Literature excites, motivates, entices, instructs, and helps children discover people and places across cultures and experiences through time. Authors and illustrators ingeniously craft stories to convey those images, oftentimes imaginatively incorporating real–life experiences and/or encounters into the text to bring the story to life. Thus, a work–your–way–backwards–from–the–story approach can serve as a tool to do biography. Will this approach prove effective?
During our YNHTI seminar, Professor Gaddis had fellows delve into James Shapiro's biographic work, "A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599." Through that examination, it was brought out that minimal, historical documentation regarding Shakespeare's life is available. Shapiro, however, was able to create an extraordinary biography about this author–businessman–playwright. The author correlated Shakespeare's literary creations with key historical events that took place during that Elizabethan period. Probing Shakespeare's works––connecting story content and characters therein with key moments in history––served as a means to obtain more background information the author's life. Shapiro used a work–your–way–backwards approach to give insight into Shakespeare's persona; his writing model helped reinforce that using this approach to create biography is no far–fetched idea.
In this regard, I decided to have my students zero in on studying the works of two specific children's book authors, Yangsook Choi and Floyd Cooper. I chose these two artists because of (1) each author's creative storytelling know–how; (2) their culturally–inclusive, accurately depicted illustrations; (3) their ability to effectively and engagingly interact with diverse audiences of all ages; (4) accessibility, and of great importance (5) because the children love their work! (You may find other authors commensurately appealing and accessible; if so, take advantage of contacting them to enhance the literary experience in your classroom environment.)
Writing Exercise # 2 "Meet the Author" A Biographic Sketch
Objective: To use select children's book titles to gain insight into the author, investigating how aspects of the author's persona impacts author's craft and story creation. To reinforce use of metacognitive skills, enhance comprehension, and develop skills in doing biography.
Purpose: To create a clearly defined biographic snapshot of the author using effective techniques, descriptive details, and clearly defined event sequences.
Focus Questions: Can we get a feel for the author's persona by examining his literary creations? Does his/her personal life and/or experiences somehow influence the way the artists creates and/or illustrates a story? Does using this approach shed light on the author's craft?
Before initiating this assignment, coordinate an "implementation time frame" with the authors. Provide them with background information concerning your classroom course of study, the objective and intended focus, and time constraints. Establish the mode of communication (an in–person visit, communicating via E–mail, SKYPE, or via another communicative channel). Take into consideration that although authors are often well–intentioned, they have hectic schedules; they are involved in everything from working with publicists and doing book tours to meeting writing and illustration deadlines for upcoming publications. Thus, advanced scheduling is crucial to accommodate the needs of all parties involved.
Anticipating that both authors would have busy schedules, I contacted the two during May. I E–mailed Mr. Cooper to set up a visit to my school in the fall. I also asked if, in the interim, my students could communicate with him on–line to receive responses to questions they had regarding several of his children's book creations. The author kindly said, "Yes." Yangsook—who is always traveling—additionally agreed to communicate with my children on–line. (My students and I kept our fingers crossed that we would be able to receive their responses such that we could initiate the collective writing portion of our biography writing project before the close of the current school year. We were elated, for both authors responded to student inquiries such that we were able to complete the beginning phase of our biography adventure.)
Reevaluate Their Meaning
Before beginning the first collective biographic writing exercise, revisit the definition of genre, and have students identify the different types of writing styles that exist. Revisit the terms autobiography and biography, ensuring that children have a solid understanding of each genre. Subsequently share that biography can be presented using different writing styles, i.e., via the narrative, in poetic form, by putting oneself in the subject's shoes, writing in the first person voice. Identify literature that your students may have previously read that is reflective of each noted style. Doing so can serve as a model from which to begin. Now, we can begin!
Implementing the Approach
I announce that we will be taking a discovery adventure through which we will learn to do biography. I advise that during that journey, we will gain insight into how stories are created up close and personal through perhaps the eyes and experiences of the author. I provide my students with multiple copies of the authors' books for student previewing. Using this approach encourages young learners to take ownership in preparing for the task at hand. As a result, my students eagerly help to determine which books will be targeted. Based on the readings, the children collaborate and brainstorm on key questions that will help them gain deeper insight into the author and the reasons behind his or her literary creations. I record their questions on chart paper; these questions will be presented to each author.
I additionally provide students with a morsel of information regarding each author, along with website information that will be later used as a reference source when the children delve deeper into actually writing their biographies. I provide just enough info to rouse curiosity as noted below:
Regarding Yangsook Choi
. Yangsook was born in South Korea. Ever since her early childhood years, she loved to draw. In time, that love helped lay the foundation for her attending Sangmyung Women's University in Seoul Korea. By age 24, Yangsook traveled to the United States where she obtained a Master's degree in Fine Arts from New York City's School of Visual Arts. Yangsook's children's books gained recognition in a short span of time. They have been acclaimed by the American Library Association Notable Book list. Recipient of the International Reading Association's Children Book Award, Ms. Choi has created and illustrated books for illustrations for such publishers as Random House, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and the McGraw Hill Company. Although she travels extensively to share her literary and artistic know–how with young audiences, Ms. Choi currently resides in New York City.
Student–Selected Focus Books Created and/or Illustrated by the Author:
The Sun Girl and The Moon Boy
Behind the Mask
The Name Jar
(see Children's Bibliography)
Background Info on the Artist's Websites:
Regarding Floyd Cooper
. This author–illustrator was born in the American Midwest. The recipient of numerous awards (including the Coretta Scott King Honor Award), he is known for his artistic and storywriting know–how. Floyd uses an ingenious oil–paint–and–kneaded–eraser technique to create children's book illustrations. Some of his award–winning works include
The Blacker the Berry
Brown Honey in Broomwheat Tea
I Have Heard of a Land
. The author–illustrator was born during an era when African Americans were not often hired in prestigious business positions––particularly in such fields as advertising. At the age of 20, he worked as a free–lance commercial artist and an illustrator for Hallmark greeting cards. In 1984, he came to New York City to pursue a career as an illustrator of books. He currently lives in Easton, Pennsylvania, with his wife and children.
Student–Selected Focus Books Created and/or Illustrated by the Author:
, and two poetic selections,
from the anthology
Pass It On
. (See Children's Bibliography.
Background info on the Artist's Websites:
http://www.eduplace.com/kids/hmr/mtai/fcooper.html (Houghton Mifflin bio)
http://www.harpercollinschildrens.com/Kids/AuthorsAndIllustrators/ContributorDetail.aspx?CId=11961 (Harper Collins bio)
http://www.floydcooper.com/index_files/aboutfloyd.htm (30 – second bio)
Resources established, the children are now ready to begin. I allot a 4 to 5 ½ week time frame (3 days per week with a 50 minute session) for students to delve into stories created by each of the two authors. A particular book serves as the focus reading for each day. To ensure that my students comprehend our final book selections and to model prosody and fluency, I also conduct reinforcing read aloud sessions using each book they have collaboratively selected.
(Note: Weeks six through eight are spent conducting our on–line interviews and subsequently crafting the biographies based on all gathered information. The time frame will be slightly modified for in–person interview sessions and follow–up interactive talks with the author. The exercises that follow are based in part on–line interviews.)