Biographies: Creating Connections

DarwinI recently attended a presentation by children’s book author, Alice McGinty.  Alice is the author of the beautifully written and informative picture book biographies Gandhi: A March to the Sea and Darwin.  (Click here to see Alice’s website and her other publications.)

Alice’s presentation was centered around using biographies to make science content accessible to kids.  She also spoke about some considerations when writing biographies.  As a writer, I found this part of her presentation particularly interesting.  Here are some of my notes:

Biographies are a sort of bridge between fiction and nonfiction.  Although nonfiction in content, biographies use story to present the facts.

Writers of biography know they must draw their reader into the story.  There are several “points of connection” a reader could make. to the story.

  1. Connection through Character
    Readers appreciate being able to identify with a character.  Writers should research the subject of their biography to find a trait, flaw, or feeling that is common to other people.  For example, an unwavering and persistent curiosity or a feeling of being different than others are both relatable characteristics.  Writers must research not only the facts, but also find the subject’s most compelling belief or motivation.  These ideas, not facts, are what will draw a reader in.
  2. Connection through Plot
    Alice spoke about the importance of cause and effect relationships in a biography.  Like a string of dominoes, one event causes the next to happen.  Without this relationship, there is simply a string of events, but no plot.  The character needs something or has motivation, which causes the next thing to happen, which causes the next.  Alice used this example: The King died.  The Queen died. Here, you have two events.  However, you could write: The King died.  The Queen died from heartbreak. Now you have a story.  The cause and effect relationship will link the life events together and keep the reader turning pages.
  3. Connection through Language
    Writers of biography use language to draw the reader in to the story.  Writers use sensory details, actions, and dialogue to slow down moments in the biography so the reader can actually experience them, too. Writers of biography take the facts found during research and weave them into scenes for the reader. Biography writers will often embed quotations in the story, too.

Alice’s presentation offered some insight into her process as a writer of biographies.  I will share this information with our 7th graders as they embark on their biography unit of study.