2014 Biography Picture Books for Gifting: Cool People Kids Want to Know About

Continuing to round up all my favorites for your gifting pleasure! This time we're going to focus on picture book biographies, in which kids are introduced to a real-life person. Often the person is extremely famous, but sometimes they are quite obscure, which is really cool. Picture book biographies help kids ages four to 12 get to know not just prominent people, but also to realize their own potential as they begin to figure out what interests them. Kids can be inspired by life stories in a very tangible way. 

Generally I find that biographies are not the books that kids gravitate to when shelf browsing in the library. But if you can turn them on to one, it's like you've hit a homer out of the park, and they'll be back for more and more. Got a child who loves music, sports, dance, or gaming? A child who is sensitive to issues of equality and social progress? What about a child who could use a role model of their own race and gender? It's in this space that bios work their magic. My favorite such story is of several boys I've worked with who read out the entire sports section of the library. The way I kept them coming back was to introduce them to sports bios of not just modern-day Michael Jordans and Kobe Bryants, but of Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, and Joe Louis. They were hooked and I was in heaven! 

Oh, and if you're dealing with a reluctant reader? A bio of a person they can relate to or who ties into one of the child's personal interests is a wonderful way to get a kid to read. And graphic novel (i.e. cartoon bios) are another amazing way to get kids reading.

With that in mind, let's take a look at my favorite kids' picture book bios published in 2014. This was a banner year for the genre.

Hello, I'm Johnny Cash by G. Neri and A. G. Ford

ages 9-12

Even if you're not a country western music fan, it's hard to deny the power of Johnny Cash's resonant, emotive sound. Neri and Ford capture the childhood and young adult years that formed Cash into the Man in Black. Written in free verse portrayed on large-scale oil paintings, Hello, I'm Johnny Cash demonstrates how poverty, religion, and music influenced Cash as he grew into a star, and kept him a down-to-earth performer whom common people (i.e. the rest of us) can relate to and admire. Neri has been awarded for his poetical writing for children in the past, and I feel sure he's in for more recognition with this new biography, which received starred reviews from three major children's book review journals. Plus, it's Johnny Cash. And he is super cool.

The Iridescence of Birds: A Book About Henri Matisse by Patricia MacLachlan and Hadley Cooper

ages 4-8

MacLachlan is an award-winning children's author of numerous chapter books, and here she demonstrates her ability to channel that talent into an entirely different genre. What I absolutely love about The Iridescence of Birds is its unassuming, inviting voice. MacLachlan expertly introduces young children (of an age for whom picture book bios are not often written) to a microcosm of Matisse's life, writing only two (yes, two) extended sentences. Cooper's block-print artwork viscerally demonstrates how a young Matisse was able to find and celebrate color under the grey skies of northern France. Hooper brings the grown Matisse and his childhood self together into the same frames to demonstrate both possibility and the ultimate realization of an artistic master. This book is genius in that it speaks to very young children, while introducing adults to the importance of fostering and encouraging creativity in that same audience. Just. Wow.

Alice Waters and the Trip to Delicious by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and Hayelin Choi with an afterward by Alice Waters

ages 7-10

I'll admit to being partial to this book based on its topic, which I think many parents will be excited to introduce to their children. Martin, another award-winning children's author, presents Alice Waters' interest in clean eating, from her restaurant to the development of the Edible Schoolyard, an educational garden in which children learn best practices for growing and preparing organic, local food. Many parents are very interested in the foodie/clean eating movement, and I think would enjoy using this text to bring their kids along for the ride.

I'm also quite partial to Choi's vibrant, happy illustrations, a combination of hand and digital work, which feature multicultural subjects. The book is fleshed out with a note from Waters herself, with some tangible advice for kids on clean eating (Grow Your Own Food. Taste and Taste Again.), along with a juvenile and adult bibliography of resources for kids and parents who want to grow and prepare good food.

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

ages 6-10

I have been waiting and waiting for my local library to get this book, and it just isn't going to come in time for this review. I've read enough about it and seen enough of the inside to know it is a title that you do. not. want. to. miss. Take a look at a detailed review from a book blog that I really enjoy here. Here's what I will say to get you to buy it (call it a slightly-larger-than-Twitter-sized review): Jazz music. Spunky seven-year-old girl. African-American. 1920s. Overcame immense obstacles. Prolific composer. Text and artwork infused with musical tone, excitement, and rhythm. Multiple starred reviews. 'Nuff said.

This one had better win a big award. I consider myself a jazz aficionado and Melba is entirely knew to me. I love when a children's biography introduces me to someone who shouldn't be a stranger. Melba deserves to be known, so share her with a child you want to encourage to create and persevere.

Ben Franklin's Big Splash by Barb Rosenstock and S. D. Schindler

ages 8-11

See my review here.   

Tuesday Tucks Me In by Luis Carlos Montalvan, Bret Witter, and Dan Dion

ages 7-10

See my review here.  

The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet

ages 8-11

See my review here. 

The Scraps Book by Lois Ehlert

ages 6-9

See my review here.

A Home for Mr. Emerson by Barbara Kerley and Edwin Fotheringham

ages 7-11

See my review here.  

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