Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Read All About It: Biographer's Day

I've been a biography fan since I was a kid.  I had my favorites: Amelia Earhart, Abraham Lincoln, Helen Keller--the usual suspects.  I don't remember children's biographies being as creative and diverse as they are today, so my choices were mainly limited to the classic biography subjects (presidents and the like).  When I found out that May 16th is Biographer's Day (also verified by Chase's Calendar of Events), I thought that there would be no better time than to share my favorite biographies (children and adult).  I'm going to cheat and include a few memoirs. Let's start with the children's biographies:

David Adler has a fine picture book series for young readers, but this picture book biography for slightly older readers is one of his best.  Lou Gehrig might not have been as charismatic as Babe Ruth, but his tremendous batting skills, along with the courage and dignity he displayed when he announced his retirement due to amyotrophic lateral scleroris (ALS, also commonly known as "Lou Gehrig's Disease") made him one of the greatest baseball champions of all time. Lou Gehrig: The Luckiest Man is a sensitively written and illustrated picture book biography that will endear this legend to new generations. 

I must have The Ordinary Acrobat on my mind, because when I thought about which outstanding Candace Fleming biography to include in this list, her biography of the great circus showman immediately came to mind.  Doesn't matter if she writes about presidential couples, aviators, or founding fathers; Fleming is a genius at creating children's biographies that are fascinating and accessible.  

It's difficult to find biographies of prominent Asians, so it's a treat that Honda: The Boy Who Dreamed of Cars is such a genuinely fun read.  It's also an inspirational story about perseverance and pride in one's work.

Helen Keller might be the most famous deaf-blind person in history, but Laura Bridgman paved the way for her education and triumphs.  Bridgman, like Keller, became blind and deaf at a very young age, but learned how to read, write, and even teach.  She became an international sensation; Dickens wrote about her in his American Notes.  For those interested in reading a biography outside the norm, this comes highly recommended. 

Margret and H.A. Rey, creators of the Curious George stories, literally went on the run (via bicycles) after Paris fell to the Nazis.  Among their few possessions was the manuscript that became the first Curious George book.  This is a bit longer (and more mature, given the subject matter) than your average picture book biography, making this a fine choice for older elementary school students.

Although I was a huge Beverly Cleary fan during my childhood, I didn't discover her memoirs until several years ago.  Cleary winningly captured the everyday joys, worries, and disappointments of childhood in her Ramona/Henry Huggins novels, but her own childhood was rather dark, due to her mother's psychological issues and the poverty experienced by the family due to the Depression (the books are age appropriate for upper elementary/middle grade readers).  Cleary's second memoir ends with the publication of her first book, Henry Huggins.  These are must reads for Cleary fans. It's just too bad that there's no hint of any further memoirs; since Cleary is 97, I'm assuming that none are in the works. 

I've blogged about Wilma Unlimited several times, so I'm obviously a big fan. Wilma Rudolph was the first woman to win three gold medals at an Olympic track event; the fact that she overcame polio and extreme poverty to do so makes this an inspiring and gripping read.  It's a terrific read aloud for grade school children (I read it to a Boys & Girls Club group several years ago, and it was a hit). 

If I had to name my top five favorites, this engrossing middle grade biography of Madame Curie would definitely be at the top.  Dr. Curie's life story makes for an incredible read, vividly brought to life through Carla Killough McClafferty's writing.

Sparky: The Art and Life of Charles Schulz

As long as the Halloween and Christmas Peanuts specials are shown on an annual basis, Charles Schulz's offbeat characters will remain favorites with children.  This is a terrific middle-grade biography; each chapter opens with a Peanuts comic strip that touches on Schulz's actual life and personality.  Schulz was a complicated man, and this biography illustrates that in an age appropriate manner (there's a fantastic adult biography that was not happily received by some members of Schulz's family when it was published).

Janis Joplin: Rise up Singing 

This YA biography of Janis Joplin was highly praised when it was published, even winning the 2011 YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction.  Although  teens might not know much about Joplin's life and career, Joplin's outsider status and her controversial life should interest quite a few readers.  Ann Angel interviewed many family members, friends, and band members, which makes this a very intimate and personal read (too bad that there was no accompanying CD for readers, but I assume that getting the rights would have been expensive).


I adore Smile.  It's funny, honest, adorable, and sensitively drawn (this is a graphic novel).  Raina Telgemeier relates her years of extensive orthodontic work throughout the ups and downs of middle school and high school life.  Anyone who has/has had braces will identify with this story; even if readers are/were fortunate enough to not need braces, they will empathize with the awkwardness of adolescence.

And as they say in those As Seen on TV commercials: but wait! there's more!  Here are my favorite biographies if you're looking for grownup reads:

Alicia: My Story 

Alicia Appleman-Jurman's Holocaust memoir is a harrowing and extraordinary read.  Not only did she escape and hide from Nazis during her teen years (her family perished), but she also helped other Jews escape during this time period.  She later immigrated to Israel and the United States, where she raised her family.  It's been a long time since I've read it, but I know that it's obviously not for sensitive readers, as Alicia loses her family members one by one to the Nazi terror. On the other hand, it's an amazing story of courage, survival, and hope.

Helen and Teacher

Out of the many biographies I've read on Helen Keller, I've yet to find one that matches or exceeds the depth, scope, and brilliance of Joseph P. Lash's extensive biography.  Keller lived an extraordinary and lengthy life (she was 87 when she died); she was an extensive world traveler, a prolific writer, an activist, and an astonishing intellect, which may come as a surprise to those who only know of Keller through watching The Miracle Worker.  Anne Sullivan Macy's life prior to meeting Helen is often sketched in very basic terms in most biographies; Lash goes into great detail concerning her childhood and young adulthood.  It is easy to idolize these two women, but Lash shows their deeply human and complex personalities.  (I was amused at the buzz created over Helen Keller in Love; Helen Keller's engagement has been known for many years!). 

Robert K. Massie's best known work is Nicholas and Alexandra--one that I've read many times.  I think Catherine the Great, his most recent work, surpasses even that great achievement.  Massie writes biographies as if he were a novelist; he makes his larger than life subjects truly come to life. 

Child Star

During the Depression, there was no bigger star than little Shirley Temple.  Her sunny personality and song-and-dance routines lifted the spirits of dejected Americans for an hour or two as she dealt with parental loss (was there any more thankless role for an actor during this time to play Shirley Temple's parent? Good news! You're going to be in a movie. Bad news! You're playing Shirley Temple's only surviving parent.), horrid little girls who were jealous of angelic Shirley, cantankerous hermit grandfathers, the Civil War, and other calamities.   Unfortunately, what was cute at 5 was awkward at 12, and Shirley was eventually sent packing.  After a few attempts at a comeback in her teens, she eventually retired from show business (save for a few television appearances here and there) and began her UN diplomatic career.  Although she was fortunate enough to escape the ugly side of being a former child star (the most disturbing parts are her recollections and descriptions of her very early movies before she was signed to Twentieth Century-Fox, which would be considered racist and exploitative today), she did suffer several dark moments in her life, including an impulsive marriage at the age of 17 to an abusive man and being diagnosed with breast cancer, which was still a taboo subject in the early 1970s.  Shirley Temple Black's life story is written with little bitterness, a healthy dose of amusement, and with great candor and affection for her family.  Celebrity autobiographies are a dime a dozen (and hit or miss in regard to quality), but Child Star rises above the pack.

And now we jump from one classic Hollywood icon to another.  At the height of his popularity, Rin Tin Tin was the most famous silent film star in Hollywood.  (It's been rumored for years that he was actually the winner of the first Academy Award in the Actor category, but because the organizers wanted the awards to be taken seriously, he was denied the award.)  This is an outstanding read for both dog lovers and classic film fans alike.

American history and/or presidential history buffs need to read this book; it's an invigorating look at a little-known yet fascinating president.  Garfield was an intellectual and quite progressive for his time in regard to race relations at a time in which the country was still reeling from the effects of the Civil War.  The promise and hope of American leadership and industry was finally emerging, yet corruption and scandal were rampant in the country's politics.  Garfield was an ardent reformer and was determined to stamp out corruption in Washington, yet he was mortally wounded only four months into his presidency.  Candice Millard balances the many egregious mistakes of his doctors against Alexander Graham Bell's mad dash to invent a device to find the bullet buried within Garfield.  This is an exceptional tale of politics, invention, medicine, and a young country awakening to its destiny.  Truly an unforgettable read; if only Candice Millard would write a biography of Alexander Graham Bell! We need a new one.

Want even MORE suggestions? Check out my post on the ALSC blog for more children's biographies.

Happy Biographer's Day!  Pick out a biography for your next read, and discover an extraordinary life...and read!

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