I am quite enamored with picture book biographies, a genre that has come into full force in the past few decades. Following are my favorite bios of remarkable women, which are perfect for sharing with your elementary-aged child.
When Marian Sang by Pam Muñoz Ryan and Brian Selznick
While many of us are familiar with Marian Anderson's famous concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, there's much more than one moment to this singer's life. Ryan details Anderson's childhood singing in her Philadelphia church, her European debut, and her struggles to be allowed to perform on the public stage in the Jim Crow era in her home country. Ryan meshes details from Anderson's life with lyrics from her songs and Selznick, an award-winning children's book illustrator, uses a sepia palette to dramatize Anderson's strength in the face of great adversity. This stellar book won a Robert Siebert Honor, a prize awarded to the finest non-fiction for children published in a particular year by the American Library Association.
What to Do About Alice? by Barbara Kerley and Edwin Fotheringham
My current favorite on the list. Alice, daughter of Teddy Roosevelt, had a bit of trouble behaving according to the norms of girlhood in the early twentieth century. TR referred to Alice as "running riot," while his daughter preferred the phrase "eating up the world." Alice's early antics included greeting White House visitors with her pet snake Emily Spinach, and evolved into traveling the world as a diplomat for her father. Alice's infectious spirit is perfectly captured in Fotheringham's dynamic illustrations, as well as in the use of varying sizes of bold and moving print. Alice Roosevelt's unapologetic and gleeful early life provides inspiration to girls living a century later. The best part is that this book is so much fun, its lessons are perfectly subtle.
Me ... Jane by Patrick McDonnell
Me ... Jane is a compelling story that lovingly relays the importance of childhood dreams. This tribute introduces Jane Goodall as a child, with her plush chimpanzee Jubilee always by her side, observing the natural world with much interest, and adventuring in her imagination to Africa to swing through the trees a la Tarzan. A compendium of ink drawings, stamps, and photographs give the story the feel of a journal. In the end when the adult Jane is introduced, readers learn that seemingly outlandish fantasies can become reality. After reading this you'll start paying closer attention to your child's imagination.
America's Champion Swimmer: Gertrude Ederle by David Adler and Terry Widener
In 1906, Gertrude Ederle was born into an era in which the "fairer sex" were certainly not supposed to dream of life outside the home, much less swim across the English Channel, and then do it in two hours less time than the existing record (held by a man). Adler does a wonderful job of demonstrating the courage it took to overcome sexism in the 1920s, particularly in athletics. Widener's quaint artwork compliments the historical feel of this title, and readers will eagerly turn pages to find out whether despite dangerous weather and her trainer's recommendation to give up, Ederle makes it to the other side.
The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq by Jeanette Winter
To Alia Baker, head librarian at the Basra, Iraq library, books are "more precious ... than mountains of gold." Spare language and detailed illustrations depict Baker's rescue of 30,000 books from the ravages of the Iraq War in 2003. Winter deftly potrays Baker's courage and honor while depicting the war in a context appropriate to young children. Winter's acrylic and ink artwork are also put to excellent use in biographies of Georgia O'Keefe and Jane Goodall.
Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford and Kadir Nelson
Biographies about Tubman abound, but this one makes a point to depict the role of faith and spirituality in the success of her journey. Tubman's steadfast belief in her calling to help free hundreds of African-American slaves keeps her moving forward despite intense danger. Dramatic action is interspersed with Tubman's prayers and conversations with God. Nelson's expressive paintings lend the book a transcendental feel. A prime tool for beginning to understand the nature of Harriet Tubman's serenely powerful courage.
Helen's Big World: The Life of Helen Keller by Doreen Rappaport and Matt Tavares
What I really like about this book is that the author doesn't limit the scope to Helen Keller's early life, in which she learns to overcome the limitations of being blind and deaf. Rather, this biography spans Helen's experience from birth to death at age 87, highlighting her work as an antiwar activist, a friend of African-Americans, and on behalf of women's suffrage. When a young Helen rages against her inability to communicate, we see the spirit that will inspire her to continue to fight for universal human rights long after. Large format watercolor, gouache, and pencil illustrations bring Keller's fortitude and dynamism to life.