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100 Scope Notes
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The Tebow Problem: The Hot and Cold Nature of the Biography Section

Biography section – why are you so vexing?

I think my frustration can be nicely summed up in one image:

I like to call it “The Tebow Problem”. Has there ever been a biography subject that has gone from must-purchase to weeding candidate more quickly? Unless someone did a bio on Michael Phelp’s Mom, I’d hazard to say no. If your situation is similar to mine, you were just getting a Tim Tebow book on the shelves as the demand was vanishing. And now it sits¹. My Tebow problem hints at a bigger biography section issue – I want to stock the section with research staples of course, but also want students to visit without being sent there by a teacher.

Ay, there’s the rub.

Kids are interested in reading about famous figures today, but many of the in-demand titles are about pop stars, actors, and actresses who quickly fall in and out of favor – much more quickly than your standard fiction or nonfiction title.

What I’m saying is, it’s difficult to invest in books about people when popularity heats up and cools off at the drop of a hat. So do I ignore the trends and focus on the past? That seems like a path to biography section cricketsville.

My current approach is this: selectively purchase current bios that are in high demand, keep an eye out for standout stuff on historical figures, and supplement it all with a subscription to an online encyclopedia. We’ve been happy with Worldbook, but there are others that do a fine job. This way information on historical figures and current stars is easy to find.

I don’t know if I’ll ever truly figure you out, bio section, but I’ll keep trying. Do you have a secret recipe for bio section happiness?

¹As for Tim Tebow books, I envision them suffering the same fate as the infamous E.T. game for the Atari.

There are millions of the suckers lying in a New Mexico landfill as we speak.

(Image: E.T.: 2600 by nickstone333

About Travis Jonker

Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.


  1. Yes – I have a biography on Shakira sitting in my classroom Biography Section right now because of this. Someone begged and begged, I purchased it and… Tebow, however, is still being passed around right now with the fifth grade boys. We’ll see how long that continues.

    • Maybe you can get renewed interest in Shakira – she is currently a coach on the show, “The View.” I am constantly trying to find new life for some of my titles. Worth a try before putting them into the weeded/de-selected pile.

  2. I’ll have to pass this on for a good laugh to our librarian. I’m from Denver, so we’ve already been through the Tebow phase, and are long past it. What a phenomenon he was, & now the books sit, or have been already purged. Best to you in your quest for books that stay!

  3. I’m a brand new (in one of life’s shocking twists-former Spanish teacher) librarian, and I set the goal this year of reading all the biographies in our library. What I’ve found to really resonate with me are the inspiring picture book biographies- I read “Wilma Unlimited” today with 2nd graders and they were spellbound. We’ve talked about how reading biographies is a good strategy when you’re feeling discouraged. It’s a different focus than research-but kids are checking out lots of biographies! I really have no idea what I’m doing.

  4. I just had this discussion with myself the other day (again)! It was over a request for another One Direction book. I hate trying to figure out how long people will be popular. Luckily, at the public library, we can loan from other local libraries. Good idea about trying to ‘push’ the biographies that are falling out of favor.

  5. Thanks for bringing this dilemma forward for discussion. I think it’s fair to say that most writers and publishers grapple with the same issue as they try to predict how long a certain person, event, or topic will remain “popular,” and if that topic warrants its own book. I’ve been offered many opportunities to write biographies about “popular” people: actors, singers, athletes and others who are constantly appearing in the media—or at least for a period of time. I’ve also never been sorry that I’ve said no to all of these—even when I see that someone else has done the book and that it seems to be selling well. For me, the person has to have made some lasting contribution to the human race—in whatever field he or she is (or was) engaged in—and has had to do it with sustained effort, work, experimentation and usually a lot of failure. I want kids to know that Georgia O’Keeffe was teased about her quirky habits and was terrified to show her work in a gallery; that Marjory S. Douglas saved the Everglades by going door to door and asking for a dollar; that W.C. Williams drafted poems on his prescription pads in the kitchens of poor immigrant families while waiting to deliver a child (and get paid with a casserole); that Lucretia Mott’s life was threatened when she spoke out for Women’s’ Rights and against slavery; that Thomas Merton was orphaned early and suffered bouts of depression as he wrote his best-selling books in the cloister of Kentucky monastery; and that Horace Pippin nearly bled to death in a trench during WWI, fighting on behalf of a country that treated Blacks as second class citizens, then rehabilitated himself using a fireplace poker and scavenging house paint in the alleys. Yet all of those people made lasting contributions in art, literature, science and social justice. Those are the only kinds of life stories I’m interested in sharing with young people—and in fact, reading for myself. That doesn’t mean that Tim Tebow or Beyoncé hasn’t overcome difficulty or faced obstacles or that they don’t deserve a biography—it simply means that I won’t be writing it. Librarians will always, I think, strive (and usually succeed) in offering a balance of current/ popular topics and more enduring “historical” ones. But I also believe that, if written well, these latter books remain vital and relevant. A hundred years from now, Pippin’s work will still be on museum walls, and Williams’ poems in the literary cannon. It remains to be seen if Tebow and Beyoncé’s contributions will be held in similar regard.

  6. You are heading down a road we are on. We are looking more towards working with kids within our databases and database serials for our ephemeral pop culture icons that intrigue kids. We have also played with Biography Today – they often cover pop figures and it saves a ton of money. If I have to buy a book on a passing (ha!) fancy, we get in paperback or not at all. Less painful financially!

  7. Jim Randolph says:

    Yeah, to save money I take the Ms. Yingling approach (she’s got a great blog).

    She says stick with dead people! Now I do buy bios on those still alive but mostly done with their major work. Like Muhammed Ali and Aretha Franklin. But yeah, people who are hot right now? We have databases for those guys.

    And for more current sports figures, I prefer to buy books with titles like “Best Quarterbacks” or whatever, instead of specific people. Because you don’t know if a) they’re going to do more great things or b) get arrested or something.

    There’s nothing sadder than weeding bios of formerly semi-famous people. I weeded a book on the comedian Sinbad recently. Why was that even purchased?

    • Amy Hesterman says:

      That comment on Sinbad made me laugh a little too loudly in my “quiet” library. :)

  8. I try to match students up with people who share their interests. A girl who is interested in Photography gets handed Dorothea Lange. Elizabeth Blackwell for girls who want to be doctors. Sheinkin’s Benedict Arnold circulates well. There are so many interesting people, and kids will pick up biographies if I get excited enough about them– maybe to shuht me up! I read everyChildhod of Famous Americans biography in my elementary school library, so I lovetoget students excited about reading them. And Jim is right– the personhas to be past his or her floruit formeto purchase a biography!

  9. I remember playing the E.T. Atari game as a child. It was, in fact, a terrible game. I did beat it eventually, but even at the age of six, the victory left me cold.

    As to the important part of the entry, I had a very similar reaction to the three – three! – children’s bios of the band “One Direction” that we’ve gotten in the past couple of months. The fact that my library system has gotten three (I still can’t believe it) bios of One Direction but not the excellent-looking new Beatles book is… well, it upsets me. I don’t get a ton of requests for Beatles bios (or for One Direction bios, to tell the truth), and who knows, maybe this current boy band *will* still be popular in 40 years.

    But still. But still.

  10. Amy Hesterman says:

    My biography section was a ghost town until we started adding the “Who was” biographies to our collection. The kids LOVE those and they have been circulating regularly for the past two years. I am very excited about the new sister “What was,” which has 4 books currently in the series. They are $5/copy and in my opinion are pleasantly under priced for what you get.