Biographies for children today have for the most part deviated from fictionalized accounts to emphasize facts. There has also been a shift in purpose, from the raising of heroes to an attempt to help children to understand the development of history, personal choices, social concerns, and human experiences. There is an emphasis on accuracy, avoiding suppositions.
At the same time, as I wrote in a previous post, it’s the element of human yearning that makes any story captivating. We want to know what moved the characters to do what they did. Since choices and human experiences are understood best through feelings, the author can give some hints, like “he probably felt…”
Of course, the best way to portray feelings in the context of a factual biography is by using actual quotes. For example, it was refreshing to read how young Athanasius, in the midst of all his problems during his first years as a bishop, started his Easter Letter to the churches in Egypt with a song of joy, “Come, my beloved, the season calls us to keep the feast … so that, when time has passed away, gladness may not leave us.”
In pictorial biographies, however, there is another way to portray emotions and move the imagination without drifting too far from reality – illustrations! The masterful painting above is Matt’s illustration of the dreadful time when Emperor Constans ordered all bishops to sign a paper denying the conclusions of the Council of Nicea regarding Christ’s divinity and especially denouncing Athanasius. It’s definitely hard for us to understand the feelings of the bishops who signed. It has been suggested that there was a general atmosphere of theological unclarity (after all, our “orthodox” theology was just in the process of being formulated at that time) rather than fear of the emperor, since martyrdom was still seen as a desirable death for a Christian. After that, we really don’t know.
In the illustration, we find ourselves face to face with three pondering men – a bishop and two Roman soldiers, with the looming statue of Emperor Constans behind. We still don’t know their thoughts, but they are in front of us and we find that all our prejudgments and rash conclusions are halted in our minds. This is, in my view, one of the main purposes of accurate biographies. They help us to understand or at least empathize. They draw us closer to someone else’s life and thoughts and widen our own. They take us to another time as we would travel to another country and help us to sample it through another person’s experience. And it’s something our children need as well.