Biographies for Middle & High Students

I think biographies might be my favorite form of literature.  They provide such great windows into many aspects of our culture—history, politics, science, art, sports, etc.–all presented via really interesting stories about individual people.   Of course, biographies have long been part of curricular requirements, and now there is new emphasis on their value through the Common Core standards.  While there is certainly a place for series biographies, I like the stand-alone titles for their unique ways of drawing us into truly amazing lives.  Here are five of my recent favorites for the MS/HS level:

Kennedy's last daysKennedy’s Last Days:  The Assassination That Defined a Generation, by Bill O’Reilly. 9780805098020. Grades 6-9.

O’Reilly based this book on his adult-oriented Killing Kennedy.  Just in time for the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, this title gives the reader a whole lot more than the story of that fateful day in Dallas, although it does that very well.  One of our most charismatic presidents whose memory is all the more burnished by his untimely death, John Kennedy continues to loom large in 20th century American history.  O’Reilly provides young readers with a good background of JFK’s life prior to 1960, his presidential years, and the legacy that has endured.  Interspersed in the first two sections is biographical information about Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, including a substantial psychological profile.  There are tons of photographs–some very familiar, others not so much—and lots of supporting material to give the reader a better understanding of this important time in American history.

Mountains beyond mountainsMountains Beyond Mountains:  The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World. by Tracy Kidder.  9780375990991. Grades 5-8.

Based on the 2003 book of the same title, this is an adapted version for younger readers. It tells the story of Paul Farmer, a brilliant doctor, medical researcher, and anthropologist who has spent his professional life in a crusade to cure infection diseases in some of the world’s most poverty-stricken areas. Much of his early work was in Haiti, but he has lived and worked all over the world—Russia, South America, and most recently Africa. He understands the connection between poverty and politics in a way that almost no one else does. He’s absolutely fearless in his promotion of public health policies, and he doesn’t care whose feet he steps on along  the way.  In an age when our children spend so much time idolizing singers and sports stars, here is a story for them about someone who truly is making a difference;

I am MalalaI Am Malala:  The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb. 9780316322409. Grades 9-Adult.

When the Taliban took control of the Swat Valley in Pakistan, Malala and her father refused to remain silent and fought for her right to an education. As we all know, a year ago she paid the price for speaking up and was shot at point blank range while riding her school bus. Not expected to survive, much less retain all of her intellectual abilities, she defied the odds—thanks, in large part, to the excellent medical treatment she received in England.  A year later she has become a voice for human rights, a featured speaker at the United Nations, and the world’s youngest nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, displaying remarkable courage, intelligence, and articulateness each time she advances her cause.

This is also the story of her remarkable family who values their daughter as much as their sons and is willing to fight for her equal rights.

PrimatesPrimates:  The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas, by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks. 9781596438651. Grades 7-12.

I love nonfiction graphic novels because I think they are a great teaching tool—loads of appeal, a fun format, and facts to boot!  This title explores three of the greatest women scientists of the 20th century—Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas.  The first two are familiar names, but Galdikas is less well known.  All three were students of Louis Leakey and went on to become groundbreaking primatologists, adding important information to our understanding of that species and our own.

Wild boyWild Boy:  The Real Life of the Savage of Aveyron, by Mary Losure. 9780763656690. Grades 5-8.

Other versions of this story exist, but this one, aimed at middle graders, has great appeal. At the end of the 18th century, a feral boy was found living in the woods near a French village.  After a time he came to live with Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, a young doctor, who tried to teach him language.  Although the boy, named Victor by his caretakers, never learned to communicate beyond a rudimentary level, he did live the rest of his life in the civilized world.  Itard used the knowledge he gained from working with the boy to enhance understanding of what differentiates humans from animals. This is a yet another wonderful example of truth being stranger than fiction.

Guest Blogger:  Ann G.