BIOGRAPHIES for children need not read like job r'esum'es -- long on the public accomplishments and short on the real personality. Two recent books show just how interesting and insightful biographies for children can be. In January, renowned biographer Jean Fritz received the prestigious Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for her ``lasting and substantial contribution to children's literature.'' In Make Way for Sam Houston (Putnam, 112 pp., $12.95, ages 10 and up), illustrated by Elise Primavera, it is easy to see why Fritz was so honored.
In this biography, Fritz uses her trademark -- honesty and humor -- to make Houston human and heroic. Of course, she reviews his career as a Founding Father of Texas: his stint as commander in chief of the Texas Army, his terms as president of the republic, and later state governor and senator. Then, too, she sums up his political positions: how throughout his career he promoted Texas, Indian rights, manifest destiny, Jacksonian democracy, and the sanctity of the Union.
But Fritz goes beyond a sterile public profile, making no secret of the fact that Houston was an eccentric man. For most of his life, he drank too much. (Only his third wife could keep him from his ``sprees.'') With wild rumors flying, he once stepped down as governor of Tennessee after his wife of three months left him. Twice he dropped out of civilization, taking up residence with his beloved Cherokees. He suffered bouts of depression, interspersed with fits of frenetic activity. In Mexican Texas, he converted to Roman Catholicism for convenience' sake, and he often masqueraded as historic heroes for dramatic effect. (George Washington and Caius Marius were particular favorites.)
As Fritz points out, the hero costumes were colorful but unnecessary, for Houston was really a hero in his own right. As Texas celebrates its 150th anniversary, this biography of Sam Houston makes a fine commemorative gift. As Fritz writes about this man who typifies Texas, she dispels the myth that regional history is a narrow interest.
In Georgia O'Keeffe: The `Wideness and Wonder' of Her World (Atheneum, 132 pp, $11.95, ages 9 and up), author Beverly Gherman looks back on the life of the celebrated painter who died in early March. Georgia O'Keeffe spent her long life looking for the essential in art, and here, in her first book, Gherman explores the essential in O'Keeffe. What emerges is a vivid portrait of a woman who ``broke the rules'' to get her personal vision on canvas.
Clearly Gherman is fascinated by the original and unconventional O'Keeffe, pointing out that she became a painter when women were only supposed to teach art. O'Keeffe defied aesthetic convention, painting flowers -- big and bold -- and floating cattle skulls in the skies above Southwestern landscapes. She ``lived openly'' with the yet-undivorced photographer Alfred Stieglitz before their marriage in 1924, and she kept gossips busy when, in her later years, the young Juan Hamilton became her close friend and companion.
Gherman is matter-of-fact about O'Keeffe's unorthodox personal life, and she is candid about her sharp, biting nature. But Gherman seems a bit evasive about O'Keeffe's emotional depression, brought on by the ``pain and worry caused by wars and economic depression.'' What wars? When? Why? Without getting clinical, Gherman might have been more specific and more reassuring at the same time.
O'Keeffe wanted to be known only by her work, something that Stieglitz recognized upon first seeing her charcoals in 1915. ``Finally a woman on paper,'' he said. With all due respect and reverence, Gherman introduces that woman to children in this sound and sophisticated biography.