• Grace McKinney

March for Women: Picture Book Biographies of Women for Social Change

Updated: Mar 27, 2019

Picture book biographies have proven to be a source of uncovering lesser-known stories of some of history's most extraordinary people. Sure, we know the role of Rosa Parks in the Montgomery Bus Boycott—but what about Georgia Gilmore and her secret in-home restaurant? And though we know Linda Brown's monumental court case to overturn "separate but equal" laws, it's less likely you've heard of Sylvia Mendez and her battle for integration years prior.

Though of course picture books about our favorite celebrities, historical figures, and heroines fill bookshelves in homes and libraries, it's always exciting to find that someone who's been hidden in the pages of someone else's story for far too long finally has their own moment to shine. For women fighting against oppression and inequality of all kinds, it's particularly difficult to unearth those unsung tales.

The silver lining: there was no shortage of books to include on this list. What we've collected is certainly not exhaustive, but hopefully captures some of the most remarkable accounts of feminine determination, strength, and courage to fight for what's right. These women challenged the most severe inequalities, from slavery to segregation to women's social and political rights, and pushed for change in environmentalism and education.

And you know what? They made—and continue to make—change happen. Let's get to know them.

Pies from Nowhere: How Georgia Gilmore Sustained the Montgomery Bus Boycott by Dee Romito, illustrated by Laura Freeman

(Ages 6-12*) When the news came over the radio that Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, Georgia Gilmore listened from her job at the National Lunch Company. As the boycott swelled and empty buses haunted the streets, Georgia helped the best way she knew: secretly sustaining the boycotters with home-cooked food. Surreptitiously raising money and pies for the boycott, Georgia was an integral part of keeping the effort alive—even opening a restaurant in her own home when she lost her job at the National Lunch Company. Romito's text celebrates a powerful but lesser-known figure in the civil rights movement who kept cooking as long as there were battles to be won.

Midnight Teacher: Lilly Ann Granderson and Her Secret School by Janet Halfmann, illustrated by London Ladd

(Ages 6-12) See this blurb on our Women in American History list.

So Tall Within: Sojourner Truth's Long Walk Toward Freedom by Gary Schmidt, illustrated by Daniel Minter

(Ages 6-12) Sold, separated, sold, separated: this was the story of Isabella's family. After a lifetime of slavery and too many separations, she decided it was time she “seized Freedom with her own hands.” After fighting to get her son back, she began a journey (a sojourn), both interior and exterior, to examine and share about the evils of slavery. Fighting for what is right and true, Sojourner Truth serves as a monument of strength, and Schmidt's text honors her as just that. Rife with informational back matter and carried by Minter's detailed illustrations, this is not one to miss.

Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers' Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Melissa Sweet

(Ages 3-6, 6-12) See this blurb on our Women in American History list.

The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist by Cynthia Levinson, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton

(Ages 3-6, 6-12) As a Black child in Birmingham, Audrey Faye Hendricks couldn't eat inside the ice cream parlor like white children could, and that didn't seem right to her. When "Mike" (known to many as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) calls for the congregation at Audrey's church to "fill the jails," no one volunteers to help with the job. That is, until the idea spreads that children can fill jails, too, and Audrey jumps for the chance. Sentenced to a week in prison for illegally protesting, Audrey and thousands of other children succeed in their task—they filled the jails, and no one could be thrown in for eating ice cream inside the parlor or riding on the front end of the bus! A powerful glimpse at the life of a child who fought for racial equality, The Youngest Marcher shows the influence that young people can have.

One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of The Gambia by Miranda Paul, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon

(Ages 3-6, 6-12) When plastic bags begin piling up in walkways, strangling gardens, and even poisoning the goats of her village in The Gambia, Isatou Ceesay knew that something had to be done. She gathered a small group of women who began washing and threading and weaving the plastics into something totally new... and totally recycled. Initially ridiculed for their project, this group of determined women, all led by Isatou, began to return the landscape in The Gambia to a greener, healthier state—all from that first plastic bag. With a glossary, timeline, and more resources in the back matter, the striking mixed-media picture book champions a woman fighting for the beauty of the earth.

I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley

(Ages 6-12) See this blurb on our Women in American History list.

Malala's Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai, illustrated by Kerascoët

(Ages 3-6, 6-12) An autobiographical account of Malala Yousafzai's rise to fame begins with a single question: "Do you believe in magic?" A television show from her childhood had Malala wishing for a magical source for change, but when a group of men took power in her hometown and made it too dangerous for girls to go to school, she knew that magic could be—and must be—found in her own voice. Writing and speaking into her own power, Malala tells readers about the inequalities in access to education and the hope that can be found in one's own voice to fight against it.

Before She Was Harriet by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James E. Ransome

(Ages 6-12) See this blurb on our Women in American History list.

Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer: Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Ekua Holmes

(Ages 9-12, 12-18) See this blurb on our Women in American History list.

Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family's Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh

(Ages 6-12) Before Brown v Board of Education, Sylvia Mendez had to fight for the right to attend a "whites only" public school in California. Turned away because of her dark complexion while her lighter-skinned cousins were admitted, Sylvia and her family when through court after court, fighting for integration of schools in California. Tonatiuh champions Sylvia and her family's heroic story as well as an illustrative tradition, accompanying her story with his signature Mixtec codex-style illustrations. Thoroughly researched and thoughtfully executed, Tonatiuh's Separate is Never Equal is a must-read for young activists.

Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees by Franck Prévot, illustrated by Aurélia Fronty

(Ages 6-12) As a child, Wangari Maathai was granted the unlikely opportunity for girls of going to school, and her studies brought her all the way to the United States. As she grew up, Wangari Maathai, also known as "Mama Miti," saw the overwhelming effects of deforestation in her community in Kenya: the land and water was coming unhinged. She fought for this land, jumping through political, racial, and gendered opposition, she began the Green Belt Movement to plant trees to replace all that had been lost. Rich with back matter including photographs, timeline, and quotations from Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai herself, Prévot's biography provides not only an evocative artist's rendering of the power of one woman's strength, but an informative and engaging introduction to her story.

A Lady Has the Floor: Belva Lockwood Speaks Out for Women's Rights by Kate Hannigan, illustrated by Alison Jay

(Ages 6-12) See this blurb on our Women in American History list.

What Do You Do With A Voice Like That?: The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan by Chris Barton, illustrated by Ekua Holmes

(Ages 6-12) See this blurb on our Women in American History list.

Mama Africa!: How Miriam Makeba Spread Hope With Her Song by Kathryn Erskine, illustrated by Charly Palmer

(Ages 6-12) Bold in illustration, design, and storytelling, Mama Africa! tells the story of powerful singer and civil rights activist Miriam Makeba's path to fight against apartheid. Erskine's account follows Makeba's fight for equality from South Africa to the United States and to the United Nations, where her voice grew loud enough to make her story heard. With a bibliography, glossary, photographs, and more, Erksine's text provides readers with the opportunity to deep-dive into Makeba's life and legacy.

Coretta Scott by Ntozake Shange, illustrated by Kadir Nelson

(Ages 3-6, 6-12) In spare, lyrical poetry, readers step alongside Coretta Scott as she sings, prays, and marches for freedom through the civil rights movement. While the text flows from page to page, Nelson's intimate, portrait-like illustrations bring about moments to look into the faces of Coretta Scott, Martin Luther King, Jr., and those who surround them on each spread. A picture book that will certainly leave you wanting more, with text is so delicate, but a stunning ode to a remarkable woman.

Check out our other lists of wave-making women here:

Women in American History

Women in the Arts

Women in Science

*See our guide for Choosing Books for more on age levels.

Print this list! Click here for a link to a condensed version of this list in Google Drive.

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