. Chances are, this early spark will be relatable to your audience.

Girl Running: Bobbi Gibb and the Boston Marathon by Annette Bay Pimentel (illustrated by Micha Archer) is about the first women to run the Boston Marathon. The book starts like this:

Bobbi Gibb must wear a skirt to school because she is a girl. She is not allowed to run on the school's track team. Because those are the rules—and rules are rules.

This book takes place from the early 1950s until 1966, well before readers (and their parents) were born. But Pimentel opens with a universal, timeless childhood experience: being told you can't do something because you are (a girl/a boy/too young/too small/not smart enough/not experienced enough/....) And don't bother arguing because those are the rules. Period.

The absurdness of this rule will not be lost on readers, who've grown up watching women athletes attain celebrity status. Of course girls can run! It's the school's equivalent of “Because I said so.” Young children have a fierce sense of fairness, and nothing irks them more than a stupid rule for rule's sake. Bobbi Gibb believed this too, and over the next several years worked to change the rule, despite numerous unexpected obstacles. The idea that a bad rule can, and should, be changed will be a light bulb moment for many readers. This theme underscores Bobbi's story and inspires readers to question unfair rules in their own lives.

Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, by Javaka Steptoe, chronicles the childhood and early adulthood of Basquiat, the neo-expressionist painter whose style merged street art, punk, and rap influences starting in the late 1970s, making a huge impact on modern art. Steptoe chose to focus on several accessible themes to draw young readers into Basquiat's work. One is the use of art as voice, and how art doesn't have to look conventional to make an impact. Another is Basquiat's close relationship with his mother, who taught him to see art everywhere. In his late childhood, Basquiat's mother moved into a care facility because of mental illness. Basquiat used his art to stay connected with his mother into his adulthood. 

 


Kids often use art to express their voice, and as a way to gift affection to the people in their lives. Radiant Child gives readers permission to be bold with their self-expression, and assures them that their voice is beautiful, even if it's messy or colors outside the lines. That's a powerful, freeing message to a young child whose own art may look very much like this famous artist's early drawings.

Sometimes you're not so much providing a way for readers to emotionally connect with the subject, but simply honoring the reader's built-in enthusiasm for the topic. Otis and Will Discover the Deep: The Record-Setting Dive of the Bathysphere by Barb Rosenstock (illustrated by Katherine Roy), is a dramatic adventure story of an engineer and an explorer who both wanted to be the first to see what the deep, dark ocean looked like. They built the Bathysphere, and on June 6, 1930, were lowered into the water in the hollow metal ball. About 100 feet down, things started to go wrong.

What kid can resist the nail-biting thrill of tagging along with someone who isn't afraid to see what lurks in the dark? It's a slam dunk.

 

ACTION ITEM 

Think about why your biography subject got started on the path to the accomplishment you plan on making the focus of your book. What inspired your subject, or compelled him/her to work toward this goal? Can you highlight this “why” in a way that's relevant to your readers' lives? Brainstorm several possibilities.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Laura Backes is publisher of Children’s Book Insider, The Children’s Writing Monthly, co-founder of WriteForKids.org, host of the weekly Kidlit Distancing Social webcast, and co-creator of WritingBlueprints.com, featuring step-by-step courses about writing children’s books. She’s the author of The Ultimate Children’s Writing Cheat Sheet, distilling three decades of her knowledge into on free resource. (Download your copy here.) She also wrote Best Books for Kids Who (Think They) Hate to Read (Random House) and was technical editor of Writing Children’s Books for Dummies (Wiley). In 2016, Laura co-founded the Picture Book Summit online writing conference.

 

ABOUT THE PRIZE

Laura is giving away one recording of her Writing Creative Nonfiction Picture Books webinar (go to https://writingblueprints.com/p/writing-creative-nonfiction-picture-books for a description.)

 


74 comments:

  1. The heart. Yes! It’s the reason to write and read.

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  2. Thanks for the reminder that biographies need to connect with the reader's present.

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  3. Great post with examples on finding the emotional connection to a person to create a successful biography for today's readers. Thank you, Laura!

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  4. I love what you said about readers needing to see a little of themselves in your subject. That makes SO much sense. And I actually had not heard of Jean-Michel Basquiat until about a month ago. I was watching the Nets basketball team and texting a friend about the unique court (as well as the Nets' uniforms) and he said they were based on Jean-Michel's art. Now I need to read that book - as a mentor text and for my own edification. Thank you!

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    1. It's a great picture book biography, and a good introduction to Basquiat's art. Look up some interviews with Javaka Steptoe to see how he created the illustrations. Fascinating!

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  5. Thank you for reminding us to take the reader along with us as we write and to focus on something from the main character's childhood that propels them forward into greatness. On a quest to find that spark in a current work-in-progress. Thanks for the activity!

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  6. Thanks, Laura. Working on two possible biographies and having trouble finding that childhood moment with one of them. Keep digging!

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  7. Thanks for this reminder about how crucial connection to the reader is to a good story.

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  8. Yes! So important to consider the hook in any story (especially in nonfiction), whether it be something that is emotionally resonant or something that piques a child’s natural curiosity!

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  9. This was so great! Thank you for mentioning about how the story has to relate to a child. Giving an example of a biography that does that in their story.

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  10. Great examples! And definitely things I need to work on with my (shelved project) bio.

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  11. Laura, Very excellent advice for writers of NF biography. Thanks for all you do and this post.

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  12. Thanks, Laura! You've given me the push I need to revise my biography intro.

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  13. I love the way you break down these connection ideas. Very helpful. Thanks. Also, I think the cheatsheet link may be broken. I'm having trouble accessing it. Anyone else?

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    1. Sorry about that, Joanne. We've fixed the glitch. The Cheat Sheet is available here: https://writeforkids.org/blog/ultimate-cheatsheet/

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  14. Thank you for this great post and for your generosity with all the resources you provide to the KitLit community. I'm new to the world of PB writing and discovered PB Summit last year and loved your recent session on narrative voice - looking forward to today's on author's voice! :)

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  15. You have supplied so much information for us Laura Backes! Thank you for sharing your knowledge and resources.
    That first opener was it! My first" grab you" book was.... a Little Golden book...The Chirkendoose! Not too many remember it, but for me, it spoke to me completly.
    Love the CBI and everything is has and I will see you at the next Social Distance gathering!

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    1. Hi Deb, nice to hear that you have fond memories of The Chirkendoose! I'll see you at the next Kidlit Distancing Social!

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    2. Thanks Laura, yes I will try my best to make it live!

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  16. Thanks Laura for your wonderful post and all the expertise you have offered us who write in the kid lit community!

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  17. wow - your opening question really stunned me. I honestly can't remember a picture book from my childhood. This made me really stop and think. But I do remember longer works, and yes, emotion was key. Thank you!

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    1. Elizabeth, I bet if you allow yourself to remember other things from that same age, you'll start remembering picture books. Don't force it. I find memories are almost always connected to other triggers. For example, if I think about my favorite dress that I wore to kindergarten, I'll start remembering games I played with my friends at recess. Or my teacher's face. Or the first time I could count by 5s. Once you pull the right thread, other memories will follow.

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  18. Thank you for your helpful article, Laura! You and your husband have helped me along the way with CBI and more recently webinars from WritingBlueprints.com. Your advice to find something in my subject's childhood that will connect with kids today is the way for me to go with my project. Thanks!

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    1. Thank you Melissa. So glad you found this article helpful.

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  19. Thanks for offering wonderful examples about finding the heart and emotional connection with PB Bios!

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  20. Great examples for finding the emotional connection between readers and our PB subjects. Thanks!

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  21. Building the emotional bridge between your reader's lives and your topic is such great advice! I feel that as the author I am often already emotional attached to my subject. I need to remember, that the reader needs to be pulled in and to do that I need to start from the beginning - not just jump in at the conflict or action. Great post and activity - thank you!

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    1. You're right--as the author you already have that emotional connection. I'm glad this post helped you see how to do the same for the reader.

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  22. Show kids so that they will feel and make the connection. Thank you!

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  23. I had to take in this article twice--so chuck full of insightful point! Thank you for sharing! I especially loved thinking about how books can "celebrate how even small past achievements ripple through time to influence our lives today."

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  24. I just got an idea! And thanks for the Cheat Sheet.

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  25. Fantastic post, thank you for writing it!

    I love the tip of starting with your MC as a child. It is a great way for kids to connect with the subject/theme/plot.

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  26. How I love this topic! Thank you!

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  27. Marilyn HollinsheadFebruary 23, 2021 at 6:42 PM

    Great advice for my work in progress!

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  28. Laura, Your examples connect straight with the reader’s heart. Thanks for reminding us to put that emotional connection first as we write.

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  29. My own library is filled with fiction and nonfiction picture books that grab at my spirit, whispering "come with me" until I open the pages and soon I'm off on another grand adventure of uncovering something I didn't know about before and it just might change my life forever...

    Great post!

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  30. Great information, Laura. I loved the way you showed the importance of that emotional connection so clearly. Now I just have to do that!

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  31. Making that connection to a reader’s present is so important and sometimes, so difficult!

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  32. Thank you, Laura! Great information with relatable examples. Finding that emotional connection can be challenging but I agree, it is key to writing a story young readers will relate to.

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  33. Nice examples! I was just talking about hooking readers on biographies/nonfiction last night at Highlights and this is fairly similar to what I shared. :)

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  34. Thank you Laura for the tips and examples for hooking young readers with a personal connection to the story. Terrific information!

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  35. Thanks for sharing tips and tricks on making emotional connections.

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  36. What I've been loving about the NFFest are the different perspectives each of you have been providing. So many excellent guiding questions for us to consider as we continue on our writing journeys. So many a-ha! moments - I'm especially enjoying and pondering the "emotional bridge" building for readers - thanks much for your post!

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  37. Thanks for this overview and emphasis on connecting the bio subject to a young reader!

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  38. It is so important for a writer to “build an emotional bridge” with the reader.

    Thank you, Laura.

    Suzy Leopold

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  39. Great advice. If you can't build a bridge to your reader, odds are no one's going to want to publish your book!

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  40. This is practical and great advice on how to improve my NF manuscripts. Thank you for the blueprint.

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  41. This has been so timely for me as I am researching a PB biography at the moment. Thanks, Laura!

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  42. Make that connection, Draw that line from the topic to kids today. TY, Laura!

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  43. Drawing a line from my subject's life to the reader's "right now" is such powerful advice. Otherwise, my reader won't find that connection needed to care about my subject, and that's what I'm after in the end.

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  44. Laura,
    This will help me as I revise my pBBIO with more TEM. thanks

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  45. So true--the best books of all kinds make us feel.

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  46. Thanks, Laura, for this post full of excellent examples and helpful advice. Love what you said about drawing a line from the subject to the reader's life right now for emotional connection.

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  47. So true. A good story will touch the reader in some way. That emotional connection makes a big difference between an enjoyable story and a story the reader loves and wants to read again and again.

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  48. Thanks for this useful and thought-provoking post that has me thinking about my WIP in a new way.

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  49. As usual, you are full of good information and outstanding books. Thanks.

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  50. Thank you, Laura, for this post and all that you do for the KidLit community. Your resources collected over the years keep me inspired when I feel like this craft is not for me. I do not recall a children’s book from my childhood. However, I do remember during my pre-college stint as a library aide, I held THE HUNGRY CATERPILLAR and said, “I am going to create children’s books.”

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  51. I've been struggling for a few years of how to even approach a biography I want to write. Your incredible advice will help me see it from a child's angle to help figure out the focus to connect them to the story. Thank you for sharing, Laura!

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  52. Laura, I love the way you broke down these books and their connections to kids today. That was so concrete and helpful. It sparked some ideas for the way into a biography that's been noodling about in my mind for way too long - waiting for a way to make it connect to kids. Thank you!

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  53. RADIANT CHILD is one of my favorite PB biographies, and I love how you point out the reasons why it is so strong. Thank you!

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  54. Laura, I love what you wrote about building “an emotional connection between your readers’ interests and your own”.💖

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  55. Very good post! Thanks! If I were going to write a biography, I would be willing only to spend the exorbitant amount of time researching and writing about Condoleezza Rice. I have, in fact, compiled a dummy book focusing on an area of interest and inquiry I have about her life. Thanks for the push here!

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  56. Very helpful post. Thanks! In order for me to compile a dummy book, I had to put together a very preliminary small hand written/hand sketched version in order to compile the larger version. Love this!

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  57. Very good post! Thanks! If I were going to write a biography, I would be willing only to spend the exorbitant amount of time researching and writing about Condoleezza Rice. I have, in fact, compiled a dummy book focusing on an area of interest and inquiry I have about her life. Thanks for the push here!

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  58. Very good post! Thanks! If I were going to write a biography, I would be willing only to spend the exorbitant amount of time researching and writing about Condoleezza Rice. I have, in fact, compiled a dummy book focusing on an area of interest and inquiry I have about her life. Thanks for the push here!

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  59. This a great post and such a lightbulb moment- connecting emotions and feelings for the reader and a biography. Brilliant!

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