Growing Up with Biographies ~ Biographies Have Grown Up

old bios 2

Remember these? I do. I was in 3rd or 4th grade when I discovered the section of the school library that housed all the books labeled with a capital B on the spine. Biographies. Martha Washington. Dolly Madison. Mark Twain. Clara Barton. These are a few I remember reading from the shelves of that wonderful basement library that doubled as the music room.

When my young son, a dyed-in-the-wool farmer even at age ten, seemed to lose interest in reading anything not part of a class assignment, I found a biography of John Deere. Suddenly, my little reader was back!

A few years ago, I submitted a picture book biography to a publisher who contacted me with the best kind of rejection. “This isn’t right for our list, but…”  The “but” was a great one. They were very interested in launching a new series of biographies for middle-grade readers, and since I had previously published books for middle-graders, would I be interested in writing the first book in the series? Now that’s a rejection I could handle!

This middle-grade series was a new venture for the publisher, and the editors and designers were more than willing to lend an ear to my suggestions about what a middle-grade bio should look like. Immediately, I went back to that row of “B” books in my elementary library. Yes, they had grabbed my attention, but not every elementary reader was as enamored as I was. I took a more critical look at the biographies of my youth. They were text-heavy and sparsely-illustrated, usually with some pen and ink line drawings smattered here and there.

And then, I thought about the most recent biography I’d purchased for my youngest daughter. It was Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart by Candace Fleming.

amelia lost

Filled with photographs, text boxes, diary entries, and varied fonts, this is how an engaging middle-grade biography should look, feel, and read. Luckily, others agree. Today’s biographies are a far cry from the those bios of old (beloved though they may have been!)

Below are some recently-released biographies for the middle-grade crowd.  Stick with me to the end. There’s a GIVEAWAY hiding there!


Bayard Rustin: The Invisible Activist by Jacqueline Houtman, Walter Naegle, and Michael G. Long – Bayard Rustin was a civil rights leader who believed in nonviolent action as means of achieving social reform. The organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, Bayard Rustin’s story will inspire young readers to stand up in the face of injustice.

most dangerous

Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin was recently named a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2015.  Sheinkin’s confidence his middle-grade audience is evident as he tackles the political life of government whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg during a tumultuous time in recent history.


Missing Millie Benson: The Secret Case of the Nancy Drew Ghostwriter and Journalist  by Julie K. Rubini 

Hot off the presses is this biography of Mildred Wirt Benson, the original ghostwriter of the Nancy Drew series. Rubini takes readers on a journey through Millie Benson’s life as a journalist and as the very uncelebrated author of  many books in history’s most celebrated juvenile series. Why did it take years to discover the identity of the writer we’ve always known as “Carolyn Keene?” Follow the clues to solve the mystery of Millie Benson.

Kammie Cover

Kammie on First: Baseball’s Dottie Kamenshek by Michelle Houts

Here is the initial installment in the new Biographies for Young Readers series I mentioned earlier. Dorothy Kamenshek was a teenager from Cincinnati, Ohio when a man named Philip Wrigley sent scouts to find women who could play baseball as well as the men on his Chicago Cubs (men who were rapidly leaving the ball field for the battlefield at the start of World War II.)  Made famous by the movie A League of Their Own, Kammie and her Rockford Peaches inspire girls to “throw like a girl” and be proud of it.

And now, since you stuck with me…


Author Julie Rubini has generously provided The Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors a signed paperback copy of Missing Millie Benson: The Secret Case of the Nancy Drew Ghostwriter and Journalist. To enter, please comment below. Maybe you’d like to add the title and author of a noteworthy biography for middle-grade readers. Maybe you’d rather reminisce and tell us about your favorite biography.

Just leave a comment below by midnight Eastern Time on Tuesday, November 10, 2015. 

The lucky winner will be announced on Thursday, November 12, 2015!

Michelle Houts is the author of four books for middle-grade readers. She’s still a fan of biographies and good old-fashioned letter-writing. She created The 52-Letter Challenge for those who are up to writing a letter a week for an entire year.   Find Michelle at On Twitter and Instagram @mhoutswrites and on Facebook as Michelle Houts.

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Michelle Houts
Michelle Houts writes middle-grade, chapter books, and picture books from a restored one-room schoolhouse near her home. She loves reading, mail, hiking, and birds. Michelle visits schools and libraries to share writing excitement with future authors. To find out more and to learn about Michelle's 52Letters Challenge, visit
  1. I’ll also recommend Steve Sheinkin’s “Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—The World’s Most Dangerous Weapon”. Fun read, driven by dialog. Laura

  2. Absolutely love seeing these new biographies! Steve Sheinkin is quickly becoming one of my favorite nonfiction authors and his biography looks amazing!

  3. This is so true about bios…they were usually dry, few illustrations, and boring. But these new publications sound interesting, and Millie is someone I would like to get to know. The one bio that stands out in my early reading years was about George Washington Carver…the peanut man. Growing up in the 50’s, this man overcame diversity big time, and it made an impact on me to read about his strength and determination. I think I may wander over to the bio section in our library – and look again.

    • Hi Dee! I’m happy to tell you that you’ve WON the giveaway copy of MISSING MILLIE BENSON! Please email me so we can connect you with Julie Rubini, the book’s author who graciously donated the book. My email is michelle (at) michelle houts (dot) com CONGRATS, DEE!

  4. They look great!

  5. I would love to share it with my 5 th grade students!

  6. Missing Millie Benson sounds like a great way to get students interested in biographies!

  7. I remember having to read a biography in late elementary school (6th grade). The selections were all, well, boring. (I believe I setting on a bio of Elizabeth I, because she was a queen, not a king or male explorer, or some other man.) I think the genre has been picking up ever since “Lincoln: A Photobiography” took the Newbery.

    The list offered here looks like wonderful additions to the category.

  8. Hi! I think my avid 10 year old reader would love to read that book. I love giving my kiddies books to read that are about real people, but…

    I remember my 5th grade teacher assigned us to each read a biography, and I chose a book that looked fascinating- about Maria Tallchief, a Native American ballerina! But when I went to read it, it was so dry, it was painful.

    But as I’ve grown older, my favorite books over the years have often been really well written biographies… “The Hiding Place,” “The Midwife,” by Jennifer Worth, “The God I Love,” by Joni Eareckson Tada, “God’s Smuggler,” by Brother Andrew, “Angela’s Ashes,” by Frank McCourt, and “All Creatures Great and Small,” by James Herriot. (Oh, whom are we kidding? Those last two are fiction.)

    And so I love the idea of introducing biographies that are CAPTIVATING at a younger age!
    Thanks so much for the giveaway opportunity.

  9. Bios now grab the reader’s attention. I would enjoy reading about Millie…and sharing her with my kids.

  10. love biographies

  11. I really enjoy biographies and this all sound wonderful. Thanks for the post.

  12. There was a lively, well-written series of biographies in our school library too, back in the 70s when I was a kid. I learned so much from being able to step into other people’s shoes and lives. SO important for school libraries to carry lots and lots of great bios! 🙂 Thanks for a fun article!

  13. Thanks for your suggestions. Those biographies look excellent. I’ll take a look at them for inspiration for the biography I’m working on now.

  14. I used grant money last year to buy a new set of Nancy Drew books for my middle school library. A great one that came out recently is a YA version of Unbroken.

  15. My little sister would love this books since she loves Nancy Drew. hope I win and can give it to her for Christmas!