Virginia Thomas, co-author of Children’s Literature for All God’s Children and one of our regular book reviewers on Storypath, has written an introduction to the role of biography with children and youth as a prelude to reviews of six particular biographies. The book review series will begin on Tuesday, July 8 and the books that will be review are listed in the article below.
We are surrounded by “so great a cloud of witnesses” and an important task of the maturing disciple is to become acquainted with these witnesses. They are inspiring examples and a testimony to what God is doing in the world. Good biographies of these witnesses are an essential resource. Who are they? Where do we find them? What do we look for?
Who are these witnesses? A few we can name with little effort-Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and…the slate is blank until Martin Luther King, Jr. and, perhaps, Dietrich Bonhoeffer emerge. Yet God has been at work since the days of the Apostles with people like Polycarp, Augustine, Benedict, William Tyndale, Mary Slessor, William Wilberforce, Elizabeth Fry and countless others. Some are historically significant in the history of the church, like John Knox, some are courageous, almost forgotten people, who played their part, like Ruby Bridges.
Where do we find them? Next week, Storypath will begin a series designed to bring six of these witnesses to your attention. John Knox (Christian Biographies for Young Readers) and Johann Sebastian Bach (Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Composers) are books from series where you will find other biographies. The Knox biography comes from a church publishing house and the entire series deals with important, not necessarily the most interesting, figures in church history. The Bach biography is part of a series on musicians that will require more selection, though Handel will certainly be a choice. Storypath has published several that you will find by looking in the Theme Index under “Biography”.
It must be admitted that good biographies of Christians for the pre-school to youth audience are not easy to find. Many significant persons in Christian history are noted for their ideas rather than actions, hard subject matter to catch the interest of the young or to convey to them. Frequently, alas, these stories are told in a rather pedestrian fashion, one fact following the other. Biographies of people like Florence Nightingale (Demi) or George Washington Carver ( Sam and Beryll Epstein) whose faith was central to their service but who are published outside a denominational house contain little about the impact of God on their lives. It’s not cricket to re-write the biography but as a Christian, you can do a bit of supplementing if you have the facts.
What do we look far? We think of biographies as adults, four volumes on the life of George Washington from birth to death with ancestors and his impact on American history included. Biographies for children, on the other hand, are counted successful if they introduce the subject and a few memorable details that stay with them. More knowledge will come later but there will be nothing to unlearn. The book must be judiciously edited for children cannot absorb so much information and much is beyond their range of interest and experience. At the same time juvenile biographies must be accurate and it’s a fine line between appropriate length and accuracy. A biography of Augustine, for example, will probably skip the two mistresses who kept him from conversion for years, but settle for a simple “He refused God’s call because he wanted his own way.”
The same standards that determine our choice of any literature apply here: clear, engaging prose; attractive format; good illustrations which mesh with the text; well drawn characters. In the cases of historical fiction and biography, accuracy about the character and the historical context are crucial. One of the first things to do is check the references an author used in writing the book. These references may also point to other biographies.
History and biography tend to blur in books for children. In the Hawk That Dare Not Hunt by Day, (Scott O’Dell), the story of a boy and his uncle who are smugglers, the reader meets William Tynedale whose translation is part of their contraband. History and biography mesh in this excellent book, bringing the historical context of Tynedale’s work to life as well as his courage and hope of placing a Bible in the hands of every English plowboy.
Biographies fall into at least five categories, all included in this upcoming series: picture book biographies (Florence Nightingale by Demi), simplified biographies (Johann Sebastian Bach by Mike Venezia), single events (The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles), comprehensive (John Knox by Simonetta Carr), and fictionalized biographies (Amos Fortune, Free Man by Elizabeth Yates) where characters speak words and take actions that are carefully researched and are expressed through the author’s imagination. Columba (The Man Who Loved Books) is a hybrid of historical facts and legend and author Jean Fritz, whose careful research is the foundation of the book, is clear about which is which. Single events, like Ruby Bridges, are the best introductions for children below third grade.
Now get ready to meet some exciting, irritating, gifted, courageous, and tenacious men, women, and children of faith. Then find others of this great cloud of witnesses and share what you find with Storypath.