Kids who say things like, “I’m not good at math,” or “I’m not smart enough.”
For these kids, we can encourage a growth mindset by reading biographies of famous individuals.
Mindshift recently published an article showing a study that when students were exposed to famous scientists’ “struggle stories”, it helped them not just see the scientist as an individual who persevered, but it also shifted the students’ own beliefs about their potential. This study done at Teachers College, Columbia University and the University of Washington prompted kids to learn more about the struggles of three famous scientists: Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, and Michael Faraday. The goal was to teach growth mindset by showing that each famous person has a backstory with many challenges. The good news is that it worked!
“The researchers identified stories as a learning tool because of stories’ ability to influence readers’ beliefs.”
So what struggle stories/biographies can we introduce to our children? Here are some of my growth mindset biography recommendations, a few of which are autobiographies. (You can find picture book recommendations here and some parenting tips here.)
Growth Mindset Picture Book Biographies
Malala’s Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai
When she was younger, Malala dreamed of the things she’d do if she had a magic pencil. She’d erase war, poverty, and hunger. Then she would draw girls and boys together as equals. Soon she began writing publicly about her beliefs. Even after bad men tried to stop her, Malala wrote, using her words to spread her message of equality and hope. Beautifully illustrated and inspiring, this story shares Malala’s ideals with the youngest of readers. Hers is an important example of growth mindset and social justice in action.
Sisters Venus and Serena Williams by Jeanette Winter
Winters beautifully captureS the essence of the Williams sisters’ lives and friendship, giving children an inspiring narrative story paired with beautiful, captivating art. Read how the girls share a bed in their Compton, CA house then wake up every morning to learn tennis from their dad. Practicing, focusing, practicing,…training, playing…always together. They win trophies and try new ways of dressing and wear signature hairstyles. As adults, the athletes continue to inspire us with more wins and perseverance through health challenges.
The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read by Rita Lorraine Hubbard, illustrated by Oge Mora
Run out to buy this beautifully written, inspirational story of perseverance combined illustrated in gorgeous collage artwork from Oge Mora that shows us it’s never too late to learn new things. Born into slavery and freed at age 15, Mary Walker never got the chance to read and write. She worked hard, had a family, and sadly, outlived her husband and her children. Then at age 116, she decided to take a reading class so she could finally read her Bible. And she did!
Nelson Mandela by Kadir Nelson
Growing up in the prejudicial apartheid South Africa, Nelson Mandela faced horrible racism and a long time in prison. Despite all of this, his spirit continued to be strong. He eventually realized his dream to improve the country and give equal rights to all people by becoming a strong leader and president of his country.
The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons by Natascha Biebow, illustrated by Steven Salerno
Skillfully written, perfect for young readers who will learn how through perseverance, crayons were invented. Edwin Binney, a curious inventor, listened to what people needed in their lives. First, he created a slate pencil for children in the classroom. Next, he made a better, non-crumble chalk for teachers. When many people, including his own wife, asked for better, cheaper colored crayons, Edwin and his team experimented with rocks, minerals, pigments, and clays and found the perfect mixtures for a longer-lasting crayon. And we still love his crayons today!
The House That Cleaned Itself: The True Story of Frances Gabe’s (Mostly) Marvelous Invention by Laura Deashewitz and Susan Romberg, illustrated by Meghann Rader
Frances’s jaw-dropping inventions for cleaning her house are so creatively inventive. She’s a really smart problem-solver, that’s for sure. When she gets fed up with her “job” doing all the housework, she creates a house with rooms that clean themselves. Imagine an automatic carwash inside the house with air jets and a slanted floor!! (It’s pretty messy and wet though.) Although her ideas didn’t catch on, maybe one day another inventor will build on Frances’s ideas. She’s a woman who saw a problem and figured out how to solve it.
The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever by H. Joseph Hopkins, illustrated by Jill McElmurry
When Kate Olivia Sessions moved to treeless San Diego, she determined to start a movement to plant trees in the desert city — no matter how challenging.
Evelyn The Adventurous Entomologist: The True Story of a World-Traveling Bug Hunter by Christine Evans, illustrated by Yasmin Imamura
“But Evelyn went anyway” repeats throughout this story to show the pioneering courage of Evelyn Cheesman, a woman who didn’t let conventions of what girls could or couldn’t do stop her from pursuing her passion for animals. In the late 1800s, this daring English girl pursued her love for animals with a job running the London Zoo’s insect house. Not only that, she developed a singular focus on entomology, soon traveling the globe to discover new insects. And when she was told not to go places, you guessed it, …she went anyway.
Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell by Tanya Lee Stone, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman
Despite growing up in a time when women were not viewed as equal to men, Elizabeth studied and worked hard to become the first woman doctor. She showed the world that women were just as smart and capable as men– and can be doctors.
Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks by Suzanne Blade, illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera
Talk about a growth mindset! Gwendolyn loved words and poetry and from a young age, wrote poetry of her own. She never had monetary success but with persistence and dedication, she eventually found success as an adult with publications and winning the Pulitzer Prize.
Sonia Sotomayor: A Judge Grows in the Bronx by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Edel Rodriguez
Before Sonia Sotomayor was the first Latino to be nominated to the US Supreme Court, she grew up poor and struggled to overcome stereotypes. Which she did, as you’ll see in this picture book biography.
Malala Yousafzai: Warrior with Words by Karen Leggett Abouraya, illustrated by L. C. Wheatley
She’s just a girl in Pakistan but Malala wants to go to school. When she does, she is shot by the Taliban. Malala becomes an advocate for girls and boys, too, to receive an education. Her biography is a great example of growth mindset. (Also read: For the Right to Learn by Rebecca Langston-George.)
Odd Boy Out: Young Albert Einstein by Don Brown
He’s a strange child who doesn’t speak until he’s nearly three, his temper is often violent, and he doesn’t have many friends. It’s a glimpse of the childhood of the infamous scientist, Albert Einstein. He didn’t start out as popular or amazing but … odd. Even children know how his story ends!
Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor by Emily Arnold McCully
Mattie was one smart inventor! But not everyone saw it — she had to prove her detractor’s wrong including the man who stole her invention and passed it off as his own. Mattie eventually became known as “the Lady Edison.”
Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illustrated by Eric Shabazz Larkin
Most people don’t have Will Allen’s vision. He saw a farm instead of an abandoned city lot. In fact, he figured out how to get space, soil, and create an innovative urban farm despite all the difficulties.
Wilma Unlimited by Kathleen Kull, illustrated by David Diaz
After having polio as a child, Wilma was told she wouldn’t walk again, let alone run. But Wilma was determined (growth mindset) and she worked hard, becoming the first American woman to win three gold medals at the Olympics.
The Kid From Diamond Street: The Extraordinary Story of Baseball Legend Edith Houghton by Audrey Vernick, illustrated by Steven Salerno
In a time when girls didn’t get to play sports, Edith excelled so much that she was playing on the only woman’s baseball team at ten years old — and got to play in Japan!
Hiawatha and the Peacemaker by Robbie Robertson, illustrated by David Shannon
The Peacemaker was a real person who choose a man named Hiawatha to help him communicate his message of peace and unity to the five nations of Iroquois. The message wasn’t well-received at first but the Peacemaker helped the tribal leaders understand forgiveness and unity. United, the Iroquois nation became a model for democracy which was said to have influenced Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.
I am Martin Luther King, Jr. by Brad Meltzer, illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos
This nonfiction biography series for young readers is absolutely fantastic. The latest is this book about Martin Luther King, Jr. whose cartoon illustration will give you a chuckle — since it’s he’s a kid with a mustache. We learn how much an experience with a white friend not playing with him because he was black hurt him. We learn how the injustice in the world bothered Martin and that he wanted to do something about it. The book does NOT end with his death but ends on a positive note of standing strong and facing struggles.
Chasing Freedom by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by Michele Wood
I loved this nonfiction biography picture book about Susan B. Anthony and Harriet Tubman — two women who changed the world and had growth mindsets.
Solving the Puzzle Under the Sea: Marie Tharp Maps the Ocean Floor by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Raul Colon
Marie wanted to succeed where others had failed in mapping the ocean floor. This story tells of the challenges and setbacks Marie faced as well as her ultimate success in charting the ocean floor.
Dorothea’s Eyes: Dorothea Lange Photographs the Truth by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Gerard DeBois
Polio left Dorothea with a limp and the desire to hide in the background. But this challenge actually helped her find her path in life — to be a photographer and show what she saw, the people affected by the Great Depression.
Hoop Genius: How a Desperate Teacher and a Rowdy Gym Class Invented Basketball by John Coy, illustrated by Joe Morse
James Naismith’s gym students are wild. He’s the third teacher to try to get them under control. So, he invented a game out of frustration and necessity — basketball.
Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Melissa Sweet
This is the true story of an immigrant from Ukraine with grit and perseverance. Clara worked in a shirtwaist factory and grew sick of how she and her coworkers were treated. So, she did something about it — she led a strike. Talk about growth mindset!
Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Yuyi Morales
Cesar was a shy boy whose family worked on farms, barely making any money. As he grew up and saw the injustice done to his family and other migrant workers, he overcame his shyness and became an outspoken leader for justice. (Also read: Dolores Huerta by Sarah Warren.)
The Boo-Boos That Changed the World A True Story About an Accidental Invention (Really) by Barry Wittenstein, illustrated by Chris Hsu
Clever writing will keep readers entertained in this fascinating true story. Plus, readers will be inspired by this invention from necessity as well as the persistent way the company marketed the invention even after initial failure. Earle’s wife, Josephine, is accident-prone. REALLY accident-prone. Worried about her cuts and infections, Earle invents an adhesive tape “bandage” which helps! He pitches the idea to his bosses at Johnson & Johnson, they love it, and call the product Band-Aids. Unfortunately, the Band-Aids don’t sell. The company decides not to sell them but using growth mindset, gives them away to other accident-prone groups — the Boy Scouts and soldiers. Soon the world sees the need for this practical invention — and aren’t you glad?
Books for Independent Readers Ages 7 – 18
The Story of… Trailblazing Actor Ira Aldridge by Glenda Armand, illustrated by Floyd Cooper
Read the true story of an African American boy who wanted to be an actor in a time when most African Americans were still enslaved. He realized his dream, moving to England where he performed Shakespeare plays and spoke against slavery. The book also includes informational sidebars, highlighted vocabulary words, a timeline, glossary, bibliography, and recommended reading.
I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World by Malala Yousafzai and Patricia McCormick
Malala shares in detail how the Taliban shot her in the face when she tried to go to school, just because she was female. She explains how this changed her life. She shares her determination to continue to advocate for her rights and the rights of girls and boys all over the world.
X: A Novel by Ilyassah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon
Teen readers will find this a powerful fictionalized account of Malcolm X’s childhood which included a murdered father and a time prison, and then see how he overcame his struggles to become an influential civil rights leader.
Mercy The Incredible Story of Henry Bergh: Founder of the ASPCA and Friend to Animals by Nancy Fvrstinger
Although he’s not well-known, this well-written biography for upper elementary readers shares how Henry Bergh devoted his life and his money to saving maltreated animals in the late 1800s even though he’s not much of a perfect (or even close) heroic figure.
Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina by Michaela DePrince and Elaine DePrince
An orphan who was thought never to be adopted due to her skin condition, Michaela was adopted from an orphanage in West Africa. Even at the orphanage, she wanted to be a ballerina — and her determination and hard work (growth mindset!) paid off. Her hard work paid off. Now she’s the youngest principal dancer with the Dance Theatre of Harlem.
A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park
This is the amazing & powerful biography of a boy with courage and hope who walked across Africa to find a better life. We also learn the story of an African village for whom water is a two-hour walk, and how the boy, now a man, builds a well for the village.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
A drought affects William’s Malawi village, ruining crops and leaving everyone hungry. So William decides to figure out a solution. And he does! He learns about wind power and builds a windmill that powers a water pump for the farmland. A must-read growth mindset biography.
Unbroken (The Young Adult Adaptation): An Olympian’s Journey from Airman to Castaway to Captive by Laura Hillenbrand Louis
Zamperini’s life is almost unbelievable — a hoodlum, an Olympic runner, an airman shot down, and above all, a man who has great strength of character (growth mindset) to persevere despite all of life’s challenges.
Boys in the Boat (Young Readers Adaptation): The True Story of an American Team’s Epic Journey to Win Gold at the 1936 Olympics by Daniel James Brown
It’s hard to imagine overcoming as many obstacles as Joe Rantz (homelessness included) but he is determined to get a college education. He and his crew teammates are also determined to be the best rowers but they never expected to beat the Germans. This is an exemplary true story of grit that will stay with you.
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
Most people know his successes, but this instructive biography shows the ups and downs and behind the scenes of one of the most iconic figures of our time. (Also read: Steve Jobs: The Man Who Thought Different by Karen Blumenthal.)
Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina by Misty Copeland
Misty Copeland doesn’t even start taking ballet until she’s a teenager — and it was at a community center, not a prestigious dance studio. Follow her struggles as she finds her passion and works hard to achieve her dreams.
I Am a SEAL Team Six Warrior: Memoirs of an American Soldier by Howard E. Wasdin and Stephen Templin (*mature content)
Howard Wasdin had an abusive childhood but he was determined to improve his life and achieve his dream. And he does. With hard work and drive, he becomes a Navy SEAL, one of the most elite of soldiers in the United States. (Also read: Fearless by Eric Blehm.) Recommended for high school or mature middle schoolers.
Noise Makers: 25 Women Who Raised Their Voices & Changed the World by Kazoo Magazine
Readers who like comics will love the format of these short biographies. Not only are the bios told in comic form, the two-page spread for each individual gives readers why the woman is famous and what time period they’re from (Fossil Hunter / Mary Annino / 1799 – 1847) as well as how YOU might be like the famous woman… (“I like to hike, I’m patient, I like to draw pictures,…“) Get informed and inspired by reading about Bessie Coleman, Julia Child, Hedy Lamarr, Mary Shelley, Josephine Baker, and others. An accessible, interesting tome that celebrates females who’ve made a difference in the world.
Girls Who Rocked the World: Heroines from Joan of Arc to Mother Teresa by Michelle Rohm McCann and Amelie Welden, illustrated by David Hahn
Students will find growth mindset inspiration with any of the biographies in this collection about women who made the most of their lives. Best for middle school readers.
Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women by Catherine Thimmesh, illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Sometimes happy accidents, sometimes deliberate plans, all these inventions have affected our lives. Learn the story behind each invention — diapers, windshield wipers, the chocolate chip cookie, and interlocking bricks, just to name a few.
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