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Biographies for children

July 12, 2015

Okay, so this is an extremely old article, but the points remain provocative:

In the first volume of the journal Children’s Literature, Marilyn Jurich wrote: “Biographers for children not only differ in what material is selected or in what person is regarded as an appropriate subject but in how the chosen material is structurally included. If a work is categorized as biography rather than biographical fiction, it follows a plot closely parallel to the life, usually chronological, of the characters and incorporates valid situations and behavior which can be documented or deduced from sources. (Rarely, however, are these sources listed in biographies for children.) What is distinct in a biography for children is the extensive use of dramatic devices rather than narrative or expository ones – imaginary conversation to convey essentially accurate facts, behavior, or actions. Information or description is also frequently injected to supply a clearer or more vivid account of the people or times.” (p.145)

“Some persons are never mentioned, are never subjects, for children’s biographies. Those people whose sex lives were “irregular” are not considered appropriate: George Sand, Oscar Wilde, Lillie Langtry, or Casanova. Nor are “love-linked” people given twin billing: Nicholas and Alexandra, The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Those who have led violent lives outside the “establishment” are also disqualified – Dillinger, for instance. …” (p.145)

“More research needs to be done on how a “life” is viewed for the young as compared with how the same life is viewed for the adult. More studies need to be made of the treatment of evil in children’s books. Also, an investigation is desperately needed of the hiatus in the treatment of sex in all children’s books, including biographies.” (p.149)

“All in all, I see two major needs. The first is to encourage the writing of biographies of great human beings who are not famous, and who may be greater for this very reason, that they did not seek or obtain renown. We all have known such people and could wish for nothing more for our children than that they be like these quiet great ones. The second need is to give the subjects of biographies for children a fuller treatment – not to talk down to the child.” (p.150)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine) Marilyn Jurich ‘What’s left out of biography for children’ Children’s Literature 1, 1972; pp.143-151

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