When children read biographies it’s like they are walking into a new friend’s home. They get immersed in their life and never leave without learning something new. These picture book biographies are incredible tools to teach children about history, about innovation, and empathy.
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A Picture Book of Amelia Earhart (Picture Book Biography)by David A. Adler had both my 7 year old and I totally enthralled. This book does a great job at painting the picture of early 20th century North America and how women were treated. Amelia’s whole life is covered and the book even touches on the conspiracy theories about her death. I loved how much of Amelia’s independent spirit came through in the quotes that the author shared. My absolute favorite tidbit about Ms. Earhart is actually in the author’s note and is about her mother. Did you know her mother was the first woman to summit Pike’s Peak ? That fact opened up a huge conversation with my son about parental role models.
A Picture Book of Helen Keller by David A. Adler tells the story of this great heroine in a simple way without losing the magnificence of her life. From her illness as a young toddler, to meeting her “miracle worker” Anne Sullivan and earning the first degree ever awarded to any deaf and blind person. The author doesn’t sanctify Helen though , they talk openly about her tantrums as a child and her naughty behavior. My son ( when he was 3) sat for this whole book, it opened up a bedtime talk about blindness to which we turned off the light and experienced a little ourselves I am hoping reading this book will open more doors of empathy for my son, to recognize that we are all different with different abilities but are all capable of great things
A Picture Book of Harriet Tubman (Picture Book Biography)by David A. Adler. Often when I am reviewing a book with my kids I will jot down notes. This book had only one note. ” Amazing!!!” I have always known the bare facts about Harriet Tubman and her involvement in The Underground Railroad but I loved being able to learn more at the same time as my son. Our eyes both got wide as we read her incredible story of strength and leadership. My son loved this book as well and I appreciate how the author gives details without getting lost in them. My son told me “She was crazy brave !” and I agree. This is a wonderful book about a real American hero.
Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau by Jennifer Berne is a interesting book even if you’ve never heard of Jacques Cousteau, which is a good thing because I don’t think many children would recognize his name. Heck maybe some of you younger adults don’t either! The book tells the story of how he brought together his love of the ocean and film together to share them both with the world. In the author’s note at the end of the book the most profound bit of the whole book is shared. She notes Cousteau’s familiar phrase ” Il faut aller voir.” which translates to ” You have to see if for yourself.” Which is exactly what he made possible for so many people. Lovely. The illustrations were magical and did such a wonderful job supporting the author as she tried to share Cousteau’s passion for his life’s work with readers.
A Wizard from the Start: The Incredible Boyhood and Amazing Inventions of Thomas Edison by Don Brown is a gem. This biography isn’t flashy but it doesn’t have to be because Edison’s life was fascinating and the way the author decided to focus so much on his early years including his failures is brilliant. Children don’t relate to perfect adults, they relate to struggling kids. I learned a lot about Edison reading this book and it made me want to learn even more. There was action, conflict, failure, and of course great success. This book will leave you wishing you could have met him.
Georgia’s Bones by Jen Bryant won’t expose your child to much of the artists work but it will give your child a sense of who she was and what inspired her. The book focuses on how Georgia saw the world, the shapes and colors and views around her. It paints the artists as a quiet, thoughtful girl and a clam and pensive woman. It also takes readers to such different parts of the United States where Georgia found similar inspiration from such different environments. You may want to grab a map and find all the locations with your child after reading this.
George Washington’s Teeth by Deborah Chandra and Madeline Comora is a funny telling of how George Washington got those famous false teeth. What I like so much about this book and what my son did too is it also tells the story of the Revolutionary War. I think the brilliant thing about this book is it shows that George Washington wasn’t the superhero that he is often portrayed as. This makes him, his story, and American history in general way more accessible to young kids. I can’t ignore the really fantastic tertiary lesson about dental hygiene as well.
My Brother Martin: A Sister Remembers Growing Up with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by Christine King Farris. Teaching preschoolers about history is tricky, but you can do it, you just have to break it down and give them bits they can relate to. This book does a fantastic job, while reading it I always have to hold in tears, it is just such a unique look at the childhood of a man who’s dreams changed the world. What I love about this book is that the majority of it is about his childhood and children can relate so much more easily to him as a child growing up then simply as this great man on the podium. Kids always love learning that he played pranks on people just like they like to do. The author explains prejudice and segregation in a straightforward and simple way so that children can understand and reflect on how it feels to be treated like that. The book doesn’t ignore the great accomplishments and wonderful man the little boy became but does a wonderful job making Dr. King into a hero your child can feel something in common with, and in return become more interested about.
Rosa by Nikki Giovanni is not so much a biography, but it is most definitely a historical account of one woman who changed a nation. We all know the story of Rosa Parks but no matter how well you know the facts, reading a children’s book about it makes me cry. The author has done a fantastic job setting the stage, explaining how Rosa Parks was not your typical heroine, she was just a seamstress, just like everyone else. This is imperative to the message that a single person can stand up for what is right and make big changes. I also appreciated that the author included so much about the women who spearheaded the bus boycott. I am 37 and I feel inspired reading this as a woman, to think of the power it can have over the younger generation excites me. This would be a wonderful introduction to learning about the civil rights movement for kids 5-10.
Action Jackson by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan is a great book not only about Jackson Pollock but also about how an artist goes through the artistic process, their influences, and what their life is like. This book is perfect for older children but my son( who was just under 3 at the time) loved looking at pictures and Jackson Pollock’s dog. I would suggest this for anyone with budding artists!
Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World’s Fastest Woman by Kathryn Krull Do you know who Wilma Rudolph was? She was the African-American Olympian who became the first American woman ever to win three gold medals at one Olympic Games. But her story is even more amazing than that. She also suffered from Polio as a child and was told she’d never run. Her determination stands out and inspires. I have mentioned many times how my grandmother was an Olympic medalist so this story hits a personal chord for me. I am awed and amazed by how far women have come from their first Olympic games in 1928.
The Story of Anne Frank by Brenda Ralph Lewis impressed me. I struggle with how to tell such a horrifying story to young children. I should explain that this book is not geared for preschoolers, it’s a school age book, but still, it’s a daunting task. This book helps break down the facts while including details about this young girl’s personal and family life. This balance of historical facts and Anne’s family life is the key to why this book works. There is so much horror to digest that the little details like how Anne was a bit of a trouble maker and talked too much in class helps to tune the reader back into the very personal story. I think this is a fantastic precursor to reading Anne Frank: The Diary Of A Young Girl, it will give all the needed background for your older child to fully comprehend and appreciate the diary itself.
Different Like Coco by Elizabeth Matthews chronicles Coco Channel’s troubling and tragic childhood through to her hard earned success. I had mixed feelings about this book and my daughter was not terribly interested in the text. Many biographies written for children miss the mark at being interesting for children and instead just simplify the facts and add illustrations for the kids. Maybe if my daughter was older she’d be into this book but it failed to make me care about Coco. I wanted to connect and have my feisty four-year-old who has been dressing herself since she could voice an opinion love it too. But it was just OK. The message about being different being a good thing was clear but without feeling connected to Coco it didn’t pack as much punch as it could have.
Nelson Mandela by Kadir Nelson will take your breath away. The front cover portrait belongs in a museum, it captures the incredible dignity and strength of character of Nelson Mandela. The biography begins with a turning point when Nelson is chosen to go to school and his name is changed from Rolihlahla to Nelson. The book’s text covers the main points of Nelson Mandela’s life from that moment until he is finally released from prison. The afterword covers his historic election and Presidency. Apartheid is explained through the text but Kadir Nelson’s incredible illustrations are at times better at telling the story than the text could possibly be. I can not stress enough how stunning the illustrations in this book are. When I read books for review I take notes and my only note for this book was ” pictures will make you cry.” They will because they capture the injustice and triumph. Each page is a gift.
Me . . . Jane by Patrick McDonnell is a look at Jane Goodall as a child. Jane climbs trees with her stuffed chimp and dreams of observing animals and living in Africa. The book is simple and carries a clear message that childhood dreams do come true if you believe in them. The author notes complete the picture explaining that Jane didn’t just magically end up in Africa, that she studied and worked hard to become the authority she is today. Kids will connect with the little Jane and hopefully connect to big Jane’s tenacity and passion.
Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat: Ella Fitzgerald by Roxane Orgill is definitely not a book for preschoolers. I learned a bunch about Ella Fitzgerald while reading this but it was way too long for my four year and honestly some of the events in her life were not things I was ready to share with my daughter yet. The book was perfect for my 7-year-old though. Her life was hard and for a child to fully grasp her story I think they need to be mature enough to understand that good people make bad choices when they are trying to survive, and those individual choices don’t mean that the person as a whole is bad. I appreciate that the author included so many of the challenges Ella faced instead of glossing over them. It’s good for children to see how hard life can be for others and how that doesn’t mean that success can’t be attained.
Susan B. Anthony: Fighter for Freedom and Equalilty (Biographies (Picture Window Books))by Suzanne Slade is a great introduction to Susan B. Anthony and why she is so much more than just a lady on coins. Although we often think of her as a suffragette she was also a champion of human rights and abolitionist. She fought for women’s right to vote knowing that she herself would never get the right. This book explains all that in terms kids can understand and relate to.
Elizabeth Leads the Way: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Right to Voteby Tanya Lee Stone made me teary eyed. If you aren’t familiar with Elizabeth Cady Staton grab this book because not only will it catch you up on the life of this women’s rights activist, it will also let you feel her sense of justice and determination. I wrote down the quote ” …wasn’t interested in easy.” which was in reference to her father saying she should have been born a boy so she would fit in better, but is a great quote for anything and anyone.
Eleanor: Quiet No More by Doreen Rappaport is an inspiring look at Elanor Roosevelt’s life and legacy. Readers learn about Eleanor’s childhood, being orphaned and sent away to school in England where she experienced independence for the first time. It covers her romance and marriage with FDR in a sweet, loving way that won’t make your child cringe about “mushy” things but they will understand that there were real-life and partnership. There is ample information about her work over the years as a politician’s wife as well as the First Lady. My favorite part of the book was all the fantastic quotes woven into the biography, it connects the reader to her and not just her story.
Before John Was a Jazz Giant: A Song of John Coltrane by Carol Boston Weatherford is a fascinating book for my son who discovered “Johnny Coltrane” on YouTube while asking me about saxophones a year ago. What I like about this book is that it allows young children to relate to someone so inaccessible, and untouchable like John Coltrane. My son immediately grabbed onto the idea that is explained in the book that all the sounds and music Coltrane heard as a child turned into the music he played later on. Later that day we got into a deep and very long-winded “Is that music Mama?” conversation and I wasn’t always sure what to say. I wasn’t expecting to get stumped by his questions so soon. Either way when a book sparks questions like that it’s a keeper!
Just Behave, Pablo Picasso! by Johan Winter is a book not only about Pablo Picasso but also about creativity, courage, and originality. The book gives the reader a little look into Picasso’s early life but really it’s about his evolution from realism to cubism and the resistance he got from just about everyone. I love how it painted Picasso as a brave individual who took the leap from doing what everyone loved to doing what he needed to do as an artist. It’s about being true to yourself and not selling out. It also really hammers home the idea that people even adults can grow and change. One of my favorite things to as little kids is what they want to be when they grow up and really so often kids think when you are grown up it’s done, your choices were made and you just live with them after that. This helps explain that being a grown-up doesn’t mean all your choices have already been chosen.