Top Ten Biographical Picture Books by Alyson Beecher
A few years ago I was reading Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko and Moose describes Theresa as a “little Eleanor Roosevelt”. It occurred to me that my students didn’t know who Eleanor Roosevelt was or why Moose would make the comparison. What could I do quickly to help my students? I realized then that a biographical picture book could be helpful. I found Eleanor, Quiet No More by Doreen Rappaport. I could take a few minutes out of my read aloud and provide some much needed background knowledge for my students with just the right biographical picture book.
When I told a publisher’s sales rep that I loved biographical picture books, she sadly mentioned that they don’t do as well in sales compared to other books. What a bummer! So I thought it might be fun to go through some of my favorites, even a few lesser-known ones, and see what books I could pair them with or how to use them in a classroom.
Here goes my top 10 with a couple of seasonal ones at the end..
Eleanor, Quiet No More by Doreen Rappaport; Illustrated by Gary Kelley
Pair with Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko to explain who is Eleanor Roosevelt.
Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People by Monica Brown; Illustrated by Julie Paschkis
Pair with The Dreamer by Pamela Muñoz Ryan; Illustrated by Peter Sís – Some friends were questioning me when I told them I planned to read The Dreamer with a class of 5th graders. I realized that they would benefit from a little background knowledge about Neruda. This Monica Brown biographical picture book dovetails perfectly with Ryan’s fictionalized account of Neruda’s childhood.
Langston Hughes: American Poet by Alice Walker; Illustrated by Catherine Deeter
Pair with Poetry for Young People: Langston Hughes by David Roessel (Editor), Arnold Rampersad (Editor) or any of Langston Hughes’ poetry. Last year, I did a Literacy Café on the Harlem Renaissance and we focused on the poetry of Langston Hughes. Since we didn’t have time to read multiple novels, I had to depend a lot on biographical picture books and this one by Alice Walker on the life of Langston Hughes was excellent.
The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life with Chimps by Jeanette Winter
Pair with Marty McGuire by Kate Messner – In Messner’s wonderful chapter book Marty McGuire, Marty and her friend Annie pretend to be Jane Goodall. In case students are unclear on the reference to Jane Goodall and her work this is a great way to enlighten students.
Pioneer Girl: The Story of Laura Ingalls Wilder by William Anderson; Illustrated Dan Andreasen
Pair with Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder – I have to admit that I threw this one in just because as a 3rd and 4th grader I loved the whole Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. When I discovered this biographical picture book on Laura Ingalls Wilder, I was really excited. This one provides 3rd and 4th grade students with some simple background information on the beloved children’s author.
Louisa: The Life of Louisa May Alcott by Yona Zeldis McDonough; Illustrated by Bethanne Andersen
Pair with Little Women by Louisa May Alcott – This may be my second walk down memory lane (yes, I loved Little Women when I was in 5th grade), but I really did enjoy this picture book biography on Louisa May Alcott and it provides readers with a significant amount of background information on this 19th century author.
Lost Boy: The Story of the Man Who Created Peter Pan by Jane Yolen; Illustrated by Steve Adams
Pair with Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie – A couple of years ago I went back and read the original Peter Pan. Let’s just say that Disney certainly has taken creative license with some of the story. Since most children are familiar with this classic work, but not with the actual author behind the book, Yolen’s text and Adams’ illustrations will provide children with just enough background information about the creator of Peter Pan.
The Extraordinary Mark Twain (As Told by Susy) by Barbara Kerley; Illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham
Pair with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain – There is probably dozens of picture books on Mark Twain, but this one is probably my favorite. Written from the perspective of his daughter, Susy, readers are provided with a unique look into the life of this famous writer, as well as, the reflections of a child’s diary.
And just in time for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday:
Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Doreen Rappaport; Illustrated by Bryan Collier
Pair with I Have a Dream by Martin Luther King Jr., Paintings by Kadir Nelson – This beautifully illustrated picture book is the complete text of Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech.
And to celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday:
Abe’s Honest Words: The Life of Abraham Lincoln by Doreen Rappaport; Illustrated by Kadir Nelson – Yes, Doreen Rappaport made this list 3 times, but her work is amazing and she is often paired with some of the most outstanding illustrators in the field today. Rappaport strings together historical information with Lincoln’s actual words for a fascinating read about our 16th president.
There are many more biographical picture books that can enhance and support your classroom curriculum. Have fun looking at biographical picture books in a new way.
Alyson Beecher is a Program Support Specialist for Reading & Literacy with the Pasadena Unified School District in California. She has a serious book addiction and celebrates books as part of the Nerdy Book Club.
Blog: Kid Lit Frenzy