Introduce kids to ordinary people who did amazing things by reading picture book biographies. These books are inspirational narrative nonfiction, written like a story, appealing to children, and beautifully illustrated. Here you’ll find biographies about:
- Inventors and Scientists
- Artists and Musicians
- Famous Americans
- And more!
Picture Book Biographies About Inventors and Scientists
The Diamond and the Boy: The Creation of Diamonds & the Life of H. Tracy Hall by Hannah Holt, illustrated by Jay Fleck
Brilliantly conceived and exceptionally written using a parallel storytelling. The structure shows the similarities between the rocks of the earth and a boy’s life using the descriptions of HEAT, PRESSURE, CHANGE, and WAITING. As we read, we learn about the graphite in the earth as well as the curious boy who finds solace in the library. We see the diamonds waiting to be discovered while the boy grows up to work in a lab where he patiently builds an invention — a machine that makes diamonds. (This is a real thing!) I love the unique presentation and beautiful wordsmithing in this 2018 book.
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 living her passion. 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. Not only is this about an adventurous, tenacious woman we all can admire but also the writing is superb and the lovely illustrations perfectly complement the narrative.
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
An awe-inspiring inventor biography with excellent writing! Frances’s jaw-dropping inventions for cleaning her house are quite inventive. She’s a really smart problem-solver and a person you’d want to meet. 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 with air jets and a slanted floor. Although her ideas didn’t catch on, maybe one day another inventor will build on Frances’s ideas. Lovely pastel illustrations!
The Boo-Boos That Changed the World A True Story About an Accidental Invention (Really) by Barry Wittenstein, illustrated by Chris Hsu
Clever writing that stops and restarts the story will keep readers entertained. 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 to give them away to other accident-prone groups — the Boy Scouts and soldiers. Soon the world sees the need for this practical invention — aren’t you glad?
The Astronaut With a Song For the Stars: The Story of Dr. Ellen Ochoa by Julia Finley Mosca, illustrated by Daniel Rieley
The rhyming text narrates the story of Ellen, a girl who wants to be an astronaut — and she does. In fact, she becomes the first Latina in space where she even plays the flute when she isn’t studying the sun and its effects on our earth’s atmosphere.
Ada’s Ideas The Story of Ada Lovelace, the World’s First Computer Programmer by Fiona Robinson
Ada lived in an era of burgeoning factories with a strict mathematician mother. As an adult, she used her brilliant mind to help her friend Charles Babbage improve his calculation machine so it would to be more like what we know today as a computer. Although it wasn’t mass produced, Ada is credited with being the first computer programmer. GORGEOUS mixed-media illustrations! You might also like: Ada Bryon Lovelace and the Thinking Machine.
Mae Among the Stars by Roda Ahmed, illustrated by Stasia Burrington
Beautifully illustrated and inspirationally written! Little Mae dreamed of becoming an astronaut. Her parents told her she could do it if she worked hard, taking Mae to the library to find information and encouraging her astronaut pretend play after dinner. Despite her teacher’s discouragement (“Nursing would be a good profession for someone like you”), Mae listened to her mom and stuck to her dream. Mae kept dreaming, believing, and working hard. She (Dr. Mae Jemison) succeeded; she became the first African American female astronaut in space.
The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons by Natascha Biebow, illustrated by Steven Salerno
This might be a new favorite biography picture book because it’s skillfully written, perfect for young readers, about a topic that we all love — crayons. Edwin Binney, a curious inventor, always listened to what people needed in their lives. First, he created a slate pencil for children in the classroom then next, 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. People loved them!
Electrical Wizard: How Nikola Tesla Lit Up the World by Elizabeth Rusch, illustrated by Oliver Dominquez
Nikola Tesla didn’t achieve the same recognition for his achievements as his rival Thomas Edison. This biography, meant for upper elementary readers, is a well-designed, chronological account of Tesla’s life. I’d prefer the text were larger but overall this is a decent biography.
*You might also like Nick and Tesla’s High-Voltage Danger Lab mystery series.
Inventor’s Secret: What Thomas Edison Told Henry Ford by Suzanne Slade, illustrated by Jennifer Black Reinhardt
Read this picture book for perseverance and grit in action! Two boys grow up with two different passions — Henry for cars and Thomas for electricity. Henry practices and fails while watching Thomas succeed in many inventions. What was Thomas’ secret? Henry moved next door to find out. He found out that he knew the secret all along — keep at it. Which he did! After many trials and errors, (Models A, B, C, F, K, and N) he succeeded with the Model T.
Swimming with Sharks: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark by Heather Lang, illustrated by Jordi Solano
Genie loved all fish, especially sharks, and wanted to be a fish scientist. Even though she lived in the 1930s when that wasn’t a regular job for a woman, Genie found work — first as an assistant, then as a researcher for the US Navy, and finally, she opened up her own marine laboratory. She focused her research on sharks, discovering more about sharks than anyone knew before. Reading this picture book biography inspired me and sparked my interest in learning more about sharks.
Miss Todd and Her Wonderful Flying Machine by Frances Poletti and Kristina Yee
I love the unique, beautiful artwork in this story based off a short film about the life of the real Lily Todd. She was the first woman to build and design an airplane — despite that in the early 1900s no one believed a woman could or should do such a thing. Despite the many NOs she was told, Miss Todd built and flew anyway. Perseverance! Watch the award-winning film.
Six Dots: A Story of Young Louis Braille by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Boris Kulikov
Fascinating and important history meet gifted storytelling in this new picture book biography about Louis Braille. We follow the life of precocious, sightless Louis who desperately wants to read and write but is disappointed with his limited options. Despite being chronically ill, a child, and lots of failed attempts, Louis invents a system for the blind to read and write that is still in use today. (This book is on my BEST CHILDREN’S NONFICTION BOOKS OF 2016 list.)
The Girl Who Thought In Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin by Julia Finley Mosca, illustrated by Daniel Rieley
While I’m not a fan of rhyming books usually, I liked how the author simplifies Dr. Grandin’s life story in a meaningful way. We see how Dr. Grandin didn’t fit at school since her brain was different. When kicked out, Dr. Grandin went to stay at her aunt’s farm where she connected with the animals who were easier to relate to than people. Her story continued with a new school and an understanding teacher, inventions, and a life after college that included speaking about autism. “Each person is special– so UNIQUE are our minds. This world needs YOUR ideas. It takes brains of ALL kinds.” Engaging, beautiful illustrations throughout this story.
The Doctor With an Eye for Eyes: The Story of Dr. Patricia Bath by Julia Finley Mosca, illustrated by Daniel Rieley
Oh, my goodness I love the illustrations in this picture book so so so much! And the story, in rhyme, it’s inspiring. Read how Patricia, despite the being a girl and African American, stood firm in her goal to become a doctor. She did and later invented the laser probe to heal eyes.
Out of School and Into Nature the Anna Comstock Story by Suzanne Slade, illustrated by Jessica Lanan
Charles Darwin: Around-the-World Adventure by Jennifer Thermes
From the time he was a boy, Charles Darwin loved nature and collecting. As an adult, he observed and studied the natural world of South America. This richly illustrated and interesting picture book biography follows Darwin’s life and explorations.
Finding the Speed of Light: The 1676 Discovery that Dazzled the World by Mark Weston, illustrated by Rebecca Evans
Story boxes and cartoon panels with often funny dialogue sit on deep purple background illustrations of starry skies. These combine to tell the history of Ole Romer, a Danish astronomer who discovered Jupiter’s four moons as well as his biggest discovery of all– the speed of light. There’s a lot of text but the cartoon panels break it up a little. Add this to your science classrooms and units on space.
Picture Book Biographies About Activists
Lilian’s Right To Vote: A Celebration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Shane W. Evans
Blueish-tinted illustrations capture the somber mood of Lilian’s memories in this historical nonfiction picture book. Lilian’s memories begin with her great-great-grandparents who were slaves, sold and separated from each other. As Lilian remembers all people who struggled to gain equal rights, all gone before her, she walks slowly up a steep hill to cast her vote. Gaining the right to vote was a journey, somewhat like a steep climb up a hill.
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. She stopped dreaming of the pencil and worked hard at school. Soon she began writing about her beliefs. Even after bad men tried to stop her, Malala wrote, using her words as the magic to spread a message of 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.
Someday is Now: Clara Luper and the 1958 Oklahoma City Sit-Ins by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, illustrated by Jade Johnson
There’s so much to love about this picture book — the captivating folk-art style illustrations with an earthy color palette, the repetitive text of “separate and unequal” and “someday was now,” plus the well-written, compelling true story!! It’s about an amazing woman named Clara who advocated for justice and equality during a time when black people weren’t permitted the same rights as white people. As a teacher, she inspired her students to believe that change was possible. Clara and her students went to the Katz drugstore and asked to be served — even though the store didn’t serve black people. She and her students returned day after day despite people yelling and throwing food. Eventually, the Katz store relented. They started to serve people of all races. Clara and her students finally could enjoy a Coke and burger without trouble. (And then prepare for the next segregated store demonstration.)
Picture Book Biographies About Writers
O Captain, My Captain: Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln, and the Civil War by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Sterling Hundley
Fascinating and important! I learned so much history that I didn’t know about both Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman. Whitman observed Lincoln as a candidate and later as the President. The Civil War affected Whitman deeply, he hated the suffering and visited wounded soldiers regularly. It’s not a typical picture book because it is dense with information but would be great for the upper grades.
Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein by Linda Bailey, illustrated by Julia Sarda
Most young readers have heard of Frankenstein — but they probably don’t know it was a book written by a woman named Mary. This picture book biography shares about the life of Mary who wrote Frankenstein as a ghost story competition among her friends. Atmospheric, dark and gloomy illustrations.
The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Sarah Jocoby
I love the conversational and interactive narrator who speaks directly to us in this book that takes its title from Margaret Wise Brown’s very well-known The Important Book. What are the important things about Brown? For one, she wrote books…more than 100! Whimsical watercolor illustrations plus an infectiously likable narrator make this a memorable biography for both its content (the important things about the talented Margaret Wise Brown) and playful writing.
Ode to an Onion Pablo Neruda & His Muse by Alexandria Giardino, illustrated by Felicita Sala
This picture book biography shares a snippet of Pablo Neruda’s life, giving readers an important life lesson while introducing this incredible poet. As he is struggling with sadness while writing about the situation of poor minors, Neruda’s friend Matilde shows him a truth about life using an onion. The truth is that sad and happy can coexist. “The onion’s papery skin crinkled in Palo’s hand… The scent burned Pablo’s eyes. Tears streamed down his checks… But then he noticed how the sunlight shone through the onion’s layers… “Aren’t onions beautiful? Matilde smiled. “Wait ’til you taste it.” The book ends with Neruda’s “Ode to the Onion” which shows his ability to craft meaning through the complexity of simple language.
Enormous Smallness: A Story of E.E. Cummings by Matthew Burgess, illustrations by Kris Di Giacomo
I adore e.e. cummings’ poetry and found this to be an interesting glimpse into his life as well as how his use of lower-case letters and word-painting was received. This is long for a picture book– double the usual length. I thought perhaps a bit too long. However, the illustrations are marvelous and if you enjoy the poet, it’s worth it.
Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Charlotte Voake
Young Beatrix lived in London with her many animals, bunnies, hedgehogs, news, snakes, dick, salamanders, a frog, and more. She constantly recorded all their adventures, usually misadventures. Most of all, she painted her animals. One day she borrowed her neighbor’s guinea pig so that she could paint her. But when she left her unattended, the little creature got into some glue and paper which killed her. She sadly confessed the mishap to her neighbor and gave her the painting as an apology. (The door was slammed in her face.) But when Beatrix became famous, her neighbor sold the painting for lots of money. Quirky and fun.
Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton by Don Tate
George loved words and even though he was a slave, he taught himself to read and began composing verses. When students at Chapel Hill began to pay George for his poetry, a professor helped him learn to write and helped his poems protesting slavery were published in the newspaper. But his owner would never sell George, no matter how what George’s fans and friends offered. It took until George was 66 years old to be freed from slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation. I liked this book a lot both the narrative and the illustrations but I would have LOVED for it to include George’s poetry.
Noah Webster and His Words by Jeri Chase Ferris, illustrated by Vincent X. Kirsch
Get your kids jazzed about words by learning about Noah Webster. After America gained independence from England, Webster wrote spelling books to norm every word and avoid many spellings of the same word. It was a best seller! Webster advocated for a national language and eventually wrote The American Dictionary of the English Language, all the English words with alphabetical order. I found it very interesting and loved the illustrations.
Ordinary, Extraordinary Jane Austen by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Quin Leng
Delicate pen and ink watercolor illustrations accompany this simple story about Jane Austen, an ordinary girl who loved books. She loved to read the books in her father’s library. Soon, she began writing her own books. After rewriting and working hard, she even had her books published, although they didn’t say her name as was common at the time. I found this to be a delightful introduction to the author. I predict readers will be curious to learn and read more about Ms. Austen.
A Boy Called Dickens by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by John Hendrix
The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Melissa Sweet’s collage and watercolor illustrations will draw your eye immediately. Then, you’ll be intrigued with the story of Roget, his quiet life starting as a doctor and his fascination with lists. Peter Roget decided the world needed his lists of words and he published the first thesaurus. A fascinating biography!
Miss Mary Reporting The True Story of Sportswriter Mary Garber by Sue Macy, illustrated by C.F. Payne
Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People by Monica Brown, illustrated by Julie Paschkis
I use this book to inspire my art journaling. I love the way the illustrator has created swirls of color embedded with words. It perfectly matches the life story of the poet Neftalí, or Pablo Neruda. The story tells how Pablo became a poet who used his poems to speak his truth passionately for his native country of Chile. It’s one of those books that is very under-recognized, I think it deserves attention for the story and for the illustrations.
Big Machines The Story of Virginia Lee Burton (How Mike Mulligan’s Steam Shovel and Friends Came to Life)by Sherri Duskey Rinker, illustrated by John Rocco
John Ronald’s Dragons The Story of J.R.R. Tolkien by Caroline McAlister, illustrated by Eliza Wheeler
Balderdash: John Newbery and the Boisterous Birth of Children’s Books by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter
Peace and Me Inspired by the lives of Nobel Peace Prize Laureates by Ali Winter, illustrated by Mickael El Fathi
Children might not have heard of many of the people in this picture book with short, digestible biographies. Each feature describes the person’s major contributions to the world — like Fridtjof Nansen who helped refugees find homes after World War I or Rigoberta Menchu Tum who was a Guatemalan activist for indigenous people. Gorgeous, textured illustrations! This book belongs in classrooms and libraries.
Picture Book Biographies About Famous Americans
I am Abraham Lincoln by Brad Meltzer, illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos HISTORY / BIOGRAPHY
Like all of the books in this dynamite series of biographies for early readers, this focuses on one of Lincoln’s character traits – his passion for fairness even as a child. I love how the illustrator shows young and older Abe with a big head in a tall hat, too. These books read like stories (narrative) not nonfiction and never sacrifice sharing quality information about the historical character. Also read: I am Amelia Earhart, I am Albert Einstein, and I am Rosa Parks.
Little Leaders Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison
Beautifully designed and illustrated, Little Ladies shares 40 one-page biographies of inspiring African-American women. I can’t believe how many new women I learned about from this book! Women like Marcelite Harris, Mamie Phipps Clark, and Phillis Wheatley. It’s a superb, inspiring must-read book.
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.
Lincoln Tells a Joke: How Laughter Saved the President (And the Country) illustrated by Stacy Innerst
Invest in this nonfiction picture book for your classrooms and libraries — it’s a wealth of information presented in a very interesting way. You’ll be as astounded as me that you’ve lived so long without knowing much of this information about President Lincoln’s sense of humor — and learn examples of his very pithy words of humor and wisdom. And the illustrations are just lovely.
Dear Mr. Washington by Lynn Cullen, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter HISTORY / BIOGRAPHY
Ride On, Will Cody! A Legend of the Pony Express by Caroline Starr Rose, illustrated by Joe Lillington
Aaron and Alexander: The Most Famous Duel in American History by Don Brown
Good grief — can you imagine this happening?! That’s what I thought when I read the history of these two men. I think the author does a great job of sharing each man’s background, what led up to the duel, and the duel itself. It’s a fascinating part of American history.
Two Friends: Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass by Dean Robbins, illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko
You’ll find this to be a fascinating glimpse of two activists who are both fighting for their rights — one for women and one for African Americans. Very interesting!
Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History by Walter Dean Myers, illustrated by Floyd Cooper
Myers expertly captures Frederick Douglass’ life from his desire to learn even though he was a slave child to his brutal beatings, the influence of free black sailors, his escape to the North, and his passionate fight against slavery and for social reform.
The Eye That Never Sleeps How Detective Pinkerton Saved President Lincoln by Marissa Moss, illustrated by Jeremy Holmes
I adore this book. First of all, the artwork is a STUNNING period style. It looks like a woodcut and is primarily orange, purple and brown plus speech bubbles with an old-fashioned typeface. Second of all, the story itself is enthralling. Allan Pinkerton stumbles into detective work accidentally– and he’s really good at it. He knows human behavior and uses deduction and observation. He founds the Pinkerton Agency which is credited with solving more than 300 murders and recovering millions in stolen money. But he’s most famous for hiring Kate Warne to protect the soon-to-be President of the United States, Mr. Lincoln, from a dangerous train assassination plot. Later, when Mr. Lincoln becomes president, he creates the Secret Service agency to spy on the Confederacy. Guess who he hires to lead it? Allan Pinkerton, of course. This is top-notch narrative nonfiction.
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 him as a kid but with a mustache. We learn how much Martin liked words, an experience with a white friend not playing with him because he was black, winning a speech competition, and so much more. The injustice in the world bothered Martin and 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
This lovely nonfiction picture book is about Susan B. Anthony and Harriet Tubman — two women who changed the world!
Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Iacopo Bruno
A little-known piece of Ben Franklin history, we see him use the scientific method to figure out what Dr. Mesmer was really doing. Was it magic, science, or was Dr. Mesmer a fraud? Excellent images, design, and compelling plot!
Picture Book Biographies About Famous Artists, Musicians, and Dancers
Ruby’s Hope: A Story of How the Famous “Migrant Mother” Photograph Became the Face of the Great Depression by Monica Kulling, illustrated by Sarah Dvojack
A powerful picture book that shows how art, in this instance photography, can be used to spread a message. Dusty-colored illustrations help narrate the story of a famous photograph beginning with a young girl and her family who leave the drought in Oklahoma for wetter California. There, the family’s migrant work dries up, too. Hungry and desperate, a photographer hired by the government named Dorothea Lange takes a photograph of the mother with her kids. When the photograph published in the newspaper, it showed the country the harsh realities of migrant workers’ lives and prompted an outpouring of food. Back matter shares more about Dorothea Lange and how the famous photograph came to be.
Sparky & Spike: Charles Schultz and the Wildest, Smartest Dog Ever by Barbara Lowell, illustrated by Dan Andreasen
You’ll enjoy this inspirational picture book biography about artist/cartoonist Charles Schultz. Little Charles, nicknamed Sparky, adores his super-smart dog named Spike who drinks from the bathroom sink and knows more than 50 words and will be featured in all Sparky’s drawing as a dog named Snoopy. Sparky also loves comics and drawing. Despite worries that he is not good enough, he gets his first published drawing is in the Sunday comics when he’s still a child. Charming, lovely illustrations from Dan Anderson make this book framable.
Monument Maker Daniel Chester French and the Lincoln Memorial by Linda Booth Sweeney, illustrated by Shawn Fields
More interesting than I ever expected, this is the journey of an artist from farm boy to successful sculptor during a pivotal time in our country. Black and white sketches plus a well-told story give us the context and history of the work that Daniel Chester French is most known for, the famous Lincoln Memorial.
American Gothic: The Life of Grant Wood by Susan Wood, illustrated by Ross MacDonald
Grant Wood, the artist known for American Gothic, searched all over Europe for a style that resonated with him. But nothing did. When he returned home to the midwest of the U.S., he found his muse and style in his own backyard. He painted what he knew and people loved it.
Birth of Cool: How Jazz Great Miles Davis Found His Sound by Kathleen Cornell Berman, illustrated by Keith Henry Brown
Rhythmic free verse captures the big moments in Miles Davis’ life growing up in New Orleans, getting his first trumpet at age 13, embracing the energy of bebop, attending music school at Julliard, performing with failure and successes, following in Dizzy’s footsteps, then finding his own style, and leading his own group. The Birth of Cool shows a full life journey of this iconic jazz musician.
“The band plays cool–
with a lighter,
Miles’s playing punctuates
the new music with
and giving his voice
a chance to grow.“
Swan The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Julie Morstad
Anna sees her first ballet on a snowy winter’s day. She longs to join ballet school, waiting years until she finally is accepted. And she works hard starting from poverty and becomes a celebrated, lovely swan ballerina. She travels the world to show everyone the beauty of the music and dance. Her story is beautifully told with exquisite illustrations in muted colors.
*You might also like Firebird.
Leonardo and the Flying Boy by Laurence Anholt
I absolutely adore this picture book about the famous artist DaVinci — Anholt masterfully brings alive Leonardo da Vinci through the eyes of a young boy named, Zoro, his apprentice. In this story, Zoro watches as da Vinci invents a flying machine. And, Zoro just can’t resist giving it a little test. It’s a delightful story told in comic form. (Don’t miss his other title similar to this, Camille and the Sunflowers.)
The Noisy Paint Box; The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Mary GrandPre
Vasya Kandinsky was a proper but bored Russian boy until his aunt gifted him with a paint box. The paint whispered to him, he painted the sound of colors. For a time, he ignored his paints since being an artist wasn’t considered proper. Luckily for us all, he returned to his calling, painting abstract art. Wonderfully told as a narrative story, this nonfiction picture book biography is a must-read. It will make you think about not just Kandinsky but the sounds of colors and the world. Joyful!
Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras by Duncan Tonatiuh
Mexican artist Don Lupe published short funny poems about skeletons and drew lithographs and skeleton etchings or engravings. His calaveras (skeleton pictures) showed all people types of people and usually had a message, political or social, and which are now iconic images for el Dia de Los Muertos. The artwork and graphic layouts perfectly complement this informative history.
Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales, illustrated by Tim O’Meara
This could qualify as a beginning reader book with its stark language first in English and then Spanish. The art is so unique with a mixture of dolls, painting, and digital additions. Kids will learn very little about Frida Kahlo but it’s still a lovely introductory biography book.
Mary Blair’s Unique Flair: The Girl Who Became One of the Disney Legends by Amy Novesky, illustrated by Brittney Lee
Mary Blair’s life as an artist took her to Disney where her paintings captured magic on paper. In fact, she created the concept art for Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan as well as designed the “It’s a Small World” attraction at Disneyland. She used her endless imagination to creatively pair unique colors, an emerald world, a fuchsia sea, or a turquoise moon, and create happily ever afters. Her story sparkles just like the luminous mixed-media illustrations which include colorful cut paper artwork.
Degas Painter of Ballerinas by Susan Goldman Rubin
What a lovely narrative story about Degas’s life and artistic process. Each page of the story includes another full-color Degas artwork which almost always takes up more than one page, stretching onto the opposite page in a mesmerizing presentation. Beautiful writing which is clearly well-researched makes this the quintessential Degas biography for children. I highly recommend it.
Libba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten by Laura Veirs, illustrated by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh
Read this picture book and you’ll learn about the life of a famous folk artist who didn’t really start playing music until over the age of 60. She always loved music though. And when she was a maid or worked in a department store, she kept that music in her heart. Later, when she worked for the Seeger family, she surprised them all with her self-taught musical talent. Listen to her most famous song, “Freight Train,” here. (Here’s another video clip of Elizabeth Cotton playing the banjo.)
Ada’s Violin: The Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay by Susan Hood, illustrated by Sally Wern Comport
Ada lives in a South American slum next to a landfill of garbage. When Ada’s grandmother learns about free music lessons, she signs Ada up but there aren’t enough instruments to go around for all the kids. Fortunately, the adults are creative and invent instruments from everyday things — water pipes into flutes, packing crates into guitars, and so on. Ada chooses to play a paint can and wooden crate violin. She practices and gets good, becoming one of the star musicians of the Recycled Orchestra. This is an inspiring true story of hope and the power of the arts with evocative illustrations. For more information visit recycledorchestracateura.com.
Esquivel! Space-Age Sound Artist by Susan Wood, illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh
You may be like me and not know of Esquivel! but after looking him up, his music probably will seem familiar. This vibrantly illustrated picture book tells the story of a young Mexican boy with no formal musical training but because of his musical talents became famous for his innovative sounds. (Listen to Esquivel! on Youtube.)
Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Jamey Christoph
A warmly illustrated biography follows Gordon Parks who became a well-known photographer who showed racism through his camera lens.
Maybe Something Beautiful: How Art Transformed a Neighborhood by F. Isabel Campoy, Theresa Howell, illustrated by Rafael Lopez
Mira brightens up her world with her colorful paintings. She inspires everyone to paint the city walls with colorful murals.
Picture Book Biographies About Athletes
The Girl Who Ran Bobbi Gibb, The First Woman to Run the Boston Marathon by Frances Poletti and Kristina Yee, illustrated by Susanna Chapman
Muhammad Ali: A Champion Is Born by Gene Barretta, illustrated by Frank Morrison (ages 4 – 8)
Kids should all learn the story of Muhammad Ali because his determination and grit are so inspiring. And to think, it all started with a stolen bicycle! Read how a police officer got Ali into boxing as well as about his never waning confidence and the grueling workouts. Superbly done.
The Boy in Number Four by Kara Kootstra, illustrated by Reagan Thomson
I enjoyed this picture book about Bobby Orr’s life as a young boy playing hockey — how hard he worked and how much he loved playing.
Nadia The Girl Who Couldn’t Sit Still by Karlin Gray, illustrated by Christine Davenier
This lovely biographical picture book introduces a new generation to the hard-working Nadia Comaneci of Romania . . . how she loved to move, discovered gymnastics, failed, practiced and then won seven perfect 10s at the Olympics in 1956. The illustrations make me want to move, they’re absolutely spot-on for this sweet, true story.
Helen Thayer’s Arctic Adventure: A Woman and a Dog Walk to the North Pole by Sally Issacs, illustrated by Iva Sasheva
At age 50, Helen will walk to magnetic north pole — a harrowing journey with ice storms, polar bears, and a lack of food. She and her dog, Charlie, take it day by day and make it. This is a well-written, exciting true story adventure of courage and determination.
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! Fantastic illustrations by Steven Salerno.
Martina & Chrissie The Greatest Rivalry in the History of Sports by Phil Bildner, illustrated by Brett Helquist
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 that shows, not tells, paired with beautiful, captivating art. See the girls share a bed in their Compton, CA house then get up in the mornings to learn tennis from their dad, even cleaning up the trash on the courts every morning. Practicing, focusing, practicing,…training together, playing together. They win trophies and try new ways of dressing and wear signature hairstyles. As adults, the athletes persevere through health challenges yet continue to play and win.
Her Fearless Run: Kathrine Switzer’s Historic Boston Marathon by Kim Chaffee, illustrated by Ellen Rooney
Katherine loved to run, it felt like magic to her. But in her day and age, girls didn’t run. But she kept at it, running with the men’s teams at college. When she couldn’t keep up, she ran with their manager. Despite doubts from others, she trained for the Boston Marathon — 26.2 miles! She finished the race and told reporters, “I like to run. Women deserve to run, too.” Onomonopeia repetition of “pat, pat, pat, pat” give this story a rhythmic balance of running footfalls. Large emotion-filled illustrations show the story of a woman who broke convention, showing the world that girls could run, too.
More Biographies for Elementary Age Students
Jars of Hope: How One Woman Helped Save 2,500 Children During the Holocaust by Jennifer Roy, illustrated by Meg Swenson
This inspiring narrative nonfiction picture book on World War II honors Irena Sendler, a Polish social worker who helps smuggle babies and children out of the ghetto before they’re sent to the camps. Irene kept lists of the children’s original names and their new names which she buried in jars, hoping that maybe after the war she could reunite families. She risk her life and saved over 2,500 children. I love stories like this, true courage in the risk of great danger.
Tuesday Tucks Me In: The Loyal Bond between a Soldier and his Service Dog by Former Captain Luis Carlos Montalvan, USA with Bret Witter, photographs by Dan Dion
Man, this book made me tear up right away – it’s powerful to witness the bond between a service dog, Tuesday and his person, Luis who experiences post-traumatic stress disorder and other disabilities like how Tuesday helps Luis’ nightmares and helps him balance as he walks down the subway stairs. This picture book follows a typical day in the life of Luis and Tuesday from breakfast to bedtime. The photographs are gorgeous! The text is totally perfect — not too much, just right. I highly recommend this amazing nonfiction book — it will tug at your heartstrings. And, if you want to read about Luis and Tuesday, get his full-length memoir, Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him.
Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah by Laurie Ann Thompson and Sean Qualls
Emmanuel’s mom helped Emmanuel be strong and believe in himself even though he only had one leg. He hopped 2 miles to school. He learned to ride a bike. He worked to support his family. As an adult, Emmanuel rode 400 miles across his country of Ghana to spread the message that disability is not inability. This is an inspiring true story that is a film called Emmanuel’s Gift.
Marvelous Cornelius Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans by Phil Bildner, illustrated by John Parra
This is a lovely new American folk tale with evocative, colorful illustrations about a bright spirit in the city of New Orleans. Cornelius takes care of New Orleans’ trash. His positive attitude, infectious spirit, and dancing moves brighten everyone’s day. And after the great flooding of Hurricane Katrina, he and the whole town pitch in to clean up and rebuild. (Teacher’s Guide here.)
I Am Lucille Ball by Brad Meltzer, illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos
Fascinating. Meltzer captures the most fascinating elements of Ball’s life with his narrative and comic-style illustrations and hooked me from page one. I loved this — it makes a great addition to an already stellar series.
*See more of this fantastic biography series here.
Doing Her Bit: A Story About the Women’s Land Army of America by Erin Hagar, illustrated by Jen Hill
U.S. farmers needed help when the war took working men either to war or to factories. This is a fictionalized story about that help — the Woman’s Land Army. This program trained women, farmerettes, to work on a farm. It’s a well-written, fascinating story that makes me want to know even more.
Mountain Chef: How One Man Lost His Groceries, Changed His Plans, and Helped Cook Up the National Park Service by Annette Bay Pimentel, illustrated by Rich Lo
This book shares the little known story of one man’s impact on the world. Tie Sing, a Chinese American, was a cook for campers and mapmakers. He was hired by Stephen Mather to feed a group of influencers who Mather was hoping to convince that a national park service should be made. With Sings help, the trip was a success and a year later the National Park Service was created. While the story doesn’t sound compelling, it is written and illustrated so well that it IS compelling. And inspiring.
The Impossible True Story of Tricky Vic, the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower by Greg Pizzoli HISTORY / BIOGRAPHY
Lighter than Air by Sophie Blanchard, the First Woman Pilot by Matthew Clark Smith, illustrated by Matt Tavares
How Kate Warne Saved President Lincoln by Elizabeth Van Steenwyk, illustrated by Valentina Belloni
You’ll love this picture book story about the first female to work for the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency. Her name was Kate Warne. When she discovered a plot to assassinate President Lincoln on the train ride to his inauguration, this smart-thinking detective figure out how to trick the would-be murders and get the President safely to his destination. Well done, Ms. Warne!
Seagoing Cowboy by Peggy Reiff Miller, illustrated by Claire Ewart
Little know history is always fun to learn about — like this! The Church of the Brethren and United Nations United Relief and Rehabilitation Administration sent 200,000 mules, horses, and heifers to a devastated Europe after the war, a program that is now known as The Heifer Project. Along with the animals were the cowboys who took care of them. This tells the story of a cowboy who rode the waves to Poland. It’s a very well-written story by the real granddaughter of one of the cowboys.
The Hole Story of The Doughnut by Pat Miller, illustrated by Vincent X. Kirsch
I love these little known historical stories! Hanson Gregory went to sea, first as a cabin boy. While working on the boat, he’s credited with inventing the doughnut. HIs mom popularized it when on land and the rest is history. Yum!
The Librarian Who Measured The Earth by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes
In this historical picture book, we learn the interesting story of a Greek man named Eratosthenes who figured out an INGENIOUS way to figure out the measure of the Earth. This book would be great to use in a geometry unit.
Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever by H. Joseph Hopkins, illustrated by Jill McElmurry
Kate Sessions helped plant San Diego with a variety of trees that would grow in the city’s climate. She worked hard to make sure that by the World’s Fair, there were enough trees for shade that the attendees wouldn’t be too hot. Beautifully written and illustrated!