Introduction to picture book biography

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is a picture book biography?

Although picture book biography is a subcategory of picture books, their nature is different than other subcategories; they are NOT fictitious. A biography is based on heavy research and each line of the book should be 100\% verifiable and documented. The writer has no freedom in creating a character or an event. From this perspective, they are not stories.

Yet, biographies have a Narrative structure. In the five categories of non-fiction that Melissa Stewart introduced, biographies sit in the Narrative Non-fiction category (the other four non-fiction categories are: active, browseable, traditional, and expository literature).

When you search for picture book biographies, in bookstores or online, you will bump into books categorized as biographies that aren’t biographies. The mistaken books are either historical fiction or autobiographies. This categorization is fine as far as publishers and reseller’s concern. However, we, writers, need to differentiate them.

Historical fiction books are inspired by a historical event. So, the writer has the freedom to create characters and events, as she wishes, to shape a story\footnote{If you write about a person or an event but there aren’t many records and information available, one option is to write historical fiction, rather than a biography. To read more, please see this blog post.

Autobiographies and memoirs are books that people write about their own life (or a ghostwriter). In both cases, the writer has freedom for creation that the writer of biography doesn’t have. In a biography, if you write ” She [the main character] was disappointed”, this should be verifiable and documented.

This may seem a negligible nuance. Yet, when you are writing a biography you may notice its importance. You cannot create any event, feeling, character, dialog, etc. From the existing material, you need to tell a person’s life story! In about 1000 words!

Here are some examples of picture book autobiographies:

  • MALALA’S MAGIC PENCIL (2017) by Malala Yousafzai and Kerascoët

  • THE SEED OF COMPASSION: LESSONS FROM THE LIFE AND TEACHINGS OF HIS HOLINESS THE DALAI LAMA (2020) by His Holiness The Dalai Lama and Bao Luu

The seed of compassion

  • I AM RUBY BRIDGES” WRITTEN (2022) by Ruby Bridges and Nikkolas Smith.

I am ruby

  • ROOTS AND WINGS: HOW SHAHZIA SIKANDER BECAME AN ARTIST (2021) by Shahzia Sikander and Amy Novesky (co-author) and Hanna Barczyk

SHAHZIA SIKANDER

 


Before we start looking at the elements of a picture book biography, let’s look a the subjects of biographies

Subjects of picture book biographies

  1. A person’s life story is the most frequent subject of biographies. Yet, not the only one. 
  2.  Story of an invention
  3. Story of solving a problem

Story of an invention 

  • NACHO’S NACHOS: THE STORY BEHIND THE WORLD’S FAVORITE SNACK (2020) by Sandra Nickel and Oliver Dominguez

Nachos

  • CRAYON MAN: THE TRUE STORY OF THE INVENTION OF CRAYOLA CRAYONS (2018) by Natascha Biebow and Steven Salerno

The caryon man

  • POP!: THE INVENTION OF BUBBLE GUM (2010) by Meghan McCarthy

POP

  • MR. FERRIS AND HIS WHEEL (2014) by Kathryn Gibbs Davis and Gilbert Ford 


Story of solving a problem

  • THE GREAT STINK HOW JOSEPH BAZALGETTE SOLVED LONDON’S POOP POLLUTION PROBLEM (2021) by Colleen Paeff and Nancy Carpenter

  • LET LIBERTY RISE! HOW AMERICA’S SCHOOLCHILDREN HELPED SAVE THE STATUE OF LIBERTY (2021) by Chana Stiefel and Chuck Groenink tells the story of the financial problem of building the pedestal for the Liberty statue and how Pulitzer and his newspaper solved the problem.


Writing a biography

The initial step before starting any research and drafting is to find out whether a picture book biography about your subject is already published or not. Internet is the best option. Don’t rely on the bookstore or libraries because their resources are limited to their budgets and taste.

The picture book market is saturated with books about some people (e.g. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, …) and some topics (e.g. Women’s suffrage in the USA). The chance to sell a manuscript with the statured subjects is very low. More importantly, picture book biography aims to introduce children to characters they don’t know and there are many of these characters to write about. Thus, wasting time and energy on existing titles is pointless.

To make sure no book about your subject is under contract with a publisher, you may search on the Publisher Weekly website. Having said that, there is a tiny chance that a publisher has acquired a manuscript and not announced the deal yet. But there is no way to find this out!


The first step is to do an in-depth research—to gather and prepare ingredients to back a cake.
Now, let’s suppose the research is done and the raw material is ready. How to construct a building from the existing material? How would you decide about each piece of information? Exclude or include it? That is the question.

When you compare the picture book biographies published before and about 2015 (classic biographies) with the more recent books, you will notice a huge difference.

The classic picture book biographies have long texts—covering cradle-to-grave events—with very few illustrations. Illustrations don’t play any role in conveying information. If you remove the illustration, the text stands on its own. These books read more like a Wikipedia articles, rather than a story.

The recent picture book biographies, on the other hand, have shorter texts and more illustrations. The current standard for word count for picture books is less than 700-800 words (many picture books have less than 500 words). The standard for biographies is about 1000 words. These books read more like a story, with intertwined illustrations and text. In recent picture book biographies, infodump is considerably less than the classic biographies. Having said this, you still notice infodumps in many recent biographies. I will discuss infodump in a separate blog post. 

If the events of the person’s life are beads, you need to decide between them and sting them into a biography, like a necklace.

The cradle-to-grave chronological order, like classical biographies, is the intuitive choice, yet not necessarily the best. The best tool to assist us to the organize the beads into a story is Narrative Structure.

In the next blog post of this series, I will discuss the Narrative Structure of picture book biographies with some examples. Stay tuned! 


My picture book biography blog post series includes:

  1. Introduction to picture book biographies (this blog post)
  2. Narrative Structure link
  3. Antagonist & Tension (coming soon)
  4. Selecting timeframe link
  5. Point Of View (POV) link
  6. Infodump (coming soon)

I  write regularly blog posts about the craft of writing children’s books. PictureBookPedia is all about picture books and ChapterBookPedia is all about chapter books. My quarterly newsletter sends the list of new blog posts to your inbox. 

Posted in Picture Book Biography, PictureBookPedia.

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