Top 10 Best Biographies for Children


Biographies are not an easy text type for children to write. One of the reasons for this is that they need a wide knowledge of the world and particularly about the person they are going to write about. Without this wide knowledge the biography tends to become a list of facts about their lives rather than telling us about the person. Many of the biographies I have chosen for this list start with the person in childhood and discuss how this affects what they do later in life.

“Every life is inexplicable, I kept telling myself. No matter how many facts are told, no matter how many details are given, the essential thing resists telling. To say that so and so was born here and went there, that he did this and did that, that he married this woman and had these children, that he lived, that he died, that he left behind these books or this battle or that bridge – none of that tells us very much.” ― Paul Auster, The New York Trilogy

Virginia Wolf said ‘History is too much about wars; biography about great men.’ So, to counter that view, many of these biographies are about women.

Little People, Big Dreams is a series of books aimed at younger children about incredible women. This one is Amelia Earhart by Isabel Sanchez Vegara and Mariadiamantes.  The series includes Coco Chanel, Frieda Kahlo, Maya Angelo, Agatha Christie and Marie Curie.

Each double page spread provides information about Earhart as a child and how expereinces in her childhoold were the driving force to fly.  She became the first female to fly solo across the Atlantic ocean.  This informative biography comes with extra facts about Earhart’s life at the back.

This book is suitable as a model of writing for Yr2 and appears on our texts that teach list.

Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World by Kate Pankhurst continues the theme of women who did great things that had a big impact.

This book is about several women, each one detailed on a double page spread.  One of the many strengths of this book is that the layout and presentation is different for each woman. I love the page for Coco Chanel where the word ‘Snip!’ is used as a refrain.

Uncomfortable corsets! Snip! (Oh la la!) Pointless bows and ribbons! Snip! (Au revoir!)  Giant fancy hats! Snip! (Sacre bleu!).

This book really teaches layout matching content and a lively way of writing about people.  It is suitable for Yrs 3 and 4 and appears on our texts that teach list.

Like the previous two books, this book was also released for International Women’s Day in March 2017.

Women in Science – 50 fearless pioneers by Rachel Ignotofsky provides mini-biographies of women, many of whom I had not heard of.  When you look at the book, you will not be surprised to find out that Ignotofsky is a graphic designer.  Each double page spread provides a biography, snippets of information, iillustrations about their work and a picture of them. If you visit Love Reading 4 Kids and sign in, you can download a double page spread to see that the book is like. This book is suitable for Yr5 and 6 and appears on our texts that teach list.

The Darkest Dark: Astronaut by Chris Hadfield is a really interesting book.  The main part of the book details Hadfield’s life as a child and his interest in space and space travel told in story form. At the back of the book is a biography of Hadfield and his work as a Canadian pilot, finishing with a message from Hadfield.

Although this book would be suitable for Yrs3 and 4 to read, as a model of writing where children learn to manage the shifts in formality through varying grammar and vocabulary, this book would be excellent for Yrs5 and 6.  Hilary Mantel talks about being like a historian and interpreting, selecting, discarding and shaping but as a writer of fiction making up people’s thoughts.  This would be possible with this book.

I am a complete sucker for the part of the page on Amazon that says ‘people who bought  this also bought….’ and so this is how I came to own a copy of One Giant Leap: The story of Neil Armstrong by Don Brown. Again, this book tells of the young Armstrong and his desire to fly and how this ended up with him being the first astronaut to walk on the moon.  Suitable for Yrs3 and 4.


Cloth Lullaby: The woven life of Louise Bourgeois by Amy Noveesky and  Isabelle Arsenault is beautiful.

The writing isquite lyrical –

The river provided flowers and fruit, a lullaby and a livelihood.

but also makes the link between weaving and spiders which so influenced the work of Bourgeois.  The illustrations are gorgeous and weave together the cloth and the river in flowing images across the pages. Woven throughout the text are quotes from Bourgeois and others who have written about her and these are listed and attributed at the end of the book.   This would be an interesting way for children to ‘borrow’ from other writers and use in their writing. At the is also an Author’s Note which writes a biography that is a more formal biography that provides some background information that is not in the main text.  These two models would provide an excellent model for managing shifts in formality, making this book suitable for Yrs5 and 6. This book will appear on our texts that teach list.

Meet the artist! Alexander Calder by Patricia Geis is a book that I have written about before.  It contains pop-ups, little booklets, a circus and suggestions for creating your own art works.

This is a very accessible biography for Yrs 3 and 4 with the book on Picasso in the same series more suitable for Yrs5 and 6.


Many schools study Mary Anning so this book Stone Girl, Bone Girl by Laurence Anholt may be one book that is already in school.  Like Louise Bourgeois, Mary Anning was very influenced by one of her parents: her father who introduced her to fossils.  Anning is also included in the book Fantastically Great Women and so it would be interesting to compare the information included in each and compare.  Other books that could also be used are Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon by Jeannine Atkins and The Fossil Girl by Catherine Brighton.  For teachers there is the wonderful  book by Tracy Chevalier –  Remarkable Creatures.  These books would be suitable for Yrs 3 and 4.

This book follows a similar pattern to The Darkest Dark and several others, telling the story of Jane Goodall as a child and ending with a biography in a more formal tone.  The images are part photograph part illustration which is a visual way of showing what is known and what is imagined.  A really useful model for KS2 Me … Jane is told by Patrick Mcdonnell.



Charles Dickens by Manning and Granstrom is a wonderful way to tell the story of a person’s life.  Told through more formal biography, speech bubbles, comic strips, illustrations and smippets of information. The ‘story’ also moves between third and first person.  This makes is a fantastic book to teach managing shifts in formality and is included on our texts that teach lists.

Included in this book is background information about the life and times when Dickens was alive and this is one of the reasons this book is so good and different to other biographies.

Manfish by Jennifer Berne is the story of Jacques Cousteau told in picture book style. There are parts of the text which swirl and wave around the page and others that are set out in paragraphs. This was one of the first picture book biographies that I read and was what convinced me there were other ways of sharing an interest in a person in writing.


If a book is on our texts that teach list then we have  a teaching sequence written around it. To purchase sequences individually, click here and scroll through the pages. To purchase a whole school subscription to over 120 teaching sequences for Yr1 to Yr6, click here.

Books for guided reading

We are frequently asked for suggestions for guided reading as are our wonderful School Library Service so we decided to get together and come up with a list. Who could say no to half a day looking at books? We looked at loads of books and chose some for our list which we have organised by year group but of course there are no hard and fast boundaries.

One of the things that we have decided to do is to say why we have chosen the book, and therefore what is it about the text that is worth discussing. This is not the only thing worth discussing in the book but is a starting point.

To support us with this, we have delved into Doug Lemov’s latest book Reading Reconsidered. Although it is written about secondary age pupils, we found much in it that resonated with us.  We were particularly taken with his ‘reading plagues’ as they summarise the challenges in books that we did not have  name for but often discussed.

1. Archaic text.  We know that texts written some time ago have a different vocabulary and syntax so why on earth would we want children to read books like this?  I think the reason is that they are part of our heritage and culture and are often books that have stood the test of time.  If we don’t introduce children to these books and ways of writing, some children will never meet them.  Take for instance Paddington Bear in Paddington Hits Out by Mchael Bond

‘Do you happen to have my tee handy, Bear?’asked Mr Curry, as he took up his position at the start.

‘Your tea, Mr Curry?’ repeated Paddington. Taken even more by surprise at this sudden request, he reached hastily under his hat in an effort to make amends for his accident, and withdrew a marmalade sandwich.

There is so much in just this small amount of text. There is the knowledge about golf and therefore the wordplay with tee/tea and linking this with ‘the accident’ in the next sentence and vocabulary such as ‘to make amends’ and ‘withdrew’ , The last sentence is a long one with many clauses  starting with a past participle (taken) and can be confusing in terms of who did what and why.

There is not a year group when children should start to read books with this type of langauge. The idea is that as soon as books are read to children and when they start to read books themselves, children come across texts which use archaic language.

2. Non-linear time sequence.  There are  texts which jump backwards and forwards in time and in setting. One example of this is The Butterfly Lion by Michael Morpurgo.  The story starts off with a narrator going back in time to his school days and by the end of the first chapter has moved into ‘seeing the lion’ alongside an old lady who he met in the woods.  The story then moves setting to Africa and back further in the old lady’s memory. You can read the start of the story here.  If you asked ‘When is this story set?’ it would be quite a complex answer because the story shifts amongst times and narrators.  These texts are more than flashbacks or flashforwards. Non-lineartime sequences might involve being unclear about when an event took place, moving from a single event in time to multiple moments in time, layers of memory (which is what happens in The Butterfly Lion) and shifts in the rate of time elapsing.

3. Complexity of narrator.  There can be multiple narrators (Voices in the Park by Anthony Browne), unreliable narrators (The True Story of the Three LIttle Pigs by Jon Sciezka) and non-human narrators (Dr Xargle’s book of Earthlets by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross).  If you haven’t come across narrators like these, it can be a very disorientating experience. I remember reading Dr Xargle to a Yr3/4 class and them completely missing that it was an alien describing the babies and couldn’t work out why they didn’t use the ‘right words’.

4. Complexity of story (plot and symbolism).  A story with mulitple plots is obviously harder to follow than one that follows one plot.  Black and White by David Macaulay is a perfect example of this sort of text. Consisting of four stories, it is not clear at the beginning where you should start and whether you should read each one separately or all at the same time and whether they are separate stories or all one story. Also included in this plague are books that have many intertextual links: those stories where characters from other stories pop up. This is quite common at present, particularly in stories about books. One example is  Yours Truly, Goldilocks by Alma Flor Ada where Little Red Riding Hood and Peter Rabbit appear. At an even simpler level The Foggy Foggy Forest by Nick Sharratt has Sleeping Beauty and the Three Bears appearing in it.

5. Resistant text.  Books which are just difficult to read/understand because they need to be or books which have parts that refuse to yield up their meaning.  I have often found The Secret Garden to be quite a resistant text for primary age children yet often find it in guided reading sets.  Sometimes the resistant text can be anticipated and other times it can’t.

It is not that every book in guided reading has to link to one of these plagues, it is just that they can be complications in texts.  See our list of guided reading books here along with our reasons for choosing them.

Inspired by others.

I recently read several blog posts by @headguruteacher, a secondary school Headteacher who has a fantastic blog about his work. One of the posts that particularly caught my eye was the one that shared the research his school development is based on. It would be a great idea if every school shared theirs so that we could all dip into different research papers and link with those who were endeavouring to develop and embed the ideas.

So in the interests of sharing, I thought I would list the research that we base some of our work on.

  1. For our grammar work, we draw very heavily on Debra Myhill’s research. More than anything, her work has helped us to think about the type and quality of talk that surrounds grammar teaching and learning as well as the idea that it is the impact on writing that is important.
  2. Our work on growth mindsets has been very influenced by Carol Dweck and Jo Boaler (with thanks to the maths team).
  3. The model of CPD that we have found to have a significant effect on the quality of teaching and learning is the lesson study model. I love the way that it is about little tweaks to teaching that can have a significant effect on individual children. I also love the fact that it focuses on children and their learning not the teacher and their performance.
  4. For writing, our favourite piece of research is Transforming Writing which focuses on embedding formative assessment in the writing process. This has had a very real impact on how we teach writing.
  5. In spelling there is not one piece of research that stands out as being the key driver but several. Anyone who has seen our publication No Nonsense Spelling will recognise word study as being one of the key ideas behind it as well as the use of research into the importance of morphemes.
  6. In reading we use a wide range of research.  Reciprocal Reading is a key component of the 2014 national curriculum and is a key tool to be dipped into. We believe guided reading is a key strategy that teachers of reading need to use to meet children’s needs. This document is a really useful summary of the research in this area.

We have also used:

What are the key research papers that you use in your school?

Managing shifts between levels of formality

I have been working with several teachers on the end of KS2 statement

manage shifts between levels of formality through selecting vocabulary precisely and by manipulating grammatical structures

The exemplification files for Leigh and Frankie show some good examples of what this can look like in writing.

  • in narrative they have shown the difference in formality between the story and some of the speech used by characters
  • in an explanation the text is more formal with a much more informal tone when relating the information to the writer’s own life
  • in a newspaper report the formality of the journalists report is contrasted with the informality of the direct and reported speech
  • in a diary different levels of formality are used to emphasise a point
  • in a letter the personal reflection on what will happen is more informal to show the excitement and enthusiasm of the writer

We then went on to think about texts that would model this for the children. One that we had to hand was My Secret War Diary by Flossie Albright – author Marcia Williams.  You can open this book on any page and find some examples of shifts in formality. We happened to open the book on p60 and found diary entries in very informal, spoken language which doesn’t always have subject verb agreement.


Flipping heck, I’m scared. I don’t want to sleep all alone downstairs no more. The Luftwaffe has begun to attack British Ships in the channel; our pilots spotted dozens of German aircraft dropping bombs on a convy near Dover.  Cook says it’s their invasion tactic to draw British planes into battle and then destroy them … I hopes we got enough planes.

This is then contrasted with a war talk in assembly from Miss Duncan on p61. It is more formal, although it still uses the pronouns you and our but it also contains the passive to distance and separate ‘us’ from the downed pilots who are prisoners. Another good page to use would be p22 and 23 where the informality of the diary entries is contrasted with a more formal newspaper report and within the report there are shifts of formality as well.

Which texts have you used to teach this? Has anyone used a film that would support the teaching of this element?

Effective teaching of spelling

A lot of schools are now focusing on their teaching of spelling.  To be honest, it has not generally been taught well in KS2 for a while but the new grammar, punctuation and spelling test has ensured that we pay more attention to it.  At present two of the projects that I am involved in are focusing on the teaching of spelling and children with disadvantage. Currently we are grappling with what constitutes effective teaching of spelling and have come up with some ideas.  We ae drawing heavily on what we know works in phonics to help us with this list:

  • systematic and consistent teaching of spelling.  We know that fidelity to a pathway has an impact on the effectiveness of phonics teaching and learning and I see no reason why this is not so in spelling.  It helps us to follow the expectations of progress and to ensure that we cover everything that we need to do so.  There are many spelling programmes out there, most of which have to be paid for but ours are free!
  • we know that in phonics children need to blend and segment 20-30 times in a phonics session. This helps to establish the neural pathways for this way of working. It stands to reason then, that the more the children use the convention/rule with words and write the words, the more effective it will be.  Writing the word once will not support learning.
  • this means that one off lessons will not work for those who do not have deep neural pathways for looking at words.  Working on the idea of revise, teach, practise and apply will help to secure this work, Although in phonics, this structure would happen in one session, we use these over a series of sessions; the first being teach, second practise and third apply.
  • in order that children apply what we are teaching in spelling sessions we need a strategy to support this transference.  We use have-a-go sheets. (the next post will focus on these)
  • in the teach, practise and apply sequence, the practise session needs to have a greater degree of independence than the teach session.
  • spelling work must involve writing the words in a stream of words (sentences). In phonics we always finish off the session with reading or writing sentences. It is our experience that children can often read or write individual words but sometimes struggle when doing so in sentences.  Surely the ultimate is that children spell words corrctly when writing in sentences. if this is so, we must practise it!
  • all children need access to age-related teaching with additional work for catch up if they are behind. Our mantra is ‘as well as not instead of’.  This is a fundamental principle and is often one that needs some changes in how things are organised in order that it happens.
  • children need to learn strategies to learn spellings.  This is a routine and can be developed and refined over the years in KS2.

What do you think is important in the teaching and learning of spelling?

Paradise Garden and holiday monster

If you are a fan of Colin Thompson’s books then you will no doubt already enjoy The Paradise Garden.  We love this book for a range of reasons: it is just perfect; it shows a great voyage and return blueprint; it speaks to most children; the images are very engaging.

What I love most about it though, is the language and sentence construction (I am a primary literacy adviser!).  I particularly enjoy the first three pages where the sentences get longer and longer as Peter relaxes in to his new environment.  Whilst working with the latest group of SCITT trainees we were wrestling with contexts in which we could get children to do the same thing.  One trainee mentioned being uptight before going on holiday and then relaxing as you get to your destination.

That jogged our memories about the advert where Simon the Ogre goes on holiday, gradually relaxes and then becomes a normal human being.  A perfect context for playing with sentence length.  The more he relaxes, the longer our sentences get.  Brilliant!

Back blogging! Level 6 readers in primary schools

It is such a long time since I last blogged.  Basically, I have been so busy I haven’t even had time to think, never mind write. That isn’t changing  but I hate not having time to think about things and develop them, and I know blogging allows me to do that so – time to blog again!

Today we ran our first level 6 reading course.  It has been an interesting journey over the last few years as far as level 6 is concerned: more children achieving level 6 in writing than in reading in primary schools, a pattern not seen at other levels.  We think there are more level 6 readers than writers, they are just not used to writing in the way they need to to pass the test.This has led us to consider why and what we need to do about it.

burger for level 61 We introduced the burger of response as a way of supporting children to think about responding to texts.  In fact wehen Becca and I get together we often link what we are doing to food.  We already had the doughnut of inference and now we have the burger .  Imagine our disappointment when @RTDurant , our secondary colleague, told us that secondary schools have been using it for some time!



This led us to thinking about the texts that we use with level 6 readers.  We came to the conclusion that there needs to be an emphasis on trying out the skills on a wide range of texts and that means that we can’t always work with longer novels, but need to use shorter texts. Poetry is an excellent way in as are short stories. Not extracts though! Other resources that may help are our texts for level 6 readers independent reading.

If you are in a primary school, what are you doing for level 6 readers?  We would love to know.

The best ever staff meetings

I have recently been reading quite a few blog posts about staff meetings and what people really hate about them. Lots of things judging by this blog post and the comments below!

As someone who leads quite a few staff meetings and non-pupil days, this set me thinking.  Over the summer holidays I remember hearing about a hospital trust who started to invite patients in to their meetings to tell their story about their visit and treatment at the hospital.  They did this by filming patients and it had a significant impact on those in the meeting and their understanding of what they do from a patients point of view.  It led to dramatic changes in the way in which they approached certain types of care and  treatment.

This made me wonder if we should be inviting past pupils to talk to us on film about their time in school, those that did well and those that struggled for whatever reasons.  I would love to know what was memorable for them, what they found the most useful , what didn’t work and why.  I was in tears listening to the woman on the radio talking about her treatment and care and why it didn’t work. I would be as emotional listening to children who told me what hadn’t worked in school.

As John Hattie says in his remarkable book Visible Learning: maximising impact on learning, ‘know thy impact’.

What is the best staff meeting activity you have ever taken part in? I’d really like to know.

Updating our texts that teach lists

Well it is that time of year again.  The time when we get together with our wonderful school library service and update our texts that teach list and our guided reading list.  Imagine a day spent looking at wonderful books.  I love it, as we all do, and every year end up with a favourite book.  This year  I have a few but my all time favourite is The Usborne Illustrated Thesaurus.

usborneThis is not the usual sort of book that I would choose as a favourite, but I have fallen in love with it.  The pages are clearly laid out and the text is not too dense.  Every table in a classroom should have one of these on it so that children can refer to it easily and regularly.

What I like most about it are the themed word boxes, some of which are for particular genre.  Now you might start to see why I like it so much!  For instance the fantasy box has different characters and settings that are used in fantasy stories.  The lists make a great model for collecting vocabulary for the text type that you are working on at the  moment but also provide a wonderful list of words that can be used for warming up the word activities, from talk for writing, that allow the children to roll the language over their tongues and eventually for it to become their own.

One game it lends itself to is ‘Usual words in unusual combinations’. Most of the words in the lists are adjectives and nouns and so work well together.  Children could pick words from different columns and put them together to see how they sound.  The trick is to do this quickly and not to worry if the phrase doesn’t sound right.  I came up with

  • terrifying, tangled curse
  • mesmerising, hushed library
  • bewitching, impenetrable swamp

You get the idea.

Children could also use the ideas on these themed lists to create a story as the characters and settings plus problems are all there.

Another way the book could be used is to look up a usual word that is overused in writing, e.g. angry and look up the synonyms for the word.  Taking a paint chart sample, children then order the words in terms of intensity and record them on the sample card.  These can then be displayed and children encouraged to choose a different word to fit the context they are writing about.

Other great activities for using a thesaurus can be found by clicking on the links below:

What is your favourite book at the moment?  Here is a favourite from Grammar Puss.