African-American Biographies for Children and Young Adults

Audrey Thompson

Authors of adult biographies may concentrate on one research subject for years; by contrast, authors of children's biographies often write about several different figures and even entirely different historical eras in the course of a year. Only in a few cases do historical biographies for children and young people involve original research; for the most part, authors and artists of children's historical nonfiction rely on already-published materials. (Some children's biographers of contemporary figures do conduct one or more interviews for their books.) While a number of children's and young adult biographies using secondary sources are carefully researched, others are potboilers -- quick money-makers rather than crafted, well-thought-out work. Because their authors rapidly assemble material from readily available published sources, without addressing points of contention, these books may contain any number of errors (including dates of birth and death) and may fail to clarify which stories are established fact and which are legend. Moreover, children's book authors may streamline their accounts in ways that gloss over complexities and may omit important information (such as whether a figure was gay or lesbian, how the person's community prepared him or her to cope with racism, or whether other figures helped make this person's work possible). Some authors of children's biographies, too, may fictionalize particular episodes (whether or not explicitly).

Given the problems inherent in children's and young adult biography as a genre, teachers should encourage students to consult multiple sources that may problematize, illuminate, or complicate the accounts given in their textbooks and/or trade books. Some of the questions that teachers and students may wish to consider include the following:

1) Do the biographical treatments they are studying conflict in any way? How significant are these discrepancies? What would seem to account for the differences?

2) What assurance do readers have that a particular biographical treatment is reliable? What might we want to know about the author, illustrator, and publisher? Do other biographies shed a different light on this figure? How should the curriculum prepare students to think about differences in biographical approach?

3) How do more recently published biographies compare with books published several decades ago?

4) Do publishers during particular time periods seem to prefer certain themes or areas of focus? -- for example, are there more biographies about artists or sports figures or entertainers published during some periods and more biographies about political figures published during other periods? If so, what might account for such patterns?

5) In collections of short biographies, what organizing assumptions can be identified? For example, many books about great African Americans feature only one or two women; such decisions on the part of the author or editor may suggest particular conceptions about gender, about greatness, or about leadership, for example.

6) Why do certain subjects of biography have half a dozen or even dozens of books and chapters devoted to them, while others have only one or two? What might explain why some noted figures do not have any books or chapters devoted to their lives and contributions?

7) Why do some figures have books devoted to them in adult biography but not in children's and young adult biographies? Alternatively, why are some figures written about a good deal for children and young adults but not for adults? What would seem to account for this discrepancy? -- Different interests on the part of children, adults, and young people? The dramatic character of their life stories? The need for readers to understand complex issues (such as literary theory)? Censorship? Current popularity of the subjects? Might the person's story be considered inappropriate or too painful for young people? (Would you agree that it is?)

Small Group Project

Students should form groups of four; if necessary, given the number of students in the class, some groups may have five students. Each of the groups is to focus on a different figure in African-American history. The different groups may wish to coordinate their choices so as to be able later to compare biographical treatments of people involved in the same social projects (e.g., Martin Luther King, Jr., Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin, etc.), people living in the same era (e.g., the American Revolution), people confronting similar conditions (e.g., Western pioneers or leaders of slave rebellions), or people working in similar professions (e.g., artists, doctors, teachers, or politicians). Whether or not a larger class theme is chosen, students will first meet in small groups to discuss the biographical subject whom they have selected; later, the small groups will come together in the larger group to discuss overlapping issues.

Choose someone who was born no later than 1940 and about whom either 1) four or more children's or young adult books have been written or 2) three or more children's or young adult books have been written and at least one chapter in a young adult collection of biographical essays has been published (the latter must consist of seven or more pages, not counting illustrations). In selecting a subject, you may wish to consult the bibliography at <> or on reserve at the library. You are also welcome to use books that are not on this list.

Focusing on the same person, each of the members of the group is to read a different book, with no more than one member of a group reading a long chapter from a collection of biographical essays (this is because there tends to be less variety amongst essays than amongst books devoted to a person's life story). If the book chosen is a picture book or early reader book, read the entire book. If the book chosen is for middle readers, read two or more chapters (not necessarily the beginning chapters or consecutive chapters; choose the chapters that appear to be most detailed, informative, and interesting). If the book you choose is for adolescents or young adults, read either one or two chapters, depending on the length of the chapters. Again, choose the chapters that appear to be most detailed, informative, and interesting, not necessarily the first chapter.

Questions for Individual Written Assignments

In reading the book, you should look for (and prepare 2 to 3 pages of typed notes on) the following:

1) Drawing on the lecture regarding social conscience, melting pot, and culturally conscious approaches to children's literature, discuss the extent to which the children's or young adult biography you read seems to reflect social conscience, melting pot, and/or culturally conscious principles.

2) What are the details that suggest this analysis to you? Which culturally conscious, race-generic, and/or "deficit" features do you notice in the book? (e.g., dialect, stereotypes, cultural themes, generic or ethnocentric details, social conscience plot, racism as an issue)

3) What meaning-making work do the pictures do (if there are any)? Are the images culturally conscious? If a chapter uses only one photograph, why do you think that that particular image was chosen?

Your written discussion should also give the full bibliographical information for the book or chapter chosen (title, author, illustrator, place, publisher, date). This written assignment is to be used in the small groups and then turned in to the instructor at the end of the discussion section meeting. Prepare enough copies of your notes for everyone in the small group, as well as one for the instructor.

Small Group Questions

In the small groups, compare and contrast the different treatments of the biographical subject in the books and chapters you have read. After the group has discussed the significance of the various biographical treatments they encountered, the group should consider some of the following questions:

Analysis/Synthesis Questions

1) Do the books differ with respect to how culturally conscious they are, and, if so, do their differences seem connected to the time of publication?

2) How do the books and chapters differ with regard to the details chosen? Are these details culturally significant?

3) Is the story coherent or is it fragmentary? Does it give a feel for the person's life or does it merely list facts?

4) What is the main emphasis in the book? Is it on the individual, on a sport or science, on civil rights issues, on family relations, on specific adventures or activities, or on the larger historical era, for example?

5) To what extent does the narrative acknowledge the historical contributions of individuals other than the biographical subject? (Is the story of Rosa Parks just the story of Rosa Parks? Do accounts of Martin Luther King, Jr., mention the contributions of Bayard Rustin and Ella Baker?) Does the narrative acknowledge tensions or conflicts with other African Americans of the period (e.g., Booker T. Washington with William Monroe Trotter and Ida B. Wells-Barnett)? To what extent does the biography isolate the individual, emphasizing his or her exceptionality? Does the book help readers to understand how different forms of activism and support in the black community interact with one another? (For example, do books about the black civil rights movement suggest that Malcolm X's and Martin Luther King's agendas were mutually exclusive or do they address how each agenda may have lent support to the other?)

6) Does the book or chapter seem to follow a formula, or does it take its shape either from the biographical subject's life and times, and interests, or from the author's own interest in the subject? If the book is part of a series, would you suspect that all the books in that series follow the same format? How successful is that format?

7) How are blackness, whiteness, and brownness understood in the text? How much specific attention is given to race and culture? Are there implied values about race and culture (e.g., "it doesn't matter what color you are if you work hard"; "African Americans should be proud of their history"; "whites can be allies to blacks")? How are relations between groups understood? For example, do stories about black cowboys treat American Indians in stereotypical terms?

8) How are gender and sexuality treated in the text?

9) How is socio-economic class understood?

10) How is education viewed? Does the author seem to value non-traditional kinds of education such as Woodson describes, for example?

11) If the book has an index, what do the entries in the index suggest about the author's assumptions, focus, and omissions?

Appreciative/Generative Questions

1) How well-written are the biographies? Are the illustrations artistically distinctive or are they generic, pot-boiler illustrations? How would you describe what makes the writing and/or the art work distinctive or formulaic? If you found the pictures and story interesting, do you think they create an interest on the part of readers or do they assume an already-existing interest? How did the book or chapter make you curious about the person and interested in finding out more about her or him?

2) How do the details and treatment of the person in each of the books differ from the details and treatment one might find in a textbook? How do trade and text biographies differ, as genres -- how does each genre seem to address its audience? What "needs" or expectations does it seem to assume on the part of the audience?

3) If you were taking a student-centered approach to African-American history in a diverse classroom setting, how might using trade biographies fit into your curriculum? How would you go about deciding which books to use?

4) Of the books your group has examined, what are possible limitations in using each book with students of particular ages and cultural or racial backgrounds? What curricular support would each text need?

5) Carter G. Woodson argues that it is no accident that African-American accomplishments are not reflected in the dominant curriculum. His argument still seems to hold: few non-black Americans have heard of Garrett Morgan, Edmonia Lewis, Charles Drew, Matthew Henson, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, or Mary McLeod Bethune, for example. If you have never read about the person you chose for this assignment in a textbook, how do you think that textbooks would have to change in order to include material on the person without simply including a "token" treatment?

6) How might Carter G. Woodson view each of the books that the group read? How might Booker T. Washington view them? W. E. B. Du Bois? Lisa Delpit? Herbert Kohl? Horace Mann? Orestes Brownson?

Large Group Questions

After working together in small groups, students should return to the larger group to consider patterns that might be identified by comparing notes across the different biographical subjects they have chosen. For example, if students have read different books by the same author, illustrator, or publisher, they can discuss patterns of cultural consciousness regarding that author, publisher, or illustrator. Students can also compare books written in the same time period. Among the questions that the group may wish to consider are the following:

1) Rudine Sims claims that a culturally conscious orientation is more likely to be found in particular time periods. What patterns, if any, seem to be characteristic of the late nineties? To what extent and during which times periods) do you seem to be seeing "progress"? (What counts as progress, in your view?) If the changes in patterns you are seeing do not seem to be progress (or not only progress), how would you describe the changes? What might account for them?

2) If the large group finds that there is overlap in the authors, illustrators, and/or publishers they have encountered, are there patterns that seem to apply? Do particular authors, illustrators, and/or publishers seem to be more culturally conscious than others, for example? Do some publishers stick to a formula? Do some authors appear to do more research and/or to be more reliable? How much research do particular illustrators seem to do?

3) What variety are you seeing in the forms that cultural consciousness may take? How does it differ in young adult biographies and picture-book biographies, for example? How does it differ according to author or illustrator? How do particular authors and illustrators complement one another's culturally conscious work? Are particular author/artist partnerships especially successful, and if so, why?

4) What are possible limitations in using culturally conscious biographies with students of particular ages and cultural or racial backgrounds? What curricular support would such texts need? What background would teachers need, to teach them well? What skills would students need? How might teachers need to think about community relations, in preparing to teach such books?

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