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New From Betsy

Great picture book bios I’m reading for my Pete Seeger bio – what are your favorites?



One of the first things I do when I’m forming up a biography is to check out what other people have done. I’m looking for bios that make my socks roll up and down so I can figure out how they do it. Do they grab me emotionally? How do they weave in backstory effectively? How much text is too much and how much is just right?


Here’s a few that caught my eye:


 Action Jackson

Jan Greenberg/ Sandra Jordan, Robert Andrew Parker.

This bio of painter Jackson Pollack is one of the most awesome books about the process of creating art that I’ve ever read. How he waits. How he finally paints: “Paint, paint and more paint, dripping, pouring, flinging.” Great afterword – five pages. 32 pages.



Nikki Giovanni, Brian Collier.

I love the righteous anger in this book and the loaded adverbs. “As was the evil custom, she then got off the bus and went to the back door to enter the bus from the rear.” (If you’ve ever seen Nikki Giovanni speak you know she’s full of anger she’s honed to a laser sharpness for expressing her outrage at racism.) Giovanni gets in huge paragraphs of facts – only possible because she is such a great writer: “She sighed as she realized she was tired. Not tired from work but tired of people putting white people first. Tired of stepping off sidewalks to let white people pass, tired of eating at separate lunch counters and learning at separate schools.” Then a second paragraph of more. No afterword. 32 pages


Walt Whitman: Words for America

Barbara Kerley, Brian Selznick

Covers most of Whitman’s life. Informative, but the emotional connection doesn’t really hook in for me until he goes to find his brother and begins caring for the injured and ill during the Civil War. A whopping six page afterword. 40 pages


The Man Who Walked Between the Towers

Mordicai Gertstein

Fantastic. Very short time span. I love the illustrations –Gerstein has one of the most creative ways of using the page I’ve ever seen. 40 pages


When Marian Sang

Pam Munoz Ryan, Brian Selznick

I adore this book. Manages to cover most of her life, and keep me emotionally hooked in the whole time. Ryan makes incredible use of the spirituals Marian Anderson sang as a way of expressing her feelings: “When she began her thought-provoking encore, ‘Oh, nobody knows the troubles I see, nobody knows my sorrow…’ silence settled on the multitudes.”


The most emotional books for me are primarily about one incident or time, with one big thing stopping the person – racism or physical impossibility. So how to cover a long span of Seeger’s life, which I’d like to do, and still have a satisfyingly emotional book? 3 pages of afterword, 40 pages.


I’d love to hear about any picture book bios that you love, or ones that work well in your class or library.



  1. Jeannine Atkins says:

    I love the examples you named. Within the tight word count, authors boldly hold a crucial moment, taking their time as, for example Marian Anderson changes the mall in front of Lincoln Center, or Rosa Parks sits and changes how people saw segregation. Time is elegantly compressed, then released and made to stand still for some beats that the illustrators fill in gorgeously. I also like picture book biographies in which an interest, image, or event in the childhood suggests where the person will go. Andrea Davis Pinkney does this well and William Miller in Richard Wright’s Library Card and Zora Hurston and the Chinaberry Tree, so that we get both an ordinary child and a sense of where they’ll go…..

    As someone who gets hooked on research, I can relate to your thrill about pages devoted to bibliography and back-matter, but I personally feel it’s prudent to pare here, too. The readers of picture books, even those intended for older readers, may not need to compare sources. A few leads, and maybe the rest on a website. Some extra facts are beautifully handled as margin notes in Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illus Mary Azarian. …..

    I’m sure you’ll have fun trying ways to show music in words as is done wonderfully and variously by Deborah Hopkinson in A Band of Angels or Handel, Who Knew What he Liked, by M.T. Anderson, and Ellington was not a Street, by Ntozake Shange. Thanks for letting us peek into your process!

  2. Loree Burns says:

    Here are some picture book biographies I turn to again and again:
    WHAT CHARLIE HEARD, by Mordicai Gerstein
    ABRAHAM LINCOLN, by Amy L. Cohn and Suzy Schmidt, Pictures by David A. Johnson
    ELEANOR, by Barbara Cooney
    THE BOY WHO DREW BIRDS, by Jacqueline Davies, Pictures by Melissa Sweet

  3. Betsy Partridge says:

    Jeanine and Loree,
    Thanks for all the great suggestions. You’re sending me running back to the library.