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Children's Literature @ NYPL

Fabulous Fictionalized Biographies: Trend or Genre?


Children's literary trends extend far beyond the sparkly vampires and dystopian futures that gain so much fame and notoriety.  Most of them are subtle.  Sneaky.  There was one year, for example, when no less than three entirely different chapter books all involved sentient cheese in some way.  This is true.  Another year four independent butt-related picture books (Always Lots of Heinies at the Zoo, The Tushy Book, Chicken Butt, and Chicken Cheeks) all came out at about the same time.  There is no predicting what will cause such trends to appear.  This year we're seeing two independent and interesting picture book biographies of Jane Goodall come out while at the same time there are two different fictional picture books about families that adopt turkeys and then haven't the heart to eat them later.
Once a trend establishes itself as more than just a quirk or a passing fad it becomes a genre.  Genres are easy to identify and they make for good school assignments.  Most are well-known but recently I identified one that hasn't been much remarked upon, for all that it exists: Works of chapter book fiction based on the true lives of real people.
A step removed from biography, fictionalized biographies for children come out in spurts and starts.  They often acquire quite a bit of attention when they are published, but because they are so sporatic they have never been fully noticed.  Yet if you'd like to get your fiction-addicted kids interested in famous figures, I can think of no better way to fill them in on the facts than to choose one of these fabulous fictionalized bios:
The Dreamer by Pam Munoz Ryan, illustrated by Peter Sis
Subject: Pablo Neruda as a boy
Plot: Follows the dreamy boy who would one day become a poet as he struggles against his father's harsh family rule.  Evocative, with gorgeous illustrations by award-winning Peter Sis.
Subject: Sally Lincoln, sister of the future President
Plot: One of the rare titles to look at the sibling of a person destined for fame.  Sally's story examines Lincoln's humble beginnings and strife, including the time the family was kicked off of their Kentucky land.
Subject: Helen Keller
Plot: Annie Sullivan travels to the Keller family's home to attempt to help blind/deaf Helen, a spoiled but needy child.  This one makes for an ideal companion to any viewing of The Miracle Worker.
Zora and Me by Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon
Subject: Zora Neale Hurston
Plot: Zora just can't help but tell tall tales, so when she and her best friend find a dead body, you can bet she'll be the one to try and solve the mystery.  A great book that introduces kids to a too little lauded historical figure.


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