According to research cited by Carter (2003), biography reading declines between fourth and tenth grades with the exception of books for the yearly required biography book report. However, sports and entertainment magazines that feature biographies are eagerly read by teenagers. Perhaps, then, these statistics are more a comment on the quality and subjects of many of the biographies written for adolescents than on the interest of young adults in biographies. Just as with all young adult literature, it is important to look for the best biographies. Thus, we want to explore the characteristics that distinguish excellent biographies from the adequate, mediocre, or unacceptable. Unfortunately, not all biographies that are marketed for adolescents have those characteristics. After examining juvenile biographies in general, Lechner (1997) found inaccuracies occurring as the result of carelessness and oversimplification, inadequate or incomplete data, unreliable primary sources, and social mores and taboos. Based on her own experiences, Carter (2003) suggests dismissing those biographies that feature a
larger-than-life, near-perfect individual to be honored and emulated; a lack of historical context within which to place the subject; an endless tally of accomplishments that show little relationship to either character or reader; and an organizing structure that revolves around birth and death dates rather than an implied theme concerning the subject’s life. (p. 165)
What, then, are the characteristics of excellent biographies? Obviously, good biographies should be authentic and honest and should provide an objective treatment of the subject. But there is much more. First, young adults deserve accurate biographies in which controversial information and personal fallacies are neither omitted nor glossed over. In a good biography, the individual’s character is revealed to the reader through the details and events of his or her life and as a complex individual with his or her own share of human strengths as well as weaknesses. Readers can understand and, at least sometimes, relate to the person’s feelings of frustration and happiness. A good biography should depict the life of an individual in ways that allow the reader to question, evaluate, and analyze the narrative to identify the pattern or meaning in the person’s life.
Next, a good biography should stay away from didacticism. Sermon should not “substitute for story” and fictionalization should not “enhance factual material” (Carter, 2003, p. 168). Included should be the feelings, beliefs, actions, and daily decisions made by the individual (Townsend & Hanson, 2001). However, to keep a biography from becoming a chronology of events or a collection of dates without any unifying theme, there needs to be a definite narrative thread. Grounded in the historical context of the time period in which an individual lived, a biography must tell the story of that person’s life in a way that captures and holds the reader’s interest (Carter, 2003).
Third, biographies must avoid stereotypes based on things such as gender, culture, religious background, and ethnicity. This does not mean that biographies should distort the truth or contain inaccuracies. For example, one cannot disguise the fact that women received second-class treatment for many decades and this treatment should be accurately portrayed. However, in writing about these times, writers should avoid placing women in stereotypical roles such as being helpless and dependent upon a male. According to Lucy Townsend (Townsend & Hanson, 2001), many earlier biographies of women show them achieving success only through their relationships with others (e.g., wife, mother, daughter). While historical perspectives and events cannot be changed, women need to be shown as individuals with unique strengths as well as weaknesses (Bucher & Manning, 1998). The same can be said about the members of any minority group.
Remember, too, that “biography is as much a product of the times in which it is written as it is of the times and lives it portrays” (Carter, 2003, p. 167). This means that, first, an author must respect the accepted beliefs and traditions of the time period he or she is writing about. Some things (such as segregation or the absence of most women from positions of political power) that are not acceptable today must be included for the sake of historical accuracy. As Steve Weinberg (2003) notes, “the most intellectually honest biographies capture subjects as they lived in their own times, not as an author alive centuries later thinks they ought to have comported themselves” (p. 30). However, while writing a biography, the author is also affected by the social institutions of the time period in which he or she is writing. Thus, a Franklin Roosevelt biography that was written in the 1950s with the idea of the leader as a role model will generally present a less well-rounded portrait than one that was written in the 1990s with a discussion on the motives for his actions and his personal life.
Julia Mickenberg (2002) also pointed out that juvenile literature, especially biography, is used as a vehicle both for activism and to support the status quo. Authors use biographies to deal with race, challenge gender norms, and present stories of lives that provide role models that are outside the prescribed traditional expectations of society. She maintains that by publishing, between 1945 and 1965, a number of biographies of early civil rights leaders, authors were able to lay the groundwork for the involvement of young adults in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s (Mickenberg, 2002).
Finally the treatment of the subject, the theme of the biography, and the style of the writing should be appropriate for adolescent readers. When reviewing biographies, Carter (2003) suggests beginning by thinking about what you know and what you do not know about the person and/or the time period in which the individual lived. Hold this information up against what the author provides. Then think about the author as a “partner in discovery” (p. 172) who will help you learn even more about an individual by showing you the character of the person rather than telling you about it.
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