Book Beat

A Bevy of Biographies

by Frank Lipsius

There are as many biographies as there are people in the world, but only certain biographies get written by others, and only some of those are written with any frequency.

Benjamin Franklin has had many biographers, starting with his own autobiography. For the 300th anniversary of his birth this year on Jan. 17, Cheryl Harness’s The Remarkable Benjamin Franklin (National Geographic, $17.95) makes his life into an exuberant, colorful adventure, with detailed drawings that show the differences between colonial America and elegant France and England.

In A Dangerous Engine: Benjamin Franklin, From Scientist to Diplomat (Farrar Straus Giroux, $17), Joan Dash fills in a unique part of Franklin’s life when he represented the colonies in London after becoming famous as a scientist. Illustrations by Dusan Petricic add to the charm of a story that older readers, including adults, will find enlightening about colonial politics on both sides of the Atlantic.

Renaissance history has never seemed so elegant and tasteful as in Philip Steele’s lavishly illustrated Galileo: The Genius Who Faced the Inquisition (National Geographic, $17.95), nor more steeped in the history of science than in Kathleen Krull’s biography for older readers of Leonardo da Vinci in the Giants of Science series (Viking, $17.99). Stories of his dissection of an old man, followed by the dissection of an infant, mix with the more familiar exploits to show Leonardo in his restless and insatiable quest for knowledge.

Less well-known figures play curious roles in history. In I, Dred Scott (McElderry Books, $16.95), Sheila P. Moses tells the story of the slave who sued for his freedom after living in a free state with his master. When the U.S. Supreme Court refused Scott his freedom, the justices thought they would quiet the growing tension between slave and free states. But they only moved the Civil War closer, while Scott and his family lived among many who supported their efforts, which did eventually lead to freedom before his death in 1858.

Good Brother, Bad Brother: The Story of Edwin Booth and John Wilkes Booth by James Cross Giblin (Clarion, $22) moves forward in history about a decade to tell the fascinating story of two actors, sons of a famous actor, one of whom is renowned for his theatrical work and the other for killing President Lincoln (in a theater). The author gives a detailed account of the assassination plot, hatched by the rabid Confederate supporting brother.

In some ways, James I. Robertson Jr. tells the opposite story in Robert E. Lee (Atheneum, $21.95). Lincoln wanted Lee to lead the Union troops. Instead, Lee led the other side, only to work for reconciliation between North and South once the Civil War ended.

The lives of entertainers and artists reveal what life was like in their time. Lavishly illustrated Harry Houdini: A Magical Life by Elizabeth MacLeod (Kids Can Press, $14.95) shows Houdini’s audience-pleasing feats of astonishing strength and daring, gained through self-discipline.

José! Born to Dance by Susanna Reich with illustrations by Raul Colon (Simon & Schuster, $16.95) tells the story of the noted dancer José Limon, who moved with his parents to America from Mexico and fell into dance after trying other forms of arts.

Biography goes all over the place, but then so do people, with their stories following wherever they go.

Frank Lipsius is a contributing writer to MetroKids.