There’s huge value in showing children that unusual people “who didn’t fit into the world in a ‘regular’ way” still forged satisfying lives for themselves. Paul Erdos, Mary Garber and Jean-Henri Fabre truly “flew their freak flags,” so to speak, and yet thrived over a lifetime.
I’ve long appreciated how picture book biographies can show children long lives well-lived, along with accomplishments they might aspire to. (After all kids are kids for such a short time.) But today I’m excited to showcase three picture book bios that take that a step further.
The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos
(By Deborah Heiligman. Pictures by LeUyen Pham. Roaring Brook Press)
As a boy famed mathematician Paul Erdos “spent his days calculating, counting, and thinking about numbers. He couldn’t tie his own shoes or butter his own toast” and that changed little as he grew up.
However, Paul made dear friends all over the world who kindly cared for him. In return this math genius generously shared his brain, helping other mathematicians with math problems and research, and connecting others across countries. He was a “math matchmaker.”
“Even when Paul got very old, he still did math…He did math while he played chess. He did math while he drank coffee. Lots and lots of coffee…”
Read more about The Boy Who Loved Math here.
(By Sue Macy. Pictures by C.F. Payne. Simon & Schuster Books)
Mary Garber was a pioneering female sportswriter in the 1940’s when it was definitely not a woman’s job. As a child Mary “was tiny bit of a girl, but that didn’t stop her from playing football with the boys. Tackle football.”
Inspired by Jackie Robinson, the first black baseball player in the major leagues since the 1880’s, Mary persevered despite struggles to be accepted in a man’s world. She was a sportswriter for 56 years, retiring when 70, but she continued to write for the Winston Salem Journal until she was 86 years old.
Mary Garber championed black children in sports in black schools—writing about them when no one else paid attention. And writing about any child, she was always as positive as possible. Mary believed, “If you can give a child a pat on the back…or you can make him believe in himself, you can make a difference in his life.”
Read more about Miss Mary Reporting here.
(By Matthew Clark Smith. Pictures by Giuliano Ferri. Two Lions Press)
“In the sunny, south of France…on the very edge of town…” lived Jean-Henry Fabre, “an old man with beetle-black eyes and a black felt hat who talked to animals. Whether he was a sorcerer, or simply a madman, no one could agree.”
In spite of ridicule over his long life during the 1800’s, Jean-Henri persisted in carefully observing insects’ behavior in their habitats. For decades he studied them and documented their lives as the small wonders they are.
As Jean-Henri Fabre neared his ninetieth year he was still working. Then the King of France visited his village to the astonishment of the villagers, and he was informed that he’d been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature for his poetic writing about the lives of insects.
Read more about Small Wonders here.
I’m hoping parents, grandparents, teachers and librarians will read picture book biographies like these with kids and point out that our individual passions and personality quirks are also our strengths. As we age we often find just the path to using our personal strengths if we persevere.
The three profiled above maximized their enjoyment as they grew older over many, many decades.
Recently I had fun reading Nature’s Friend: The Gwen Frostic Story to a group of 6-9 year olds. It really grabbed their attention when I emphasized how Gwen Frostic worked at her art for over eighty years by using my fingers for each decade of Gwen’s life. Her 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. A great way to get the point across–we have years of potential in front of us.
Find more picture book biographies at A is for Aging.
I reviewed all three books from the library.