Writing biographies for young children – like, for example, Deborah Hopkinson and Qin Leng’s Ordinary, extraordinary Jane Austen – is an interesting concept. Interesting, but not new. So, when I was given this gorgeous Jane Austen one for Christmas, I decided to research the topic – and what I discovered is that the picture book biography is a well-recognised genre. I shouldn’t have been surprised, I suppose, given the number I bought for the young Gums way back when.
Still, it got me thinking. A quick search of the ‘net retrieved a few interesting articles (mostly including lists of recommended books). In 2016, The Guardian writer Amy Coles wrote how “picture book biographies peel back history and bring to life the true stories of iconic figures for a younger generation of readers”. An obvious aim, I suppose, but there’s more to it than just knowing these people’s stories, as Coles continues:
there is a lot to be learnt from the trailblazing achievements of history’s most renowned and respected figures. But how did these inspirational figures reach their goals and what prompted them to act the ways they did?
Coles provides a list of ten books that cross “nationalities, careers and cultures”, books about well-known people like the inspiring young Malala Yousafzai and Nelson Mandela, and lesser-known ones (to me, anyhow) like Wangari Maathai, who is “credited with planting over 30 million trees in Kenya”.
I love the idea of these non-fiction picture books, but how popular are they, really? Well, it just so happens that they have quite a wide readership.
Writers Rumpus is the website and blog of a group of children’s book writers and illustrators from the Boston area. Their blog began with “a lively, opinionated, humongous rumpus of a critique group” that (still I gather) meets monthly in a library. Back in May last year, they wrote this (as an introduction to a list of new releases from the previous year):
We live in a most exciting time, one of abundant picture book biographies! At my library, patrons of all ages check out these books. One adult recently told me he found it an excellent way to learn about famous people—past and present—without spending precious time reading a full biography on each person. With their lavish illustrations and informative back matter, this is no surprise. Authors and illustrators of picture book biographies put in a lot of research time to make sure their facts are correct, recorded, and shared in an entertaining manner.
The list is appealing – and includes books about the composer Bach, the “father of children’s literature” John Newbery whose name now graces a significant American children’s literature award, the black woman ex-slave-cum-anti-slavery-activist Harriet Tubman, the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, not to mention a whole raft of scientists, sports people and creators of all sorts.
Julie Just, writing in The New York Times last November, also praised picture-book biographies, stating that modern publishers are producing
beautifully illustrated and closely researched nonfiction books about unsung heroes as well as heroes we can’t read enough about. Best of all, if you like true stories, they include superbly detailed endnotes and suggestions for further reading.
And this brings me to the Ordinary, extraordinary Jane Austen, which is just such a book. The front cover flap describes the book as a “gorgeous tribute to an independent thinker who turned ordinary life into extraordinary stories”.
The book’s epigraph from Pride and prejudice – “For what do we live but to make sport for our neighbours and laugh at them in return” – will probably not make sense to its 4 to 8-year-old intended audience, but should give its adult readers a wry laugh. The book proper opens – not totally originally (!) – with
It is a truth universally acknowledged
that Jane Austen is one of our greatest writers.
But it might surprise you to know that
Jane lived a simple life.
She wasn’t rich
or even very famous in her time.
This would, I think, push the young reader a bit. How many would even have heard of Jane Austen to wonder whether she was rich or famous? Still, from the opening page they learn some basic facts about her. This first-page text is accompanied by a lovely sketch-illustration of our Jane writing at her famous little round writing table. The book goes on to provide the important facts of her biography. It gives a sense of Austen’s personality, including her love of humour, particularly at the “foolish things people sometimes did and said”. It tells us about the life of her times, including how people entertained themselves, which of course would interest children. It also explains how Austen wanted to write more realistic stories about the ordinary world, representing a significant break from the popular novels of the time – adventures and romances. Its conclusion, suggesting that Austen may have stood in her father’s library one day and thought to herself, “I can do this”, is nicely aspirational (as Coles suggests these books can be.)
The book concludes, as Julie Just notes many such books do, with some useful end matter: a basic but detailed enough timeline; a description of each of her novels including when it was published, and some “famous quotes”; some Internet sources to research; and a few books about Austen that the author used in her research.
You won’t be surprised to learn that this book didn’t teach me anything new, but as the friends who gave it to me know, I love adding to my Jane Austen collection of books, videos, CDs and other merch!
Do you have any favourite picture book biographies?
PS I should note that the annual Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards includes the Eve Pownall Award for Information Books, which would include picture-book biographies in its purview.
illus. Qin Leng
Ordinary, extraordinary Jane Austen: The story of six novels, three notebooks, a writing box and one clever girl
New York: Balzer + Bray, 2018