• Grace McKinney

Who Run the World: New Picture Book Biographies of Women

In March, we celebrate Women’s History Month, which serves as a perfect opportunity to examine many unsung female heroes from our nation’s past. At around six years old, children may begin to exhibit a tendency toward “hero worship” as they consider their place in the world more deeply. Who before them can serve as a model and inspiration? Who has shown perseverance and compassion to make the world a better place?

Picture book biographies offer a perfect gateway for blossoming readers to find stories about real-life heroes, both familiar and unsung, whom they can emulate. Though we already have several extensive lists of our favorite picture book biographies of world-changing women on our blog (revisit our March for Women series here), here are a few recent books that will surely inspire young readers, scientists, artists, and writers to pursue their dreams.

Little People, Big Dreams: Maria Montessori by Mª Isabel Sánchez Vegara, illustrated by Raquel Martin

Though several children’s biographies of Maria Montessori exist, many are outdated, difficult to find, and not quite as aesthetically pleasing as Dr. Montessori may have wanted. One of many fantastic biographies in the Little People, Big Dreams collection, Maria Montessori tells about the challenges that she overcame as she pursued a degree in medicine when it was unprecedented for a woman to do so. She went on to observe children all over the world, finding that we only need to “follow the child” to see exactly what they need for their lifelong journey in learning. Small enough in trim size and text length without forfeiting important details of Maria Montessori’s life, this book is a perfect primer on a woman who changed the course of modern education.

It Began with a Page: How Gyo Fujikawa Drew the Way by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Julie Morstad

From a young age, Gyo Fujikawa was surrounded by both support and adversity. Her family and teachers could see her great gift in art while her mostly white classmates largely ignored her. While her time in art school in Japan promised an exciting career, World War II led her Japanese American family to be taken to an internment camp. When she at last envisioned using her talent for children’s books, she fought for images that showed children of all colors playing together and fought for it until it was published. Morstad’s soft illustrative style honors, rather than mimics, Fujikawa’s own. Fujikawa’s story—and the books she created—communicates the power of art to imagine a world better and kinder than the one in which we live.

The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read by Rita Lorraine Hubbard, illustrated by Oge Mora

Mary Walker was born enslaved on a plantation. As a child, she was given a Bible, telling her that within it she could find all the answers she needed. She carried that Bible with her for decades without ever having a moment to learn to read it. After being freed at age 15, Mary spent most of her very long life working many jobs to make ends meet for her family. Finally, at age 118, she enrolled herself in a reading course and practiced her letter sounds, memorized sight words, and perfected her handwriting. Celebrated by friends and prominent figures alike, the “oldest student” spent the last years of her life finally reading aloud from her Bible to those around her. This picture book not only tells a remarkable story but executes it beautifully. In her signature mixed media, Oge Mora renders every sign, letter, and billboard in scribbles until Mary herself learns to read them herself. A delightful testament to the fact that it’s never to late to learn.

Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreño Played the Piano for President Lincoln by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rafael Lopez

This Pura Belpré Award winning picture book tells the story of a life-changing moment for renowned Venezuelan pianist, Teresa Carreño. A piano-playing prodigy, Carreño learned from a young age the healing power of music. She traveled the world by invitation, playing her instrument for audiences in dozens of countries. After some time, her family was forced to evacuate war-torn Venezuela. They arrived in yet another war-torn nation: the United States of America. She received a surprising invitation to play for President Lincoln, which left her wondering if the music she created could possibly offer consolation in the midst of the pain and sorrow of the Civil War. Rendered in Lopez’s vibrant, nearly-magical illustrations, Carreño’s story communicates the life-giving power of music, no matter where it is heard.

What Miss Mitchell Saw by Hayley Barrett, illustrated by Diana Sudyka

Maria (pronounced Ma-RYE-ah) Mitchell was born to a quiet Quaker family in Nantucket, where she grew to love “sweeping the sky” with her telescope. With an insatiable hunger for learning about the stars, galaxies, and the space beyond her, Maria one night saw something never seen before: a new comet. The story of America’s first female astronomer is rendering in well-paced, researched text enveloped in the starry landscape Sudyka composes. A lush, inspiring story, What Miss Mitchell Saw will surely captivate budding scientists to look a little more closely at the skies above.

Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks by Suzanne Slade, illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera

Gwendolyn Brooks’ family had one incredible treasure: a bookcase full of poetry. Though she easily found her place among the poems she read, Gwendolyn struggled to find a place among her peers who told her she was either “too black” or “too white.” She began submitting her writing to local publications, and what celebration ensued when her first poem appeared in a local paper! After both acceptances and many rejections, Gwendolyn continued to write until she had a full collection… but a publisher wanted more. Finally, she created enough to publish a book—the first of many. A powerful story about the first Black American to win the Pulitzer prize, Exquisite weaves poetry into prose and surrounds the narrative with Cabrera’s detailed and vibrant illustrations.

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