Biographies can teach young readers about the world

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 26, 2014

For children, success in life can sometimes seem totally foreign and out of reach or unrealistically achievable. True stories can provide them factual information about life’s accomplishments and an introduction to a real hero.
Consider browsing the shelves of biographies with your favorite child, no matter their age. I recently pulled a selection of beautifully illustrated books with enough substantial text to spark additional research and reading for older children and plenty of picture book appeal for the younger set and their favorite adult.
Who doesn’t love a story of adventure? “Barnum’s Bones: How Barnum Brown Discovered the Most Famous Dinosaur in the World,” by Tracey Fern, with pictures by Boris Kulikov, tells a tale of an unusual boy, Barnum Brown, who loved fossil hunting from an early age. This is the story of the man who eventually discovered the world’s first Tyrannosaurus Rex. Don’t miss the author’s note with a more detailed biography of Brown’s part in the American Museum of Natural History.
Another child fossil hunter, born in England in 1799 is in “Stone Girl, Bone Girl: the Story of Mary Anning,” by Laurence Anholt, illustrated by Sheila Moxley. The book describes young Mary’s discovery of the Great Ichthyosaur at the age of 12. Her continued fossil finds throughout her life are still displayed in museums around the world.
While Barnum and Mary may be a bit obscure to many, the next adventurer, John Smith, is one most children will recognize. Smith’s numerous exciting adventures, however, may surprise you. “John Smith Escapes Again,” written and illustrated by Rosalyn Schanzer, illustrates a life journey of heroics far beyond being rescued by Pocahontas. In the words of the author, “John Smith loved America and all its possibilities. He spent most of his life trying to make this beautiful world into a place where class rank didn’t matter and where anyone willing to work hard could become a success. That sounds like a hero to me.” His is a life story well worth a further look.
Other unsung heroes in the biography section with stories waiting to be told include “Only Passing Through: The Story of Sojourner Truth,” by Anne Rockwell, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, and “Dear Benjamin Banneker,” by Andrea Davis Pinkney, and illustrated by Brian Pinkney. To describe Sojourner’s choices, “When evil rules a time and place, certain good people are called upon to tell the truth to those who don’t want to hear it.” Sojourner’s bravery should not be missed.
Equally compelling, Banneker’s life reveals what may be a surprising story. A free person of color born in 1731, Benjamin Banneker was a curious boy, always looking for answers. A self-taught astronomer and mathematician, Banneker published the first almanac by a black man in 1792. Concerned about the lack of opportunity of those enslaved to study and learn, he also wrote an important and heroic letter to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. Banneker’s story is an excellent example of both successes and frustrations faced in life.
In addition to these lesser known heroes, learn new facts about those you may already know. “How Ben Franklin Stole the Lightning,” by Rosalyn Schanzer, captures an important moment in science and its continuing influence. “The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy),” by Barbara Kerley, and illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham, is based on the biography of Twain written by his 13-year-old daughter and provides a unique perspective. “Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom,” the official picture book of his bestselling autobiography, provides lesser known facts of Mandela’s remarkable life. It is illustrated by Paddy Bouman and abridged by Chris Van Wyk.
Determination, an admirable trait, is illustrated in the following books. “Come See the Earth Turn: The Story of Leon Foucault,” by Lori Mortensen, and illustrated by Raul Allen, tells the story of how a supposedly low intelligence student and medical school dropout stuns Paris with his demonstration that the earth truly rotated. This story of perseverance is timeless.
Other stories with a similar vein include “Blockhead: the Life of Fibonacci,” by Joseph D’Agnese, and illustrated by John O’Brien, and “Nothing but Trouble: The Story of Althea Gibson,” by Sue Stauffacher, illustrated by Greg Couch.
Whether learning about a man who made mathematics more accessible to the masses or discovering the first African-American, man or woman, to ever compete in and win Wimbledon, these biographies tell a tale of achievement in spite of difficulties, failure and opposition.
Speaking of persistence and spunk, don’t miss “The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer’s Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors,” by Chris Barton, and illustrated by Tony Persiani.
Through trial and error and following totally different paths, “…neither brother ended up where he wanted to be. But… the Switzer brothers began to look at the world in a different light.” This book resonates with the realistic story of many achievers, their ability to continue their passion despite difficulties, opposition or discouragement.
Biographies can be an overlooked selection for many children and adults. These books offer valuable and useful lessons, providing authentic stories and heroes as exciting as fictional characters in a favorite novel, TV show or movie. Explore juvenile biographies and catapult into a bit of history. You may discover a new favorite hero while also forging realistic expectations for success.
Superfoods workshop: South branch, Monday, 5:45 p.m., free. Learn how to cook up the good stuff with cooking demonstrations, samples and tips on how to stock a healthy kitchen. This workshop will be led by Chef Chris Herron and Director of Food and Nutrition Sara Lynch of Morrison Food Services. All ages welcome, but anyone un­der 16 should be accompanied by an adult. Registration is required; please call 704-216-7734 to register or for more information. This workshop is part of the Learn. Act. Grow. wellness program. At each program you have a chance to win door prizes; participants who attend all five workshops will be entered to win a grand prize.
Wii Bowling Tournament for Teens: All 5:30-7 p.m., East, Monday; headquarters, Tuesday. Wii bowling and other games. Open to all middle and high school students. For more information call 704-216-8234.
Book Bites Club: South (only), Monday, 6:30 p.m., “Wicked: The Life of the Wicked Witch,” by Gregory MaGuire. Book discussion groups for adults and children meet the last Tuesday of each month. The group is open to the public and anyone is free to join at any time. There is a discussion of the book, as well as light refreshments at each meeting. For more information, please call 704-216-8229.
Displays: Headquarters, Rowan Doll Society; South, South Rowan High School art class; East, 4-H by Ann Furr.
Literacy: Call the Rowan County Literacy Council at 704-216-8266 for more information on teaching or receiving literacy tutoring for English speakers or for those for whom English is a second language.