Professor’s book uncovers calls to action in children’s biographies

Assistant professor of Communication Sara Vanderhaagen’s new book explores how children’s biographies are rhetorical vehicles for imparting history and inspiring young people to be agents of change. Photo by Sarah Vickery.

At first glance, children’s biographies seem pretty innocuous. Detailing the life and achievements of influential people, they’ve been the subject of countless book reports over the decades.

But look closer, says UWM Communication assistant professor Sara VanderHaagen, and hidden in the pages are hopeful messages to young readers: You, too, can change the world.

“Biographies are immensely powerful in the United States; they’re in all the libraries, in all the classrooms,” she said. “At the same time, they’re dismissed by children’s literature scholars as ‘not scholarly enough.’ They’re not really understood in the same way by education scholars because they’re primarily thinking about what reading level this biography is at.”

That’s a mistake, she argues in her new book. Published in November, Children’s Biographies of African American Women: Rhetoric, Public Memory, and Agency examines biographies of Phillis Wheatley, Sojourner Truth, and Shirley Chisholm and how the rhetoric in each encourages young readers to be changemakers working to make a positive impact. The book is available at

The book grew out of VanderHaagen’s dissertation for her doctorate, completed in 2010 at Northwestern University. She chose to focus on Wheatley, Truth, and Chisholm not only because they were each trailblazers from different time periods – the first African American to publish a book of verse, an outspoken abolitionist and feminist, and America’s first black Congresswoman, respectively – but also because she felt it important to promote the voices of African American women, a group that has often been forgotten or outright silenced in American history.

And, of course, there were plenty of children’s biographies written about them.

VanderHaagen’s book explores those biographies through a new lens adapted from philosopher Paul Ricoeur, who advanced the idea of “three-fold mimesis” (see for more detail). It revolves around three elements of historical narrative texts: Prefiguration – determining what a particular culture defines as action – Configuration – how a storyteller constructs a narrative about that action – and Refiguration – how audiences are invited to use those stories as inspiration to act in their own lives.

“I took his idea of three-fold mimesis, and I adapted it to thinking about agents. I called it the ‘agential spiral,’” VanderHaagen said. “You start with the person who acts in history, and then you have the person who’s writing about the person who acted, and then you have the people reading what those people have written about the person who acted. Once you get back to this point, the reader ideally will become someone about whom someone in the future might write a biography. It’s a spiral of action.”

But, she adds, writers have to use rhetoric to inspire that action in their readers. It turns out that children’s biographies have found ways to do just that.

Many times, VanderHaagen says, books will ask young readers to envision themselves in Wheatley or Truth or Chisholm’s shoes – ‘Could you imagine doing such a thing?’ is a common question. Many books list questions to think about at the end of each chapter.

“In others, it’s subtler. A lot of these texts have a concluding paragraph or chapter called something like, the ‘The legacy of…’” VanderHaagen said. “It will tell you about how there was a Mars rover named after Sojourner Truth. There was a stamp for her and there’s a giant statue of her in Battle Creek, Michigan – all of those kinds of commemorative things. They do that to demonstrate that these people are worthy of remembrance.

“Sometimes they’ll go beyond that and say, ‘How do we remember these people rightly?’ We remember them rightly by continuing their work. How could you continue to do the kind of work that they did?”

Those direct invitations to action are encouraging children to think about their own agency and ability to impact the world around them, VanderHaagen argues. Though, these books are not without fault; she notes that some promote a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” message that ignores the societal support that made many of these women’s achievements possible.

That is why children’s biographies are important to study, she added. Biographies are important vehicles to convey history, and that’s especially pertinent as America grapples with what society wants to remember and forget – whether cities should tear down Confederate monuments, for example, or who appears in textbooks.

“I think it’s important to understand the tools that we sometimes overlook that can help us to make change,” VanderHaagen said. “This is why I wanted to look at biographies about African American women. … I think it’s important to see how these texts can be used positively and negatively to think about what is the best way in which we can use biographies.”

By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science