Reading about other people is always inspiring and recently the publishing world has been full of biographies, particularly about women who have changed the world. This list is not one of women; it is just the best picture book biographies to teach writing.
My first and possibly most favourite is Cloth Lullaby by Amy Novesky and Isabelle Arsenault. This is a beautiful, lyrical text about Louise Bourgeoise, a weaver and creator of spiders! The book focuses on the relationship between Louise and her mother who provided the inspiration for much of her work and which runs through the story like a river. Woven throughout the biography are quotes from Bourgeoise and at the end of the book is a factual biography. Whilst this would be a fantastic model for children to write a biography, I can’t help thinking that it would be a great inspiration for poetry as well. Suitable for Yrs5/6.
A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin by Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet is a simple biography of Horace Pippin who drew at every opportunity. His mixed media collages make him an ideal artist for children to study. The work is colourful and much of it represents places he is familiar with, people he has met and landscapes. If you want to teach sentences – single and multi-clause then this is the biography for you. Suitable for Yrs1 and 2 but at the back is a fuller biography which is suitable for Yrs5 and 6. So, Upper KS2 could use this books as a model of biography writing and then create a version for younger children. The author and illustrator also created A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams another fantastic biography about the poet. Another book that could be used in the same way is Through the Window: Views of Marc Chagall’s Life and Art by Barb Rosenstock and Mary Grandpre.
The Bluest of Blues: Anna Atkins and the first book of photography by Fiona Robinson is a beautifully illustrated book all in blue except for a few splashes of red and one large splash of yellow. Anna was a botanist who eventually used a form of photography: the cyanotype print which is blue. The book details her relationship with her father; his desire for her to be educated, she was born in 1799, and his encouragement throughout her life.
This is an interesting book for the way in which it is written. The whole text is told in the present tense which has an interesting effect. The past tense is used in two parts, one for describing the naming system for plants and animals and the other for the author’s note at the end of the book which provides further details of Anna’s life. The book is also structured in chronological order, as you would expect, but with particular years picked out, almost like chapters. This book is suitable for Yrs3 and 4 where you could teach past and present tense, consolidate single clause sentences and use complex sentences with -ing and -ed clauses (present and past participles).
Charles Dickens: Scenes from an extraordinary life by Manning and Granstrom follows their typical layout which is very successful. Each double page spread includes a large scene from a time in his life, sometimes with speech bubbles, a comic strip style layout of information and then extra boxes. If you have signed up to lovereading4kids you can download an extract. It is free and worthwhile doing. What these different text types on each page mean is that there are different narrators including first person. This is a really engaging way of telling about someone’s life and would make an excellent model for Yrs5 and 6 to write about favourite author. One interesting thing this book does is have snippets of writing about Dickens’ books which includes quotes and a summary of the story. This is a very good introduction for children to choosing and using a quote in a piece of writing – a necessary skill they will develop as they move through secondary education.
The Little People Big Dreams series is fantastic and covers a whole range of people, any of which would be worthwhile using. The series originally started with women but moved on to include men including Muhammad Ali and Stephen Hawking. The books can be bought in sets such as Women in Science or Women in Art. These are perfect for KS1.
Frida Kahlo and her animalitos by Monica Brown and John Parra is a fascinating exploration of Kahlo and her relationship to animals, in particular her wide menagerie of pets. I love the way that the animals are linked to Kahlo, for example when talking about her eagle the book talks about her imagination flying high, like her parrot, Frida was colourful and independent like her cat. This is a fantastic device and makes for an interesting way of explaining a person. It would make a very good introduction to ways of telling why someone is like they are. What sort of person would have a labrador dog, a hedgehog or a pigeon? Fantastic and suitable for Yrs5 and 6.
I love, love, love Bon Appetit! The delicious life of Julia Child by Jessie Hartland. I have to admit that the first time I opened the book, it looked like a mess on the page, not unlike when I cook! However, a close reading sorted it out. There is method to the way in which you read each page but the spiky handwriting and the style of illustrations sometimes hide this. I love the layouts of the pages, each different to suit the content. For instance, when she first goes to Paris, the page is set out like a game of Monopoly with all the famous places to visit. The instructions for cooking a Galantine are held in small boxes for each step and there are 32 steps! Some pages work downwards, some across but what the whole book does is suggest the enthusiasm and exuberance of Child. This is a book that teaches how to weave illustration, text and meaning into one fabulous story. Suitable for Yrs5 and 6.
I have recommended this next biography to many teachers and schools. Meet the Artist! Alexander Calder by Patricia Geis. Calder is an artist who made 3d objects; sculptures, mobiles, toys as well as painting and designing jewellery. The book is interactive with speech bubbles as flaps to lift, pop-ups, chains to create profiles and a circus to create. Each section is written in clear paragraphs, often one paragraph to a page with really clear references to the art work. The speech bubbles page is a fantastic method of conveying a lot of information about Calder in a succinct manner and can be used by KS1 and KS2 children. Whilst the book is organised chronologically, many of the pages do not have dates but focus on his work and its variety as evidenced by the headings – Toys, The Calder Circus, Wire Sculptures, Mobiles and Stabiles, Found Objects and Painting. The writing contains plenty of fronted adverbials and is good for teaching sentences. This is the perfect biography for Yrs3 and 4. Babcock LDP have a teaching sequence based on this text. Other books in this series are Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh and Leonardo Da Vinci which are more suitable for Yrs5 and 6.
Women in Science; 50 fearless pioneers who changed the world by Rachel Ignotofsky is a fabulous book detailing 50 scientists, some of whom I did not know. Each scientist has a double page spread with an image and quotes and then a short 1 page biography. This book provides a fantastic model for writing factual biographies succinctly but in an interesting manner. Lovereading4kids has an extract from the book. Adverbials are used in a variety of ways in the text; to provide when things happened, where and to to provide a point of view, e.g. sadly, despite her grief. This is fantastic writing and a good model for Yrs5 and 6.
The Diamond and the Boy: The Creation of Diamonds & the Life of H. Tracy Hall by Hannah Holt and Jay Fleck is an unusual biography. It uses a dual narrative to tell the story of Tracy Hall who created human made diamonds and how a natural diamond is created. Each double page spread consists of one page about Hall and one page about diamonds and both start with the same word – waiting, pressure and heat. Suitable for Yrs3 and 4. I love it! There are some ideas for teaching in this resource from the publisher.