Biographies: The World through Others’ Lives

IMG_1264A few weeks ago, I met with two new teachers planning a biography unit on persevering in the face of challenges.  As they talked about the books they wanted to use, I was suddenly transported back to my own middle grade years when I haunted the school library bookshelves for the “orange books” — the Bobbs-Merrill series of biographies written for kids.

Talk about perseverance and challenges!  Molly Pitcher: Girl Patriot made me want to stand up with George Washington’s army, to brave the battlefield and bring my pitcher of lifesaving water to save fallen soldiers; to swab, load, and fire the crucial cannon that sent the British soldiers fleeing into the night.

Biographies can be powerful lenses into others’ lives, and the number of excellent biographies for middle grade readers continues to expand.  Fortunately, we now have picture book and chapter book biographies that represent notable people from widely diverse backgrounds.

As an example, I’d like to share the books that the teachers, Ashley Hankins and Jess Stuecklen, chose for their study of perseverance and resilience.

Ashley and Jess wanted their students to consider what it means to face challenges and to “understand how people hold on to their values and beliefs … and rely on or reach out to their community” when life throws challenges in their way.  They built the unit around chapter books for students to read and discuss in small groups.  They used the Who Was …? series of chapter book biographies published by Grosset & Dunlap, including Who Was Anne Frank? by Anne Abramson and Nancy Harrison.

Then they added picture books to help their students see that challenges come in many forms and that people find ways to persevere under wildly differing circumstances.  They said they intentionally chose books about people perhaps less well known than those in the series, because “we wanted students to see that all people have the ability to overcome challenges and go on to accomplish remarkable things.”

Ashley and Jess wrote the descriptions below to help students’ families understand how each book reflects the theme of their unit.

Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez by Kathleen Krull; ill. by Yuyi Morales.  This beautifully illustrated picture book chronicles the life of civil rights leader Cesar Chavez. Beginning with his life as a young boy growing up on a farm in California, the book shows how struggles in Cesar’s early life developed Cesar’s character. His perseverance eventually led him to take charge and stand up for the rights of farm workers everywhere.

Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds: The Sammy Lee Story by Paula Yoo; ill. by Dom Lee.  Olympic diver Sammy Lee was the first Asian American to win a gold medal. Before this achievement, Sammy experienced discrimination as a Korean American growing up in the 1930’s. Even though people of color could only use the pool one day a week, Sammy was able to rise above his challenges to succeed as a diver.

 Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World’s Fastest Woman by Kathleen Krull; ill. by David Diaz.  Caldecott Medal-winning artist David Diaz illustrates this true story of Wilma Rudolph, three-time Olympic gold medalist. This book documents Wilma’s childhood, in which she suffered from scarlet fever and polio–leaving her left leg paralyzed. Against all odds Wilma went on to become one of the fastest women in the world.

emmaspoemEmma’s Poem: The Voice of the Statue of Liberty by Linda Glaser; ill. by Claire Nivola. Few people know how the Statue of Liberty came to represent the United States as a country that welcomes immigrants. This picture book introduces us to the life of Emma Lazarus, the author of the famous poem “The New Colossus,” which helped turn the statue into a symbol of freedom and liberty. The poem was engraved on the entryway to the Statue of Liberty, and features the famous lines “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Thanks so much to Ashley Hankins and Jess Stuecklen for sharing their exciting biography unit!  To learn more, please visit their classrooms:  Welcome to P6!: Biography Unit (Jess) and Ms. Hankins Class (Ashley).  You’ll find background information on the unit, as well as family activities designed to connect students’ families to the great learning that is going on at school.


Katherine Schlick Noe teaches beginning and experienced teachers at Seattle University. Her debut novel, Something to Hold (Clarion, 2011) won the 2012 Washington State Scandiuzzi Children’s Book Award for middle grade/young adult and was named a 2012 Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People.  Visit her at

Katherine Schlick Noe
  1. Great information! These are exactly the bios *I* write – people who made a difference in spite of prejudice and other obstacles. And as I tell kids, a NF biographer gets to live all those wonderful lives too! Just as a sample, see my bios of Benjamin Banneker, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Biddy Mason, Susan LaFlesche Picotte, Matthew Henson, Marian Anderson. Most recent bio, NOAH WEBSTER & HIS WORDS, won the 2013 Golden Kite Award from SCBWI for best non-fiction book of 2012.
    Thanks for all you are doing for MG readers, teachers, librarians.
    Jeri Chase Ferris

  2. I loved those orange biographies too. In fact, when I was in elementary school, I decided to read all of them!