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.
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.
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?
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,
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
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.)