Children’s Lit Corner—Biographies: A view from someone else’s eyes

One New Year’s Day when I was on my mission, I remember I was at a member’s house and I had a little bit of time to look through her set of old Encyclopedia Britannicas. I don’t remember why I pulled out the E volume, but I did. I do remember I flipped to the entry about Albert Einstein and read something that has stayed with me now for more than 25 years. The exact words are lost in the haze of memory, but the idea was something like this: It is important to record our thoughts and experiences so that others, when they go back and read our words, will know that we faced and struggled to overcome challenges that are the common lot of humanity. This cryptic insight, snatched one afternoon from a random volume during a time when I did not have the ready access to books I had at every other time of my life, before and since, made a big impression on me. It certainly reinforced my own journal writing, but more than that, it made me curious about the lives of the millions and billions of other people who have lived and loved and died in this world. Maybe the thoughts and feelings of a boy growing up in pre-war Germany, or a girl in Limerick, Maine, in the 1870s, or an eccentric man who walked barefoot and wore a pan on his head, or even a young black boy who longed to learn weren’t really so different from my own experiences. I know I did read some biographies and autobiographies before my mission, but since then my appetite for that view from someone else’s eyes has been almost insatiable.

Maybe that’s one reason we read in the first place: reading gives us a way to climb into someone else’s experiences and see things about our own situations in a different light. But that’s enough with the philosophizing. Instead, I’d like to share a just four of some of the hundreds of wonderful biographies available right now for young readers. These books are found in the picture book section of a library or bookstore, and not only are they filled with fascinating facts and insights about the things that motivated the subjects of the book, but they are beautifully illustrated and appeal on many levels.

One of my favorite recent picture book biographies is by Jan Pinborough, a delightful woman I was able to work with at the Church office building many years ago! Jan’s book, illustrated by Debby Atwell, is called Miss Moore Thought Otherwise. The book is about how Anne Carroll Moore created libraries for children. Anne Moore grew up in the small town of Limerick, Maine, and visited a library that was “just a rented room in a business building next door to her father’s law office. Like many libraries of the time, it had some books for older boys, but not very many for girls or younger children.” Jan’s book tells about Annie’s brilliant but shocking ideas about libraries for children: less silence, more colors, more books! She opened wide the windows of the quiet old dusty rooms and said, “A little less stuffiness right here would surely do none of us any harm.”

Another wonderful book is On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein, by Jennifer Berne, with creative and clever pictures by Vladimir Radunsky. I didn’t find my long-remembered quote that I discovered that New Year’s Day so long ago, but I was enchanted by Albert’s creativity in wondering and learning and figuring things out. At the back of the book is this little word portrait of him: “Einstein loved jokes and clever, amusing tricks and sometimes even toys. He was in many ways as open and playful as a child, and adored his conversations with young children. People who spent time with him often commented on his booming laugh, his sparkling eyes, and his pure ability to enjoy life’s little amusements and surprises. And children seemed to love him as much as he loved them.”

Yet another beautiful and memorable book is Seed by Seed: The Legend and Legacy of John “Appleseed” Chapman. This book, written by Esme Raji Codell and illustrated by Lynne Rae Perkins, talks in detail about five of the ideas that motivated Johnny Appleseed and that we can learn from today. Those five “footsteps” are: Use what you have; Share what you have; Respect nature; Try to make peace where there is war; and You can reach your destination by taking small steps. “Seed by seed, deed by deed,” wrote Ms. Codell, “Johnny Appleseed changed the landscape of a nation. And now it’s your turn. One small deed, every day. What seed will you plant?”

The last book I have to share is Fifty Cents and a Dream: Young Booker T. Washington, by Jabari Asim and illustrated by Bryan Collier. Booker T. Washington was born a slave in 1856. During this time, slaves were not allowed to learn to read or write. To do so would mean a whipping, or worse. But Booker had a deep hunger to learn. Mr. Asim writes, “Like any boy, Booker longed to play, run, and jump beneath the blue skies and bright sun. Most of all, he longed to learn. Booker dreamed of making friends with words, setting free the secrets that lived in books.” For many people for whom school is free (or at least allowed) and readily available, the deep hunger to learn might not be something completely comprehensible. But when I read about Booker’s longing to learn, I thought about my own unrequited desire for books during the days of my mission when only a few volumes were available. And I still feel that craving now, but this time for languages. I want to learn all the languages, I tell my children, in complete sincerity.

Through these books I have found wonderful kindred spirits and inspirational models: Annie Moore and her desire to bring the beauty into the lives of children through books and libraries; Albert Einstein’s thinking and wondering and dreaming (while eating ice cream cones); Johnny Appleseed who, even in his eccentricity, would share stories and fruit and books with children and families; and then Booker T. Washington, whose hunger to learn resonates with me as I look forward to the next half of my life, learning and reading and doing all I can to communicate with those around me.

What can you find in these books and others to inspire and motivate you? I would be most happy to know!

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2 Responses to Children’s Lit Corner—Biographies: A view from someone else’s eyes

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    During the first half of my life, books I think were largely about finding patterns to inspire me and that I could emulate. Now that I’m into my second half, books are about exploring new territories and learning new things. I find myself more drawn to nonfiction, or to fiction about lives different from my own. Stories used to challenge me to be the best I could be; now, they help me appreciate others who are different from myself. (Who knows what books will bring in the third half of my life?)

  2. Becca Hyde says:

    Thank you, Kathryn, for your graceful words and expressions, especially about why we read and why we learn much when we read about other human lives. You recently left a book on my desk–”Etched in Clay” by Andrea Cheng. It is a true tale of Dave, enslaved and being taught to make pottery in Edgefield, South Carolina. About 170 of his pieces have survived. I am completely fascinated at his courage to learn to read and write and then to sign his pottery and carve sayings and poetry that spoke of his life as a slave. Here are two inscriptions:

    Great & Noble Jar
    hold Sheep goat or bear
    May 13, 1859

    Dave belongs to Mr. Miles/
    wher the oven bakes& the pot biles///
    July 13, 1840

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