Biographies and Memoirs


The mere mention of the biography genre is sometimes enough to cause the eyes to glaze over, especially if you were assigned it once too often in school. Then too, it used to be that biographies written for kids seemed to make the life of even the most exciting person dull. Yet biographies are the favorite genre of many lifetime readers. Biographies can and should provide a way to personalize history, to discover the motivation behind some interesting people and perhaps awaken a new interest or passion.

Let's find some biographies that may intrigue and delight. While doing so, we can investigate some activities based on those biographies.

Let's start by rooting out the best of the biographies available. Make sure that the selection covers a wide range of subjects on a wide variety of reading levels: good books about people whose work was in sports, science, engineering, the arts and anything else that may grab a kid passing by the table. See our list of recommended biographies at:

Isolate some intriguing facts about some of the people in those books and make a bulletin board quiz out of it. For instance:

  • 1. She hid in an attic and died in a prison camp.
  • 2. She picked up a dead snake and thought it came to life.
  • 3. When she was seven years old, her entire family was put into prison in America even though not one of them had done anything illegal.
  • 4. He was one of many orphans put on a train and taken out into the country to be adopted by strangers.
  • 5. He freed his own slaves and was responsible for freeing many others but he was not an abolitionist.
  • 6. He was sent to the Arctic to stop wolves from slaughtering caribou but ended up loving the wolves.

Answers: 1. Anne Frank 2. Betsy Byars 3. Jeanne Houston 4. Lee Nailling 5. Ulysses S. Grant 6. Farley Mowat

Of course, if we're going to use those specific questions and answers, we'll need these books: Diary of Anne Frank, The Moon and I, Farewell to Manzanar, Orphan Train Rider, Unconditional Surrender, and Never Cry Wolf. (Booklist)

Read aloud some touching or funny or exciting passages in several biographies. I recommend the chapters about finding the dead snake in The Moon and I, one of the chapters about the Iditerod in Woodsong, the part about the brutal headmaster in Boy, and the chapter about the dead rat in Looking Back. (Booklist)

For their first biography, encourage the kids to choose a biography or autobiography about someone or something they are already at least vaguely interested in. Because they won't know which book is about what, you'll have to do some good book-talking to pique their interest.

Include some big name biographies and do some role-playing. Imagine George Washington talking to the current president, Galileo talking to John Glenn, Florence Ederle talking to Billie Jean King. Take one of those roles yourself and play out the conversation.

Start a new bulletin board with a "Did You Know" title. As children discover strange or intriguing information about their subject, encourage them to place it on the bulletin board.

As they begin their reading, put up a time line that goes all the way around the room at kids' eye level. Mark it off by ten year intervals. As the kids need breaks from their reading, get them to help you put up photos of events and people at spots along the time line. Put up signs at the appropriate spots to commemorate life-changing inventions and discoveries. What we are trying to do is make the time line and, by extension, the people whose life spans will be displayed on it, come to life. As each person finishes his or her biography, the name of the biographee should be placed on the time line with photos, if possible. Reproductions of newspaper articles about the times or about the subjects will also help the time line become meaningful.

Take some time now and then to examine the time line together and speculate. Would Thomas Jefferson have known Lafayette? What might they have talked about if they met at a party? What about Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell?

After the kids have read at least one biography, bring them together in discussion groups to talk about their character. If your kids are used to book discussions, you won't need to lay much groundwork for those discussions but, if they are novices, it sometimes helps if they come to the group armed with something visual to talk about and around. One easy such visual is to have the kids photocopy or draw a picture of their subject on the middle of a sheet of paper. Above the photo they can list what they see as the accomplishments of the person. Below the photo they could list the events in that person's life that shaped him or her. For instance, if I were doing Franklin Roosevelt, I would put, "Brought America Out of the Depression, Leader During World War II, Started Social Security, and Led Fight to Find a Cure for Polio" as accomplishments at the top of the page. For shaping events I might put, "Had a Dominating Mother, Married Eleanor, Contracted Polio". With a paper such as this in hand, I'd have a good starting place for telling others what I'd learned about Franklin Roosevelt. If someone else read another biography of Roosevelt, we could discuss our choices. If someone else had read a biography about someone else with a very strong mother or with a debilitating disease, we'd be off and running.

Creating a web with the subject of the biography in the middle and stretching out to events, discoveries, and contemporaries is another good discussion starter.

Enter those discussions yourself on occasion, bringing in adult biographies and adding to the information the kids have found.

It may be time to branch out a bit. Many subjects of biographies have or had a passion or consuming interest in something that drove them to find out more, or to select their path in life. Isolating or defining that interest may be the next thing to do with your readers. For instance, Franklin Roosevelt was an avid stamp collector. Get someone who shares that interest to come into class to show his or her collection and to explain their interest in it.

Since you started with a quiz, you may want to end with one. Put together a not-so-trivial game about the people in the books your kids have read. If all this was kind of fun and some of the kids choose a biography to read next time of their own free will, pat yourself on the back. Good work!


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