Best Picture Book Bios of 2022 (So Far)
This one feels like it was somebody’s request. As you may know I tend to collect books throughout the year in different genres, presenting them in 31 different posts over the course of the 31 days in December. One of those topics is Biographies. I love the darn things.
Actually let me be a bit more precise. I love them when they’re done well. When they’re done poorly they’re like knives to the eyes. And unfortunately, the vast majority published for children out there aren’t either magnificent or truly gag worthy. They are instead . . . perfectly fine. Blerg. Is is… the worst. They all follow the same format. They cover their bases. And they bore.
Today I present to you a slew of 2022 picture book bios, some out already and some yet to come, that are not blerg. They are not boring. They are boffo. Fantastic. Memorable. Cool.
Is this everything? Of course not! I haven’t seen everything! But of what I have seen, these are just great:
The Astronomer Who Questioned Everything: The Story of Maria Mitchell by Laura Alary, ill. Ellen Rooney
Three years ago the book What Miss Mitchell Saw by Hayley Barrett, illustrated by Diane Sudyka, was released and it was a real nice look at Maria Mitchell’s life. Now we’ve another title, and I welcome it with open arms! As far as I’m concerned, the more Quaker biographies we see, the better. This book takes a more playful tactic with Maria’s life. There aren’t a lot of problems in this particular version of Maria’s accomplishments. Some vague thoughts from the time, but nothing lobbed directly in her direction. No fake dialogue, lots of nice backmatter (alas, no timeline), and a Bibliography to boot. A cheery look at a notably historical figure.
Bessie the Motorcycle Queen by Charles R. Smith Jr., ill. Charlot Kristensen
I kind of love that we live in an era where we can hear a cool story on a podcast or run across a social media video about some hitherto unsung hero of the past and then just turn that person’s life into a picture book bio. Of course Smith is doing one better by also making the ding dang thing rhyme. Now you might not think it but from time to time I get requests for rhyming nonfiction. I do! One advantage of the rhyming verse of this book is that it allows Mr. Smith the chance to tell a story without relying on false quotes (my greatest dislike) and gets the point across when, truth be told, there’s not a lot of information to go off of. As he himself says in an author’s note at the end, finding info on Bessie was tricky partly because she made up stuff and partly because there just wasn’t a lot of info to be found. I think he made the right choices with this story. Certainly she did have some badass adventures as a dispatch rider in WWII, the only woman in an all-Black unit. The book, in contrast, mostly concentrates on her personal journeys around the United States. Still, the sheer amount of freedom you feel reading this is fantastic. Reminds me of a similar picture book bio about a woman and her motorcycle from a year or two ago called Girl On a Motorcycle by Amy Novesky and Julie Morstad about Anne-France Dautheville. Could be a cool pairing, particularly if you add in My Papi Has a Motorcycle.
Born Hungry: Julia Child Becomes “the French Chef” by Alex Prud’homme, ill. Sarah Green
For a picture biography to separate itself from the others out there, it needs that certain special something. Now the text of this story (by Julia’s grandnephew, no less) is pretty darn good. I really enjoyed the degree to which it unapologetically talks about how much Julia enjoyed eating. Honestly, in our diet-crazed, weight obsessed culture, it feels like a weird relief to hear someone say that (can you tell I’ve been listening to a lot of Maintenance Phase recently?). But it was Sarah Green’s art that really tipped the book’s balance in its favor here. I was charmed by the marvelous four pages of food delights against a black background (including a morel!) that prance in the air as Julia sleeps. Plus it’s just nice to watch her tower over the other men. It’s like the best parts of the film Julie & Julia (which is to say, the Julia parts)
Call Me Miss Hamilton: One Woman’s Case for Equality and Respect by Carole Boston Weatherford, ill. Jeffery Boston Weatherford
Can you fight to have people call you a name with respect? Mary Hamilton did. The story of one brave woman’s fight to be called “Miss Hamilton”, accompanied by emotive scratchboard art and photos. And boy. I hate that cover. There are a couple picture book bios that are full of great art . . . except on their covers. I’d say that this is one of them. Once you get into the book you get really fond of Mr. Weatherford’s style, but I maintain that this cover image is not doing the book any favors. Ironically, I think that actually gives it a leg up when it comes to book committees. Books that need the help of librarians and booksellers and are quite good in and of themselves tend stick in your brain longer. As for the writing, the actual text is fascinating, particularly since I’d never heard of this case before and Ms. Weatherford does a great job of bringing the historical context to the forefront. The real key with the art, aside from the scratchboard illustrations is the integration of the photography. That shot of the nuns! Epic.
Dragon Bones: The Fantastic Fossil Discoveries of Mary Anning by Sarah Glenn Marsh, ill. Maris Wicks
Since she was born in 1799, no one would have expected Mary Anning to be remembered as the mother of paleontology. But since she just kept digging up bigger and more impressive ancient sea creatures, what we know today would have been completely different without her. Oh, I LIKED this! Now admittedly this might partly be because I remember illustrator Maris Wicks from one of my favorite camping picture books Yes, Let’s. I love her style and how her seemingly simple art really captures expressions and personalities so well. But let’s not give short shrift to Sarah Glenn Marsh! She does an excellent job of laying out not simply Mary’s life but also what the scientific community owes to her industrious nature. It’s a really neat story, not just about ancient fossils and paleontology, but also citizen science, the role of women, lack of attribution, and history itself. Extra points for the endpapers (where you can see the creatures as fossils at the front and as they would have looked at the end) and for the images of “Mary’s Dragons” particularly the Dimorphodon macronyx. It was so weird looking that I had to Google it, just to make sure Ms. Wicks wasn’t making up stuff. Oh! And I LOVED LOVED LOVED the part that actually gives you practical information on how to become a paleontologist. Can we get that info in all our books about cool jobs, please?
How to Hear the Universe:Gaby González and the Search for Einstein’s Ripples in Space-Time by Patricia Valdez, ill. Sara Palacios
How many Argentinian female physicist picture biographies would you say you have sitting on your shelves right now. What’s that? You don’t have any? How wrong you are. You have at least one, because after you read this recap you’re going to go out and buy a copy of this book and pronto. One of the things I like most about science and math is the way in which it allows people to collaborate on ideas and projects, even when separated by time. And being separated by time is a particularly apt thing to say when you’re discussing Albert Einstein. It seems he once had a theory about ripples in space-time, but was never able to adequately prove it in his lifetime. Enter Gaby González. Valdez does a particularly keen job of highlighting her life, in the context of trying to figure out whether or not Einstein was right. What’s also nice is how this book doesn’t make it look like she went it alone, always showing her working in a group with other scientists. It never cheats with fake dialogue and you want Backmatter? You got it, baby! Check out these fantastic options. Timeline, Glossary, Selected Sources, Videos, Websites, and two pages of written text that give even more context. In a word: beautiful.
Ida B. Wells, Voice of Truth by Michelle Duster, ill. Laura Freeman
It’s not everyday you get to read a picture book written by a Suffragette’s great-granddaughter. I’ve enjoyed the art of Laura Freeman for years, but I think she really comes into her own with this latest book. Just LOOK at those killer endpapers. I’m talking terrific typography. A larger-than-life quote with an image of young Ida in the front and another huge quote next to older Ida in the back. And inside? A really good encapsulation that doesn’t attempt the whole birth-to-death style but instead opts to start with her highlights, backtrack pretty much to when she was sixteen, and show from there how this woman had some kind of an unstoppable motor driving her. Reminds me of some of those Hark, A Vagrant comics about her from back in the day. And yes, teacher type people. There is a Timeline in the back. Bonus.
If You’re a Kid Like Gavin: The True Story of a Young Trans Activist by Gavin Grimm and Kyle Lukoff, ill. J. Yang
If you’re a kid like Gavin you shouldn’t have to make the choice to stand up for yourself as a trans boy who deserves to use the boy’s bathroom, but that’s just what he did. The inspiring tale of a modern child hero, expertly told. Yeah. I don’t want to make it look like I’m just this instant fan of anything Kyle Lukoff does. It’s just that he does what he does better than anyone else. This is really well told and really well done. It helps too that J. Yang presents this visually accomplished take on Gavin’s story. Meanwhile Kyle clearly is doing the verbal linguistics involving the repetition and slow introduction of the story. It doesn’t dance around what Gavin went through but, at the same time, I think it’s important that it doesn’t make things look as truly awful as I’m sure that they were for him. An important story that, particularly, right now, needs to be told.
Jack Knight’s Brave Flight by Jill Esbaum, ill. Stacy Innerst
A gripping, edge-of-your-seat telling of the daring flight by one man to save air mail service in America. Best book. Worst cover. This is the other bad book jacket I was discussing earlier. I have low tolerance for sepia mistakes. But boy is this a great example of how the writing of a nonfiction picture book really elevates the entire production. Esbaum’s no newbie and it shows. She knows how to really put you in the pilot’s seat. My librarians are all simply gaga about it. The exhaustion and tension and that moment when he almost falls asleep in the air. And then all those near misses or actual misses! A wonderful example of a book that plays fair with the material (sourcing all the quotes, not mucking up the facts) and comes off with a gripping, nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat bit of factual storytelling. Bravo!
A Life of Service: The Story of Senator Tammy Duckworth by Christina Soontornvat, ill. Dow Phumiruk
This is not the kind of picture book bio I usually go for. Inevitably, if someone is talking about a current political figure, the bio will generally be pretty lacking in nuance. You’re not going to criticize someone who will potentially read what you’ve written. But this is Christina Soontornvat we’re talking about. She knows how to write a gripping tale. So much so that you don’t really worry about its rah-rah nature. Dow Phumiruk gives the art her all as well. Her style is incredibly distinctive and for certain subjects she does an amazing job. So yes, it’s a public service title but it’s one of the more exciting bios I’ve seen in a long time.
Who knew that a love of fairytales could turn into something so amazing? The story of one of the world’s earliest animators and how she brought her tales to life in a whole new way. I am just out-and-out in love with this book. Who wouldn’t be? This book is a perfect marriage of subject and artistic skill. I once heard a podcast episode on Lotte Reiniger, but this really breaks down how … well … groundbreaking she was. Her invention of the multiplane camera (which I believe they used in Bambi) and the debt female animators pay to her today (I love that the book mentions a Steve Universe homage) make this one of the best picture book bios I’ve seen in a long time. I even love the exact moment they chose to end her story. Exceedingly clever. A biography that wakes you up to what the form can be.
A Perfect Fit: How Lena “Lane” Bryant Changed the Shape of Fashion by Mara Rockliff, ill. Juana Martinez-Neal
Is there any book so good that Juana Martinez-Neal can’t make it better? I’d heard tell of the story of Lena Bryant before, but it would never have occurred to me to turn her tale into a picture book biography. Rockliff’s doing some interesting mixing and melding with this storyline. She’s taking Lena’s story of coming to America as a Jewish immigrant, the feminism of starting her own business (to say nothing of making clothing something practical and stylish to women), and the ultimate through line of doing work that does good in the world. There’s a Paula Poundstone-esque suit Martinez-Neal has included in the Author’s Note to denote fashion in the 80s which, I would argue, deserves an entire book in and of itself, but this is a good starting off point for anyone who would potentially want to know more about Bryant. Beyond Madame C.J. Walker, we don’t see a lot of women-in-business titles. This one’s pretty cool.
The Rise (and Falls) of Jackie Chan by Kristen Mai Giang, ill. Alina Chau
I like that the world of picture book biographies is wide enough that we can have heroes of every possible stripe. It’s nice to have books about people saving and improving the world in scientific or political ways, but why not talk about the movie stars too? I doubt, seriously, that this will be the last Jackie Chan picture book bio you ever see. That said, it’s a nice look at how you can take a life and select the parts that work best in a more concise 32-page format. Now by some weird quirk of nature, I actually read Jackie Chan’s autobiography I AM JACKIE CHAN years ago. I have no idea what the circumstances surrounding that read were, but I know for a fact that it happened. In any case, it gave me enough insight to know a little bit about what Ms. Giang is working with here (and, I’m happy to report, she includes a Bibliography that names that book as one of its sources). There’s also a Glossary of Chinese Characters and an extensive Author’s Note at the end. If I had a quibble, it would probably be that though Ms. Chau’s art is marvelous here, Jackie doesn’t really look like himself in these images. That aside, it’s a cool work, and one I think a lot of kids would enjoy. Bonus points for the pretty pretty endpapers.
Sanctuary: Kip Tiernan and Rosie’s Place, the Nation’s First Shelter for Women by Christine McDonnell, ill. Victoria Tentler-Krylov
In a time when men had shelters to stay in but women did not, Kip Tiernan saw a problem and got to work. A moving tale, beautifully told. This one really won me over. I’ve little patience for good-hearted but ultimately dull books. This one, in contrast, is good-hearted and good! Not a huge fan of the cover, of course (which sort of makes it look like some kind of lovey dovey circle of love), but I just adored what Tentler-Krylov is doing with her watercolors (she can replicate fur better than almost anyone). This is ultimately a story about building empathy, and I won’t lie to you. When that bus driver comes up to the elderly Kip and tells her “It’s because of you that I ate when I was a child,” I got teary. Honestly, emotionally resilient and very list-worthy.
Shapes, Lines, and Light: My Grandfather’s American Journey by Katie Yamasaki
“Serenity. Surprise. Delight.” Japanese-American architect Minoru Yamasaki used that mantra throughout his life. Now his granddaughter is able to tell his journey, with all its ups and downs. You gotta feel for Katie Yamasaki. Her grandma was a classically trained pianist. Her uncle won a Pulitzer. And her grandpa designed the freakin’ Twin Towers. But she certainly has pushed herself farther than ever. She’s using all her skills to tell the story of that grandfather and I was really impressed by how she chose to lay out his story. It’s an impressive tale of pursuing your dream job in spite of your own government labeling you “the enemy”. And winning! At the same time I loved that Yamasaki doesn’t color her grandfather’s life as one sweet ride after he established his own architecture firm. This is a really human look at both a grandfather and a great artist. Certainly worth your consideration.
Sweet Justice: Georgia Gilmore and the Montgomery Bus Boycott by Mara Rockliff, ill. R. Gregory Christie
An everyday hero gets the praise she deserves in this stirring tale of how one woman supported and aided the people engaged in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. A marvelous example of how a single life can make a difference. I don’t even think that this is the first picture book bio I’ve read of Georgia Gilmore, but I really like Rockliff’s (there she is again) mtake on not just her life but also how we as individuals can learn from her actions. This is a book about empathy and giving everything you have for what you believe in. Now, going in to this, it’ll help if you’re already a fan of Mr. Christie’s art, because he gets a bit loose in some spreads (purposefully, I’d say). I just thought that this was an excellent example of what a picture book biography is supposed to do: Show how a single person’s actions speak beyond the times in which they lived.
The Sweetest Scoop: Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream Revolution by Lisa Robinson, ill. Stacy Innerst
Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield met when they were 12-years-old and stayed friends ever since. This is the tale of how they created a little ice cream company that was strong enough to stand up to the big guys. This one has definite potential. Innerst is doing some of his best work with the art of a book that could easily have come across as rote. Which isn’t to say that Lisa Robinson doesn’t tell it well. It’s hard to do a dual biography of the founders of a company. And, like any children’s picture book bio, this does sugar coat (pun intended) some of the past. Still, I really enjoyed how it recounted the grassroots campaign against Pillsbury (“What’s the doughboy afraid of?” is a great phrase). The only problem? Makes me hungry for Ben & Jerry’s. Nice author’s note, timeline, and bibliography at the back too. Worth noting!
To the Front: Clara Barton Braves the Battle of Antietam by Claudia Friddell, ill. Christopher Cyr
Imagine walking into a war zone with no supplies, just waiting for horrendously injured men to start arriving. Clara Barton’s life is brilliantly rendered in this tale of a true American hero. I did NOT expect to like this. First off, I’m really prejudiced against any books for kids with brown or sepia-toned covers (see: Jack Knight’s Brave Flight up above). They just scream “BORING!” to me. But this is probably the best example I could name of a picture book bio with extraordinarily good writing that elevates its subject and transcends the brown. By the time you get to the end of this book you’re ready to up and join the Clara Barton fan club. It’s like, as I read this I kept trying to find reasons to not like her and, every time, she would upset those expectations. It’s also beautifully sourced and does this trick right at the start of stating that Clara’s words are in blue or brown bold italics while the authors are in a plain font. The backmatter? *chef’s kiss* Don’t let the cover fool you. You gotta read this!
When the Schools Shut Down: A Young Girl’s Story of Virginia’s ‘Lost Generation’ and the Brown V. Board of Education of Topeka Decision by Yolanda Gladden as told to Dr. Tamara Pizzoli, ill. Keisha Morris
Clever teachers that see this book should equate elements of it immediately with our own kids’ recent time away from in-person schooling. This is the tale of what happened when the Brown V. Board of Education of Topeka ruling occurred and white lawmakers shut down the schools rather than allow white and black children to be taught together. It’s a smart idea for a picture book autobiography (and we have mighty few of those on our shelves as it is). I was also rather entranced by Keisha Morris’s art here. A lot of history books sort of blur together, with their deadly serious art. Morris injects some life and light and vitality in here. There’s a great deal of energy on these pages. We’ve seen similar images before, but I thought she was the right person to do a story like this. Excited to see what she does next.
So what have I missed? What have you seen this year that you’d truly think was terrific. Tell me! There’s still plenty of time to read.
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.
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