- Various Authors
- Ages 7-12
- 50+ Biographies
One of the more difficult subjects to teach children is history. Since the topics are usually old enough to feel unrelated to our current time, the challenge comes in finding how to present these moments as exciting and important for a younger generation.
In a continued effort to encourage students of all ages to read, publisher Penguin Random House has produced biographies on a variety of topics for almost twenty years. While they have series written for a variety of ages, one of their most popular is the Who Was series of children’s biographies.
These books are apart of a larger network of historical children's books called the Who HQ, which includes the What Was and Where Is series.
These biographies for children cover a variety of historical figures and time periods. There are books about important people like Walt Disney and Rosa Parks, or ones on time periods like The Gold Rush and D-Day. There are also books on famous or influential celebrities, like Elton John or Mahammed Ali.
These books share a common goal: providing a comprehensive yet easy to digest biography for children that are fun and interesting to read.
With almost 200 entries, over 20 million copies sold, and even a Netflix sketch comedy show, it’s clear these books have made an impact on children. After reading through them, it’s easy to see why.
The books usually are usually just over 100 pages long, which is an intentional choice according to publisher Penguin Random House. The goal is to have books that can engage children in a variety of topics, but also be long enough to be used in book reports.
The biographies are usually structured like a story, using the life of a person or the timeline of a famous event to bring up other important topics. They describe the person’s life, focusing on certain important moments that would later impact them.
For example, the book Who Was King Tut looks at the life of Ancient Egyptian King Tutankhamen. Rather than beginning with his birth, the book starts with Tut’s father, Amenhotep, and how he attempted to change Egypt’s customs. From there it details how Tut was thrown into power, his early death, and how his mummy came into modern prominence.
The books also describe historical events, concepts, or people related to these historical figures. If certain topics are of particular interest or need more explanation, the author will dedicate a page to this topic, giving a brief synopsis of the topic.
In King Tut, author Roberta Edwards goes into great detail about Egyptian culture, describing the hieroglyphic writing style, Egyptian burial rituals, and even the various gods the Egyptians worshipped. After Tut’s early death, the book then goes into detail about how his tomb was founded by archaeologist Howard Carter, discussing how this discovery helped to popularize King Tut and the myths behind cursed mummies.
These books are also full of illustrations, depicting images or recreating famous photographs related to the discussion on the page. They work to heighten the stories, providing visuals for the person’s life.
In Who Was Rosa Parks, author Yona Zeldis McDonough uses the illustrations along with the descriptive pages to describe important events and figures in the Civil Rights movement. There are pages on Brown vs. The Board of Education, the use of the song “We Shall Overcome”, and Claudette Colvin, all accompanied with an illustration or two .
One of the more interesting tangents is that of Claudette Colvin. She was a woman who was arrested after not giving up her seat on a segregated bus nine months before Rosa Parks’ famous incident. McDonough explains that while Colvin’s case was considered to represent the Civil Rights movement at that time, the NAACP ultimately went with Parks since she seemed like a better “role model”
McDonough adds at the end of this section “Claudette was every bit as brave as Rosa but her name is often left out of the story of the Civil Rights movement.
This leads into the issue of how to present sensitive topics to children. History is full of complex people and dark situations, many that can be difficult for children to fully comprehend. The Who HQ often tackles these controversial or dark events and people head on with books about the Holocaust, Che Guevara and The Vietnam War.
When Michael LeSauvage, writer for Geekdad.com, asked publisher Penguin Random House about this subject, they responded by saying “[We] try to present kids with a rounded, realistic portrait of every subject. Sometimes that means touching upon extramarital relationships, sexual orientation, drug use, even legal matters. However, we are very careful to treat these aspects in a way that is appropriate for a young audience.”
Essentially, the writers and publishers of the Who Was series aim to write biographies that are appropriate for young readers, but still give a complete overview of a person’s life or of a historical event. They aren’t afraid to discuss topics of racism, death, and religion.
Many of these topics are central to influential and important people, making it difficult to avoid them when discussing what makes them worth learning about. The Who Was series finds a balance between presenting the facts and knowing how to present them for a young audience.
In the case of Rosa Parks, her life story is directly tied into the racist history of America, including Jim Crow Laws, the Ku Klux Klan, and daily violence against African Americans.
McDonough doesn’t shy away from these topics, but instead finds ways to directly tie them into Parks’ story and contextualize them. There’s the Claudette Colvin story from earlier, but there’s also the inclusion of the KKK’s involvement in Parks’ hometown growing up.
Growing up in the segregated American South, Parks faced racism every day of her life. She could only ride certain buses, eat at certain restaurants, and she would be harrassed by the white people living in her small town.
McDonough brings up the Ku Klux Klan during one of the first chapters, describing how they would burn black people’s homes and churches while the police did nothing to stop them. She also describes how Parks’ father would sit outside their house with a shotgun whenever the Klan marched.
Rather then go into extreme details, McDonough rather describes in plain words what these people did. The very next page after their initial mention is a side note describing the KKK in more detail, clearly stating that they are a hate group that gained popularity in the early 1900’s.
By not shying away from this ugly part of Rosa Parks’ life, and an ugly part of American history, McDonough is able to clearly define what the KKK is by relating it directly to this person’s life, and without getting into graphic detail about the atrocities the group committed.
In this case, and many others throughout the Who Was series, the dark and sensitive topic is directly addressed by connecting it to the main person of history of the book. The author also doesn’t go into greater detail so as to ensure the topic is equally appropriate for children and not shied away from.
WhoHQ continues to release books in the Who Was, What Was, and Where Is series. By writing engaging stories, full of accurate facts and historical context, these biographies are perfect for young readers looking to learn more about history and the world around them.
A wide variety of WhoHQ children’s biography books can be found on the Book Bundler website. Ranging from inspiring historical figures, life-changing events, and even histories of famous fictional characters, the WhoHQ has something for everybody and is one of the most requested series on the entire website.
Sam Goodrich grew up reading to pass the time in school, seeing it as a way to entertain himself after a test. Now he's become a writer himself, hoping to expose the positive sides of media. When he's not writing about books, Sam is watching every movie, playing a few games, and trying to find ways to talk about them with anyone who will listen. His other work can be found on his portfolio website: https://goodrichsamuel.