Using Picture Book Biographies in the Elementary Classroom

Create a Timeline of American History:

Important dates in history don’t always seem to make sense to kids. Thankfully, the market is saturated with amazing biographies that can help build a timeline. Structuring a framework for the timeline, by presenting the books in chronological order, establishes a sense of time without an emphasis on dates. Introducing well-known Americans of history, who might appear on standardized tests is another benefit of the biography timeline. However, the timeline can also expand a young learner’s knowledge of notable, but lesser-known Americans. Brave Girl is an example of an engaging story that draws us into the courageous life of Clara Limlech. And although Little Women is a familiar title, most students do not know much about Louisa Mae Alcott’s life and her contribution to the Civil War effort, which is beautifully told and illustrated in, Louisa May’s BattleMoses also introduces a determined woman from the same era, Harriet Tubman, and highlights her escape to freedom through the Underground Railroad.

Brave girlLouisa













Most young readers are familiar with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, but a carefully-planned picture book timeline also highlights important women, Native Americans and African Americans as well. With the incredible selection of biographies available for elementary grades, students will interact with historical figures rather than scan over a few names in a history textbook.

After connecting with the person of history through the story, students add that name to the timeline and draw a symbol to help them remember that person’s contribution to history.

Download your FREE Binder Timeline sheets here. Or, make your own using these steps.

Steps to Create the Binder Timeline:

  1. Punch holes with a 3-hole punch on the left-hand side of a heavy sheet of cardstock.
  2. Turn each page horizontally and draw a long line across the middle.
  3. Measure out and mark 6 evenly-spaced sections and draw a short line for each section.
  4. For the 1800’s, you will need one page with 2 separate lines with 6 marks each. This allows you to teach a Civil War unit and a pioneer unit and show simultaneous events in different geographical locations.
  5. Secure 5 pages in a one-inch, 3-ring binder. The first 3 pages use one line and then add the double-line page and finish the binder with a page with one line.

Sample from a 6-week unit study:

Sample 6 week




















A weekly review really helps to drive home the concept of chronological order. Ask questions from the stories in the order which they were read, building on the questions you have asked in prior weeks. For example, after reading, The Camping Trip that Changed America, you might say, “This person slept under the trees in California and was the president responsible for starting the National Park system.” Or, “Who was inspired by plowing the fields in Idaho, and eventually invented the television?”














By repeating the same questions week after week, each significant person of history is reinforced. When the last week of school rolls around, A President from Hawai’i, completes the picture book biography timeline.

After adding Barak Obama to the timeline, instruct the students to remove the pages from the binder. Store the binders for the following school year and complete the timeline by taping the pages together. This provides the students with a culminating visual of all the noteworthy Americans and events that were studied using the illustrations and rich storylines of the biographies.

Sample of a completed timeline:















I also give a written quiz, using the same questions I have been posing orally all year.

Click here to download the full chronological list of picture book biographies for your classroom, which I have used in past years. Sometimes I switch characters or events, depending on the availability of the books at the library. Occasionally I will check in with my local librarian and borrow a copy of The Horn Book. Reading the reviews on the latest and greatest biographies typically inspires me to add in new releases as well.

Now add in a weekly dictation exercise, using the biographies as your source material, a few hands-on activities and some mapping, and you are all set for a full year of study in American History.

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