A reading strategy I like to use with children reading nonfiction is connecting to background knowledge. As you read these biographies, both picture books for preschool and elementary ages as well as biographical story collections for upper elementary and middle school, help your kids connect to what they’re reading.
Start with prompts like:
How are you like or not like this person?
Do you know someone who is like this person?
What other biographies or famous people does this person remind you of?
Reading biographies is informative and instructive. We learn more about people which helps us learn more about ourselves– who we are and who we want to be.
The following books are late 2019 and early 2020 publications that I know you’ll want to add to your reading collections.
Picture Book Biographies
All the Way to the Top: How One Girl’s Fight for Americans with Disabilities Changed Everything by Annette Bay Pimentel, illustrated by Nabi H. Ali
ACTIVIST / PHYSICAL DIFFERENCES
Jennifer uses a wheelchair because of her cerebral palsy. Using a wheelchair means that she can’t get into the neighborhood school with stairs or eat lunch in the cafeteria with the other kids. So even though she’s a kid, Jennifer joins other activists to speak up for access to all places — asking Congress to pass a law called the ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act. When the law doesn’t look like it’s going to pass, Jennifer leaves her wheelchair to crawl up the steps (no ramps) of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Eventually, Congress finally passes the ADA! Reading Jennifer’s true story will make you CHEER! Because Jennifer is amazing and you’ll want to be a force for change like her. What a role model!
Nonsense! The Curious Story of Edward Gorey by Lori Mortensen, illustrated by Chloe Bristol
What a perfect picture book biography with engaging, atmospheric prose and dramatic, Gorey-looking pen-and-ink illustrations! Mortensen gives readers just enough information to captivate us starting with Gorey’s childhood, moving and skipping grades, then into his adulthood where he was uniquely himself and after illustrating for other people, wrote and illustrated dark, weird and quirky stories of his own.
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!
The Only Woman in the Photo: Frances Perkins and Her New Deal for America by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Alexandra Bye
An excellent biography of a woman and activist to admire that will make a worthy addition to your American history studies. Frances witnessed injustice and decided to do something about it. Even when women weren’t always taken seriously, she fought for big changes to make life better for workers. Her hard work was rewarded when Franklin D. Rosevelt asked Frances to be the secretary of labor in his cabinet of advisors.
Our Flag Was Still There: The True Story of Mary Pickersgill and the Star-Spangled Banner by Jessie Hartland
Well-crafted, simple, and informative writing with lovely illustrations narrate the important historical story of a flag maker named Mary who made an enormous flag that would send a message to the British. Mary’s role in American history during the Revolutionary War inspired the song written by Francis Scott Key that became our national anthem.
Cezanne’s Parrot by Amy Guglielmo, illustrated by Brett Helquist
Cezanne works slowly and is different than the other artists of his day. Yet he persists doing art in his own way. Throughout his struggles, he tries to get his parrot to say, “Cezanne is a great painter.” And eventually, people see his artwork and say, “Cezanne is a great painter.” The color palette and technique of the illustrations set a Cezanne-ish mood as if they were his actual paintings.
Flight for Freedom: The Wetzel Family’s Daring Escape from East Germany by Kristen Fulton, illustrated by Torben Kuhlmann
EAST GERMANY ESCAPE
What a heart-stopping true story of daring and bravery! Two families in East Germany secretly plan and eventually escape oppressive Eastern Germany by making a hot air balloon. Their feat shows showing courage, invention, and a love of family. Dramatic illustrations with a bright contrasting balloon that seems to symbolize hopes and dreams.
Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreno Played the Piano for President Lincoln by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rafael Lopez
As a little girl, Teresa started playing the piano in her home country of Venezuela. She moved with her family to the United States during the Civil War where she used music to bring hope to people, even President Abraham Lincoln, earning the nickname “Piano Girl”. Evocative imagery in the writing paired with Lopez’s gorgeous, colorful illustrations make this a lovely sensory experience.
Anna Strong: A Spy During the American Revolution by Sarah Glenn Marsh, illustrated by Sarah Green
It’s wonderful to see how every person can make a difference. During the Revolutionary War, a lady named Anna Strong helped the Patriots by spying on the Loyalists and the British army. America needed her and she delivered. This is history worth knowing wrapped up in a wonderful picture book story.
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.
Counting the Stars: The Story of Katherine Johnson NASA Mathematician by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by Raul Colon
You can’t help but be inspired by Katherine’s life story. Katherine zipped through her schooling early because she was so smart, finding a job as a teacher. But she’s most well-known for her next job as a human calculator for NASA’s space program, helping the first American travel to space.
Just Like Beverly A Biography of Beverly Cleary by Vicki Conrad, illustrated by David Hohn
Beverly Cleary wrote some of the most beloved children’s stories like the Ramona books. But before, how did she get there? Read how she had trouble at school and disliked the many boring books. She gets a teacher who sparks her love of learning and eventually becomes a librarian before deciding to write the books that she wanted to read about real kids like her and the kids she knew from the library.
Honey: The Dog Who Saved Abe Lincoln by Shari Swanson, illustrated by Chuck Groenink
You might not know it but Abe Lincoln loved animals. This story shows that love when he rescues a dog he names Honey. And in return, Honey saves Abe when Abe gets trapped inside a cave.
Meet the Artist Frank Bowling An Art Activity Book by Helene Baum and Zoe Whitley
This is a two in one book — it’s a biography and an activity book without art activities that help kids understand the art of Frank Bowling. It’s fascinating and engaging.
A Voice Named Aretha by Katheryn Russell-Brown, illustrated by Laura Freeman
This picture book shares the life story of how Aretha used her pain and passion to become a world famous soul singer. After reading about this iconic, groundbreaking singer, listen to some of her greatest hits.
You Are My Friend by Aimee Reid, illustrated by Matt Phelan
A gentle tone captures the personality of a boy who wanted to help kids express their feelings and find helpers in the world with a television program called Mister Rogers Neighborhood.
The Power of Her Pen: The Story of Groundbreaking Journalist Ethel L. Payne by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by John Parra
The illustrations are wonderful but the writing isn’t my favorite because there are so many details ad reminds me of a bed-to-bed story.
Me and the Sky: Captain Beverley Bass, Pioneering Pilot by Beverley Bass with Cynthia Williams, illustrated by Joanie Stone
The best part of this picture book is the illustrations. I also liked reading the back matter which explained that this woman’s life is the story in the musical “Come From Away”. Beverley has an interesting life story to be sure, I just found the writing to be dry and in need of story elements.
Feed Your Mind: A Story of August Wilson by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Cannady Chapman
This is not a typical picture book because it’s a more dense illustrated biography best for independent readers. It gives readers a sense of history filled with injustice and self-motivation that led August to become a passionate learner and renowned playwright.
Biography Books for Independent Readers Ages 9 – 12
Little Heroes of Color by David Heredia
DIVERSE HEROES (ages 3 – 10)
This board book is filled with cartoon-style illustrations, bold colors, and 50 trailblazing heroes from many different cultures and ethnicities. With one sentence per person, you’ll learn the most important thing about them. For example, Henry “Box” Brown mailed himself to freedom and Silvia Carrerra is the voice for indigenous women of Panama. Wonderful!
We Are Artists: Women who Made Their Mark on the World by Kari Herbert
I’m loving this book so much — it shares with well-written biographies (about 3- 5 pages for each woman) about so many female artists from different countries, each with their own unique style and life experience. From Yayoi Kusama of Japan to Alma Thomas of the U.S. to Amrita Sher-Gil of India and Hungary, discover incredible, passionate artists with long-lasting influence.
Stories of the Saints: Bold and Inspiring Tales of Adventure, Grace, and Courage by Carey Wallace, illustrated by Nick Thornborrow
Memorable, dramatic illustrations accompany dramatic, exciting stories of legendary men and women known to be saints, people who stood up for justice or mercy or love or saw miracles. These stories tell of individuals with great faith and sense of purpose in the world. I’m not Catholic but I still found these stories to be absolutely fascinating.
A Black Woman Did That: 42 Boundary-Breaking, Bar-Raising, World-Changing Women by Malaika Adero, illustrated by Chante Timothy
In this book, you’ll meet women and girls who will inspire you. Read about fascinating and admirable women who are scientists, models, athletes, politicians, dancers, and more. Fascinating writing and fascinating people with impactful, vivid illustrations.
Noise Makers: 25 Women Who Raised Their Voices & Changed the World by Kazoo Magazine
Graphic novel fans will love this accessible, interesting biographical collection that celebrates females who’ve made a difference in the world. There’s so much to love besides that the biographies are written in comics…Before each biography is a main idea page (time period and what they’re famous for) as well as a page asking you to look at the list of descriptive phrases and see what YOU have in common with the woman. For Fossil Hunter, Mary Annino (1799 – 1847) see what you have in common with her: “I like to hike, I’m patient, I like to draw pictures,…” Reading these will not only inform you but also inspire you as you discover more about Bessie Coleman, Julia Child, Hedy Lamarr, Mary Shelley, Josephine Baker, and others.
Rise Up: Ordinary Kids With Extraordinary Stories by Amanda Li, illustrated by Amy Blackwell
A must-own book and favorite from this list! Kids will love the colorful layouts, exceptional writing, and wealth of information about SO many amazing role model kids. Learn about Poorna Malavath from India who climbed Mt. Everest, Desmond Doss, a WWII hero from the U.S., and Molly Kelly from Australia who escaped from forced resettlement for Aboriginal children. The writing grabs you from the first sentence — and makes these children’s true stories exciting and dramatic as if you were reading an adventure story.