I’ve been reading picture book biographies lately in part because one of the women in my critique group at the retreat had written one. It didn’t quite work, so I wanted to study what does. Here are five things to keep in mind when writing a biography for young readers.
- There are two types – a beginning to end biography or a slice of life. A slice of life biography covers an event – creating a sculpture or founding an organization. Beginning to end is the person’s entire life, or at least that’s how I think of them because those I read were about people who are no longer living. The author was able to state what the person’s ultimate legacy has been.
- No matter how interesting someone is, it is really hard to write a satisfying biography if they have not succeeded at something big. It’s that whole legacy. That means that no matter how fascinated adults are with Bobby Kennedy a picture book biography would be tough. You need to be able to summarize his legacy in one line – he created, he founded, he discovered.
- Many picture book biographies use a chorus to state a theme. In Keith Haring: The Boy Who Just Kept Drawing, the chorus is . . . can you guess it? “He kept drawing.”
- The information in the text has to further the story. In Alabama Spitfire: The Story of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird by Bethany Hegedus, illustrated by Erin McGuire, the author includes Harper Lee’s childhood friend Tru. Harper Lee stood up for Tru when he was being bullied, which shows how important justice was even when she was a child. They also wrote stories together. But Tru was also Truman Capote who she reconnected with as an adult and a fledgling author.
Writing a picture book biography requires sifting through all of the information you can find about an individual and finding that nonfiction story that will fascinate young readers. It means choosing the details that support this story and crafting something with a beginning, middle and end even though it is still nonfiction.
It isn’t easy but a good biography? It pulls the reader in and makes them want to know more.