“E” is for “Entertaining” and “Educational”: Ten Picture Book Biographies Tweens, Teens, and Teachers Will Love! by Maggie Bokelman
Even though the “E” on a picture book spine stands for “Everybody,” sometimes it’s mistaken for “Easy.” That’s unfortunate, because many picture books are complex and thought-provoking. In their 2009 book, Teaching Literary Elements with Picture Books, Susan Van Zile and Mary Napoli write, “A majority of current picture books are particularly geared for adolescents.” Lately, a slew of fabulous picture book biographies have hit the shelves, all of them rife with possibilities for integrating into older elementary, middle, and even high school classrooms. These biographies offer brief and compelling introductions to historical figures, including some lesser-known women and people of color whose stories are rarely included in traditional history textbooks.
Teachers can use picture book biographies as activators; the lively writing and dynamic artwork will engage students and spark discussions. They can also be employed for more in-depth assignments; for example, students might investigate how the text in a biography about a writer reflects (or doesn’t reflect) the subject’s literary style, or analyze the ways in which the illustrations in a biography about an artist relate to the subject’s artwork. Additionally, it is not unusual for picture book biographies to include detailed author notes and source documentation; these notes can be used for research projects. Many picture book biographies are suitable for use in a variety of content areas. History, literature, and art are the obvious choices, but why not use a book about an environmentalist in a science class, or a book about a swimmer in a physical education class?
Another positive aspect of picture book biographies is that many of them focus as much on the subject’s childhood and adolescent experiences as they do on the achievements the subject becomes known for in adulthood. For young people, this can make an otherwise dry and distant historical figure seem real and relatable.
It’s always hard to narrow down the choices for any “top ten” list, but I found the task particularly onerous for this post. Be aware that the following are only a small sampling of the many inspiring picture book biographies available!
Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor by Emily Arnold McCully (2006)
Mattie’s friend Sadie tells her she is “not like any girls I ever knew,” but Mattie does not care. Inventing is her passion, and, despite growing up in poverty, she pursues her work doggedly. The sketches that line the bottom of the pages add a note of authenticity. This book is perfect for girls—and boys—who love to make and invent. Marvelous Mattie would provide a great addition to a makerspace collection!
Nelson Mandela words and paintings by Kadir Nelson (20013)
Kadir Nelson’s gorgeous, lush paintings perfectly complement the simple but eloquent text. Together, they tell the story of Nelson Mandela’s childhood, activism, imprisonment, and eventual rise to the presidency of South Africa. More details are provided in an afterward. Mandela is a world leader with whom all children should become acquainted.
The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet (2014)
It’s hard to believe that a book about the man who invented the thesaurus could be so utterly captivating, but it is, and students who read this will be eager to make up their own classification methods and word lists. Author’s and illustrator’s notes at the end illuminate the creative process and provide more information about Roget’s life. Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet, whether paired with others or as a team, are shining stars—any picture book biography with either of their names on it is well worth reading.
Rumi: Whirling Dervish by Demi (2009)
Beautiful, gilded, highly detailed illustrations adorn the story of the famous 13th century Muslim spiritual poet. The text is informative, and Demi incorporates some of Rumi’s most famous quotes and poetry into it. This book provides a positive portrayal of an Islamic world view.
Frida by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Ana Juan
The text of this biography is succinct, suggestive, and poetic rather than expository. A note at the end provides more detailed information about artist Frida Kahlo’s life. The illustrations are lush, saturated, and dreamlike, complementing the poeticism of the text. Young readers will be inspired by Frida’s persistence in the face of pain and suffering after a childhood illness and an accident in young adulthood.
Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by Javaka Steptoe (2016)
Painted on pieces of found wood, and using bold, rich, colors, Javaka Steptoe’s breathtaking artwork does his remarkable subject justice. The story is told in simple, clear language. The reader learns of Basquiat’s mother’s mental health issues, but ends when Basquiat is at the height of his fame. An author’s note mentions Basquiat’s addiction to drugs and the tragedy of his early death.
Mermaid Queen: The Spectacular True Story of Annette Kellerman, Who Swam Her Way to Fame, Fortune, and Swimsuit History!
by Shana Corey, Illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham (2009)
Australian Annette Kellerman not only invented water ballet—the forerunner of synchronized swimming—but also modern, practical swimwear for women. Corey’s detailed notes at the end include source information. Fotheringham’s illustrations are bold and splashy, perfectly suited to the subject.
Ada Lovelace, Poet of Science: The First Computer Programmer by Diane Stanley, illustrated by Jessie Hartland (2016)
The daughter of a poet and a mathematician, Ada has both a wild imagination and a scientific mind. This story of a girl who literally invented wings for herself as a child is utterly charming. Fun, quirky illustrations add to the appeal.
Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa by Jeanette Winter (2008)
Wangari Maathai started the Green Belt movement in Kenya in 1977, and by 2004, 30 million trees had been planted, mostly by women. Winter tells Maathai’s story in spare text and bold pictures. A beautiful story about the difference one determined person can make.
Voice of Freedom, Fannie Lou Hamer: Spirt of the Civil Rights Movement by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Ekua Holmes (2015)
Free verse poems that can stand alone or link together tell the story of unstoppable life-long civil-rights activist Fannie-Lou Hamer, the 20th child of sharecroppers. Stunning illustrations feature repeating, quilt-like motifs.
Maggie Bokelman is a librarian and digital literacy instructor at Eagle View Middle School in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. She enjoys reading, talking about books, and writing about books, and is lucky enough to work at a school filled with book-loving kids and staff members. She’s also a poetry enthusiast. Maggie has a master’s degree in Children’s Literature from Hollins University, and enjoys attending and presenting at children’s literature and library conferences. When she’s not curled up with a book or at her keyboard, Maggie enjoys pilates and visiting far-flung family and friends. Find Maggie on Twitter @mbokelman, or visit her blog at https://librarianwithaview.wordpress.com.