Biographical Books for Children and What They Tell Us

Children’s books covering non-fictional subjects are fascinating. They attempt to convey a message, and this message can be invaluable in understanding the culture of a society. By analyzing what general message or ideals a book exemplifies, historians can interpret how a generation desires to transmit information from one to the next, as well as how the elder generation regards a specific moment or individual in history. In class we were given two biographical texts aimed at children, and the two I was held responsible for reading, although individually fascinating, couldn't be more dissimilar in their approach to communicating history to children.

The first book I was assigned was titled Charles Darwin by Alan Gibbons, published in 2008. The title takes the perspective of a fictitious boy sailor on the voyage of the Beagle and his interactions with Charles Darwin. Darwin, through the eyes of the boy, is portrayed as childish, curious, and virtuous, with a slight layer of naivety. While the book definitely reflects a positive position on scientific curiosity, little is touched of his most well-known posit, namely evolution. The book carefully remains neutral on the subject. The author, very briefly, mentions the position, as well as the religious opposition to the theory, and carries on. Even if the book remains conservative in its treatment of the subject of evolution, the book is still informative and historically accurate (at least of what I know of the subject), even given the fictitious nature of the protagonist. I’m yet undetermined whether I consider its safe approach more appropriate.

My second reading, in stark contrast to the Gibbon’s book, was Galileo Galilei by Michael White, and I can’t honestly say I was much a fan. The book cannot be called a biography as much as a hagiography. Galileo is praised as the greatest genius of an era, and the church is shown to be antiquated, unreasonable, and hateful. Additional to these claims exist, at least if we assume Galileo in Rome is historically accurate, numerous factual errors which mar the already lackluster presentation. Either the book was intended to discredit religion over science, or its author is not sufficiently knowledgeable in the subject to write definitively on it. Perhaps both, but I’m saddened to those who first approach the subject through this book, especially children, who are more impressionable in their young age.

Both books are interesting to a scholar, but not necessarily for their didactic merits. As previously mentioned, children’s literature provide historians a tool in which the cultural perspectives of individuals, groups, or societies are reflective. In this sense, the books were very useful, but I’m apprehensive if books such as these, even if useful in post-secondary pedagogical aims, should exist. The Galileo Galilei is clearly biased, and Charles Darwin, while remaining informative, dodges the most controversial subject in his body of work. Future generations of scientists and thinkers will emerge from our children, and it’s best to carefully consider how lingering first impressions should occur.