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Face to Face: Kids Warm Up to Biographies

The recent boom in children's biographies is enough to make you want to be a kid again.

Figures whose achievements are boldly etched in history - like George Washington and Amelia Earhart - still occupy honored spots on the bookshelf. But increasingly they share that space with more contemporary figures, including author Maurice Sendak, environmental advocate Rachel Carson,and social activist Clara Hale.

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"When I was a child, it was Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Ben Franklin," says children's author Barbara O'Connor. "Now, publishers, as well as teachers and librarians, are looking for biographies of people who've done really noteworthy things but are not necessarily famous."

No numbers are kept on children's biographies, but there has been "significant" growth in the past five to eight years, says John Selfridge, vice president and publisher of Grolier Children's Publishing in Danbury, Conn.

In Mrs. O'Connor's opinion, it's important for young students to dip into biographies. Fourth grade is a good time, she says, because "it helps them realize that nonfiction can be fun and interesting." The author of four biographies, O'Connor notes that such books help students see "that these people are everyday human beings with foibles like the rest of us who have either overcome something or really worked hard and accomplished something."

Fourth grade is also about the time kids start looking for role models beyond friends, teachers, and family, notes Amy Gelman, editorial director of Carolrhoda Books in Minneapolis, publisher of O'Connor's biographies.

With the biography boom have come more books on the lives of women and minorities. And in the last few years, biographies for beginning readers have multiplied as well. Librarians are fueling much of the demand, asking for more accurate, engaging material on a wider array of subjects, and for more ages.

That women's lives are getting a fair shake is evident in a fourth-grade class at Foster Elementary School in Hingham, Mass. Here, banners hang from the ceiling - reminders of the achievements read about during Women's History Month in March. Next to Amelia Earhart and Anne Frank flutter descriptions of Nebraska author Willa Cather, advocate Carson, and activist Hale, founder of Hale House in Harlem, a facility for children born to women addicted to drugs.

A visit from local writer O'Connor punctuates the project. O'Connor - whose books include one on Maria Montessori, developer of the Montessori method - leads the students through an entertaining hour on the writing process. "A biography has a beginning, a middle, and an end, just like a story," she explains. "My job is to write biographies that you will want to read and enjoy to the end."

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A few doors away, Deborah Hall, the Foster librarian, has recently ordered 100 new biographies for the school. She says she looks for books that tell a good story - that are "meaty" enough for teachers, but that don't read like encyclopedia entries. Authors and publishers are responding to such needs, she says.

Good biographies can offer role models students identify with and spur children to think beyond their immediate worlds. It was books about women, in fact - Marie Curie, Dolley Madison - that caught the eye of National Public Radio correspondent Nina Totenberg when she was young. "They made me want to read, which I hadn't really been interested in doing before that," she says.

After O'Connor's visit, the Foster students are eager to discuss what they like best about biographies.

"I like them because they tell you so much information," says Johnna Beebe (which, she notes, comes in handy when you have to write a book report). Classmate Nick Monaco read about Martha Washington and says it was exciting because he didn't know "what was going to happen next." Ryan Kennedy proves he gets the point of nonfiction with his response: "Because they're true."

Teacher Mary Hayden says she tries to assign books about people who who've "made a difference in the world." People who've done something the students can see the results of in their lifetime. Ultimately, she says, "I want them to love the book and really get into it."

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