Friday, January 25, 2013

First Biographies

Ella was recently working on a composition and asked me how to spell "history."
I replied, "write Hi-story!"

She looked up from her serious, seven-page undertaking and a big smile spread across her face as she thought it out. "Hi story!" she laughed and turned back to finishing her report.

History really is like saying hello to a small slice of time. It's not unlike a first meeting with a friend of friend. You go to the prearranged location at the appointed time, you say hi in your friendliest voice and you give it a whirl. You probably know a little bit about the person from your mutual friend but you don't know the details. You try to enjoy yourself, you ask questions, make connections and then reflect on the outing in the car ride home. Learning to read about history is similar.

Ella's teacher recently suggested that we try out biographies. We've been fiction-a-holics for the past year and half. But as Ella's teacher pointed out, fiction -- especially fiction for young children -- is quite linear. The story moves forward usually in a fairly formulaic way: people and problems are introduced, solutions are tried and then voila, resolution.  Biographies, while they often walk chronologically through a person's life, are more unpredictable because the time in which they lived is often completely unknown to us in its entirety or the particulars. You don't really know what you are going to find out (especially if the person you are reading about is from another time period than the one you are living in) just that you will be dropped off at some point in the past to learn about a single individual.

I went to Barnes & Noble to scout around for some books that would launch us on a biography adventure. I wanted to find books that wouldn't make Ella want to run for the hills and bury herself under a 100  fairy books. I wanted this reading adventure to be a pleasant stroll not a hostile slog.

In the biography area of the kids section I came across a series called "Who Was." The books in the series contain introductory biographies to famous Americans -- old (Christopher Columbus, Mozart, Ben Franklin) and not so old (J.K Rowling, Steve Jobs, Ronald Reagan). They definitely play up the fun part, in fact they reminded me a bit of the "You would not want to be....[An American Colonist, At the Boston Tea Party, Be a Civil War Soldier]" series I read with my kids when they were younger. The "Who Was" books highlight facts that are likely to have  more appeal to the under-10 crowd and use kid-friendly tone to make the stranger and dated parts of history more palatable (Lincoln once walked 20 miles to borrow a book??? He didn't download it on his pink decal covered  Kindle???).

Since my husband  and I are big fans of children learning about early American history I selected,  "Who Was Abraham Lincoln" and "Who was Paul Revere." We ended up reading the Lincoln biography around the Martin Luther King holiday which made learning about the Emancipation Proclamation seem timely. I also picked "Who Was Queen Elizabeth" because the cover picture shows her  wearing a crown and  jewels in her hair, something Ella would gravitate towards.

To engage a seven year old in the life story of some who lived in 1588 or 1865, a little fun is helpful. The back of the Paul Revere book highlights that the brave colonialist made fake teeth from hippo tusks and had 16 kids (really??? -- this was my reaction). Lincoln was a practical joker and only went to school for one year (he went to a "blab" school, a school where students say their lessons outloud). The pages of each book are filled with small sketches (nearly every page has at least one picture) that really help a young reader breeze through 100 pages of history more easily

The books don't shy away from the "real" (and sometimes ugly) parts history. Elizabeth's father, King Henry, "likes to hunt, to eat and drink, and to be in the company of beautiful women," and "was not at all happy over her birth." Her brother died young and her sister, "Bloody Mary," sent her to live in a cold, dark tower. Elizabeth had her traitorous cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, beheaded.

When I showed them to Ella she looked at the covers and started cracking up. "These are famous people, Mom????? they look like bobbleheads!" (howling laughter follows.) she was referring to the fact that the cover of each book contains a caricature like portrait of the famous person with a rather enlarged head. At least she was laughing and not crying over the prospect of spending an hour with a people who have been dead for more than a hundred years.


While the books are overflowing with facts, the sentences are short and the vocabulary is accessible for a second grader.  When I asked Ella what she learned about Elizabeth from the book she rattled of these facts: she spoke multiple languages, she had small pox but didn't die, her sister made her a prisoner in a tower and wanted everyone to be Catholic, and she had a lot of homes. She thought it was strange that people helped bath Elizabeth when she was grown up (this from a girl who shouts "I need PRIVACY" to her brothers)!

If she only takes away 10% of the facts of Elizabeth's or Lincoln's life, there is success in that. Hopefully she won't focus (too much) on the fact that Elizabeth had around 100 dresses and servants waiting on her hand and foot but she will remember that all men and women are created equal and why President Lincoln freed the slaves.

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