• Grace McKinney

March for Women: Picture Book Biographies of Women in the Arts

Updated: Mar 22, 2019

Surprise! It's another list of fabulous picture book biographies for your reading pleasure in this Women's History Month. After our initial post, we hoped we could highlight even more stories of women whose lives have undoubtedly left footprints for each of us to follow, no matter our chosen path. This time, we've turned to the lives of women who have added beauty to our world through music, art, design, and more; whose artistry has overcome racial and gendered boundaries; and whose determination in their creative work has blazed the trail for future young artists to expand. It was a thrill to search for their stories, and we're excited to share them with you here.

It is unsurprisingly difficult to create categories for books about such women. Even when a woman's career lies in music, she may advocate for civil rights in all she does; if she paints for a living, she may be making strides for women's rights in each stroke; as she sculpts or designs, she could also be making leaps for scientific research. We are all well-rounded people, wouldn't you know it, and these women are no exception. But, for the sake of list-making, here's some artists you should know.

Dancing Through Fields of Color: The Story of Helen Frankenthaler by Elizabeth Brown, illustrated by Aimée Sicuro

(Ages 3-6, 6-9*) Captivated by color from a young age, artist Helen Frankenthaler spread it wherever she could. But in art school, she was forced to keep her colors contained within sharp, thick, black lines: a rigidity that reflected the limitations she felt as a woman. Pushing outside the boundaries—or, rather, getting rid of them altogether—Frankenthaler became an innovative figure in the world of modern art, originating the "color field" style. This playful, lush picture book paints the life of an artist with countless color words and a palette to match.

Libba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten by Laura Veirs, illustrated by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh

(Ages 6-9, 9-12) A woman after my own hand, lefty Elizabeth Cotten flipped her brother's guitar upside down and backwards, making the instrument pluck in a whole new way. Self-taught in playing and writing music, Cotten had written her most famous song, "Freight Train," by age eleven. Fazlalizadeh's illustrations are emotive and gritty, perfectly matched to the biography of this determined, creative woman. A detailed author's note captures Cotten's story more fully than the narrative, which provides a beautiful introduction to this talented musician.

Harlem's Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills by Renée Watson, illustrated by Christian Robinson

(Ages 6-9) With a voice that scared storms away, Florence Mills sang and danced her way onto a stage at a very young age, but not without trial. Segregation, and the racism that caused it, threatened her career and her very family's ability to watch her perform. Florence consistently stood her ground against such discrimination, ultimately turning down a role with Ziegfeld to instead support Black music and composers instead. This picture book carries the tune of Florence Mills' life from beginning to end, capturing each note of strength, selflessness, and spirit that led her each day.

She Made a Monster: How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein by Lynn Fulton, illustrated by Felicita Sala

(Ages 6-9, 9-12) The only woman in a competition to write the best ghost story, Mary Shelley's brain stormed alongside the thundering skies outside her room. Taunted by the questions of science and gender equality, she fell asleep to dreams of a monster... and a story was born. This introduction to the making of Frankenstein offers back matter for those interested in learning more about Shelley and her famous bolt-necked creation.

Little Melba and Her Big Trombone by Katheryn Russell-Brown, illustrated by Frank Morrison

(Ages 6-12) Yet another self-taught artist, Melba Doretta Liston lived with the hum of music as the soundtrack to her Kansas City childhood. At age seven, she picked a "long, funny-looking horn" as her instrument of choice, and the trombone stuck with her from then on. Through hard times—isolation from men in the band and discrimination from white audiences—Melba's music kept her company and, in turn, her music kept people listening. Another story of triumph with truly stunning illustrations to capture the dynamism in her life, Little Melba will surely have you tapping your feet and searching for some recordings of that long, funny-looking horn of hers.

Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl's Courage Changed Music by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rafael Lopez

(Ages 3-6, 6-9) In Cuba, a young girl is captivated by the rhythm of the drums, and dreams only of playing them herself. That instrument, however, is just for boys. When finally her father allows her to take lessons, she inches her way ever closer to playing the drums in the cafés of her dreams. Inspired by the childhood of Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, Drum Dream Girl is as much about music as it is about pursuing a passion, refusing "No" as an answer. Though a tale of a true story, this particular biography doesn't name the inspiration, leaving the reader to do some research of their own!

Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker by Patrica Hruby Powell, illustrated by Christian Robinson

(Ages 9-12) Told in a striking poetic form, Powell's picture book biography of Josephine Baker invites the reader into the details of a truly dazzling life. Lengthier than our other selections, this approximately 100-page account begins with Josephine's humble beginnings and ultimately lead her to the global stage, romping through each surprising turn of events. Robinson's bold, dynamic, and exuberant illustrations pair effortlessly with Howell's poetry to convey the extreme difficulties and ultimate joys of Baker's life. It's not one to be missed.

Frida Kahlo and Her Animalitos by Monica Brown, illustrated by John Parra

(Ages 3-6, 6-12) Frida's father taught her to see the world "with curious eyes," and she used that advice to see the world not only as it was, but to see it as she imagined how it could be. Even during illness and injuries, Frida continued to see the world with wonder, to imagine a world in which she could fly, and to care for her many (somewhat strange) pets. Her unique family of animalitos served as an extension of her own personality and an inspiration for her paintings during her life at La Casa Azul. With illustrations as bold as the artist herself, Brown's picturebook invites readers young and old into the artwork and animal-love of Frida Kahlo.

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois by Amy Novesky, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault

(Ages 6-9, 9-12) Louise's mother invited her into the world of tapestry—weaving, dyeing, mending, and more. While her father traveled, buying dresses and gifts, Louise spent time by the river of her hometown, loving and learning alongside her industrious mother. When her mother died and she was left with pieces and parts of her childhood memories, Louise Bourgeois made the skills of tapestry her own by weaving together those pieces and parts of her life into new works of art. Poetic in both illustration and narrative, Cloth Lullaby tells of both the love and heartbreak that come together to make something beautiful.

When Marian Sang by Pam Muñoz Ryan, illustrated by Brian Selznick

(Ages 6-9, 9-12) See this blurb on our Women in American History list.

Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Julie Morstad

(Ages 3-6, 6-12) "The world is a hungry place, and Anna will feed it beauty." From a poor childhood of cold windows and piles of laundry came one of the most talented ballerinas in the world. In spare, poetic writing, Snyder tells the story of how years of practice led Anna to the many roles that made her famous—especially the Swan. Never forgetting those cold windows and dirty shirts, Pavlova traveled to places where people needed to be fed beauty, which she provided till the end of her life. Ethereal and simple, this beautiful biography is a perfect introduction to the life of the prima ballerina.

The Legendary Miss Lena Horne by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon

(Ages 3-6, 6-9) Lena Horne's mother probably taught her many important things, but here's one of them: You have to be taught to be second class; you’re not born that way. Following not only her mother's advice but also her dream of being a Hollywood star, Lena Horne moved from the vaudeville stage to the studios of California as the first contracted Black actress. Fighting against racism in casting stereotypes, Horne captivated audiences as an actress, singer, and civil rights activist, always using her voice to shed light on both stormy weather and the promise of opportunity.

Tallchief: America's Prima Ballerina by Maria Tallchief and Rosemary Wells, illustrated by Gary Kelley

(Ages 6-12) Unique from the other texts in this list, Tallchief is the autobiographical account of a young Osage girl's path to a life in ballet. Maria Tallchief diligently practiced both the piano and the art of ballet, despite the Osage restriction of women's dancing. Supported throughout her childhood to do both, Maria's father finally told her that she needed to choose one star, one path, and follow it; that path was ballet. Tallchief details the trials of strict teachers, the reality of discrimination, but most of all the joy and passion she felt for pursuing a life of dance. Though too long for story time, but rich for individual reading, the story ends as she sets off for her professional career and provides a beautiful, nuanced look at the early life of a Native American dancer.

Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines: Designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial by Jeanne Walker Harvey, illustrated by Dow Phumiruk

See this blurb on our Women in American History list.

Dorothea's Eyes: Dorothea Lange Photographs the Truth by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Gérard DuBois

(Ages 6-12) Shying away from the spotlight, Dorothea Lange learned to see rather than be seen. After childhood polio left her with a limp, she found that her skills in observation led her to pursue photography. Though deemed "unladylike" by her family and though bullied for her physical limitations, Lange worked tirelessly to find her place behind the camera. She finds work as an elite portraitist for San Francisco society, but feels a higher call to photograph "the truth with love," which meant taking pictures of the reality of America's Great Depression. An uplifting, well-researched, and altogether striking picture book tells Lange's story of seeing, and embracing, the people in her world.

Check out our other lists of wave-making women:

Women in American History

Women for Social Change (forthcoming)

Women in Science (forthcoming)

*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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