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The Meaning of Life(stories)

In children’s literature, it’s rare to find representations of the full lives of characters. You don’t see a protagonist’s life from birth to old age, and death. Even shorter periods of growth are thin on the ground. Although we see Harry Potter and friends from childhood to young adult, other examples don’t come along too often.

Children, then, are rarely exposed to the concepts of one’s individual growth and life experiences. For instance, how they are shaped into the people they become, and how their actions shape the world around them.

Biographies can fill this gap, and it’s a genre that’s seeing a surge in popularity. From picture books, middle-grade texts, and numerous collections of people with many outstanding achievements to their names. The latter collections focus more on the number of figures, rather than the depth of their life stories. However, one thing they all have in common is that they are aiming to be inspirational.

It seems anyone of note is up for discussion. And rightly so. In the past, the same names would come up again and again. But now, children and adults can learn about new names and give life to these figures once more. Not that they’re all historical figures. Plenty are contemporary.

Many of these books start with a focus on what childhood experiences set them on their journeys. Whether it’s Mary Anning beach-combing with her father, or Stevie Wonder banging on pots and pans. These are real people with childhoods children can relate to. As a result, they have the potential to be more aspirational than other texts. Picture book biographies are a wonderful alternative to fictional texts for storytimes. The variety of texts used is important to stimulate book talk:

  • Do you think they learnt their talent, or were they born with it?
  • Do you think they found anything difficult in their life?
  • What would you like to ask them if you could?
  • Do you think they should/could have done anything differently?
  • What moment in their life do you think was the most important?
  • Do you think they have any regrets?
  • What do you think they are most proud of?

Biographies introduce new figures to readers, but children will want to read about their heroes too. Readers who dislike fiction but like stories can find biographies a way in. Another important reason to expose younger readers to them early on with picture books. And I’m sure many of us know that one friend or member of the family who will only read biographies. They tell the stories of people they already know, giving them more insight into their lives. For example, popular footballer biographies, such as the Ultimate Football Heroes and Football Superstars series, are a must for any school, or class, library. An added benefit of these is that footballers are a demographic of successful people who often come from working-class backgrounds.

Many biographies will feature inspirational mentors, teachers or supportive adults. Oprah Winfrey, who lived with her grandmother, Hattie Mae, in her early childhood, found in her an encouraging role model. This positively reinforces the relationships with adults in young readers’ lives too. The figure, and perhaps the reader, come full circle and become mentors themselves. As has Oprah Winfrey, who has paid for those unable to afford to go to university, and continues to inspire children who have similar childhoods to the one she had.

Because some mention death, it can be a subtle way into the discussion of the passing of life, remembrance and celebration. Emmeline Pankhurst in The First Names series by David Fickling Books concludes in exactly this way.

The Little People, Big Dreams series doesn’t mention the passing of each figure. The only sign being the birth and death dates. However, Alan Turing hauntingly alludes to the mathematician’s death in a powerful double spread. Facing away from the reader in a darkened room, Alan Turing sits in an armchair. On the side table, is an apple with one bite taken out of it. The accompanying text tells us how sad he became.

But, do all these benefits highlight a problem with biography for children? Because they emphasise what makes an “exemplary existence”, could they be too aspirational? And does focusing on the person’s positive aspects of their personality and life create a saint-like figure immune from criticism?

While some do only focus on the positives, many mention parts of these figures’ lives with honesty. The Little People, Big Dreams books are more honest than you would expect from picture books, and are far better for it. For example, in Bruce Lee the text mentions getting into trouble from fighting in the streets, and Ella Fitzgerald skipped school and ran away from home. In Astrid Lindgren, we are told without judgement that the writer was a single mother at 19 and a rebel. Educators will automatically note how these will link into interesting discussions.

Puffin’s Middle-grade Extraordinary Life Of series goes into more detail. In the Serena Williams book, the text mentions an “outburst” at a line judge during one particularly emotional match. The book explores this, discussing how society perceives men and women differently. It also mentions how race plays a part.

Does this create a need for biographies of everyday people? Does a person have to be famous, or simply someone to look up to? Children need to know they don’t have to be world-changing in what they do to be successful or happy. There’s something positive and successful we can take from everyone’s* life. Family members, neighbours etc, all deserve biographies of their own. We all have a story.

*Bar the most infamous. However, you don’t see biographies of these people for children. Understandable given how many atrocities are unsuitable for young readers. No one wants to see Hitler’s ideology as a “Big Dream”. In these instances, teachers and trusted adults should fill the gaps in children’s knowledge with what’s suitable for their learning.

Given the sheer amount of biographies on offer and opportunities for learning, it’s worth considering using biographies in the classroom. Some areas of the curriculum could include:

  • Spoken language requirements
  • Writing about personal experiences and those of others
  • Writing about real events
  • Researching
  • Discussing writing similar to that which they are writing
  • Reading a wide range of texts, including those structured in different ways

Biographies are a rich and inspiring genre for all ages. It’s not just about learning about historical figures anymore. It’s also about making human connections and discovering people’s journeys through life. None of us knows where we’ll end up. Exciting AND terrifying. But what biographies do is show the journeys, how different and valid each one is. With their ups and downs. This, I believe, is the most important benefit. Inspire? Of course! But to normalise differences and prepare for the journey ahead might be much more beneficial.

An interesting essay that partly inspired this post is From Solitary to Solidary: Intergenerational Relationships in the Representation of Full Lives by Clementine Beauvais from Intergenerational Solidarity in Children’s Literature and Film (University Press of Mississippi, 2021)

Roy’s blog raises some interesting points that I have been reflecting on. I was struck by the notion that we might not want biographies of Hitler written for young people. Clearly, such a biography would not be aspirational. But is there another point to be made here about the demonisation of infamous people, setting them apart from humanity and therefore setting up a safety barrier between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – the people who commit atrocities? Does a failure to scrutinise stop us from questioning why perpetrators of such heinous acts become the way they are? And moreover, why do others become complicit in those acts?

I think most of us would agree that this isn’t reading fare for very young children, but what about a 10 year old? 12 year old? 14-year-old? What is the age that they might start thinking about this? Is knowledge the best way to alert us to the peril of history repeating itself? And if it is, then isn’t this best addressed at that point in time when young people are beginning to find out who they are and what they stand for?

I had, for a while, a book on my shelf about Hitler’s library. It was certainly not pleasurable reading, but I bought it to try and understand what Hitler had read from his extensive library (the marginalia provides some evidence) and whether his reading had played into his disturbed mind, or whether he had marshalled what he read to fit his warped outlook. It is interesting to consider this when we talk about the role that reading can play in the development of empathy. What went wrong in this case? I admit to removing the book from my shelf as soon as I had finished it, feeling somewhat tainted by its presence.

Anyway, back to writing for children. I know of five biographies of Hitler written for children. One is a picture book that I found in the children’s book shop in Bologna about 10 years ago. I cannot recall the exact title of this book which was translated into English but it was something along the lines of ‘Hitler was a baby once.’ The ironic tone made it clear that it was a picture book for older readers. I didn’t purchase the book, perhaps for the reasons Roy writes about, but I often wish I had. An internet search to try and locate a copy has not been fruitful. I expect it would have been a hard sell into bookshops. If anyone has further information, do let me know.

Usborne Young Reading series includes a book about Hitler published in 2006. This series is aimed at ‘newly independent readers’ and presents Hitler’s life story from childhood. I haven’t read it and I don’t know the editorial discussions that took place before selecting the subject for their series. The book is given the age guidance 9+. The description of the title reads ‘An informative account of the life of Adolf Hitler, from his childhood in rural Austria to becoming the dictator who led Germany into a bloody world war and murdered over six million Jews in the Holocaust. Part of the Usborne Young Reading series, this book features facts, photographs and links to websites with archive newsreels of historical events.’ Personally, I am uneasy about this as a subject for 9-year-olds (in this format it will be picked up by younger children too). My concerns are about the inevitable simplification of a complex subject and whether this is a life story that children can make sense of in a way that the knowledge enhances their lives. I prefer fairy tales as a means of opening up discussions about ‘big topics’ with safety through the distance that they provide for this age group.

In 2003, Heineman published a book called Adolf Hitler: From Failed Artist to Fascist Dictator. Sitting in the education market, this book is aimed at KS3 students and is written by Liz Gogerly, former teacher, nonfiction writer and recipient of the SLA Award in 2020 for her book, Heroes the Help Us From Around the World. I haven’t read this book either but prompted by Roy’s blog post, I have ordered a second-hand copy as the book is no longer in print. I am interested to read how Liz handles the subject.

Finally, a book that I have read, an American publication, The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler written by James Cross Giblin. It’s aimed at a teenage audience but many adults will find it interesting and perhaps illuminating. The School Library Journal starred review stated that it is ‘The most complete and successful biography of the Fuhrer available for this audience.’. Kirkus boldly acclaimed it, ‘An essential purchase.’. And it was awarded the Sibert Medal given for ‘the most distinguished information book’. What this book does, is explore the social conditions existing in Germany after the First World War alongside a portrait of a charismatic politician and deeply disturbed man.

In the end, though, I think we do not find answers to such hard questions in biography, or biography alone. I was struck recently by a conversation with David Olusoga in which he talked about history needing to escape from the shackles of biography. It’s a thought that has stuck with me and one that I have been mulling over. You can hear the podcast here

Nikki Gamble