by Carol Hinz, Associate Publisher of Millbrook Press and Carolrhoda Books
I love picture book biographies, both because of the fascinating range of people featured and because of the wide range of approaches authors use in writing them. Would I have known about Isatou Ceesay’s efforts to clean up her community in the Gambia if it weren’t for One Plastic Bag? Would I have had any idea how Cherokee values shaped Mary Golda Ross’s career as an aerospace engineer without Classified? Would I have been aware that a Mexican American teen girl with a passion for woodworking made a gift for President Roosevelt during the Great Depression if not for the forthcoming Piece by Piece?
Picture book bios are a mainstay of children’s nonfiction, but there are a lot of them, which can make it hard to stand out from the crowd. What elements does a picture book bio need to be successful?
A Tight Focus
This may sound obvious, but because of the constraints of the picture book format, authors need to zoom in on a specific moment or accomplishment. People are complex and multifaceted, but a manuscript that tries to capture everything about a person’s life inevitably ends up feeling disjointed. For this reason, I find that the most effective picture books tend to have a really tight focus. A great example of this is Not Done Yet by Tameka Fryer Brown, illustrated by Nina Crews. Tameka’s free verse captures the essence of Shirley Chisholm’s life and accomplishments while the repeated refrain of “not done yet” highlights Chisholm’s ambition as well as the continued relevance of her work.
When I read a manuscript, I look for details that go beyond the standard information that’s available about a person. If the featured person is still alive, can the author interview them? What about interviewing a colleague or a descendant of theirs? Are there libraries or archives that have documents from their life or work? Can an author or illustrator travel to any of the key places in their life? This sort of research can provide primary source quotations as well as specific details that enliven the writing or illustrations and help a story stand out. While working on The Vast Wonder of the World, thanks to a research grant and a stroke of luck, both author Mélina Mangal and illustrator Luisa Uribe were able to visit Charleston, South Carolina, the birthplace of Ernest Everett Just.
And as part of Traci Sorell’s research for Classified, she went to see Mary Golda Ross’s papers and work materials at the Northeastern State University Archives in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Thanks to that trip, we had hundreds of reference images to share with illustrator Natasha Donovan, including photos of Mary’s slide rule!
A Personal Touch
Related to the previous point, I’m not looking for a manuscript that reads like any author could have written it. I love when authors and illustrators bring in their personal background and life experiences to find their own unique way to tell the story of someone’s life. In One Plastic Bag, Miranda Paul and illustrator Elizabeth Zunon included lots of specific details about how Isatou Ceesay and a group of women began collecting and recycling plastic bags polluting their community into reusable items. It was only because Miranda had known Isatou for years and had made multiple trips to the Gambia before writing the book and Elizabeth Zunon had spent her childhood in another part of West Africa that they could bring this kind of specificity and authenticity to this story. These details make the book a real story rather than just a summary of a cool thing that someone did.
A Way for Kids to Connect
As adults, we often have background knowledge about the people in picture book bios, but kids have less life experience and may not know anything about a given figure. Authors can’t assume a child reader will automatically be invested in this person’s life story just because most adults have heard of them. Additionally, in a book that highlights the contributions of a figure whose story was largely omitted from the historical record, many adults might not be familiar with them either. Instead of assuming readers will care about the subject of their book, it’s important to help readers find a way to connect with this person and care about what happens to them. Sometimes the connection can come by way of incorporating a theme into the book that readers can apply to their own lives. For example, in Piece by Piece by Lupe Ruiz-Flores, illustrated by Anna López Real, the text highlights this theme: if you look closely, treasure can be found in unexpected places.
Sad but true: just because a person did an interesting thing or was the first to do a certain thing doesn’t mean their story will make for a compelling picture book. In evaluating picture book bios, I look for information about what the person did and information about what their lasting significance is—whether they changed their community for the better, paved the way for future scientists, or created a work of art that influenced how others saw the world. Ideally, the main text will give some sense of a person’s significance, and the back matter can also delve into it further. In Never Give Up by Debbie Dadey, illustrated by Juliana Oakley, the main text follows the life of Dr. Kati Karikó, whose work contributed to the creation of mRNA vaccines, and it talks about how the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines have made us safer. It also highlights that Dr. Karikó hopes we’ll one day be able to use mRNA to prevent or cure other illnesses, helping readers understand that there may be more discoveries yet to come.
A picture book bio is not a magazine article. It should read well aloud and use the unique format of the picture book to effectively tell about a person’s life. All kinds of craft considerations go into the way a story is told including voice, point of view, rhythm, and, in some cases, a repeated refrain that highlights a key theme. While the majority of picture book bios are told in third person, past tense, it’s worth exploring other possibilities as well. In A Bowl Full of Peace by Caren Stelson, illustrated by Akira Kusaka, Caren uses the present tense to give a sense of immediacy as she tells the story of how Sachiko Yasui survived the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Japan, as a young girl and eventually grew up to become a peace advocate. The text also uses the Japanese word itadakimasu (defined as “we humbly receive this food”) as a repeated refrain at mealtimes.
A picture book bio does of course include pictures! When I’m considering a picture book manuscript, I always share it with art director Danielle Carnito to get her thoughts. Visual appeal can mean different things for different books. Sometimes, as in Let ’Er Buck by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, illustrated by Gordon C. James, there’s an obvious thing to show—cowboys! In other cases, it’s not immediately obvious what the visuals will show, but as long as a text includes enough specific details, a skilled illustrator will come up with something good. (There are some great examples of this in Luisa Uribe’s illustrations for The Vast Wonder of the World!) Watch out for text that summarizes events without describing them as scenes—this approach not only feels boring to read, it also limits the visual potential for the book.
Finally, my goal as an editor is to create books that are relevant not just in the year they’re published but also five, ten, and perhaps even twenty years from now. From the time I acquire a picture book manuscript, it typically takes about two years before that book is released. That means the subjects of the books need to be of interest beyond the current moment. All of which is to say, the best written picture book manuscript in the world might not ever be acquired if the subject of the book doesn’t have enduring appeal or is likely to do things that will make the book feel out of date by the time the book it’s published. (This is one of the reasons you tend to see picture book bios of retired athletes or those well into their careers rather than those just starting out.) I’m hopeful that every one of the books I’ve mentioned in this post will endure for many years to come.
I hope everything I’ve discussed here is helpful for authors and illustrators as well as for educators looking at picture books bios for their libraries or classrooms. If you have thoughts on what you think makes a great picture book biography, please let me know in the comments!
Want to Find Out Even More?
For more information about some of the books I mentioned, check out these blog posts:
*Yes, I know “bookiness” is not a real word. But it should be, don’t you think?!