Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Biographies Galore: Doing My Homework

I’m teaching a children’s writing workshop this quarter at UCLA Extension, where I cover all genres and all elements of story, give massive reading assignments as well as writing exercises, writing their stories, and critiquing their classmates.

Sidebar: In the past I used a textbook – Anatasia Suen’s terrific Picture Writing, which is now, sadly, out of print. It is the only one I’ve found that gives equal time to writing fiction and nonfiction. (Most textbooks give one chapter to nonfiction). Suen relates every topic and genre – plot, character, picture books, middle grade, etc – to both f and nf. Now I don’t use a textbook, but rely on my lectures and web essays, including some from INK. Even though nearly all of my students write fiction, I still discuss nf when talking about each genre (pb, early readers, middle grade, etc.)

Rather than the obligatory one class, I devote two weeks just to nonfiction, including one on biography. Students choose a person and read three biographies of him or her – picture book, middle grade, and YA – then discuss how authors, illustrators, and book designers treat the subject differently.

Prompted by two new picture book biographies on Jane Goodal, I decided to do this assignment myself. She is a perfect subject for children: pioneering woman scientist, animal lover, environmental activist. The LA Public Library lists fifteen children’s biographies of Goodall going back to 1976, but no picture book biographies.


Me…Jane, written and illustrated by Patrick McDonnell (Little, Brown: 2011) is for younger children and beginning readers. It describes Jane as a child, bonded to Jubliee (a toy chimpanzee,) observing squirrels and spiders, drawing animals, (the author shows Goodall’s actual drawings), climbing a favorite tree and reading Tarzan of the Apes. We see Jane sitting in a chicken coop for hours, to see a hen lay an egg. I confess a bias for picture books with very few words – and this one is a stunner, with 228 words. The ending, stretched over six double page spreads, is superb:

Jane dreamed of a life in Africa, too…

A life living with, and helping, all animals.

At night Jane would tuck Jubilee into bed, say her prayers,

and fall asleep

to awake one day…

to her dream come true. [photo of grownup Goodall and chimp in the forest.]

This biography shows that the child is the mother of the woman. It leaves out all sorts of intermediate stages, but communicates clearly to a young child that dreams can come true. The subdued watercolor illustrations are accompanied by old engravings of leaves, flowers, animals, and such, which hint at Goodall’s scientific bent. All in all, a beautiful book.

Jeanette Winter’s The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life with the Chimps (Schwartz & Wade:

2011)begins with the chicken coop incident to establish Jane as a “watcher.” We see her favorite tree, her reading, then follow Goodall to Africa where “She knew she was Home.” Many pages show her working with chimps, watching, waiting, and taking notes. We learn of deforestation, the killing and kidnapping of chimps, and Jane’s work to save the land and the animals. Winter ends the book with a return visit years later, by Goodall to her beloved forest where she “opened a window for us/ to the world of the chimpanzees.” Most of Winter’s story takes place in the forest with Goodall as an adult. The stylized colorful paintings portray the lushness, density, and color of the landscape and the charm of the chimpanzees. This book, though it has more information than McDonnell’s, can be read by young readers who will find Jane’s and the chimps’ lives equally compelling.


Jane Goodall: Legendary Primatologist, by Brenda Haugen (Compass point Books: 2006) is part of their solid Signature Lives series for middle grade readers. Here we read about Goodall’s English childhood, and the Alligator Club she started with three friends to study nature. We hear of her various jobs before travelling to Africa at age twenty-three. Winter’s book shows Goodall alone in the forest. Haugen’s tells us that she was accompanied at first by her mother, a cook, and two game scouts. We learn about her PhD studies at Cambridge, her two marriages and her son. We hear about human and animal epidemics, about her unsavory discoveries – she saw chimps make war on and eat each other. We learn details of environmental destruction, a horrible (human) kidnapping incident, her non-profit foundation, and her Roots & Shoots children’s organization. We get a full picture of her accomplishments and her difficulties in the bush and in the world at large. Many quotes from Goodall’s writings, black and white photos, and sidebars enhance the text.


The Chimpanzees I Love: Saving Their World and Ours by Jane Goodall (Scholastic: 2001) is a

first hand account of her work, written for young adults. While not a full-blown biography, the first chapter describes her life, including the anecdote of four-year-old Jane in the chicken coop. We learn that her mother had called to police to report her missing! We also learn that her mother was the only person who never laughed at her childhood dream of Africa. This large-format book, filled with color illustrations of chimps describes her work in Africa, as well as her efforts to improve the lives of chimps in zoos and science laboratories. Her passion shines in describing setting up chimp sanctuaries in Africa and humane conditions beyond. Back matter includes facts and resources about chimps, Goodall’s books, and her work.

Goodall’s life and achievements are well-served by the new picture books and the more comprehensive books for older students. As a biographer, I found this assignment enlightening, showing several different ways to tell a life. I look forward to seeing what my students come up with next week.

4 comments:

Loreen Leedy said...

What lucky students you have! Love the quote from Me...Jane, that book sounds wonderful and inspirational.

April Pulley Sayre said...

Gretchen, thanks for great post. I love the subject matter—Jane Goodall. Looking forward to sharing this with children and adults who are writing in biography form.

Fortunate One said...

I am a reading teacher currently using The Walker and Me . . . Jane with a small group of fourth graders. I love both books and will cull more information from the higher-level books mentioned. What a lovely coincidence!

MJW, Wisconsin

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Two very good friends of mine once spent 6 months in Uganda as the first volunteers to implement Jane Goodall's Roots & Shoots children's program. When they told their American friends about it, they were blown away to hear that most of these folks didn't even know who Jane Goodall is. That shocked me too...to me she's an icon and a miracle worker. So hooray for you, Gretchen, for helping to get her name out there by showing everyone these wonderful books! (And for getting kids excited about writing nonfiction biographies too, of course.)