I’m a big fan of picture book biographies, especially since finding six that showcase the arc of a long life well-lived. And when the subject labors with joy and tenacity at a career that brings them happiness and satisfaction late in life? I’m hooked.
No age stereotypes here. No one argues that kids learn from their books and a narrow view of aging can actually be harmful. But these picture book bios offer huge benefits to kids—showing them adventure, creativity, and enjoyment, not only over the course of an evolving life, but well into old age.
“Help children see their elder within…”
It’s important to “help children to see their elder within,” say researchers Sandra McGuire, Diane Klein, and Donna Couper in their article Aging Education: A National Imperative. “The potentials in old age are limitless.” We need to “help children to see these potentials and envision the things they could do…”
Positive Aging picture books highlight the possibilities of ongoing goals, continued learning, and new interests and endeavors. The books below share the “elder heroes and role models” recommended by Dr. McGuire and her colleagues.
The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life with the Chimps by Jeanette Winter (Ages 4-8)
Veteran author/illustrator Jeanette Winter is responsible for half the books featured in this post. Here she successfully shows Jane Goodall’s own evolution (I couldn’t resist) from a child keenly observing her environment to famed primatologist to activist on behalf of chimps and our natural world. The Watcher takes her from her native England to Tanzania and shares some of her world-wide work in an author’s note.
Jane Goodall established the Roots and Shoots organization to encourage kids’ conservation efforts. She celebrated her 80th birthday this year and continues to write books and work tirelessly for her important causes. (Read an inspiring National Geographic interview here.)
On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne, Illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky (Ages 4-8)
“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” Einstein grows from infancy into late life never losing his enormous interest in all things. Kids can relate to Einstein’s curiosity despite much of the book’s text devoted to his adult life and his ideas about time and space. It is told at an appropriate level and includes extensive information at the end.
Bon Appetit! The Delicious Life of Julia Child by Jessie Hartland (Ages 9 & up)
Hand lettered text and comic book style illustrations are as lively as the famous chef’s long and accomplished life. Bon Appetit! traces her travels, her WW II secret work, her late marriage, and not till her 4o’s—the finding of her true calling—French cooking.
Quirky fun facts are sprinkled like sugar on top. Did you know Julia Child was very tall and had size 12 feet? And several luscious recipes included!
Read a great review and Q & A of the author at the blog “Jama’s Alphabet Soup.”
Georgia Rises: A Day in the Life of Georgia O’Keeffe by Kathryn Lasky; illustrated by Ora Eitan. (Ages 5-8)
Famed American painter Georgia O’Keeffe is old, white haired, and solitary in this book, but so obviously content, absorbed in her art, and soaking up the southwestern desert beauty that surrounds her.
At first light she gathers her painting supplies and her walking stick to ward off rattlesnakes and heads out to capture the lavender sky. An author’s note gives an overview of her long life. (Here is a biography courtesy of the Okeeffe Museum in Sante Fe, New Mexico.)
“Georgia O’Keeffe lived to be ninety-eight years old. In museums across the land, people see her flowers, deserts, hills, cities, and skies the way she did.”
Author illustrator Jeanette Winter shows us the painter’s life as she follows her dream from Wisconsin to art studies in Chicago and New York, and finally to her beloved New Mexico. (Sadly out of print, but still available via Amazon.)
Henri’s Scissors by Jeanette Winter. (Ages 3-8)
The author quickly covers the early life of painter Henri Matisse, but then zooms in on the artist late in his life as he not only copes with illness and disability, but finds enormous joy in a new form of art—creating huge paper cutouts with scissors. (Read my full review here.)
A 2013 article in The Horn Book Magazine cites some of the trends that spurred children’s authors to write picture book biographies over the decades. Not surprisingly author Barbara Bader mentions “multiculturalism, with its focus on individual achievement; the resurgence of feminism, another seedbed of role models…”
I’m hopeful that an increased awareness of ageism will also influence the approach taken in bios. If the person profiled enjoyed the third stage of life—let’s be sure and show it.
Kids need older role models devoid of negative age stereotypes such as sick, sad, lonely and forgetful. Working hard at a major career change myself, I find both inspiration and support in reading about Jane, Julia, Georgia, Henri, and Albert.
Read more on how internalized negative age stereotypes are associated with poor health and function in later life at “The Power of Our Beliefs.”)
Have you spotted any picture book bios I should know about?
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The article Aging Education: a National Imperative appeared in the journal Educational Gerontology, 31: 443–460, 2005. (The phrase “elder within” was first used by Dychtwald and Fowler in their book Age Wave)