When I was in middle school (or junior high as it was called), I wanted to learn about Walt Disney so I went to the Xenia Library and checked this book out:
I can’t recall many details about Walt, but I can clearly picture myself finding this bright blue book on the library’s adult shelves. This was the 1970s. There were no “Who Was” books, and most of the biographies in the children’s room were about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Nothing against our first and sixteenth presidents, but my non-fiction diet was limited.
Today we live in a golden age for picture book biographies. Kids can still read about presidents, but they can also learn about inventors and athletes and artists and writers. Some of the best books focus on an incident from a well-known person’s childhood that guided their careers. Others focus on challenges that stood in the way of success. The best of them leave a young reader wanting to know more.
Below are five of the most inspirational new picture book biographies – and five favorites from the past few years. There’s a lot to learn from all of these people:
The Best of the New:
Margaret and the Moon: How Margaret Hamilton Saved the First Lunar Landing by Dean Robbins and illustrated by Lucy Knisley
All of these books celebrate curiosity, and Margaret Hamilton, the American computer scientist, began asking big questions when she was a little girl: “Why didn’t more girls grow up to be doctors? Or scientists? Or anything else they wanted,” she asks. Knisley’s lively cartoon-like illustrations show the young Margaret reading and drawing and playing the piano before learning to write code. As the director of software programming for an MIT laboratory working for NASA, Margaret is instrumental in guiding Apollo 8 and 9 and 10. When NASA was ready to send a man to the moon, they counted on Margaret’s code:
Margaret and the Moon will inspire young readers to shoot for the moon!
Shark Lady: The True Story of How Eugenie Clark Became the Ocean’s Most Fearless Scientist by Jess Keating and illustrated by Marta Alvarez Miguens
From her first visit to an Aquarium in New York, Eugenie Clark was fascinated by sharks. Although there was pressure on Eugenie to follow a more traditional path, she devoted herself to learning “everything she could about them,” and became a respected scientist who was called the Shark Lady!
I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy and illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley
It’s impossible not to be inspired by the career and determination of the 84-year-old associate justice of the United States Supreme Court. There’s even a new book, The RBG Workout written by her personal trainer, being published next week! Her philosophy of “disagreeing without being disagreeable” is a good guide during these divisive times.
The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist by Cynthia Levinson and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton
Sometimes picture book biographies for young readers can tell stories about people we haven’t heard about before. Audrey Faye Hendricks is a perfect example of picture book as introduction to a brave person and an important movement. She was only nine-years-old when she marched for freedom in the Birmingham Children’s March. The picture of a little girl sleeping on a bare mattress in a jail cell is a powerful example of personal sacrifice and commitment to a cause. After I read this book to a group of 4th and 5th graders last year, I asked them if there was anything they felt strongly enough about that they would take a risk.
A Boy, A Mouse, and a Spider: The Story of E.B. White by Barbara Herkert ; illustrated by Lauren Castillo
This book will be published in two weeks, but I’ve seen most of it in various forms, and I will be standing by the school mailbox on October 24. The book opens with young Elwyn White being sick in bed and making friends with a mouse. He begins writing in a journal and the animals he loved so much – and we know where that leads….
The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins by Barbara Kerley and illustrated by Brian Selznick (a book about a man who, in the 1800s, created life size model of dinosaurs. I’m not a dinosaur enthusiast, but this is hands-down one of the best books about passion and determination I’ve ever read. When kids are tempted to give up, I show them this book.)
The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer’s Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors by Chris Barton and illustrated by Tony Persiani (the story of the brothers who figured out how to create fluorescent colors. A timely book about innovation and creativity!)
Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World’s Fastest Woman by Kathleen Kruss and illustrated by David Diaz (I first read this book to my son when he was seven or eight, and it entered our weekly rotation. An amazing story of overcoming tremendous odds.)
Lou Gehrig: The Luckiest Man by David Adler and illustrated by Terry Widener (It’s hard to read the closing pages of Gehrig’s life story without welling up. If a teacher or friend asks you to recommend a good book about dignity, this is the one.)
When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson by Pam Munoz Ryan and illustred by Brian Selznick (Selznick’s illustrations capture the drama and historical significance of the moment Marian Anderson sang in front of the Lincoln Monument.)
I’m leaving so many good book off this list that deserve to be there: Odd Boy Out: Young Albert Einstein by Don Brown, Nelson Mandela by Kadir Nelson, the Big Words series by Doreen Rappaport, Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez by Kathleen Krull. All classics among an embarrassment of riches!