Panel II Handout: Exploring Picture Book Biography

From Creative Process to Curriculum Connections: Children’s Books in the Classroom
Exploring Picture Book Biography

Teaching Invitations: The Craft of Picture Book Biographies

Biographers’ Choices: Which Story to Tell? When writing biography for a child audience, authors make decisions about how to frame the subject’s life; they make choices about which available information to include and which to exclude. Gather together additional biographical information about the subject of a picture book biography. Your local librarian will be willing to help you locate additional biographies for a child audience, including series titles. Read across the collection of biographies about a single subject, noting commonalities and discrepancies in the way particular events are relayed. Discuss how and why biographers make decisions about how to tell a life story.

Biographers’ Choices:  Life Story. Biographers must also make choices about which events to highlight in a subject’s life. Some biographies highlight a particular event in a character’s life, while contextualizing the event within a life trajectory (for example, Rosa by Nikki Giovanni, a picture book biography of Rosa Parks). Other biographies focus on the childhood of a famous figure, foretelling their accomplishments with childhood interests (for example Me.. Jane by Patrick McDonell, a picture book biography of Jane Goodall). Other titles place more even emphasis across the lifespan of the subject. Assign small groups of students several picture book biographies and ask them to examine the structure and content of the book in order to describe how the author narrates the subject’s story. This close look will prepare students to make decisions when composing about how to structure a biography.

Characterization: Details that reveal character. As biographers relay the story of their subjects’ lives to their readers, they must work to convey their personalities, traits, and idiosyncracies. We call this ‘characterization’ or ‘character development.’ Often, authors incorporate details and descriptions of characters’ actions or behaviors that reveal character. For example in Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors?, Stone lets the reader know that Elizabeth Blackwell liked to challenge herself, exploring her limit, revealing this characteristic by describing her as “a girl who tried sleeping on the hard floor with no covers, just to toughen herself up.” Biographer can also reveal character through dialogue (using quotes from the subject), by describing the reaction that others’ have to the subject, and through illustration. Work with your students to review a collection of biographies, mining them for specific examples of character development. Make a two column chart, recording quotes from biographies on the left side and a description of how this quote reveals character on the right side. This exercise will prepare students to write more sophisticated biographies.

The Author’s Note: Back Matter. Gather a collection of picture book biographies and conduct a focused study of the back matter, in particular, the Author’s Note. What kinds of information do authors include in an Author’s Note? How does this information enhance or clarify a reader’s understanding of the text of the book? Use a variety of Author’s Notes as mentor texts for students’ own writing.

Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell
Written by Tanya Lee Stone and Illustrated by Marjorie Priceman
Published in 2013 by Henry Holt
ISBN: 9-780805-090482

Elizabeth Blackwell: 1821 – 1910

Teaching Ideas / Invitations for Your Classroom:

Pioneering Women. Gather a collection of picture book biographies that feature women who were pioneers in their field. Divide students into small groups and ask students to read the books and make notes about the subjects of their books. Ask students to prepare a brief summary to share with classmates. After each group shares their summary in a whole group session, ask your students to brainstorm categories to construct a comparison chart featuring the women’s lives and accomplishments. Return to small group work with and ask groups to complete the information to construct the chart. When the chart is assembled, hold another whole group discussion, noting any patterns across the categories. The Classroom Bookshelf blog features several titles ideally suited to this activity, including Me…Jane and  The Watcher (Jane Goodall), Night Flight (Amelia Earhart), Annie and Helen and Helen’s Big World (Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan), Life in the Ocean (Sylvia Earle), Miss Moore Thought Otherwise (Anne Carroll Moore) and Rachel Carson and Her Book That Changed the World.

Persistence. Despite many obstacles, Elizabeth Blackwell persisted in her goal to become a doctor. Ask students to recall the opposition that Blackwell faced and her efforts to keep moving toward her goal. Ask student to think about and then they write about a time in their lives when persistence was needed. Students could illustrate their stories, which could then be bound into a class book to share with others.

Focused Comparison: Tanya Lee Stone as Biographer. Tanya Lee Stone has also written a picture book biography featuring suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, titled Elizabeth Leads the Way: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Right To Vote (Holt, 2008). Read each title to first compare the life stories of these women. Next, reread the stories with a focus on writing style.  What can you learn about writing biography from studying Tanya Lee Stone’s writing choices? In each book, what events in the subject’s lives receive most emphasis? How does Stone use details to characterize her subjects? How are quotations used and documented? What kinds of information are provided in an author’s note? For a broader study of biography, move into a comparison on Stone’s writing style with that of other picture book biographers or extend your author study to include Tanya Lee Stone's other biographies (listed on her website). 

Women’s Rights Movement. This book has a place in a more comprehensive study of women’s rights and efforts to open doors previously closed to women. Gather texts that support an understanding of the timeline and advocacy involved in the Women’s Rights Movement. Suggested include Tanya Lee Stone’s Elizabeth Leads the Way: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Right To Vote (Holt, 2008), Shana Corey’s You Forgot Your Skirt, Amelia Bloomer (Scholastic, 2000), and Jean Fritz’s You Want Women to Vote, Lizzie Stanton? (Putnam, 1995). These, and other books, can be contextualized with the timeline found on the website of the National Women’s History Museum (Smithsonian). You and your students may be inspired to explore aspects of women’s history more deeply, developing inquiry questions to pursue through books, primary source documents, and perhaps through first hand research (for example, interviews).

Text Set Exploration. Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? could be read as part of a text set – a grouping of topically or thematically related resources representing a variety genres. Work with your school or public librarian to gather a text set that includes Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors?. Two text set options are: (1) A collection of biographies about famous physicians; (2) texts that tell stories of women in the field of medicine; or (3) texts that describe the experiences of women entering all male schools.

Online Resources

Macmillan Group Book Page

Tanya Lee Stone

NIH: Changing the Face of American Medicine: Elizabeth Blackwell

National Women’s History Museum: Elizabeth Blackwell

National Library of Medicine

Times Topics, Elizabeth Blackwell, The New York Times

The Elizabeth Blackwell Society, New York City

Gale/Cengage: Elizabeth Blackwell

Hobart-William Smith/Geneva Medical College

The Blackwell Sisters, Library of Congress

Elizabeth Blackwell, Gilder Lehrman Institute

"Women in Medicine: How Female Doctors Have Changed the Face of Medicine," Yale Journal of Medicine and Law, May 2012



Corey, S. (2000). You forgot your skirt, Amelia Bloomer: a very improper story. Ill. by C. McLaren. New York: Scholastic.

Fritz, J. (1995). You want women to Vote, Lizzie Stanton? Ill. by D. DiSalvo-Ryan. New York: Putnam.

Gorrell, G.K. (2000). Heart and soul: The story of Florence Nightingale. Toronto: Tundra Books (Grades 5-8).

Goldsmith, B.Z. (2010). Dr. Mary Edwards Walker : Civil War surgeon & medal of honor recipient. Adina, MN: ABDO Pub.

Stone, T.L. (2008). Elizabeth leads the way: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the right to vote. Ill by R. Gibbon. New York: Henry Holt.

Monsieur Marceau: Actor without Words
Written by Leda Schubert and Illustrated by Gerard Dubois
Published in 2012 by Roaring Brook Press
ISBN: 978-1-59643-592-2

Monsieur Marceau  1923 – 2007

Teaching Ideas / Invitations for Your Classroom:

Comparing Picture Book Biographies of Marceau. Pair a reading of Monsieur Marceau with Marcel Marceau: Master of Mine by Gloria Spielman (Kar-Ben, 2011). Compare Schubert’s and Spielman’s narrations of Marceau’s life story. Which events and aspects of his life are highlighted by each author? How does the author convey a sense of Marceau’s character? What role do the illustrations in each book play in conveying Marceau’s character and story? What sources were used by the authors?

Watching Marceau. A search of YouTube brings up dozens of video clips of Marceau performing. Preview and choose several clips that are appropriate for your students. Then, do the same with clips of Charlie Chaplin. Discuss the influence that Chaplin had on Marceau and see if you can find evidence of this influence in Marceau’s performances. Extend this discussion by introducing the concept of a mentor. Ask students to identify other mentor / mentee partnerships that they are aware of. Then ask students to write about a mentor in their own lives.

Miming. The back matter of Monsieur Marceau: Actor Without Words includes an invitation from Circus Smirkus founder Rob Mermin to the reader to try out the practice of mime. Develop several other similar scenarios that you feel your students could mime and assign small groups the task of performing the mime for fellow group members and receiving feedback on their expressiveness. As an extension, students could write skits as a challenge for fellow groups to perform. Work with students to develop a rubric to assess the effectiveness and aesthetics of the skits.

Text Set Exploration. Monsieur Marceau could be read as part of a text set – a grouping of topically or thematically related resources representing a variety genres. Work with your school or public librarian to gather a text set that includes Monsieur Marceau. Three text set options are: (1) A collection of biographies about entertainers; (2) Texts that tell the life story of Holocaust survivors / resistors and describe the impact these experiences had on their life trajectory; or (3) Texts, including videos, and articles about Marcel Marceau.

Online Resources

Search YouTube videos for “Marcel Marceau” and “Charlie Chaplin”

“Silence Falls on Marcel Marceau, Master of the Mime”

The World of Mime Theater

The Wallenberg Medal and Lecture: Marcel Marceau

Times Topics: Articles About Marcel Marceau

Marcel Marceau Photo Essay: Time Magazine

The Guardian: Marcel Marceau

Circus Smirkus


Avi. Silent movie. Ill. by C.B. Mordan. New York: Atheneum.

Lust, A. (2003). From the Greek mines to Marcel Marceau and beyond. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press. (adult title)

Marceau, M. (1976). The story of Bip. New York: Harper & Row.

Spielman, G. (2011). Marcel Marceau: Master of mime. Ill. by M. Gauthier. Minneapolis, MN: Kar-Ben.

Colorful Dreamer: The Story of Artist Henri Matisse
Written by Marjorie Blain Parker and Illustrated by Holly Berry
Published in 2012 by Dial Books
ISBN 978-0-8037-3758-7

Henri Matisse 1869 – 1954

Teaching Ideas / Invitations for Your Classroom:

Understanding Matisse’s Style. Provide small groups of students with a collection of Matisse’s paintings and collages. Ask students to study the images and to put them into different groups, categorizing them by different traits (color, shapes, content, etc.). Challenge the groups to think of as many possible ways to group them as possible within small groups. Convene as a whole group to share and discuss different ways of categorizing the images. Then, help students to place the images on a large timeline posted on a classroom wall. Discuss changes in Matisse’s style over time. Return to Colorful Dreamer for a close examination of Holly Berry’s representations of Matisse’s work and stylistic changes over time.

Matisse as Muse. Use a document camera or LCD projector to display large images of Matisse’s paintings and collages from different time periods in his life. Invite your students to draw inspiration from Matisse’s art, choosing to create either a written or visual response. Collaborate with your art teacher to provide students with materials to experiment with Matisse’s style. Alternatively (or conjointly) use Heart to Heart: New Poems Inspired by Twentieth Century American Art edited by Jan Greenberg (Abrams, 2001) as a mentor text for student composed poems in response to Matisse’s paintings.

Comparing Picture Book Biographies of Matisse. Read Colorful Dreamer along with two other picture book biographies of Henri Matisse: A Bird or Two: A Story About Henri Matisse by Bijou Le Tord (Eerdmans, 1999) and Henri Matisse: Drawing with Scissors by Jane O’Connor (Grosset & Dunlap, 2002). Compare the information found in the texts (including author’s notes). You may want to construct a timeline of Matisse’s life using key events drawn from the books, coloring coding the text to identify the source book. Next, discuss the illustrations in each text. What techniques have the illustrators used to represent the art of Matisse, his life story, and themes emphasized in each book? As an extension of this activity, you might have students identify further questions that they have about Matisse and his art or you might begin a broader study of artists and their representation in picture book biographies. The Classroom Bookshelf blog features several titles ideally suited to this activity: Diego Rivera: His World and Ours, Georgia in Hawaii: When Georgia O’Keeffe Painted What She Pleased, and Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave.

Fauvism and Expressionism. Matisse’s artistic style has been described as Fauvism, Post-Impressionism, and Expressionism. Invite your students to learn more about these artistic styles and their place in history by exploring some of the online resources below and Bob Raczka’s book, Name that Style : All About Isms in Art (Millbrook, 2009).

Online Resources

Holly Berry’s Website

Marjorie Blain Parker

Times Topics, Henri Matisse, The New York Times 

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 

Museum of Modern Art, New York

Henri Matisse Tour, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Matisse Museum, Nice, France

The Tate Gallery, London

A Tale of Two Sisters and a Serious Eye for Art, NPR 

A War Time Matisse Full of Pain and Beauty, NPR 


Grenberg, J., Ed.  (2001). Heart to heart: New poems Inspired by twentieth century American art  New York: Abrams.

LeTord, B. (1999). Henri Matisse: A Bird or Two: A Story About Henri Matisse. Grand Rapids. MI: Eerdmans.

O’Connor, J. (2002). Henri Matisse: Drawing with Scissors. Ill. by J. Hartland. New York. Grossett & Dunlap.

Razcka, B. (2009). Name that style : all about isms in art. Minneapolis, MN: Millbrook Press.

Winter, J. (2012). Just behave, Pablo Picasso! Ill. by K. Hawkes. New York: Arthur A. Levine.

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