In a recent Newsweek article entitled “Are Biopics History,” critic Ramin Setoodeh proposes that when Hollywood makes a filmed biography of a known historical character – Amelia Earhart, Tolstoy, Darwin – the box office results are dismal. However, when Hollywood makes a biopic out of someone unfamiliar, like Erin Brockovitch, it’s box office gold. Setoodeh goes on to mention that Sandra Bullock as Harper Lee in Infamous was left in the dust while The Blind Side has raked in millions; Will Smith did something similar with his take on Ali while The Pursuit of Happyness went blockbuster.
As a general rule, my wife hate biopics, except for those she doesn’t realize are biographies. Somehow knowing it’s based on a true story ruins the experience for her, makes her impatient. Thinking about this, and the Newsweek article, I started to wonder about children’s biographies, and the subjects that are chosen, and why certain people are profiled again and again and again.
I understand the business end of things when a dozen books come out, as they did last year, on the Lincoln Bicentennial, but is there really anything new to say about the sixteenth president? The man already shares a holiday with another president (and why isn’t President’s Day a celebration of them all?) and gets plenty of coverage anytime history comes within range of the War Between the States. But it feels like Lincoln is a tired subject even for kids. And how do you show that Lincoln (or any subject of weight) was a “great” man if kids don’t have anyone else to measure him up against?
This also reminds me of the recent interest in Phillip Hooses’s Claudette Colvin and her role in the early Civil Rights movement. I have to admit, while reading it I was stunned that my knowledge and history of the bus boycotts included Rosa Parks but nothing of Claudette. And I can see why, because a teen girl who was pregnant would not have made for good enough political and legal theatre – or rather, they might have had negative effects – but understanding how all of this was carefully organized opened my eyes to history in a way that I have long felt should be the way we teach kids history.
History is ugly. The lives of humans are messy. Presenting children, young readers, and teens with sanitized histories and biographies borders dangerously on propaganda, and worse: it makes these people and their accomplishments boring. Ben Franklin played with electricity and invented bifocals, yes yes, and signed the Declaration of Independence, uh huh… but where’s the stuff about his running away from home, his hypocritical thinking on vegetarianism, his year abroad as a young man getting drunk and trying to make it with his best friends’ girlfriend behind his back? This Franklin, this very human Franklin, has so much more to teach a young reader about how we learn to make our way through the world, how nothing is easy or given, and that people of history aren’t gifted with fame the way many people feel artists are born with their skills.
Which circles back to movies, and how people seem to hunger more for the story of the unheralded average Jane and Joe, the people who in the course of their normal lives achieve incredible things. It isn’t the fame and notoriety that makes for a good biography, it’s the story, the human element.
Something else that comes to mind is that far too often, biographies are books that are used in classrooms and not something children turn to for their own pleasure reading. I think we telegraph this notion far too early in kids, that non-fiction is school-based, and as a bi-product biographies tend to suffer most from the stigma of being “boring school reading.” By tying these books to educational units don’t we risk cutting off reader’s interest by suggesting there is a type of book linked to education and not something to be sought outside the classroom?
Though my voice caries little weight in this world, I’d like to see a ten-year moratorium on biographies for children on any subject for whom there is already adequate coverage in print. More books like The Day Glo Brothers and Mermaid Queen, stories of people readers never heard of, and fewer books about the usual faces that populate history. Fewer “brand” names and more obscure ones. I know that children’s authors are doing what they can to bring more obscure characters to light, what I’d like to see is more of a push by publishers to get these stories out there.
More diversity, more biographical surprises, and perhaps even the bold step of rounding out these people so they don’t take on unnecessary mythic status. Let’s see a biography of a more obscure individual on the top ten list, start a Harry Potter-type trend of the nonfiction variety. I think it’s possible.
(For those of you who may have come looking for the next installment of “Building Better Boy Books” please drop in on Thursday!)