31 Days, 31 Lists: 2020 Unique Biographies
What better litmus test could there possibly be for the state of the world today than biographies for children? Here, in one fell swoop, you can see precisely who it is we are encouraging our children to respect and grow to emulate. Each crop of yearly biographies runs the gamut from the uber famous to people who may not have ever even received an adult biography. I loved the sheer variety on display in 2020. Behold a sampling of some favorites.
2020 Unique Picture Book Biographies
Above the Rim: How Elgin Baylor Changed Basketball by Jen Bryant, ill. Frank Morrison
You never heard of Elgin Baylor? Meet the basketball icon and civil rights advocate who also happened to be the first true NBA all star. I don’t know how I became a proselytizer for sports books, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles. These days it feels like I’m always looking for sports related or sports adjacent titles for kids. And sporty picture book bios are often merely okay. Bryant’s here is a step above the rest, because she’s not merely focusing on Baylor’s life and importance, but is also stepping back to put him in the context of his times. Add in the fact that she works natural repetition into the text, and this is definitely worth some additional reads. The art of Frank Morrison, meanwhile, is on fire here. With every book he does, he just gets more and more interesting. One to watch.
The Cat Man of Aleppo by Irene Latham and Karim Shamsi-Basha, ill. Yuko Shimizu
It’s not just humans that suffer when there’s war. When ambulance driver Alaa Aljaleel discovers the hungry and abandoned cats on the streets of Aleppo, Syria, he rallies the world to help him care for the small and the weak. I’ll admit that since I tend to read books cold (I try not to know too much about them beforehand) I was flummoxed by the initial note from Alaa at the beginning of this book. I understand it now, but I think the publisher definitely should have moved it to the back of the story since you don’t really understand the emotional weight of the subject until you’ve had a chance to read the book. Exquisitely rendered by Shimizu (who was last scene making the equally amazing art in Barbed Wire Baseball back in 2013) this gives a weight and humanity to the crisis in Syria that you just don’t get from some of the refugee picture books we see every year. Heart warming in an honest sense, and the notes at the end (and fantastic listing of Art References) make it all the better.
Dark Was the Night: Blind Willie Johnson’s Journey to the Stars by Gary Golio, ill. E.B. Lewis
How did the voice of a blind man, traveling this country by train, literally reach to the stars? Golio brings to life the story of how Willie Johnson’s singing ended up on the Golden Record of Voyager I. Okay, now it’s time to think long and hard about what this list is doing for the differently abled. Golio’s take on the nonfiction picture book biography genre is very interesting here. Not content to merely zero in on Johnson’s life, he’s placing on either side the fact that Willie’s voice was placed on the golden record NASA shot into space in 1977. This is both literal (the endpapers are gold) and figurative (Willie’s story begins and ends with that record). Then there’s the fact that Golio is writing in the second person, which is a pretty interesting quirk. No fake dialogue (no dialogue at all) and minimal speculation (which is hard since there is so little known about Willie’s early life). It’s a clever method of introducing someone famous and important to readers and darned if it doesn’t work. One cannot help but think how timely it is to have a book out this year that talks about how we go on even when we’re in the darkest of night.
Drawing on Walls: A Story of Keith Haring by Matthew Burgess, ill. Josh Cochran
“I think it is very important to be in love with life.” Since he was a young child, Keith Haring loved to draw and paint. Now the full story of his life comes in this eye-catching, vibrant, joyful biography. This isn’t the first picture book bio about Keith Haring, but it’s a really good example of how a great figure in history can get perfectly okay bios for years and you’ll like them fine. Then a bio as good as this one comes out and it just blows away the competition. No one, I mean no one, should ever try to do Haring’s life again, because Josh Cochran turns out to be the world’s most perfect fit. His fine art is clearly Haring-inspired anyway, but what I love about what he’s done in this book is that you get the feel and energy and jolt and life of Haring (and life in 1980s NYC) without feeling like Cochran is copying his style. Burgess, for his part, is great about making him interesting to kids, and I deeply appreciated that the book doesn’t elide or shy away from his being gay. This is the GLBTQIA+ book we were waiting for this year.
Emmy Noether, the Most Important Mathematician You’ve Never Heard Of by Helaine Becker, ill. Kari Rust
Oh, my goodness gracious me! I came THIS close to missing this book this year. Slot this one into the good math-related picture book biography section. This book doesn’t disappoint. First of all, it eschews the usual pitfalls such books fall into far too often. No fake dialogue, no fictionalized scenes for dramatic effect, NONE of that! Instead, it’s a fun recounting of the facts surrounding Emmy’s life. At the beginning you get a checklist of the qualities girls were supposed to embody in the late 19th century. That list is paralleled on the opposite page by all the things Emmy couldn’t do (the usual “feminine” talents) and what she could (puzzles and math). She managed to sit in on the local university’s classes, and attend when it changed its rules and let women in. When Einstein’s theory of relativity had a hole in it, Emmy was able to use the field of algebra called “invariance” to solve it. And when the Nazis rode to power, Einstein helped set her up in America. Oh, and did we mention that she invented Noether’s theorem, and worked on “ideal theory” which has helped underlie computer science today? The art and writing together in this book are great, and I was very impressed by the mathematical explanations. I wouldn’t say a kid would understand everything, but it at least may make some want to learn more so that they CAN understand it. 2020 has seen a plethora of biographies for kids of individuals that weren’t attention hogs, so this book would pair nicely with The Only Woman in the Room. Or Nothing Stopped Sophie for that matter. So much fun.
Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks by Suzanne Slade, ill. Cozbi A. Cabrera
When she was a child in Chicago, this future Poet Laureate would look at the clouds and “dream about the future, which was going to be ecstatically exquisite.” A gorgeously rendered look at the power of perseverance. Excellent. My plans for world domination via the art of Cozbi A. Cabrera is going right on schedule. SO very glad that Abrams tapped her to do this book. Her illustrations prove to be the perfect accompaniment to Slade’s authentic and reliable text. I love how direct quotes (cited!) are worked so effortlessly into the narrative. I love how the book keeps returning to the clouds, both in the art and the themes. This book is an excellent example of how you take a life, select a detail that kids can grasp, and use it work the life around it so that it give a kind of narrative sense to everything. This book is so much more than rote facts about a person. It’s a guide for young poetic people everywhere.
Fauja Singh Keeps Going: The True Story of the Oldest Person to Ever Run a Marathon by Simran Jeet Singh, ill. Baljinder Kaur
2020 has been a good year for tales of centenarians, it would seem. And the danger of doing a book about a guy like Singh is that it might come off as a gimmick. A 100-year-old runs a race. That in and of itself is interesting. What more is there to say? In this case, the author does a great job of finding even more to the story. Like Wilma Rudolph, Singh suffered from a debilitating disease as a child that kept him from walking, let alone running. That’s also kind of interesting, but the moment this book really came through for me was when Singh decided to run in the New York City Marathon to combat racism . . . and pretty much failed. THAT is the crux of the story, because even after that he didn’t give up. A well done look at an extraordinary guy.
Flying Paintings: The Zhou Brothers: The Story of Revolution and Art by Amy Alznauer, ill. ShanZuo Zhou and DaHuang Zhou
Here is a rarity in modern children’s literature. How many biographical picture book memoirs can you name where the art in the book was done by the subject? Or, in this case, subjects plural. Here in the Chicagoland area, the Zhou brothers are legendary. In this book we see the full story of their life. Born in China they were artistic early on, but found the political regime to be difficult to work with. Alznauer delves deep into the life of these artists, and for their part these fine men, who do not always truck with representational art in their gallery (do check out the Zhou B Art Center when COVID has passed), make a remarkable switch to a picture book format. When professional artists try to do children’s books, they often end up with simply so-so products. The Zhou brothers, in contrast, commit to the bit. This is a the heady result.
Girl On a Motorcycle by Amy Novesky, ill. Julie Morstad
Can a picture book blur the line between fiction and fact while adhering strictly to informational truth? It’s rare, but it can happen. Now during the year I watch all the books that get stars and if I don’t have a copy in the office I borrow it from one of the libraries in my consortium. The result is that often I wait for the books so long that by the time they show up I’ve no idea what they’re even about. That was the case with this Novesky/Morstad pairing. It sure looked pretty but I hadn’t an idea what it was about. And when I started reading I wasn’t sure if this was fictional or factual. It wasn’t until it started diving deeply into the protagonist’s route that I started to suspect we were in nonfiction territory. This was promptly confirmed by the beautiful backmatter. There’s no timeline or anything (sorry, teachers) and no Bibliography, but that’s because the author actually interviewed the subject, French journalist Anne-France Dautheville, herself. There are photographs and back up info, though. And the book never indulges in fake dialogue or any of those questionable techniques. Additionally, the selection of Julie Morstad as illustrator was inspired. She is rapidly becoming one of my favorite picture book biography artists. Last year she blew us away with her art in that Gyo Fujikawa biography It Began With a Page. This year it’s this book, all sumptuous colors and sweeping vistas. If you can read this book and do not want to buy yourself a motorcycle to just go go go then you’re a stronger soul than I.
Hello, Neighbor! The Kind and Caring World of Mister Rogers by Matthew Cordell
I happen to personally believe that nobody is going to question the fact that Mr. Rogers was, in his time, a walking, talking Matthew Cordell illustration. Point of fact, I don’t think that there’s an illustrator alive who was better suited to tell his story EXCEPT Mr. Cordell. This book is expertly done. Brilliantly put together, this is precisely what we’re looking for in a picture book biography. And on a personal level, I found myself cooing repeatedly when I saw The Land of Make Believe and characters I’d completely forgotten about for years. Best book of its kind.
Itzhak, a Boy Who Loved the Violin: The Story of Young Itzhak Perlman by Tracy Newman, ill. Abigail Halpin
Like author Tracy Newman, I too was first introduced to Itzhak Perlman through Sesame Street. It was, as far as I can recall, the first time I’d seen a man who used crutches and a wheelchair to get around. As I grew older I knew he was a world renowned violinist and had had polio as a child, but that was about it. Newman dives deep in Itzhak’s childhood and early love of music. I was particularly intrigued by the note at the end that mentioned the degree to which Itzhak has continued to advocate not just for children with special needs but also ADA compliant public buildings. There’s this great quote in the book about how he feels about this work: “It’s not a hobby that I happen to do when I’m not playing violin.” The book also contains an Illustrator’s Note, a Timeline (woohoo!), Notes on each quotation in the text, and a Bibliography with Articles and Videos. Add in the glowing art of Abigail Halpin (is the book jacket “pearly” on purpose?) and this is a memorable musician title, if ever I saw one.
Mamie on the Mound: A Woman in Baseball’s Negro Leagues by Leah Henderson, ill. George Doutsiopoulos
Thanks to the Ellen Klages middle grade novel Out of Left Field, I already had a rudimentary knowledge of the lives of Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, Toni Stone, and Connie Morgan. Even so, this picture book focuses its attention squarely on Johnson alone from childhood to an Afterword that talks about the many honors she received late in life. Leah Henderson is having quite the year herself! Between this and The Magic in Changing Your Stars, she’s cranking out some high quality fiction and nonfiction alike. There were a number of things I liked about this book, including the ways in which Henderson eschews faux dialogue and has this extensive list of Source Notes with direct quotes, as well as a Select Bibliography for consideration. The illustrator, George Doutsiopoulos, is Greek and insofar as I can tell this may be his first book published here in the States. He better keep at it, because there’s a twinkle in Mamie’s eyes in this book that’s difficult to capture in illustration. This isn’t the first picture book bio of a Black woman in baseball, but it’s certainly one of the best you’ll find. In a league of its own.
Ocean Speaks: How Marie Tharp Revealed the Ocean’s Biggest Secret by Jess Keating, ill. Katie Hickey
This one really grew on me. It’s not often that we read picture book biographies about individuals with desk jobs. Marie Tharp’s greatest claim to fame came after she plotted the depth measurements of the Atlantic Ocean and discovered the mid-Atlantic ridge below the sea. Named one of the four greatest cartographers of the twentieth century, her story is a subtler tale of perseverance than we usually view. Keating does a great job of recounting her story while avoiding the pitfalls of fake dialogue and the like. She even takes special note that while the book shows the seams of all the major underwater ridges, at the time of the story she’d only plotted a portion of them. I appreciated the clarification, as well as a Q&A section and Further Reading bibliography.
The Only Woman in the Photo: Frances Perkins and Her New Deal for America by Kathleen Krull, ill. Alexandra Bye
Who would have thought that a quiet, shy girl would grow up to fight injustice and take a significant role in FDR’s New Deal? A picture book biography of a woman who never drew the spotlight, changing the world in quiet, careful ways. Y’all are going to have to help me figure out if I like this one on its own merits as a book for kids or if I like this so much because as an adult I didn’t know any of this information. Maybe the book makes her out to be too big a deal, but you definitely get the impression that the New Deal was due in large part to Perkins herself. One thing I love about Ms. Krull is that she doesn’t fudge a fact, fake a line of dialogue, none of that. I was very impressed too by the fact that in her note at the end she mentions that a great park of Frances’s success was being the right person in the right place at the right time. Definitely deserves additional reads. A cut above many of the other strong female picture bios we see.
Perkin’s Perfect Purple: How a Boy Created Color with Chemistry by Tami Lewis Brown and Debbie Loren Dunn, ill. Francesca Sanna
Ah, it reminds me of the good old days of Chris Barton’s Day-Glo Brothers. Now wouldn’t THAT be a fabulous nonfiction picture book pairing! Surely I’m not the first to think of it. Like that book, this one talks about the science of creating colors. We see how a mistake led to a discovery. We see the history of the color purple and the egalitarian spirit behind William Henry Perkin’s creation. One thing the book does not explain as well as it might is simply why combining red and blue dyes didn’t yield the purple color everyone craved. After all, if a kid knows how colors are made, they’re going to have a lot of questions along those lines. Even so, the spirit behind this book is peppy and Sanna’s art is an excellent choice. The backmatter is primo too. An extensive Author’s Note replete with images like Queen Victoria in a killer purple gown, info on the scientific method, additional resources (including the aforementioned Day-Glo Brothers), an a science experiment all round out this fun title. Plus, it’s a heckuva lot better than that Purple People celebrity picture book that got all that press in 2020, amiright?
Saving the Countryside: The Story of Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbit by Linda Elovitz Marshall, ill. Ilaria Urbinati
Sure, you may know the story of the woman who wrote Peter Rabbit, but did you also know that she saved 4,000 acres of land as well? A story of the original picture book creator/conservationist. Marshall has done a particularly good job at highlighting a new aspect of Beatrix Potter’s life for young readers. This is by no means the first Potter picture book bio I’ve ever seen. It may, however, be one of the best. Sure, we get the usual story about her upbringing and love of art, science, and nature, but we also hear the far lesser known story of how she single-handedly saved four thousand acres of land from development. It’s great. Even Batman agrees:
The Secret Garden of George Washington Carver by Gene Barretta, ill. Frank Morrison
As a child George loved flowers. To grow them, he made a secret garden for himself in the woods. A sumptuous biography of the book who would grow up to be an innovator and inventor. I both did and did not know anything about George Washington Carver. I feel like he used to be this ubiquitous force in children’s biographies back in the day, and yet aside from his peanut-related activities I just didn’t remember much about him. Biographers for kids always want to focus on their subjects when they were young, but sometimes that feels shoehorned in. Not this time. Concentrating on Carver’s love of nature, specifically flowers, is novel. No fake dialogue, a Timeline (THAT will make teachers happy!), a Bibliography, and suggested books for Further Reading all make up the backmatter.
Selena: Queen of Tejano Music by Silvia López, ill. Paola Escobar
Every year I learn a lot from the nonfiction children’s books that pass by me, but this book (the very first picture book about Selena’s life, no less) probably taught more more facts I simply didn’t know than any other in 2020. Going into Selena’s life I didn’t know where she was born (Texas), what Tejano music was, or even why she was considered an important pop star. As a kid, Selena came to my attention mostly when she was killed. Now, reading this book, I have a sense of her scope and influence. It’s a fascinating story, and makes her out to be far more than just another pop star. I can, with certainty, also say that she was someone worthy of the time and attention that López and Escobar have lavished upon her here. Backmatter includes a Timeline, additional information on everything from Tex-Mex Music to Quinceañeras and more.
Shirley Chisholm Is a Verb! by Veronica Chambers, ill. Rachelle Baker
“A catalyst for change in America” gets her due in this riveting, inspirational, magnificent biography of a figure that was so much more than just the first Black woman to make a bid for the presidency. Okay, I admit that I’m a little harsh when it comes to picture book biographies. Like, do kids actually need to read one about the members of Queen? Half the time I suspect that they’re just being written to appease the parents and they don’t really deliver anything significant for child readers. But THIS biography is different. Chisholm is hugely important, but what makes the book different is that Chambers pulls in context and contemporary figures like AOC and even rap lyrics praising her, to tell her story. Inspirational (and I don’t use that word lightly).
William Still and His Freedom Stories: The Father of the Underground Railroad by Don Tate
The origin story of this book is almost as good as the book itself. When Don Tate’s mom gave him an old battered copy of The Biographical Dictionary of Black Americans from a garage sale (isn’t that, like, the most mom thing you ever heard?) he used it for a Black History Month challenge, where he’d draw one person from it a day. He started out with the famous people and then stumbled on William Still. Father of the Underground Railroad? How had Don (or any of us) never heard of this guy before? Well, I don’t want to alarm you or anything but apparently when it comes to abolition, white people had a tendency to get all white savior-ish with the stories of who risked what for whom. And William, who quietly created the lists that would allow families to come together again, and then went on to become a coal baron, didn’t get his due. One of these days, can we just take all the Don Tate bios, put them in a line, and have them celebrated fully in some way? Because when it comes to singing the unsung (or too little sung) nobody does it like Mr. Tate.
Women Artists A-Z by Melanie LaBarge, ill. Caroline Corrigan
A beautiful collection of artists from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences. You know, I went into this with a critical eye, because this didn’t sound like a particularly novel idea, but it’s honestly very well done. It really takes the time and care and attention to provide as wide a swath of female artists as possible. International and Indigenous and differently abled and (this is key) not just the same usual suspects. Sure you get your Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keeffe but you also get your Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, your Gee’s Bend Collective, your Xenobia Bailey, and more! It honestly made me excited about showing this to kids!
2020 Unique Biographies for Older Readers
Darwin’s Rival: Alfred Russel Wallace and the Search for Evolution by Christiane Dorion, ill. Harry Tennant
Living a life of adventure and exploration, this canny scientist helped Darwin unlock the secrets of evolution, though his name is practically lost to history today. Man. They say the meek shall inherit the earth but that doesn’t mean they’ll ever be remembered for it. Wallace, by all accounts, lived a fascinating and exciting life. The title is a bit misleading since it takes a while for Darwin to make much of an appearance at all. “Rival” would also suggest that Wallace resented Darwin for taking the bulk of credit for the theory of evolution, but instead the guy just seemed grateful to have helped in any way. A fun, large, long, lengthy, exciting story of science and discovery.
Eagle Huntress: The True Story of the Girl Who Soared Above Expectations by Aisholpan Nurgaiv with Liz Welch
The long tradition of Kazakh eagle training has always been handed down from father to son. Now meet Aisholpan, the girl who lives to defy expectations. I’m always a little worried when there is a children’s autobiography that the co-writer will just make it all sound too too adult. But Liz Welch does a stand up and cheer job with the material. It’s so hard to make a normal life sound interesting, but everything about this book holds your interest. Loved the length and the writing. It’s pretty darn positive towards the tourists, but when you consider how they’ve saved the economy it makes a bit of sense. I do wish the interior photos didn’t give away the fact that she wins the contest (which, to be air, is also mentioned at the beginning of the book) but that’s a small objection. Definitely a winner.
Everest: The Remarkable Story of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay by Alexandra Stewart, ill. Joe Todd-Stanton
A dual biography if ever I saw one. My six-year-old son has gotten quite fascinated with real world stories of derring do. So when I brought home this book it wasn’t a hard sell to get him interested in the content. The trouble with any tale of mountaineering, of course, is that historically books for children would focus squarely on the white guy going up the slope and ignore the sometimes literally hundreds of other people, many of whom are not white, that made it possible. Stewart works to correct the books of the past by offering as much information as possible about Tenzing Norgay alongside the perfunctory story of Hillary. To be honest, I hadn’t known much about this story to begin with. I certainly wasn’t aware of how many people each expedition would rely upon. Hillary’s work on behalf of the Sherpa people, and Tenzing’s life both before and after the climb, remain my favorite parts of the book. At its best, the book will also do whole pages of amusingly told failed climbing attempts. The art is fantastic when it gives you a clear cut understanding of how difficult climbing Everest truly was. I took one look at that Khumbu Icefall and knew instantly that mountain climbing is not for me. Some kids? They’re gonna wanna scale it.
World of Glass: The Art of Dale Chihuly by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan
Greenberg & Jordan are well-known names in the world of children’s biographies, though I’m more familiar with their picture books. Chihuly just seems like a natural subject, though admittedly I don’t know much about his personal life. Greenberg and Jordan don’t really feel like delving into it anyway. With copious mentions of his early days and scant mention of his marriages or children, the clear focus here is the art. How does one become an artist? How do you find your own path? And it also clears up how a man that lost sight in one eye could create some of this stuff. The photographs are, as you might imagine, gorgeous.
Want to see other lists? Check out what happened this month!
December 1 – Great Board Books
December 2 – Board Book Reprints & Adaptations
December 3 – Transcendent Holiday Picture Books
December 4 – Picture Book Readalouds
December 5 – Rhyming Picture Books
December 6 – Funny Picture Books
December 7 – CaldeNotts
December 8 – Picture Book Reprints
December 9 – Math Books for Kids
December 10 – Bilingual Books
December 11 – Books with a Message
December 12 – Fabulous Photography
December 13 – Translated Picture Books
December 14 – Fairy Tales / Folktales / Religious Tales
December 15 – Wordless Picture Books
December 16 – Poetry Books
December 17 – Unconventional Children’s Books
December 18 – Easy Books & Early Chapter Books
December 19 – Comics & Graphic Novels
December 20 – Older Funny Books
December 21 – Science Fiction Books
December 22 – Fantasy Books
December 23 – Informational Fiction
December 24 – American History
December 25 – Science & Nature Books
December 26 – Unique Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 28 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers
December 29 – Best Audiobooks for Kids
December 30 – Middle Grade Novels
December 31 – Picture Books
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
SLJ Blog Network