Picture Book Biographies:
98 Years in 32 Pages?
I of III
“Is there a right way to tell a story? Sure there is: a different one for every writer. And just as surely, this is what gives life and strength to literature.” Patricia Wrightson
The biographer writing for adults has an all but endless number of decisions to make regarding scope, accuracy of source material, and what to include and what to leave out or (as the case may be) gloss over.
Authors of picture book biographies have an even greater challenge. How to make all these decisions, and share a person’s life in only 32 pages.
The spine of all biographies is what made the subject who they were, and how that shaped what they did. For the picture book writer this means a great deal of distillation. It is also a matter of perspective and angle much like Joel Meyerowitz and his varied photographs of the St. Louis arch. Neither photograph nor biography has to include everything in order to share an honest representation of the subject.
Georgia O’Keeffe painted her giant flowers so people would “look close.” Four very different picture book biographies about O’Keeffe can help us “look close” at the options in scope and voice.
MY NAME IS GEORGIA by Jeanette Winter and THROUGH GEORGIA’S EYES by Rachel Rodriquez both begin with O’Keeffe’s birth in Wisconsin. With place and time established, both authors identify young O’Keeffe as an outsider due to her love of solitude, colors, shapes, and drawing. It is here that Jen Bryant begins her biography, GEORGIA’S BONES. Still, each author is different in voice.
THROUGH GEORGIA’S EYES
“Georgia roams the prairie. The trees and land keep her company. Pencil and sketch pad comfort her. She discovers she likes to be alone…At twelve, she takes painting lessons…But in 1899 only boys become artists. A girl wishing to be one is scandalous.”
MY NAME IS GEORGIA
“When I was twelve years old,
I knew what I wanted—
to be an artist.
I’ve always known what I wanted…
When I was small
I played alone for hours and hours and hours.
I was satisfied to be all by myself.”
“As a child, shapes often drifted
in and out of Georgia’s mind.
Curved and straight, round or square,
She studied them, and let them disappear.
In the woods around her father’s Wisconsin farm,
she collected shapes: flowers, leaves,
sticks and stones…
‘Such common objects,’ said her brother.
‘Why do you bother?’ asked her sister.
‘Because they please me,’ Georgia replied.”
One story, three voices and styles: third person present tense, first person past tense, third person past tense. In only two or three double spreads each author has established the aspects of O’Keefe’s personality that shaped who she was, what she did, and who she became.
Next: Finding the primary chords in a life stretching 98 years.
GEORGIA RISES: A DAY IN THE LIFE OF GEORGIA O’KEEFFE by Kathryn Lasky. Illus. by Ora Eitan. Farrar, 2009.
GEORGIA’S BONES by Jen Bryant. Illus. by Bethanne Andersen. Eerdmans, 2005.
MY NAME IS GEORGIA by Jeannette Winter. Harcourt, 1998.
THROUGH GEORGIA’S EYES by Rachel Rodriguez. Illus. by Julie Paschkis. Holt, 2006.
“When Cultures Meet” by Patricia Wrightson in THROUGH FOLKLORE TO LITERATAURE edited by Maurice Saxby. IBBY Australia Publications, 1979.