Living literature isn’t just for reading – it’s also great for teaching writing styles! Serious writing lessons don’t start in our homeschool until middle and high school, but believe it or not, I use picture books quite often to help me teach.
Since picture books can be read in one sitting, they are perfect examples of really good writing from master writers. Of course, you have to make sure you’re reading books actually written by master writers (not twaddle.) And that’s what I’ve set out to share with you in this series – books that are perfect for teaching various writing styles!
The writing focus of this article is biographies. Wait, did I hear a “Yuck!”?? If you’re children are reading this, I’m pretty sure I heard several of them! Historically, biographies are not very fun to read – and definitely not fun to write.
The word “boring” comes to mind when I think about reading most biographies. And, the words “research” and “bibliography” come to mind when I think about writing biographies. None of those words strike the fancy of most students (or their parents.)
I’m here to change all that deary talk today, though!
Candlewick Press was kind enough to provide copies of several biographies for me to use in writing this post. They have also compensated me for highlighting their books in my lessons.
There are some really good living biography picture books out there these days. Rather than simply listing bland facts, these stories weave biographical information into real story lines. They are stories that will grab the attention of all ages! While you can find living biographies in more than one place, you can be sure the biographies from Candlewick Press will be solid, full of life and never boring!
Teach Biography Writing
My 10th grade son had written several personal narratives and some biography book reports, but he had never written a full biography – until now! Before jumping right in, we took a few days to prepare by simply reading several biography picture books together – one or two per day.
- The Secret World of Walter Anderson by Hester Bass
- Delivering Justice: W.W. Law and the Fight for Civil Rights by Jim Haskins
- Jubilee! One Man’s Big, Bold and Very, Very Loud Celebration of Peace by Alicia Potter
- Growing Up Pedro: How the Martinez Brothers Made it from the Dominican Republic All the Way to the Major Leagues by Matt Tavares
- Electrical Wizard: How Nicola Tesla Lit Up the World by Elizabeth Rusch
By the fourth day, we began biography writing very slowly with a new mini-lesson each day. These five books were poured through time and time again during the mini-lessons. I owe so many thanks to these authors!
What’s a writing mini-lesson? When you choose to focus on one writing topic rather than throwing the whole shebang at your child at once. (Yeah. That’s my very own definition. You’re welcome.)
Mini-Lesson #1: Choose a Unique Character
One of the reasons I chose Candlewick Press to help me teach biography writing is that many of their picture books are written about out-of-the-ordinary people. Biographies about George Washington, Harriet Tubman and Benjamin Franklin are many. Biographies about Pedro Martinez, Nicola Tesla and W.W. Law are few.
I reminded Caleb how interesting each of the five picture books from the previous days were because every main character was new to us. We had never heard their stories – even if we had learned about their time period previously. We talked about how refreshing it was to read something new and how refreshing it would be to unveil someone new in his own writing.
Assignment #1: Choose a unique character for your biography. (He chose Les Paul. Yeah, he’s my guitar kid.)
Mini-Lesson #2: The Bibliography
A bibliography is a listing of resources used in research. In order to write a biography, you have to do research about that person. While my son doesn’t mind the research so much, he does mind keeping track of the information in the form of a bibliography. But that’s part of it and I set out to prove that before we he ever started writing. With all five of the example books piled in front of us, I challenged him to find just one without a bibliography. He couldn’t.
We spent the next few minutes taking a peek at two things:
- How the bibliography was designed in each book.
- What types of sources the authors used in their study.
Assignment #2: Begin your research of Les Paul. For each new source, take notes on a new piece of paper. Note the resource information at the top of each paper.
Mini-Lesson #3: Facts – To List Facts or Weave Them?
While Caleb was still in research mode, we took time to take a quick look through a couple of the books to see IF facts were included in the stories and HOW they were included.
Browsing through Growing Up Pedro, we kept track of how many pieces of factual information we came across and noted them quickly. I took the time to narrate a “boring” biography using only those facts. Then, I took time to narrate the same facts within the context of a story (similar to the original story.) He noticed the difference.
Browsing through Jubilee!, we again noted the facts. This time, I asked him to narrate the “boring way” and then the “story way.” Caleb is all about facts, so this was a tad difficult for him. That’s okay! We repeated the exercise with Delivering Justice the next day.
This mini-lesson was really important for two reasons:
- Jotting down the facts was good practice for choosing what’s important to note during his own research time.
- Adding oral narration gave Caleb the all-important auditory connection to his learning style.
Mini-Lesson #4: The History Behind the Person
While Caleb was still researching Les Paul (because research usually takes way more time than actual writing), we took some time to discuss how history is often woven into biographies. In many cases, it’s important for the reader to understand the time period in order to understand the person.
We again looked through Delivering Justice, but this time our eyes were on the lookout for historical cues. I had him jot down simple history notes as they were revealed in the story. We talked specifically about how the historical facts were gently presented as part of the story rather than bluntly. Because of Caleb’s tendency toward facts (like I already mentioned), I wanted to constantly reiterate and demonstrate how to incorporate facts into the story line.
Mini-Lesson #5: The Place Behind the Person
Yep, during this mini-lesson, Caleb was still in research mode. Much like the last lesson, this one sets out to demonstrate how to incorporate the setting within the story line rather than bluntly. Because the settings of Jubilee! and The Secret World of Walter Anderson are both beautiful (in very different ways) and painted in such vivid picture words, we spent two days with these books.
On the first day, I reread one of the books without showing him the pictures and asked him to draw what he heard. Hearing the descriptive language and turning it into pictures was another great auditory exercise.
On the second day, we read the second book and noted the descriptive language as it pertained to the setting. I challenged him to be prepared to paint pictures with words when he began crafting his biography.
Mini-Lesson #6: The Early Life, The Journey, The Big Accomplishment
My sweet boy tends toward unorganized writing. In order to help him organize his thoughts from the get-go, we planned right away for three main sections of the story – Les Paul’s early life, his journey toward fame and his big accomplishment(s).
Browsing quickly through Electrical Wizard and Growing Up Pedro gave him clarity about how living biographies move seamlessly from one section to the next.
Assignment #3: Begin writing your biography of Les Paul – keeping the story in three main sections.
Mini-Lesson #7: Descriptive Language
Descriptive language can be the difference between a decent story and a fabulous story. After a couple days of fast and furious writing, it was a good time to take a break to look through Electrical Wizard and Jubilee! with an eye toward descriptive language.
When we found great example sentences, I asked Caleb to retell the sentences without the descriptive language. In other words, I wanted him to give me the boring version. To turn a great sentence into a boring one is harder than you might think! This might seem counter-intuitive, but I specifically wanted him to see that it’s just as easy to develop a great sentence full of descriptive language as it is to write a boring sentence. I also wanted him to get the full impact of how deflated the sentences became as compared to the original ones.
Assignment #4: Go back through your biography so far and add descriptive language to boring parts.
Assignment #5: Complete the 1st draft. Don’t forget to add the bibliography.
Assignment #6: Reread for an organizational edit.
Assignment #7: Reread for a grammar and punctuation edit. Print and turn in to mom.
Assignment #8: Complete edits suggested by mom. Print and read aloud to family.
HE WROTE A GREAT BIOGRAPHY!
Mini-Lesson #8: Biography Style
Caleb had successfully finished his biography of Les Paul in a similar style his favorite of the Candlewick example books, Growing Up Pedro. The whole process took about three weeks – maybe a little longer. I know that seems like a really long time to write one paper, but this was the teaching paper. Because we spent so much time digging in with master authors and nitty-gritty mini-lessons, he’ll be able to whip out another biography in half the time (probably less) next time around!
Before we jetted off to the next thing, I thought it was important for him to realize that biographies come in all shapes and sizes. Besides picture books, I ordered biographies in the form of chapter books, poetry, notebooks, and snapshots of moments in time from Candlewick Press. We took a few days to go through at least one example book for each additional style of biography writing. We compared and contrasted each new style to the others and discussed pros and cons for both the reader and the writer of each model.
CHAPTER BOOK BIOGRAPHIES
The Hero Schliemann: The Hero Who Dug for Troy by Laura Amy Schlitz
A Voice of Her Own: The Story of Phyllis Wheatley, Slave Poet by Kathryn Lasky
Lincoln and His Boys by Rosemary Wells
Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement by Carole Boston Weatherford
Cleopatra: Queen of Egypt by Ian Andrew
BIOGRAPHY SNAPSHOTS OF MOMENTS IN TIME
Lady Liberty: A Biography by Doreen Rappaport
Thanks for hanging with me through this giant post! I really wanted you to see how I incorporate picture books in writing lessons from day one all the way through to the end of a writing project. It’s a process, but fully worth it when those final drafts consistently improve! I would LOVE to hear YOUR stories about using picture books to make your children better writers!
And, a HUGE thanks to Candlewick Press for publishing great biographies! If you’re on social media, keep up with them on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest or YouTube. I especially like their Pinterest page where they’ve taken the time to categorize their book titles into learning themes!
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