The Power of Biography

Barbara - McKinleyville, California
Entered on March 24, 2008
Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: children, legacy
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I have always been a people-watcher. And, truth be told, a bit of a snoop. I don’t rummage around in other women’s purses or peek into medicine cabinets, but I am keenly interested in other people’s passions.

So, I ask too many questions. I sit very quietly if an interesting conversation starts up at the table next to mine. I want to know what people think is important, and why.

As a kid, I was drawn to the stories of people who did extraordinary things. Throughout my suburban 70’s adolescence of soccer practice, Slurpees, and “The Partridge Family,” I latched onto tantalizing anecdotes: how when the painter Henri Matisse began to lose his eyesight, he created cut paper collages because he could see them; how as a young woman, scientist Jane Goodall left behind everything familiar to sit quietly on the forest floor and study chimpanzees; how as bombs exploded and air raid sirens wailed, journalist Edward R. Murrow made live radio broadcasts from London during World War II.

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was fascinated with biography—the intimate details that reveal the essence of someone who has done something remarkable.

Now, as an adult, I spend my days tucked up in my office, tapping at my keyboard. I often spend hours of time completely alone—and yet, I am always in excellent company: I write biographies for children.

It can take hours of research to find a single quote or telling anecdote. Still, I go to my office each morning because I believe in the power of biography to change kids’ lives.

It’s true that biographies promote empathy and bring history to life. But that’s not why I write them.

I write biographies because I believe they open children up to the realm of possibilities.

All too often kids today live constrained lives. Instead of being free to wander and explore and see for themselves what the world has to offer, they are scheduled into activities determined by other people. At the time in their lives when possibility should be limitless, it is limited by the adults who set the program.

Add to this the fact that we live in a celebrity culture, where the people who get all the press are often the ones behaving badly.

Biographies offer a refreshing counterpoint. They allow us to look at the extraordinary things people have done, and then coax us to ask what we would like to do. They encourage us to dream big.

Seeing others follow their passion, overcoming all obstacles, inspires us to find—and follow—our own.

For that, at the core, is what biographies are all about: passion. About people devoting their lives to something they think is important.

And so, while there are many things I might write about, I find myself returning to biography—to be curious, to feel inspired, and hopefully, in the process, help kids do the same.