Thursday, February 26, 2009

Biographies: Stories about People

"Today Benjamin West is remembered because he was the father of American painting; and many like to think of him as the only American ever to become President of the Royal Academy of England. But I like to remember him as a boy who wanted so very much to paint that he dug his colors out of the earth and made his brushes from his cat's tail."

Marguerite Henry

Biography is my favorite genre. Several of my children would tell you biography is their favorite genre, too. What is it about people stories, stories that allow us to peek into the pages of one's life?

We are relational beings, created to be in relationship with others. So, when we pick up a book that invites us into the lives of others, we read as fast as we can, trying to learn more about the person. Such has been the case with one of our recent reading adventures, Benjamin West and His Cat Grimalkin by Marguerite Henry.
My children and I traveled back to eighteenth-century Pennsylvania to grow up alongside Benjamin West, who eventually became the Father of American Painting. We faced his challenges as a Quaker boy passionate about painting, a forbidden venue in his time and community. Benjamin, determined to use his artistic talent, enlists the help of Grimalkin, his coal-black companion. The author's writing style invited us into the plot with her descriptive language and well-structured story line. In fact, by the end of the story, we knew Benjamin West, feeling his frustrations, his joys and his triumphs.

Not only did we come to know Benjamin, but we also came face to face with the Quaker faith and the people who followed these beliefs. Our reading led to profitable conversations and additional research. Having grown up in Quakertown, Pennsylvania, I was familiar with Quakers and what they believed, but this was my children's' first introduction. It was an accurate, historical introduction, one which allowed us to "live" history in eighteenth-century southeast Pennsylvania.

I highly recommend this book, written by an award-winning author who is known for her fictional animal stories as well as her juvenile non-fiction. We read Benjamin West aloud to three of our four youngest, a pre-kindergartner, a second grader and a fifth grader, all whom begged for me to turn the pages and read on. The book could be read independently by children ages 8-12.

For more information about Benjamin West:


  1. Our favorite Margarite Henry has GOT to be "King of the Wind." What can I say? We're horsey people!

    We love biographies. LOVE them. I think they're the most interesting way to study history, especially biblical history!

  2. My post about the same book is here: