Picture Book Biographies: Childhoods of Self-Discovery Lead to Meaningful Lives

“Play the real way.”

I can’t identify the moment I noticed that when the children I counsel in my rural school told me about a game they liked to play they no longer meant tag or UNO or imaginary pirates, but a favorite video game.

I do remember suggesting a board game as a fun activity to a child who replied, Bored game? I don’t have any of those,” because all his video games were exciting.

These were five and six year old kids, not upper elementary preteens. The games they extolled ran the gamut from the gentle SuperMario Brothers to the brutal Grand Theft Auto and the children preferred them to any other “games” they knew.

Recognizing that video games were indeed alluring and very much a part of their culture, I’d inquire with curiosity about which game they preferred and why, how much time they played it daily, and whether or not they knew any other kind of games: the kind with real people, real pets or real things like balls, toys or art supplies.

About the same time, my principal and dear friend Kristin was reading up on the importance of play for children’s social-emotional and academic development, while I was reading about Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory.

Our rich conversations led me to replace the typical “world of work” unit in the counseling curriculum with one one called “8 Ways We Are Smart.” When children understand the variety of ways people may be smart, they can connect the intelligences with the joy found in meaningful leisure as well as work, and identify which intelligences play a role in any activity.

After all, the purpose of education ought to be preparing a whole person for a meaningful life, not producing a mere worker desperate for some “down time” on a screen.

Which of course doesn’t mean that we should “smash the machines,” but rather that we must learn to order their use wisely. Teaching children how to discover their strengths and see that they can be applied in both work and leisure gives them a foundation for a joyful life of curiosity and meaningful service.

Scholastic’s post, The Different Ways Your Child Learns provides a short introduction for parents wanting to know more about applying the theory to support children, especially those who struggle in the school-rewarded “smarts” of reading, math and athletics. The 8 intelligences (and their kid-friendly names) are pictured below.

Everyone has all the intelligences, but our particular strengths vary greatly in combinations and ability, and they can grow with application. That’s where play comes in.

In developing the curriculum, I searched for children’s books that showed the multiple intelligences in action. From there, it was easy to see that children’s play was where their “smarts” were often revealed and developed. I could encourage children to limit screen time by showing them what they were missing.

Each of the following stories is about a person grew up to be not simply famous, but who contributed something really valuable to the world.

And in each one (but the last, for reasons that will become evident) we’re given a glimpse into the ways their play led to a joyful discovery of their gifts.

Me…Jane.

Just last month Jane Goodall was awarded the 2021 Templeton Prize, which “celebrates individuals who harness the power of science to questions about the universe and humanity’s purpose.” Goodall’s name is recognizable around the globe for her groundbreaking work with chimpanzees in Tanzania and her ongoing efforts to research animal intelligence, expand safe habitats and explore human spirituality.

Patrick McDonnell’s Me…Jane, with simple text and adorable illustrations, shows us a curious girl who was given a stuffed chimpanzee as a birthday present. Jane named him Jubilee and carried him everywhere as an imaginary companion.

Jane read books and incorporated their stories into her imaginary world. She climbed the tree in her back yard, and “with the wind in her hair, she read and reread the books about Tarzan of the Apes, in which another girl, also named Jane, lived in the jungles of Africa.” With Jubilee at her side, Jane imagined she was in the jungle.

Jane gathered treasures from the natural world and created her own illustrated nature journals. Once she even hid out in a chicken coop in order to “witness the miracle” of a hen laying an egg.

What a perfect opportunity to see nature smart, word smart, picture smart and self smart growing and connecting in Jane as she played. Would she be more refreshed and joyful if she’d spent those hours on a video game? Would she have known herself and her gifts any better?

Me…Jane includes before and after pictures of the little girl who dreamed of Africa, went there as soon as she was old enough and made an enormous impact for good with her life’s work.

The Goose Man.

When Konrad was a boy, he and his best friend Gretl were each given a duckling as a pet. The ducks followed the children everywhere and the children, fascinated, tried to imitate them by walking, talking and even attempting to fly like ducks.

So begins the charming story of Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz, who would one day win a Nobel Prize for his contribution to the world’s scientific knowledge about animal behavior.

Elaine Greenstein’s The Goose Man begins with Konrad’s childhood affection for animals of all kinds (his parents allowed him to care for many pets, including an alligator and a monkey).

He had a special fascination for the geese that honked overhead every March and October. One illustration shows Konrad as a teen, lying in the grass, watching their migration.

Does your child prefer playing alone? Let him know that his “self smart” grows during those times; screen-free “alone time” helps us discover what gives us joy.

How did Konrad’s “self smart” influence his life’s work? He studied medicine and practiced as a doctor (people smart) but soon realized that studying animals (nature smart) made him happier.

Konrad’s curiosity (logic smart) initiates inquiry into previously unresearched scientific questions. We see the first gosling that attaches to Konrad and follows him home, where Konrad and his wife (he married his friend Gretl) prepare a bed for “Martina” right beside their own.

The friendship between Konrad and Martina is remarkable. Konrad would tuck Martina inside his shirt as he worked at his desk and would even take an afternoon swim in the river with his pet goose!

The Goose Man follows Konrad from childhood to old age and reminds me every time I read it how blessed are those who know their gifts so well that they can change careers before it’s too late and apply their strengths in a lifetime of passionate pursuit.

We applaud at the story’s conclusion when Konrad, dressed in a tuxedo, is presented a coveted award for his scientific work. But he looks more like himself on the last page, an elderly man in comfy clothes walking a tree-lined path, a gaggle of geese behind him.

The Art Lesson.

Every year since my children were little, I’ve displayed Tomie de Paola’s pop-up book, The First Christmas as part of our Advent journey. Its colorful illustrations allow us to follow the Christ child’s story from the Annunciation to the journey to Bethlehem, the angelic celebration of his birth to the Magi’s journey to pay him homage.

De Paola’s books are simply legendary, and children’s book lovers of all ages mourned his death last year after a fall in his studio-barn. Whether your favorite is Strega Nona, The Knight and the Dragon, or one of his myriad retellings from the Bible and the lives of the saints, we all love his recognizable style and gentle touches of humor.

How did Tomie play as a boy? He drew, of course (picture smart). The Art Lesson is an autobiographical account about the future author/illustrator’s desire to be a real artist. Tomie drew and drew and drew and listened intently to the advice of his older twin cousins, who were already in art school.

A bonus in this book is a page showing what Tomie’s other friends liked to play. Jack collects turtles (nature smart), Herbie builds sandbox cities (picture smart, body smart, logic smart), and Jeannie does cartwheels and stands on her head (body smart).

This offers an opportunity to discuss the varied strengths of others and how those strengths may show up in their play.

I love the way Tomie smuggles his box of 64 Crayola crayons to school and seeks permission from the art teacher to use them. You may want to purchase a set of 64 Crayola crayons to give your “picture smart” child along with this book, which ends with a self portrait of the grown Tomie in his studio, pictures of his famous book illustrations on the wall.

Art from Her Heart.

“Clementine waited until her work in the Big House was done and the twinkle of stars filled the night sky above the Cane river. She was ready to paint, like the artists she cooked and cleaned for on the Melrose Plantation.”

That’s the arresting opening of Art From Her Heart: Folk Artist Clementine Hunter by Kathy Whitehead and Shane W. Evans.

There’s a twist to this story in comparison to the others, one that may help a child with abundant choices feel compassion for those not so fortunate (people smart).

Clementine Hunter (1886/7?-1988) quit her segregated school at a young age and never learned to read or write. “She told her Mama she’d rather pick cotton.”

The oldest but the smallest of the family’s six children, her nickname was Tébé (French for “little baby”) but “she called herself Clementine from the time she was old enough to pick flowers and haul them home in a cart.”

This brightly illustrated book, recommended by an art-teacher friend, is a lesson in the perseverance born of dignity and self-possession (self-smart). Clementine wanted to paint like the visiting artists who came to the plantation, but “she didn’t wait for the perfect set of paints and canvas. She used the leftovers the artists gave her.” She even used old window shades for canvas.

Clementine Hunter had a childhood of labor rather than play. But she also had an eye for beauty and expressed it in her own self-taught way: crafting quilts and much later, painting into the night.

Clementine didn’t wait for the world to find her art.

Clementine was in her 40’s when she began painting. When her husband became terminally ill she created an exhibit of her work with an admission cost of 25 cents. Recognizing her talent, donors finally gave her quality art supplies. Later her art was displayed in prominent museums, one of which, because of Jim Crow, wouldn’t let her in until after hours to see her own work. “But the laws that kept her out would soon be gone like feed thrown to the chickens.”

Clementine Hunter didn’t wait for perfection. She did what was in her heart. She made art.

Clementine’s story can help children see the possibilities that lay hidden inside us every one of us. Where is your child’s heart?

It’s waiting to come out and play.

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You might also enjoy Castles, Catch and Kairos: Relearning Play in an Age of Digital Distraction and Frustrated with the Gift of Gab? Consider the Word-Smart Gift Behind It.

A few more children’s books highlighting how real play indicates our gifts: Before John [Coltrane] Was a Jazz Giant, When Cesar Chavez Climbed the Umbrella Tree, A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice, Yayoi Kusama: From Here to Infinity!, Manfish: the Story of Jacques Cousteau, and Babe Didrikson Zaharias: All-Around Athlete.

Gardner has proposed but not officially endorsed a ninth intelligence, tentatively defined as: Individuals who exhibit the proclivity to pose and ponder questions about life, death, and ultimate realities.” It’s been called the spiritual, existential or cosmic intelligence. I’d propose St. Thérèse of Lisieux as an example and suggest The Little Flower: A Parable of Thérèse of Lisieux for children.

Kathy Koch’s 8 Great Smarts: Discover and Nurture Your Child’s Intelligences is a wonderful compendium for parents and teachers who want to support children’s self-discovery.

I collect children’s stories like the ones above and would love to know your recommendations! What books do you love that might illustrate the connection between play and the intelligences that grow through it? Please share below!

Photos by Team Fredi on and Bermix Studio on Unsplash. Graphic by Sajaganesandip licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International.

2 thoughts on “Picture Book Biographies: Childhoods of Self-Discovery Lead to Meaningful Lives

  1. This was a perfect read for this Sunday evening. In recognizing, honoring, and nurturing, the diversity of intelligences that God has planted in His people we honor the Creator.

    I think I still have on my shelf a book that addresses prayer for diverse intelligences. I’ll search my shelves for it.

    Thank you for your service to the youngest of His people. May God continue to bless you and your ministry.

    1. Oh wow, I would love to check into that book. Thanks so much sharing your thoughts! I hope, as summer starts, that through books like these families can really help their children have an enriching and delightful time of exploration. Bless you Dcn Jerry!

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