Of Grit and Gumption, Sass and Verve: What Gifted Students Can Learn From Multicultural Picture Book Biographies

  • Rhoda Myra Garces-BacsalEmail author
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Part of the Springer International Handbooks of Education book series (SIHE)


The significant role picture book biographies (PBBs) play when it comes to providing readers with a deeper understanding of ‘global connections and cultural diversity’ is evident in the research (Morgan, Early Childhood Educ J 37:219, 2009). This becomes even more important among gifted and talented readers who can use multicultural PBBs to know more intimately the life narratives of men and women who have achieved expertise and prominence in their respective fields and domains. Multicultural titles, in particular, would allow readers to see themselves as part of humanity and provide a window to other societies and lifestyles that may be unfamiliar to them. The use of biographies that focus on diverse populations allows students to see everyone as having equally high potential and helps develop an appreciation of alternative pathways to talent development and expertise. Based on a research project that looks into building a database of multicultural picture books for social and emotional learning, text-sets of PBBs by award-winning authors and artists have been compiled, representing different types of giftedness including artistic, literary, musical, athletic, leadership and intellectual skills. This would be linked to cognitive traits of the gifted and talented, social and emotional issues experienced by the gifted and social and emotional traits of gifted learners and the highly creative. The PBBs of resilient individuals who demonstrate sass and verve and grit and gumption despite misfortune and adversity will likewise be shared and discussed. Through these inspired and well-crafted biographies, it is hoped that teachers can scaffold gifted readers’ understandings of, and identification with, diverse people from around the world and come to realise how the road to excellence can prove to be an arduous, but meaningful journey.


Gifted students High-ability learners Picture book biographies Multicultural children’s literature Social and emotional learning 

The Aims in This Chapter Are to:

  1. 1.

    highlight the use of biographies in teaching the gifted;

  2. 2.

    establish the link between multicultural gifted education, social and emotional learning (SEL) and the use of picture book biographies (PBB);

  3. 3.

    discuss the criteria in the selection of multicultural PBB for gifted students;

  4. 4.

    use the critical multicultural analysis framework to prompt affective engagement in reading the books, as well as provide teaching strategies and activities that can be used in the classroom;

  5. 5.

    provide recommended text-sets grouped across key cognitive, social and emotional traits of, and issues faced by, the gifted and highly creative.



The examination of the biographies or the lives of highly able individuals in gifted education is not new (Bloom, 1985; Csikszentmihalyi, 1997; Ericsson, Charness, Feltovich, & Hoffman, 2006; Galton, 1892; Goertzel, Goertzel, Goertzel, & Hansen, 2004; Robinson & Jolly, 2013; Terman, 1925). In Robinson and Jolly’s (2013) book, Illuminating Lives, a group of researchers documented the lives of pioneers in gifted education. Their purpose is to encourage more scholars to do biographical research, as it is ‘a thrilling pursuit as well as a scholarly investigation’ (Robinson & Jolly, 2013, p. 4).

The use of biographies among the gifted can be traced from the 1920s when Leta Hollingworth, founder of the Speyer School for highly gifted children in New York, infused biographical studies as part of the standard curriculum (Hollingworth, 1926). Hildreth (1966) explained its value by showing how the reading of biographies can serve as a source of inspiration for gifted students, as they also identify with personalities who have achieved something of significance through their intelligence, hard work and capacity to overcome obstacles. In fact, an intervention known as bibliotherapy is found to be useful to address math anxiety among high-ability students (Furner, 2017), address the affective needs of bright boys such as image management, self-inflicted pressure and gender role conflict (Hebert, 1991) and help nurture the social and emotional development of gifted teenagers through young adult literature (Hebert & Kent, 2000). Bibliotherapy is also found to be useful when the gifted feel over-burdened by parental expectations or ridiculed by peers for independent thinking (Schlichter & Burke, 1994) and has been used with gifted students as early as 1956 who use it to solve their problems such as school boredom, being misunderstood by teachers, or peer rejection (Weingarten, 1956). It is defined as the use of reading to help the gifted ‘understand themselves and cope with problems by providing literature relevant to their personal situations and developmental needs at appropriate times’ (Hebert & Kent, 2000, p. 168). A distinction is made between clinical bibliotherapy, which involves the use of psychotherapeutic methods by skilled practitioners for individuals experiencing serious emotional difficulties, and developmental bibliotherapy that is used to help students proactively in their emotional health and development, with the latter used by educators and gifted practitioners (Hebert & Kent, 2000). As noted by Smith (2017, p. 153), ‘through facilitated dialogue, bibliotherapy allows gifted students to connect their own personal concerns with those emulated by literary characters’.

Apart from using biographies in scholarly investigations, researchers (Hebert, Long, & Speirs Neumeister, 2001) have also found the use of biographies to be particularly germane in counselling gifted young women and helpful in addressing their social and emotional issues and concerns. This is because gifted students are often prodigious readers and their affective concerns have been found to be effectively addressed through guided reading as it appeals to their love of literature and biographies in particular (Ford, Tyson, Howard, & Harris, 2000; Hebert et al., 2001).

Much has also been written (Duckworth, 2016; Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly, 2007) about the significance of non-cognitive traits in accounting for an individual’s eventual success, with one trait being consistent across various domains: grit. Duckworth (2016) defined grit as perseverance and passion for long-term goals that were found to be positively correlated to African American college students’ academic success at predominantly white institutions (Strayhorn, 2014). Grit was also found to play a critical role along with disciplinary climates in predicting low-SES students’ high achievement in math and science (Haigen & Hao, 2017). However, it is beyond the scope of this chapter to look into the considerable debate about the inadequacy of grit in explaining eventual success and eminence (see also Credé, Tynan, & Harms, 2017; Delisle, 2016). It is the author’s contention that there are multidimensional and multiplicative (Simonton, 2001) interactions between one’s innate gifts or talents, personality and one’s environment. This chapter is meant to provide researchers and practitioners with a preliminary database of multicultural picture book biographies (PBB) of individuals across different fields and domains coming from varied cultural backgrounds who have achieved success and eminence in their fields through grit and gumption, sass and verve.

Multicultural Gifted Education, SEL and Use of PBB

The heterogeneity and diversity in student demographics in today’s classroom is becoming more the norm rather than the exception (Chong & Cheah, 2010). This has led researchers Montero and Robertson (2006) to claim that in many urban settings, the culturally homogenous classroom ‘is already extinct’ (p. 27). In Singapore, for example, there can be as many as 39 different nationalities seen in a popular primary school (Forss, 2007), along with growing diversity in ability levels, socio-economic status, religion, linguistic and cultural backgrounds (Khum, 2013). This has led countries such as Australia, for example, to adapt the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) (Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations for the Council of Australian Governments [DEEWR], 2009) to support educators in providing effective learning environments across five basic principles, one of which has to do with respect for diversity, which is at the heart of multicultural education (Buchori & Dobinson, 2015). The changing educational landscape towards multiculturalism and diversity has also made the call for culturally responsive teaching even more salient. Culturally responsive teaching is defined by Gay (2000) as the use of frames of reference, cultural knowledge and even performance styles of students who are ethnically diverse so that learning encounters are more relevant, engaging and effective for them. This is evident from the search for and use of materials that provide representations to diverse populations in positive ways and efforts to ensure that educational access is provided to students and teachers to deepen awareness of the existence of such resources (Fears-Floyd & Hebert, 2010).

Gifted education programs, specifically, have been found wanting when it comes to the infusion of multiculturalism throughout its curricula (Ford, Moore, & Harmon, 2005). This becomes an issue especially since there are gifted students who are double minorities by virtue of their being gifted and of a different race or ethnicity or of low-income status, making them even more vulnerable as they navigate their own cultural norms and meet the expectations required of them within a larger school context (Stambaugh & Ford, 2015). In fact, Nguyen (2012, p. 15) noted that, ‘many seasoned teachers who have been teaching in demographically diverse communities have little knowledge of the heritage backgrounds and cultural practices of the students under their tutelage’. This has led scholars such as Ford et al. (2005) to claim that gifted students of colour (and those from the dominant culture as well) are being short-changed and are essentially underrepresented in their educational experience. Research has also indicated that gifted students perceive their school curriculum as boring and irrelevant when it was not multicultural, and students who are not engaged in the curriculum tend to underachieve even though they have the potential to do well academically (Ford, 2011). Conversely, the more that gifted students of colour are reflected in the curricula, the more engaged they are in their learning and the more appreciative they are of course content that promotes self-affirmation and self-empowerment (Ford et al., 2005).

Nguyen (2012) noted that one of the specific ways through which multicultural education can be facilitated is by making use of the ‘plethora of multicultural literature’ (p. 15) that is out there for teachers to use. The use of multicultural literature to address both the curricular and social and emotional needs of gifted learners has been documented and has been shown to not just benefit gifted students of colour, but also help those from the majority culture to be more understanding and open-minded about other cultural perspectives and ways of being (Ford et al., 2000; Pedersen & Kitano, 2006). Ford et al. (2000) stated that multicultural picture books have the potential to go beyond just the touristy (or contributions) approach to multicultural education, to one that is transformational as noted by Banks (2009) because ‘it has the power to serve as a catalyst for social action, for helping students to appreciate their similarities and their differences, and for increasing students’ cultural awareness and sensitivity’ (p. 236). All these competencies of self-awareness and management, empathy, perspective taking, conflict management and social justice are part of the competencies that make up the social and emotional learning (SEL) framework.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning or CASEL (2013) defines SEL as the ability to acquire and apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills to recognise and regulate emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and demonstrate compassion and empathy, establish and maintain positive relationships with others and make responsible decisions. Research studies have established how multicultural books, in particular, can powerfully influence a child’s capacity to understand and imagine other people’s thoughts and feelings (Nikolajeva, 2013), help develop empathy among children (Bal & Veltkamp, 2013), promote recognition and appreciation of social diversity (Hymel, Schonert-Reichl, & Miller, 2006) and can serve as subtle but effective tools to discuss social and emotional issues (Harper, 2016). Sharing high-quality picture books has also been found to enhance children’s sensitivity to other people’s feelings, help foster moral development (Harper & Trostle-Brand, 2010) and provide the foundational framework to build empathy, appreciation of diversity and reinforce conflict resolution skills among young children (Harper, 2016). Gopalakrishnan (2011, p. 34) further stated:

… there is an urgent need for multicultural children’s literature to permeate the curriculum in schools, for genuine accounts that address many issues from an insider’s point of view, to give children a way to validate their feelings and experiences; to create understanding, empathy, and tolerance; to break debilitating stereotypes; to give equal voice and representation.

Picture book biographies (PBB) and the gifted. Researchers have focussed on multicultural PBB because they are found to inspire children and are often preferred over the traditional textbooks used in schools (Ellis, 2007). The compound word picture book is also used to highlight the polysemic nature of the stories that indicate the seamless interaction between word and image, allowing for multiple interpretations by the reader (Ghosh, 2015). Hence, the visual narrative adds another layer to the understanding of the textual narrative, elevating the picture book to a veritable art form. Maurice Sendak (as cited in Salisbury & Styles, 2012) described it as a juxtaposition of picture and word, a counterpoint whereby words are left out, but the picture relays the narrative, or pictures are left out, but the word displays the narrative. Multicultural picture books, in particular, have been described as mirrors and windows (Sims Bishop, 2003), allowing readers to see their experiences reflected back to them, or providing them spaces to access realities and fields of experience that may be unfamiliar yet also demonstrate distinct universal resonances that readers can identify with.

Morgan (2009) contended, ‘culturally authentic biographies that represent the perspectives of cultural minorities are plentiful today and less likely to contain racial bias’ (p. 221). In fact, Polette (2009) compiled an annotated bibliography of gifted biographies for gifted readers across a variety of fields and disciplines, which she calls ‘gifted meeting gifted through biography’ (p. ix). She stated that through these narratives, gifted students would be able to fully appreciate the humanity, nobility of character and even some of the challenging and troubling traits of unconventional eminent individuals that society may not necessarily understand.

Research has documented the benefits of using PBB among gifted children of African American (Fears-Floyd & Hébert, 2010) and Hispanic (Abellán-Pagnani & Hébert, 2013) descent, enabling educators to respond more sensitively to address their social and emotional needs and concerns. This would include being bilingual, bicultural, finding a sense of belonging in school, as well as developing an ethnic identity and pride (Abellán-Pagnani & Hébert, 2013) which may not necessarily fit into cultural and societal expectations of what it means to be gifted. Fears-Floyd and Hébert (2010) showed how the use of biographies that highlight diverse populations benefits not just the highly able students but all learners in the classroom, providing them the opportunity to not just regard themselves, but one another as having equally high potential. The PBBs, in particular, are deemed to be particularly beneficial in teachers’ efforts to provide appropriate enrichment (Abellán-Pagnani & Hébert, 2013; Fears-Floyd & Hébert, 2010), as picture book biographies serve to inspire and motivate young, gifted and culturally diverse children, enabling them to draw parallels to their lives and recognise their capacity to actualise their potential.

Criteria in selecting PBBs for the gifted. The selection of quality multicultural literature follows the same basic criteria which apply to selecting quality children’s literature in general, whereby the literary elements of plot, point of view, setting, theme and characterisation are all interwoven to create a credible and realistic story that is told in a compelling manner, allowing readers to make meaningful connections from the story (Harper & Trostle-Brand, 2010). While multicultural children’s literature has traditionally been defined as stories about people of colour (Sims Bishop, 2003), the researcher has expanded the definition to include outstanding books that meet the standards of good literature noted above, as well as titles that represent lifestyle and cultural beliefs (be it gender and identity, ability, socioeconomic status, body image, language, political beliefs, ethnicity) of as many individuals as possible (Lukens, Smith, & Coffel, 2013).

Authenticity is also one of the key criterion, such that the books are able to portray cultural experiences in a realistic yet sensitive manner, with celebration of dialect and colloquial expressions in dialogues, as well as portray illustrations that capture historical events in an accurate and effective manner (Fears-Floyd & Hebert, 2010). Polette (2009) listed a few key questions to consider in selecting well-written PBBs, such as whether the dialogue, if present, is supported by research or whether it is invented and whether the events presented lead up to and illuminate the achievements of the main character who is presented as a person with both faults and accomplishments and strengths and weaknesses.

Ash and Barthelmess (2011) further described a good PBB as using ‘sophisticated imagery to complement the narrative with a sense of the time and place of the subject’s life’ (p. 41). While it is acknowledged that a comprehensive exploration of a person’s life narrative is not possible in a 32- or 48-paged PBB, the ‘ingenious’ ones (Ash & Barthelmess, 2011, p. 42) are able to convey the essentials by providing excerpts of both struggles and accomplishments, reinforced by rigorously researched words and imagery that resonate with the reader. The presence of a comprehensive back matter is helpful; this can include photographs, a historical timeline, glossary, bibliography for further reading and notes about the author’s and illustrator’s own research (Ash & Barthelmess, 2011).

Critical Multicultural Analysis Framework Mapped Across SEL and Teaching Strategies and Activities

The critical multicultural analysis framework introduced by Botelho and Rudman (2009) acknowledges that the roots of multicultural children’s literature are grounded in the historical silence of underrepresented groups. Hence, the discussion of the books brings into the forefront an understanding of the complexities of power relations. Additionally, there is the focus on the process of analysis, rather than simply looking at the presence or absence of characters that are people of colour in the narrative. It also provides a space for the reader to question and challenge the text, enrich the reader’s historical, cultural and socio-political imagination, as well as get readers to reimagine social worlds depictured in the book. Botelho and Rudman (2009) also warned teachers to be cautious of ‘fictive unity’ (p. 102), such that all Asians or Latinos or Mexicans are lumped together, without a finer appreciation of the diversity not just between but also within cultures. Teachers are asked to encourage young readers to engage in the text more closely by getting them to rewrite, revise and even expand the book based on their social contexts or cultural background and realities. By adopting a critical multicultural stance, the gifted student would be able to ask themselves pertinent questions such as whose voices are silenced or heard in the narrative, reflect on world views or behaviours that are presented as normal in the text, examine how the story can be challenged further, or how else the story could have been written if presented by an author or an illustrator who may be writing a story from either inside or outside their own culture (Botelho & Rudman, 2009; Gopalakrishnan, 2011). This type of close reading is said to promote a greater affective engagement since teachers are no longer the keepers of textual meaning as they provide spaces for children to connect texts to their life experiences. Through this framework, the reader is encouraged to insert themselves into the narrative, examine its point of view, analyse positions of power and even question and redefine the ending if they wish to (Botelho & Rudman, 2009). A set of key critical response questions adapted from Rycik and Irvin (2005) and Gopalakrishnan’s key guide questions for educators, as well as the researcher’s own original discussion questions, have been mapped across the five SEL domains as found in Table 1.
Table 1

Adapted from Rycik and Irvin’s (2005) critical response questions and Gopalakrishnan’s (2011) reflection questions for the teacher and a few additional discussion questions mapped across the SEL framework



Social awareness

Relationship management

Responsible decision-making

Adapted from Rycik and Irvin (2005, p. 156):

What was the context for reading?

 If the book was assigned, how did that affect your reading?

 If you chose it, what made you pick this rather than something else?

 Did the time and place where you typically read the book make reading easier or harder? More enjoyable, or less?

How did you ‘read’ yourself?

 What are your characteristics that you think influenced your reaction to this work?

 How much do you think your responses were influenced by your own ethnic background, age,

gender, experiences or values?

 Do you think the experience of reading this work has changed you in any way?

What were your feelings while reading?

How did you read the characters in the story?

 How would you describe the character’s ability to manage or take control of their emotions?

 Describe how the characters were able to achieve their goals in the end.

 What did it take for them to reach their dreams?

 What are your own goals and dreams? What do you think it would take to achieve them?

How is your social awareness enriched through the story?

 Who among the characters do you sympathise/empathise with? Describe their traits and characteristics.

 Draw parallels/differences between the characters’ lives and your own. How similar and how different are the concerns, issues, struggles that you are facing?

 If you were to take the perspective of (mention a character in the story), would you behave differently or similarly?

Adapted from Knickerbocker and Rycik:

How did you ‘read’ the author?

 What do you know about the author’s life and work?

 What can you guess about this author’s knowledge, values, and experiences?

How did you read the main characters’ relationship with others in the story?

 Describe the main characters’ relationship with his/her family, friends and community.

 How did the main character in the story ask for or receive help from others around him?

 If you were a character in this story, how would you have responded to this situation? Would you have helped or ask for help?

 How did the main character resolve their conflict with others in the story? What would you have done similarly or differently given the same situation?

Adapted from Gopalakrishnan’s (2011, p. 13) reflection questions for the teacher but adapted for use with students:

 What real-life issues does this PBB relate to?

 What real-life event has happened, will possibly happen, or is happening that can be connected to this PBB?

 If I were working or living within this real-life context, event, or issue, how would I deal with it? What historical references can I draw and learn from what has happened before?

 What can I do to change and learn from the event, problem, or issue?

 How can I connect this story to my current situation to make it better?

 What steps (however small or large) can I take to make a change?

 Did reading this work bring back memories of experiences in your own life?

 What aspects of the work did you most/least enjoy, made you feel confused or frustrated?


 How do you think the work was influenced by the author’s ethnic background or by whether the author is male or female, rich or poor, young or old?

 What effect do you think the author intended to have on readers of this work?

 Do you think the author had someone like you in mind as the audience, or someone with different knowledge, values, and experiences than yours?

What is your interpretation of this work?

 How was this work like or unlike other things you have read? What will you remember most from this work?

 What particular parts of the work do you think are most important for understanding it? What do you think is the significance of this work?


 How will my actions affect others now, later, and in the future?

Teachers are encouraged to consider using extension activities, such as an open-minded portrait, which serves as an emotion book that focusses on the main character of the story (Harper & Trostle-Brand, 2010). In this strategy, the character is hand-drawn or illustrated by the gifted student in the front page of their emotion book, with the following pages used to demonstrate the character’s feelings and thoughts at certain junctures in the narrative. This type of strategy has been found to be especially useful for children who are already highly proficient in reading and writing as it allows children to do perspective-taking, identify with characters and analyse other people’s perspectives (Harper & Trostle-Brand, 2010).

Fears-Floyd and Hébert (2010) mentioned that it is important for teachers to consider activities that incorporate art. An example provided is that teachers can select illustrations from the PBB and ask students to examine the art, describe what they see and analyse the visual narrative in the story (in terms of colours, lines, textures, artistic style, medium used, typography, overall layout and design of the narrative). Moreover, students may be asked to interview each other and share stories about their lives, while the teacher supports students as they write the biographies of their selected partners and create the art to illustrate their PBB. The final biographies can be put on display in the classroom or the school library to be enjoyed by others. Virtual field trips are likewise recommended if PBBs about eminent visual artists, musicians and other high creatives are shared or paired film viewing for PBBs of scientists and mathematicians, athletes, peacemakers, social activists and environmentalists (Polette, 2009; Fears-Floyd & Hebert, 2010).

Smith (2017) has also cited the importance of using creative forms of self-expression, such as dance or drama performance, or coming up with other artistic productions to explore the gifted students’ emotions and other people’s emotions. In Furner’s (2017) research on using bibliotherapy in a math classroom to address the anxieties experienced by highly able learners, he clarified that simply reading good books is not enough. There has to be opportunities for discussions, role-playing, creative problem-solving, relaxation with music and even journal writing, a strategy supported by other researchers (Cross, 2005). Smith (2017) stated that the discussions engendered by bibliotherapy have to be facilitated with the use of strategies, such as Socratic dialogue, to probe deeper into an analysis of key social and emotional issues and values. Furner (2017) also recommended for teachers to consider working with the school counsellor once a month providing more avenues for students to articulate their issues and anxieties more openly in a non-threatening environment.

Recommended Multicultural PBB Text-Sets for the Gifted and Talented

The recommended text-set is part of a much larger research project that examined the reading lives of teachers, educators and students who were attending courses at a teacher-training institute in Singapore and the creation of a multicultural picture book database (with over 900 titles) that maps out themes across the five SEL domains. The research team has sought out recommendations from the National Library Board of Singapore and visited the Woodlands Regional Library, which houses the Asian Children’s Literature Collection of over 15,000 titles. International school librarians in Singapore were likewise consulted, and visits to international school libraries in Singapore (Tanglin Trust School, Canadian International School, Singapore American School, United World College Southeast Asia) have been conducted. The researcher also served as an International Research Fellow for 2 months in 2016 and 6 weeks in 2017 at the International Youth Library in Munich, which is reputed to have the largest international children’s collection in the world. The researcher, however, has limited this chapter to a listing of only 30 multicultural PBBs across a variety of disciplines, with the predominant themes mapped across the five SEL competencies, as well as highlighting the cognitive and social-emotional traits and concerns of the gifted and highly creative children.

Overlaps can clearly be discerned across the five SEL competencies and giftedness traits. Seeing how these competencies and traits are interconnected, the researcher used peer debriefing with the research team members (an applied sociolinguist and a special needs teacher educator) to identify the predominant themes in the PBBs. This was done in a continual and iterative process in a shared Google spreadsheet, similar to what is found in Table 2, based on recommendations provided by educators and librarians, whereby the picture book titles are arranged across the five SEL competencies. With international research consultants from the Philippines (a theoretical linguist) and New Zealand (a senior lecturer of children’s literature and teacher educator), a consensus was reached among the research team members. From the existing database, the author has selected titles that fit into themes as found in the gifted education literature, such as cognitive traits of the gifted and talented, social and emotional issues experienced by the gifted and those that highlight the social and emotional traits of gifted learners and highly creative children. A few highlights and excerpts from some of the books are shared below.

PBBs that highlight cognitive traits of the gifted and talented. Gifted and talented individuals’ cognitive traits have been described, such as having avid curiosity, keen powers of observation, a drive to document their knowledge and a leaning towards scholastic life, logical thinking and a thirst for knowledge and reading books (Rimm, Siegle, & Davis, 2018). Avid curiosity about one’s environment and nature is clearly evident in Patrick McDonnell’s Me… Jane. Told in distilled but effective language, there are only two to five lines in each page-spread alongside the muted, pastel art. Yet its authenticity is felt in its carefully chosen phrases and the miscellany-scrapbook style of the book, with a few drawings made by Goodall and photographs interspersed in the pages. The depiction of the young Jane Goodall also highlights the quiet determination of a pioneer who grew up in impoverished conditions, at a time when girls were not encouraged to pursue fields in science requiring overseas travels. This can be paired with Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian that also highlights Maria’s affinity with the environment and nature’s creatures. Maria Merian studied the whole life cycle of the summer birds and documented what she learned in her vibrant paintings back in the Middle Ages when people believed that insects were evil and born from mud in a process called spontaneous generation. In Of Numbers and Stars, the reader gets to know another brilliant woman thinker who lived in the fourth century in Alexandria Egypt – a name that may not be as famous as Aristotle, Socrates or Galileo, but a highly respected and eminent mathematician and scholar nonetheless. Hypatia was fortunate to have a professor for a father who was very progressive in his thinking and was determined to teach her, unlike most of his contemporaries who believed that a woman’s role is confined to being a homemaker.

In Demi’s Su Dongpo, readers get to know about a Chinese genius who lived between 1036 and 1101. In the author’s foreword, he was described to be ‘a statesman, philosopher, poet, painter, engineer, architect, and humanitarian who approached everything with joy and grace’. Another scholar with multipotentiality is Persian philosopher, poet, scientist and physician, described by the author to be a polymath and a ‘Genius of the Islamic Golden Age’, Ibn Sina. The book is written in the first person, as author Fatima Sharafeddine envisions how Ibn Sina would most likely share his own life story.

PBBs that highlight social and emotional issues of the gifted and talented. Some of the social-emotional issues and problems commonly faced by the gifted and talented are feelings of social rejection and frustration towards an indifferent school with teachers who may misunderstand them and classmates who find them too strange (Rimm et al., 2018). In The Boy on Fairfield Street, Ted Geisel who eventually grew up to become Dr. Seuss was frequently scolded by his teacher for breaking so many rules in art: ‘the creatures he drew had ears nine feet long, his horses had wings, his animals looked like plants, and his plants looked like animals’. He was also made fun of in school by classmates who would tease him because, on top of what was perceived as his oddities, he was also culturally different (he came from Germany). He experienced having classmates chase him and beat him up when they were on the playground.

This capacity to overcome racism, sexism, prejudice and discrimination and the valuing of deliberate practice, intrinsic motivation, persistence and tenacity are also traits of the gifted (Rimm et al., 2018). These ‘grit and gumption’ traits can be seen in the stories of The Peasant Prince, Drum Dream Girl, Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds, Sojourner’s Truth and Little Melba and Her Big Trombone, to cite a few. In 16 years and 16 s, Olympic champion diver, Sammy Lee, pursued his dream despite the fact that his father wanted him to become a medical doctor and the fact that people of colour were only permitted to use the public pool once a week. He eventually won gold medals in diving in two consecutive Olympic Games (in 1948 and 1952), notwithstanding the many difficulties he had to endure to actualise his dream. Grit and gumption can likewise be seen in the stories of fearless girls and women who had sass and verve in their stride as seen in Sojourner’s Truth, who spoke for justice and women’s rights despite being born into slavery, and the drum-dream courage of Cuban-African-Chinese Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, who dared defy social conventions by being the first girl to play the drums. In Little Melba, Melba Doretta Liston had to contend with jealous male colleagues from her own band who called her names and regarded her as largely invisible; she also had to perform amid a stoic, unresponsive and predominantly white crowd who perceived her as naturally inferior because of the colour of her skin.

There are also PBBs that deal with twice-exceptionality as seen in Emmanuel’s Dream, Wilma Unlimited, A Boy and a Jaguar and The Noisy Paint Box. Wilma Unlimited tells the story of Wilma Rudolph who was stricken with polio at age 5. For a time, everyone thought that Wilma would not be able to walk again, and she had to wear a heavy steel brace in her leg. Wilma eventually went on to win three gold medals at a single Olympics event. This can be paired with Emmanuel’s Dream, which tells the story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah who bicycled nearly 400 miles across Ghana with only one leg, significantly altering how his country treats people with disabilities. In A Boy and A Jaguar, a young boy who felt a sense of brokenness because of his stuttering, eventually found his voice to speak for the voiceless as an adult, advocating for the protection of endangered species. In The Noisy Paint Box, the reader would get to know a rare condition called synaesthesia as Vasily Kandinsky heard colours and integrated it into his bold, ground-breaking, abstract art.

PBBs that highlight social-emotional traits of highly able and highly creative learners. Social-emotional traits of high ability learners include high moral thinking and empathy, as well as standing up for one’s beliefs, interests and passions (Rimm et al., 2018). This can be seen in Tomas and the Library Lady, an inspiring snapshot in the life of Tomas Rivera, born in Crystal City, Texas, in 1935, who eventually became a professor, a university administrator and a national education leader. While his parents looked for iron to sell in the town dump and his brother looked for toys, Tomas would look for books. He would put the books in the sun to bake away the smell, indicating his thirst for knowledge, grit and determination to pursue his interests despite his impoverished circumstances. In Fifty Cents and a Dream, the reader witnesses the will to provide for people who are disadvantaged by building schools or places of knowledge where all are welcome through Booker T. Washington’s vision. Themes of art and activism also abound in Poet of the People whereby Pablo Neruda used verse to represent the voice of the common people and their struggles. This would be a relevant book to pair with My Name Is Gabriela Mistral, which features the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Gabriela worked as a teacher’s aide without getting a formal degree in education and started when she was 15 to help support her family. Pablo Neruda was one of her students.

In Red Bird Sings, the reader gets to know Zitkala-a, born Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, a Native American woman at the turn of the nineteenth century. Zitkala-a was a writer, editor, musician, teacher and political activist at a time when basic education was uncommon among Native Americans. Another musician is featured in Harlem’s Little Blackbird, which tells the story of Florence Mills, born to parents who were former slaves. She used her talent as a performer to stand up for her rights and speak out against injustice. Her story is an example of remarkable moral courage and the importance of doing the right thing, no matter how difficult.

This sense of purpose and determination to do what needs to be done for the good of society can also be seen in The Mangrove Tree which features the PBB of Japanese-American cell biologist, Dr. Gordon Sato, who fought famine in Eritrea, a country in Eastern Africa, through the Manzanar Project meant to remind people to fight injustice with hope. The story is told through the deceptively simple but stunning collage artwork of Susan Roth. The life story narrative of Wangari Maathai, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, can be the foundation of an entire teaching unit for highly able learners. While the researcher has only included one PBB here, there are several more PBBs of Wangari Maathai that can comprise a text-set (including Mama Miti by Donna Jo Napoli and Kadir Nelson, Planting the Trees of Kenya by Claire A. Nivola, Wangari’s Trees of Peace by Jeanette Winter and Seeds Of Change: Planting A Path To Peace by Jen Cullerton Johnson and Sonia Lynn Sadler). Teachers can engage highly able learners in drawing parallels across the five PBBs and discuss the Green Belt Movement, an organisation that was founded by Wangari Maathai. A critical multicultural analysis of the books may also include examining not just the individual action of Wangari Maathai, but the collective and collaborative effort required to bring about social change, as well as the roots of the environmental issues and problems faced by the people of Kenya, bringing into the forefront the social and economic infrastructure that enabled this kind of reality and issues to exist in the first place.

Implications and Future Directions

While the above section provides some recommendations for future practice, there is much potential for enriched and deeply affecting discussions through the use of multicultural PBBs among highly able learners, if used by capable educators who are willing to go outside of the traditional, stipulated text-sets that they are accustomed to using. The opportunities for the development of gifted learners’ cross-cultural understanding, while also tapping into social and emotional learning themes, provide spaces for engaged reflection and meaningful learning. These PBBs may likewise be paired with longer middle-grade biographies or graphic novel memoirs, which feature the same eminent individuals.

Research projects that may be linked to social justice themes may also be considered, especially as teachers can leverage on these inspiring stories to develop grassroots-driven projects, passion-projects or initiatives for the community.


The significance of using biographies, particularly, picture book biographies in teaching social and emotional learning to the gifted and talented were reiterated in this chapter. Criteria were provided for educators to assist with selecting multicultural picture books for the gifted to ensure greater representation and diversity in the resources used in the classroom. Suggestions by way of teaching strategies and activities have been shared for practitioners.

The critical multicultural analysis framework has been introduced to facilitate a more immersive experience and greater affective engagement among young readers as they read deeply moving stories based on the lives of eminent individuals, that would prompt them to reflect on who they are and their place in the world. Recommended text-sets that are categorised across the social and emotional learning domains are provided as an Appendix.

In summary, Polette (2009, p. xi) described a highly effective PBB in this manner:

A good biography is not one-way communication. It is a catalyst to facilitate the reader’s own unfolding thoughts. Reading is only incidentally visual or aural; the print has no power in itself. It is the power of the reader’s deep personal intuition, knowledge, and understanding that activates the message… A single carefully researched, well-written biography can teach more than a lifetime of mediocre fiction. Such a biography plays upon the finest feelings and impels the reader to respond. (Polette, 2009, p. xi)

Through inspiring biographies, teachers can scaffold gifted readers’ identification with diverse people and their understandings that the road to excellence can prove to be an arduous, but meaningful and rewarding journey. It behoves us as educators to ensure that such powerful books are made more accessible to our gifted students to encourage deeper reflection, global awareness and social and emotional learning through authentic and compelling visual narratives.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.National Institute of EducationNanyang Technological UniversitySingaporeSingapore

Section editors and affiliations

  • Rhoda Myra Garces-Bacsal
    • 1
  1. 1.National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological UniversitySingaporeSingapore

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