Choosing Biographies: Practical Considerations

Before we look at some practical considerations for choosing biographies, have you already answered the most important question before choosing biographies? That might seem like an unnecessary question. After all, a biography is a biography is a biography, right?

Well, yes and no.

The current explosion of biographies and nonfiction resources for children and teens is worth celebrating. But with any explosion of resources comes more opportunities to choose. Sometimes, choice itself is paralyzing: there are 6 biographies of Harriet Tubman in the juvenile section at your local library. Which one should you check out? Does it even matter?

YES. And the reason you want to read a biography about Harriet Tubman will dictate many of the answers.

The practical considerations for choosing biographies are interconnected, but your answer to the “why” question will help you know where to prioritize and when to settle for “suitable.” Let’s dive in!

Please note: where possible, links below direct you to resources here at Redeemed Reader. However, there are some well recognized biographies we have not reviewed. Those links will take you to amazon. We are members of the Amazon LLC affiliate program, and anything you buy through those links will earn us a small commission.

Choosing Biographies: Practical Considerations

Choosing Biographies: Practical Considerations

Practical Consideration #1: Is It a Good Biography?

Of course you want to read the best, right? Let’s first make sure the biography is a good one. Remember, “good, better, best.” It may not be possible to find the “best” biography on a given subject, but it’s worth making sure you’re still reading a “good” biography. Janie’s excellent analysis of George Washington biographies goes into more detail on each of these, but here’s a solid short list of what makes a good biography:

  • It takes its subject seriously.
  • It accepts its subject on its own terms (historically speaking).
  • It does not get bogged down by unnecessary details.
  • It is well documented.
  • It does not have an agenda.
  • It presents a well-rounded picture of the subject: virtues and faults.
  • It takes a moral position on the subject’s actions.

Practical Consideration #2: Biography Format

A biography is no longer limited to a novel-length book of text with a token photograph (or painting) of the subject on the frontispiece. There are picture book biographies, biography anthologies, graphic novel biographies, chapter book biographies, photo-biographies, …. Which one is the best? It depends on that little “why” question you’ve already answered. It also depends on the reading level of your students/children and whether you will be reading the biography aloud (or listening to it!). Consider the following scenarios:

  • A family just visited a Civil War battlefield on vacation and they want to find out more about the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln. All of their children are young. The D’Aulaire’s biography of Lincoln is a great choice because it focuses on Lincoln’s childhood–of great interest to a child!
  • A teacher wants to provide a bit of background on the painter his class is studying. A picture book biography is a perfect choice for an introductory look.
  • Students are studying the nineteenth century and reading select biographies of important people from that time period. A photo-biography of Abraham Lincoln or Alexander Graham Bell will not only provide information about the man in question but will expand students’ understanding of the time period in general. Alternatively, an exciting autobiography of Buffalo Bill might be just the thing for enriching an understanding of this time period in the Wild West.
  • A homeschool mom wants to provide more coverage of people of color than the history spine her curriculum recommends. A biography anthology would be a great choice to read alongside the history spine.
  • A high school educator wants to challenge her students to really grapple with a person’s place in history and the challenges he or she faced. A graphic novel that helps fill in details about that surrounding history would be a good fit here.
  • A middle school Sunday school class has taken on a challenge: everyone will read a biography about a famous Christian and share with the class. A well-respected series might offer added insurance that everyone will find a biography on the right reading level that can be read on top of regular homework loads.
  • Parents and their adult teens have a family book club going. Their goal is to read meaty, best-selling books in order to engage with culture and foster discussion. Grappling with a biography by Eric Metaxas or David McCullough or Candice Millard would be a good fit.
  • {Insert your situation here! Remember: the “traditional” option might not be the best fit for you. Sometimes, a particular edition by a particular author is the right fit; other times, exposure to a general time period allows more flexibility.}

Practical Consideration #3: Cost and Availability

What do you have in your hand? (Or, in your local library or at a friend’s house or in your parents’ home library or in your church’s library or….)

Before rushing to buy a particular edition, be sure you need that particular edition and/or a biography about that particular person. Is there another option that’s more readily available? Aside from the Bible itself, there is no required reading (no specific book) that all Christians *must* read in order to love God and their neighbors. So, relax. Check what your library has already in stock. Request that they buy a particular book for you that will then bless someone else when you’re through with it. Go in together with some friends to buy a small collection of great biographies. Hunt down a used copy. Or, read a different sort of biography.

Consider the following scenarios:

  • You want to read that *amazing* biography of Bonhoeffer that John Hendrix did, but your library has Metaxas’ student version of his excellent Bonhoeffer biography. Money is tight. What do you do? Go with the library checkout!
  • You were hoping for one of those fantastic photobiobraphies we linked above, but your library doesn’t have any. Google some images of Lincoln or Bell (or the subject you have in mind), and read a more traditional biography.
  • Your middle school classroom library needs more biographies, and you’d like to provide a good variety of reading levels and subjects. Mix and match as you see fit, including lots of formats–consider picture books for older students, like The Wall by Peter Sis, some lighter fare such as the biographies by Sid Fleischman, an illustrated biography about Maria Merian, … the sky’s the limit! You have a great opportunity to showcase the variety available.

What are some of YOUR favorite biographies for children and/or teens? Does your local library have a good selection? Let us know in the comments!

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Betsy is the Managing Editor at Redeemed Reader. When she reads ahead for you, she uses sticky notes instead of book darts and willfully dog ears pages even in library books. Betsy is a fan of George MacDonald, robust book discussions, and the Oxford comma. She lives with her husband and their three children in the beautiful Northwest.

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