'Who Was…?' Biography Series Excellent Reading for Your Kids

Reading Time: 4 minutes
Covers of three books: Who Was Amelia Earhart, showing Amelia in flying gear in front of a plane, Who Is Stan Lee, with Stand Lee surrounded by comic-book style Bam! and Pow! callouts, and Who Was Marie Curie, showing Marie Curie in her lab holding a glowing green vial.
Covers for the series share a unique style, making the books immediately identifiable.

Getting your children to read a biography can be a tough sell. Even if they love to read, a biography is likely not high on their list of entertainment. So, when my ten-year-old daughter came home with an assignment to do a book report on a biography of her choice, I set out to find a book that had depth while remaining accessible. As an added bonus, I wanted to find a book featuring a strong female role model. Frankly, I didn’t have high hopes as I sat down for what I thought would be a fruitless session with Google.

Surprisingly, I almost immediately stumbled upon Who Was Marie Curie by Megan Stine, and a quick look piqued my interest. As it was available digitally, I took the relatively minor financial risk and started reading. It soon became apparent that it was exactly what I was looking for.

Who Was Marie Curie is well written, presenting her story in a tone that deftly walks the line between oversimplification without becoming boring. There are illustrations, but they generally serve to add detail to the story and don’t detract from the reading. Interest level is helpfully maintained by sidebars that include discussions of ancillary personalities (Henri Becquerel), world events (World War I), and concepts (a brief explanation of radioactivity). The length of the book is also perfectly set – this is an evening’s read, not a multi-day effort. It was reminiscent to me of the Value Tales I read as a child, but with more emphasis on the biography than the moral lesson.

As much as I was happy about the tone, pace, and style of the book, Who Was Marie Curie really shines in that it doesn’t shy away from a full examination of her life. Of course, the basic story is here: Marie growing up in occupied Poland, her education, meeting Pierre Curie, her discovery of polonium and radium, and receiving two Nobel prizes. But the book also covers the hardships and controversies that she faced: women barred from Warsaw University; her marriage to the son of a wealthy family being forbidden due to her social status; the damage done to her by radiation; and, interestingly, the book even covers the public shaming that came from her affair with Paul Langevin.

When Paul’s wife found out he and Marie were in Brussels together, she was furious. She suspected that Paul and Marie were still in love. She sent Marie’s love letters to the Paris newspapers! A terrible scandal broke out. There were stories about Marie and Paul in the newspaper every day. Many French people thought Marie was to blame.

All of this is done in a way I found completely appropriate for young minds and served as great discussion points with my daughter on how women are treated in society. Most importantly, my daughter loved the book, and immediately asked for more from the series. She has since enjoyed biographies on Helen Keller, Jane Goodall, Mark Twain, Amelia Earhart, Walt Disney, Abraham Lincoln, Pablo Picasso, Susan B. Anthony, and even Stan Lee! The series has definitely hit the sweet spot between interest and information; my daughter has continually surprised me with information from the books, including a discussion on primate tool use she initiated after reading Who Is Jane Goodall? In fact, her reading of Who Was Mark Twain? led her to read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn!

Covers of three books: Who Was Mark Twain, showing Twain on a deck with a riverboat in the distance, Who Was Susan B. Anthony? with Anthony surrounded by protesters with vote signs, and Who Is Jane Goodall, featuring Goodall in the Jungle with a monkey in a tree behind her.
Between Who Is Jane Goodall? and this classic Far Side comic that my kids found, I had some explaining to do…

I was curious to know more about the Who Was…? series and contacted Penguin Young Readers.  I learned that the series was launched in 2002 and is the brainchild of Jane O’Connor, who recognized a need for biographies for middle-graders. Part of the goal was to make the books over 100 pages to qualify for book reports. Penguin also confirmed my observation about dealing with potentially complicated material, stating that they “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.”

I have to say that this excellent series has met its goals. Having recently published the 100th book, there are plenty of choices out there for your children. I’m particularly happy to see so many options to share strong female influences with my daughter, but whatever your child’s interests, you’re sure to find something here for him or her. Targeted at ages 8 to 12, and with both paperback and Kindle editions available on Amazon for under $5, the Who Was…? series may be the perfect books you’ve been looking for to keep your child’s mind engaged over the summer holidays.

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