Biographies for children

The Crisis
Originally uploaded by Liz Henry.

I’m reading up on Langston Hughes, his biographies and poetry. The more I read about him the more I love him.

I read all the juvenile non-fiction biographies of him today, and noticed fascinating differences over time. Early biographies from the 50s and 60s simplified his early life. Later ones complicate it more and more. It’s not made complicated according to the intended age of the reader. In fact the most recent biographies outline all sorts of complexities; his mom’s poverty, his mom and dad’s breakup and attempt to get back together, his living with his grandmother; his stepdad and stepbrother, the failure of his mom’s second marriage, etc. etc. Even how later in life his mom reproached him for not sending her enough money… but he still loved her and sent her as much as he could.

In the Alice Walker bio from the 1970s – aimed at elementary school kids – the n word is used liberally and there are detailed descriptions of racism… and a description of his dad’s racism against Mexican native americans… While later bios from the 90s mention racism, but gloss over it, and leave out n***** and avoid mention of Hughes’ poems that use the word, like Mulatto – unlike the earlier more hard-hitting bios and anthologies.

You don’t get that kind of overview of the changing ways that history sees and frames a person, or their writing, and their political meanings, from reading one (the most recent) biography. I thought this “junior biography journey” was pretty interesting! Especially for Hughes, who wrote so many books for children himself, including biographies.

And I should have taken better notes – in fact I’ll try to go back to the library and write up the 5 or 6 biographies that I read, with citations.

2 thoughts on “Biographies for children

  1. This is really cool. I’ve definitely noticed some changing trends in children’s biographies, but haven’t done a study in anything like this kind of depth.

  2. I am a fourth grade school teacher. Our anthology has a short biography on Langtson Hughes. It goes over the basics of his life and the adversity he overcame. I haven’t read a whole lot about him except for reading the few children’s biographies I have added to my class library. I like his poems, though. It is funny that in the anthology the students read the biiography but are not introduced to his wonderful poems. I let them listen to a recording of Langston reading some of his poems and talk about them some in the best way that I can.

    I like to teach my class the writing of poetry through the use of great poems from great poets. We model our poetry after poems they read. This year we have written a few poems based on William Carlos Williams. We did something new and different this year as I used a program called to bring the student’s poetry to life. You can view examples on my blog for teachers.

    These video poems were based on “A Locust Tree in Flower”

    These were modeled on “The Red Wheelbarrow”

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