March for Women: Picture Book Biographies of Women Who Changed American History
Updated: Mar 22, 2019
A week ago, people around the world celebrated International Women's Day, but in the United States we've set aside the month of March to celebrate the importance of women in our national history since 1987. The Library of Congress, the National Park Service, and a number of other federal agencies make the most of this month in "commemorating and encouraging the study, observance and celebration of the vital role of women in American history." (I highly recommend visiting their websites—there's so much to learn!)
We've put together a list of some of our favorite picture book biographies of incredible women who have changed the course of American history. Many of these women may not have been born in the United States, but their impact on history has made ripples from sea to shining sea. Some may be familiar faces, but we hope this list helps you meet some new ones, too. From first ladies to female inventors, there's no surprise to anyone, really, that there's a lot to commemorate.
As we made this list, we realized that there are so many picture books out there sharing the stories of women around the world—scientists and singers and artists, oh my!—so you can bet that you'll see a lot more where this came from... But here's a taste to get you started.
Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré by Anika Aldanny Denise, illustrated by Paola Escobar
(Ages 3-6, 6-12*) Known to me only because of the eponymous award given by the ALA each year, Pura Belpré immigrated from Puerto Rico and poured her life and love into telling and sharing stories with children in New York's public libraries. She brought the stories of her native island and has encouraged the growth of many storytellers to come. This lush picturebook provides a rich introduction, in both Spanish and English, to Pura Belpré and her American legacy.
Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines by Jeanne Walker Harvey, illustrated by Dow Phumiruk
(Ages 3-6, 6-12) Maya Lin grew up in a family of encouraging creators, and when a contest came up for someone to design a Memorial for the Vietnam War, she couldn't help but bring a powerful but simple idea to life. Entering her winning design at only age nineteen, Maya Lin's reflective wall of names has set in stone not only the legacy of soldiers lost in the war, but of her skills and determination as a powerful artist. In a stunning narrative paired with cinematic illustrations, Harvey and Phumiruk provide a beautiful introduction to an incredible woman in American history.
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) From an early age, Barbara Jordan had a voice that "caused folks to sit right up, stand up straight, and take notice." She sought to use that voice as a lawyer, but ended up putting pen to paper rather than speaking out. She turned to a role in the government as a way to fight for equality, and after not one, two, but three elections, she secured a place in the state senate and worked her way up into the U.S. House of Representatives, where she used her booming voice for good. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Jordan inspired others in a different way—in the college classroom. Bold, strong, and memorable as the woman who inspired it, What Do You Do With A Voice Like That? celebrates just one of the women whose activism has changed the nation.
When Marian Sang by Pam Muñoz Ryan, illustrated by Brian Selznick
(Ages 6-12) In sweeping illustrations and triumphant narrative, When Marian Sang tells the story of Marian Anderson, a world-class vocalist whose voice could very well have been silenced because of her race. When denied entry to Washington’s Constitution Hall in 1939, Anderson sang for thousands—both black and white—on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Discrimination led to determination, once again, and Anderson sang her way to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera.
Georgia in Hawaii: When Georgia O'Keeffe Painted What She Pleased by Amy Novesky, illustrated by Yuyi Morales
(Ages 6-12) "And Georgia painted." On a trip to Hawaii, celebrated American artist Georgia O'Keeffe scoffs at the plucked pineapple she's offered as a subject of a painting for the Hawaiian Pineapple Company, and instead searches out the organic beauty of the Hawaiian islands on her own terms. From old sugar plantations to flowers, from fishermen to waterfalls, O'Keeffe painted what she wanted and fell in love with the world she found in Hawaii. But you'll have to do your own reading to find out if she gave the the pineapple they wanted.
Before She Was Harriet by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James E. Ransome
(Ages 6-12) Told in backwards chronological order, Before She Was Harriet tells about the life and development of Harriet Tubman and the many roles, titles, and names she held in her lifetime. Ransome's illustrations are breathtaking, and the poetic language telling Harriet's story brings the reader a more full picture of the women who fought for freedom.
A Lady Has the Floor: Belva Lockwood Speaks Out for Women's Rights by Kate Hannigan, illustrated by Alison Jay
(Ages 6-12) Belva Lockwood wore many hats: teacher, suffragist, lawyer, and, believe it or not, presidential candidate. Despite setback after setback in her fight for rights of women and native people in the late 1800s, Lockwood fought for equality all the way up to the presidential ballot. Adventurous, tenacious, and above all determined, Belva Lockwood began to pave the way for the American woman.
Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly, illustrated by Laura Freeman
(Ages 6-12) Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden helped NASA shoot for the stars in their work as mathematicians, but because of the deeply-embedded segregation and discrimination in both the workplace and society at large, their influence remained largely untold. In an adapted form from Shetterly's book for adults, this picturebook biography, richly illustrated by Laura Freeman, showcases both the struggle and the successes of four bright Black women.
I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley
(Ages 6-12) Chronicling the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by way of disagreements she faced, I Dissent shows the determination of this longstanding Supreme Court Justice. Faced with discrimination based on her gender and her Jewish heritage, Ginsburg (a leftie!) defied expectations of what a woman could or should do throughout her life. Ginsburg's legacy shows that dissent isn't always divide, and that disagreement can make strides for equality.
Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code by Laurie Wallmark, illustrated by Katy Wu
(Ages 6-12) I'm admittedly both proud and technologically inadequate to share a name with the "queen of computer code," but there's no denying that this Grace made her mark on American history. This visually captivating picture book biography brings the reader alongside Hopper from a childhood of tinkering to a lifetime of computing. Not only did Hopper coin the term "bug" for that nasty thing that happens on our computers, she put some pretty solid cracks in that glass ceiling. A playful, informative narrative about one, yes, amazing woman.
Amelia and Eleanor Go For a Ride by Pam Muñoz Ryan, illustrated by Brian Selznick
(Ages 3-6, 6-12) Two friends get together for dinner. What's so remarkable about that? Well, for Eleanor Roosevelt and Amelia Earhart, it meant skipping out on dinner at the White House for a jet ride to Baltimore and back. This playfully fictionalized story of an adventure between two of the most famous women in American history captures not only the beauty of friendship but the qualities that made them so remarkable.
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) Told in a collection of poems, the life of Fannie Lou Hamer comes to life along Ekua Holmes' rich and powerful illustrations. From Sunflower County to the Democratic National Convention of 1964, Hamer was a beacon of freedom, hope, and perseverance during the Civil Rights movement. Weatherford's poetry carries the reader through each phase of Hamer's life with veracity and and depth, amplifying her voice for readers to come.
Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers' Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Melissa Sweet
(Ages 3-6, 6-12) A surprise for America, indeed! Clara Lemlich quickly fell into the garment working factories when she and her family immigrated to the United States, and she did not like what she found. Furious with the way women workers were treated, Clara urged her coworkers to do one thing: STRIKE! She led the largest women's walkout in American history, and this dynamic picture book illustrates just how strong a woman's impact can be.
Midnight Teacher: Lilly Ann Granderson and Her Secret School by Janet Halfmann, illustrated by London Ladd
(Ages 6-12) Taught to read as an enslaved child in Kentucky, Lilly Ann Granderson quickly realized the power of education. When sold down the river to Mississippi, though, her mission to teach other enslaved people how to read got much more dangerous, since the education of a slave was illegal. The danger didn't stop her—or her students—from spending each night writing, reading, and spelling their own freedom. Though it remains a mystery why her school wasn't shut down as soon as it was discovered by white men, it's clear that her fight for literacy for enslaved people was a battle worth fighting.
What did we miss? And who should we be reading about next?
*See our guide for Choosing Books for more on age levels.