Where have the good children's biographies gone?
''There is no market for children's biographies,'' report editors at several juvenile publishing houses - Rand McNally, Random House, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. Publishers don't buy them because children don't read them. Children don't read them because they aren't appealing. Or, so the story goes.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet, biographies are of great interest to adult readers, and it seems there's no reason why they couldn't be to young people. They can be examples of literary excellence. They can offer memorable glimpses into history and insights into breakthroughs in philosophy, history, science, and the arts. And they can provide role models often sought out by young people.
''Children would like to read biographies,'' says Linda Perkins, children's coordinator of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library (western New York). ''But it's hard to find good ones, especially of contemporary heroes.'' She goes on to explain that too many are like the recent ones of Mother Theresa, one of which had poor pictures, which detracted from the text, and another of which had dark print and grainy photos. ''Our committee of eight librarians which screens all potential accessions turned both down unanimously,'' she says.
One problem inherent in biographies of contemporaries is that fame is so often fleeting. Today's TV stars, singers, and athletes may be unknown tomorrow. An editor has to gamble that a subject's popularity will last well beyond the two years necessary from final draft to printed book.
Yet a few children's biographies have sensitivity, style, and authority. Sensitivity is evident in Jean Latham's portrayal of the brilliant explorer Captain James Cook in ''Far Voyager.'' We understand his burning need to ''. . . learn and keep learning, to feel alive.'' In Alice Walker's ''Langston Hughes, American Poet,'' we share Hughes's love of blacks, and we know that ''. . . this love, like his poems, would live forever - among the deepest laughter of their own hearts.''
Authority is obvious in Cornelia Meigs's ''Invincible Louisa.'' Meigs recreates the domineering influence of Bronson Alcott on his daughter, and the reader understands and sympathizes. The Ingri and Edgar d'Aulaire biography ''Pocahontas'' sparkles with scenes of Indian life. Customs and attitudes are beautifully pictured both in words and in the authors' illustrations.
Too many authors of biographies for young people, however, isolate their subjects from their world. Some unduly emphasize childhood years, leaving the reader with a picture of a cute and clever child who mysteriously, in the last couple of chapters, becomes an outstanding adult. Some focus on action instead of character, picturing the hero only in scenes related to fame and career. In these, it seems that the playing field, the laboratory, or the theater is the focus, not the person.
A number of biographers are insensitive to all but one crowning virtue in their subjects. This results in what Barbara Baskin and Karen Harris (''Books for Gifted Children'') call ''haloed puppets'' - Honest Abe, Plucky Helen Keller , Fearless Amelia Earhart. Virginia Wittucke, writing in Top of the News (winter 1981) says, ''Pippi Longstocking and Henry Huggins seem more real and memorable than the characters in some of these biographies.''
The style of writing in biographies for children varies. For Jean Fritz, author of ''Where was Patrick Henry on the 29th of May?'' and many others, it's an easygoing combination of anecdotes about the hero and tales of historic times. Tobi Tobias uses dialogue and anecdotes in ''Marian Anderson,'' a book that opens with the three-year-old Marian playing an imaginary piano while she sings. The lively pace carries us to the end, where the adult star makes a farewell tour of Europe and America.
For many writers of children's biographies, style means four- and five-word sentences and lots of exclamation points.
Others are merely rewrites of adult books or chronological narratives of accomplishments. They lack the unifying focus - the human element - which distinguishes the creative biography from dull reporting. And others are simply parts of series, following a prescribed format with a depressing sameness and unrelieved dryness.
Not all authorities think biographies are important to children, but many agree that well-written ones can offer both inspiration and challenge.
Biographies worth considering include: Grades 2-4: Pocahontas, by Ingri and Edgar d'Aulaire. New York: Doubleday & Co. 1949. Where was Patrick Henry on the 29th of May?, by Jean Fritz. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan Inc. 1975. Marian Anderson, by Tobi Tobias. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company. 1972. Langston Hughes, American Poet, by Alice Walker. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company. 1974. Neil Armstrong, Space Pioneer, by Paul Westman. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company. 1980. Grades 4-7: Archimedes and the Door of Science, by Jeanne Bendick. New York: Franklin Watts Inc. (Out of print.) Far Voyager, by Jean Latham. New York: Harper & Row Publishers. (Out of print.) Invincible Louisa, by Cornelia Meigs. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 1968. That Lincoln Boy, by Earl Miers. Mountain View, Calif.: The World Publishing Company. (Out of print.)