Extraordinary lives

5th May 2006 at 01:00
A great telling of a life story relies on quality writing, rather than illustrations, says Michael Thorn

Who Was... series King Henry VIII, the Exploding King by Emma Craigie

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the Iron Man by Amanda Mitchison Short Books Pounds 4.99

DK Biography series

John F Kennedy by Howard S Kaplan

Martin Luther King, Jr by Amy Pastan

Dorling Kindersley pound;4.99 each

Famous Lives series

Pablo Picasso, Master of Modern Art by Liz Gogerly, pound;6.99

Vincent van Gogh, The Troubled Artist by Anna Claybourne, pound;6.99

Hodder Stoughton Children's I Am Marc Chagall by Bimba Landmann Eerdmans pound;9.99

Paul Cezanne, A Painter's Journey by Robert Burleigh Abrams pound;9.95

Thomas Coram, The Man Who Saved Children by Harriet Amos and Alice Mayers, illustrated by Jig

The Foundling Museum pound;4.99 www.foundlingmuseum.org.uk

New Livewire Real Lives series David Blaine by Brandon Robshaw and Rochelle Scholar

Ant and Dec by Andy Croft

Beyonce by Julia Holt

Kylie Minogue by Mike Wilson

Hodder Murray pound;4.25 each

Good biographies, for whatever audience, have to be well written. As the Who Was... series from Short Books demonstrates, a well-written biography does not have to be especially well-designed or presented, or to be festooned with photos or other illustrations, to do a good job of telling the story of a life.

Good page design and presentation, together with an abundance of illustration, can make even the blandest of writing styles palatable, in the case of books about science, weather systems or animals. But the biography, by virtue of its dependency on narrative, requires authors who can construct and modulate a storyline based on an informed selection and emphasis of incident.

The younger the audience (because the selection is of necessity greater) the more skilled the biographer needs to be. For just the same reason, when selecting biographies for a primary school library or classroom, it is not as safe to choose multiple books in a series as it is for other branches of non-fiction. Except in the case of Short Books, which I hope has already commissioned another title by Emma Craigie, whose King Henry VIII, The Exploding King is one of this year's new titles. For Craigie's portrait of a monarch every bit as vengeful, manipulative and gangster-like as Saddam Hussein, is a tremendously well-paced read. No punches are pulled. "He was a mass murderer," we are told on page nine, drawing from estimates of more than 70,000 executions or sanctioned deaths during Henry's reign.

Amanda Mitchison's previous biographies for Short Books have been about explorers (Alexander Selkirk and David Livingstone). The subject of her new title is a engineer, but one whose life had no shortage of death-defying incidents. Isambard Kingdom Brunel, The Iron Man would make a fantastic biopic, along the lines of The Aviator. There's a particularly well-described incident when Brunel takes a trip over the Clifton gorge, in a basket on the pulley system designed to transport supplies, and gets stuck halfway across.

Various biographers write for Short Books, but the judgments made when commissioning new titles and the editorial standards from that point on must be extremely good, because I haven't read a poor one yet.

The DK Biography series is, as you would expect, well designed and colourfully produced with varied page layouts. The titles have the glossy, highly-illustrated feel of travel guides, but the writing is not as vivid or as engaging as in the Short Books, giving the reader little incentive to ignore the pull of the pictures. At times, the style is positively off-putting. Howard S Kaplan's John F. Kennedy jumps, in the course of its opening pages, from the assassination day in Dallas, to a childhood attack of scarlet fever, and then to the Irish potato famine. All of this is relayed in the present tense, making for a strangely disorienting opening.

Amy Pastan's Martin Luther King, Jr is a much better read. The art of biography is in deciding which key incidents to describe at length and which to telescope into brief resumes and Pastan does this well, choosing to recount King's important campaigning in Birmingham, Alabama, in depth, as it deserves.

Variable quality is in evidence again in Wayland's Famous Lives series.

Pablo Picasso demonstrates how illustrations need to be well chosen to key in with the biographical text in order to justify the space they take up. A picture of the French seaside fills half a page, merely to adorn the caption: "Picasso loved to watch people enjoying themselves on the beach".

More bizarre still, three-quarters of a page is taken up with a postcard of the International Exhibition of 1900, with the caption "Many people came to see the Eiffel Tower lit up with electric lights". Vincent van Gogh is better written and the picture selection more to the point.

Artists are popular subjects for children's biographies and, for obvious reasons, lend themselves to large-format picture-book approaches. I Am Marc Chagall, by Bimba Landmann, tells its story in the first person, in a text loosely based on Chagall's autobiography, My Life. The sumptuously-photographed mixed-media collage illustrations include mini reproductions of Chagall's paintings and other references to his work. The text has the rhythmic cadence of an old man recollecting his youth and manhood. It's a dreamy and apposite combination.

The atmosphere in Paul Cezanne, A Painter's Journey is altogether different. This is a much more sober and straightforward life story, but one that uses its large-format page space to excellent effect. As does, in a more cartoon-style manner, Thomas Coram, The Man Who Saved Children, produced by the Foundling Museum. This is a truly pictorial biography, with the text taking a back seat.

The New Livewire Real Lives series - slim biographies of contemporary celebrities - are endorsed by the Basic Skills Agency and aimed at older readers with low levels of literacy. But many of the titles, including the four I have picked out above, will find an avid readership in key stage 2 class libraries.

Michael Thorn is deputy head of Hawkes Farm Primary School, Hailsham, East Sussex

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