Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Creating Picture Book Biographies with Third Graders

I read lots of scientific papers as I do research for the children’s books I write. I also read plenty of journal articles written by academic educators as I strive to gain a deeper understanding of nonfiction craft.
But rarely do I come across an article so extraordinary that I feel compelled to share it here. Today I’m reviewing an article that I think every elementary educator should read. It’s that good.
“Portraits of Perseverance: Creating Picturebook Biographies with Third Graders” (Language Arts, January 2019) describes an amazing 6-week learning experience developed and implemented by Erika Thulin Dawes and Mary Ann Cappiello, two Professors of Language & Literacy at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA, and Lorraine Bronte Magee, a third grade teacher and graduate student at Lesley, with assistance from award-winning children’s book creators Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet.

For this immersive genre study, third graders explored the craft and process of award-winning picture book biographies with a focus on character, context, theme, and backmatter. Their investigation included an in-depth look at four titles by Bryant and Sweet.
Then the children interviewed contemporary local subjects (town historian, high school athletes, authors, musicians, etc.). and wrote picture book biographies about their subjects. The class also interviewed Bryant and Sweet about their creative processes via Skype, and the two creators provided feedback on the students’ final drafts.
There are so many reasons I love this project!

—It gives teachers an innovative, engaging way to delve into nonfiction during their narrative writing unit. Currently, the curriculum in many schools calls for students to write personal narratives, an activity that many children dislike.

—Picture book biographies celebrate the lives and accomplishments of a diverse array of people. They also offer tie-ins to content area curriculum by serving as portals to the past and/or authentically modeling the process of doing science.

—Students have an opportunity to learn about members of their community and develop interview skills, which will serve them well in the future.

—Students learn that writing high-quality nonfiction is about much more than cobbling together facts they’ve plucked from books or encyclopedic databases. Research is a treasure hunt that can and should involve many different ways of gathering ideas and information. At its best, it’s a creative, self-driven process.

—The instruction in this unit focuses on “mentor processes” in addition to mentor texts. As a result, students get a sneak peek at the creators’ pre-writing activities. They also come to understand that a biographer’s selection of key moments to include in the narrative are influenced by his/her own personality, passions, beliefs, and view of the world.


I’d love to see more meaty, in-depth learning experiences like this one as part of the curriculum in schools all across the country.

Dawes, Erika Thulin, et al. (2019). Portraits of perseverance: Creating picturebook biographies with third graders. Language Arts, 96: 3, 153-166.


  1. These kinds of book-making projects with students are fantastic. Some years ago, I co-taught a project with third graders, in which they created math stories illustrated with photographs. They studied exemplars, generated ideas, took photographs, write, revised, created charts/graphs, and created books. The co-teacher and presented about it at the National Council of Teachers of Math conference. I wrote about our process on my blog: Search: Visualizing Math Stories.

  2. This is wonderful, Melissa! Thanks for sharing it! Jen Bryant is one of my very favorite picture book bio authors. The Right Word is such a brilliant and touching book, and I love her others too. And Melissa's art is a perfect match!