Posted 3 a.m. Thursday, May 5, 2022

Cover images of some of the collective biographies in Murphy Library's Curriculum Center

Collective biographies in children’s and teen books

By Teri Holford 

For years, picture books and informational books have been easy to visually distinguish. Picture books are rooted in art and images along with the author’s text, and the two work together to make an aesthetically pleasing experience. Informational books, also called nonfiction books, have traditionally given more attention to the text on the page, made up of facts, events or other information regarding science, history, social science or biographies of famous people. Visual images thus play a secondary role. The distinction between these two styles of books has driven how library spaces are organized, with picture books in one section arranged by the author’s last name and nonfiction books located elsewhere and arranged by subject according to the Dewey Decimal System.  

However, publishing trends in children’s books have seen a recent blending of these two types of formats, which has muddied the distinction. Picture books are now drawing from and including more informational content, and nonfiction books visually look more like picture books, with more artistically interpreted content being given increased space on the page. One can no longer count on quick visuals to understand the differences.  

The book "Women Who Dared: 52 Stories of Fearless Daredevils, Adventurers & Rebels."

Biographies for children, for example, have usually featured one single person. Some figures have had several biographies about them published in a single publishing season: Ada Lovelace, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Georgia O’Keefe, or Frida Kahlo. A running joke among children’s literature professionals is whether the world really needs yet another biography of Frida Kahlo! Whether one agrees or not, biographies spark an interest from young readers. This type of content encourages them to try and put themselves in the shoes of a historically remarkable person as well as teaches the importance of new perspectives in understanding their own life. Readers of biographies learn about someone else’s experiences, see their own world in a new way, learn what it was like to live in that period, and acquire valuable life lessons.  

In the past few years, we’ve seen more “collective biographies” in children’s publishing. Instead of concentrating on one single person, the author compiles several people with a common experience but not necessarily from the same time period. These collective biographies often merge the traditional picture book and informational book formats to deliver biographical information in a visually artistic and engaging way. While posing a potential challenge to the organizational structure of a library, presenting information on performers, politicians, athletes, scientists or artists in this way means a collective biography offers even more exposure to the priceless experience of learning about someone else’s challenges and how they overcame them.