31 Days, 31 Lists: 2022 Unique Biographies for Kids
Want to know why I call this particular list “Unique Biographies”? Because when I started this particular list back in 2016 I was sick and tired of the same 5-6 people highlighted over and over again in bios for kids. I wanted a little bit of originality. I wanted new heroes to celebrate! New faces to acknowledge! Little did I suspect that in the intervening 6 years I’d see a wave of changes sweep across this nation, and see publishers react by allowing formerly lesser known lights to shine.
Today, we’re giving those formerly lesser known people their place in the sun while also acknowledging people with famous names who finally have picture book bios worthy of their fame (see: Ruby Bridges). It’s a mix and an amalgam and I couldn’t be more pleased.
Curious about previous years’ biography lists? Then check out what’s come before:
2022 Unique Biographies for Kids
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.
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 talked 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. 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. Like the best parts of the film Julie & Julia (which is to say, the Julia parts).
Brothers in Arms by Susan Hood, ill. Jamie Green
Okay, a little background information here. Years and years ago there was a children’s book on Wojtek, the Polish army bear, translated and brought to the States, called Soldier Bear by Bibi Dumon Tak. That book went on to win a Batchelder Award and was my first introduction to the second most famous wartime bear (following Winnie of the Caldecott Award winning book, Finding Winnie). Later I bonded with artist Gareth Hinds over our mutual love of the bear and he created a marvelous Shrinky Dink ornament of the ursine hero that I hang on my tree every year. Needless to say, I came to this book with some pretty ingrained Wojtek love, right from the get go. What makes Hood’s book so good, though, is the care with which she separates out the facts from the fictions. Wojtek is best remembered as carrying live and very heavy munitions for the Polish armymen he loved. However, as Hood is quick to correct, this never really happened. He would help with heavy crates, sure, but a slippery single shell wasn’t possible. The book is a love letter to a very sweet bear, and one of the better animals-in-war nonfiction picture book titles I’ve ever seen.
Choosing Brave: How Mamie Till-Mobley and Emmett Till Sparked the Civil Rights Movement by Angela Joy, ill. Janelle Washington
The life of Emmett Till’s mother highlights one woman’s lifetime of making brave, rather than easy, choices. Meticulous papercuts tell her story with dignity. Mmm. Chalk this up as an exceedingly smart take on how to frame the life and work of Mamie Till-Mobley. It’s really right there in the title. The book tells this woman’s life from start to finish, but the crux of it, what it all really hinges on, is the question of what one does when faced with a difficult decision. Do you make the easy choice or the brave choice? And it’s so well done, how it manages to tell Emmett’s story honestly without getting too gory for child readers. I just can’t believe that this is Janelle Washington’s first book either. This takes the art of papercutting to a whole other level. Seriously, this should be serious contender come award season. One of the best of the year. Easily.
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 keep digging up bigger, more impressive ancient sea creatures, what we know now 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 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 (Google it yourself if you don’t believe me). 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?
Fighting for Yes! The Story of Disability Rights Activist Judith Heumann by Maryann Cocca-Leffler, ill. Vivien Mildenberger
The history of disability rights in America is displayed through a single woman’s story. Can you imagine being told NO your entire life? The story of Judith Heumann’s life is stirringly presented and is sure to make activists out of each and every reader.To my mind, a good author is capable of making kids understand how deeply unfair something can be. And this story of Judith Heumann just bears down on the injustice of her education in ways I’ve never seen or, to be frank, thought of before. You’re just 100% on board with her from the get-go, and Mildenberger’s art makes for a great companion to the tale. 100 points for not making the title of this book some kind of pun on “Heumann”’s last name. Love the notes from Judith herself (it’s always good for kids to see bios of living people), the context in the Author’s Note, and the neatly made page of Selected Sources.
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 ability for 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 talking about 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.
I Am Ruby Bridges by Ruby Bridges, ill. Nikkolas
What’s it like to be Ruby Bridges? Why not let her tell you herself? Ruby recounts her famous youth, putting young readers right into the head of an average kid caught up in a historical moment. It probably says something unflattering about the state of children’s books today that I can look at the cover of this book and immediately my mind says, “Ugh. Another Ruby Bridges book”. Which, aside from being entirely unfair, is more a fault of an industry that churns out bios of the same people over and over than the title itself. And as nutty as it sounds, I actually was drawn to the book at first because Nikkolas Smith was the illustrator and I just loved his work on the 1619 Project book last year. I didn’t even realize that Ruby Bridges herself had written the book until I actually went to read it. Mind you, I’m under the impression that she’s done more than one book about her life over the years, so I took that into consideration. Still, this is a much better take on the story than any other picture book bio I’ve seen until now. Ruby really and truly puts you into the head of her 6-year-old self, confusion and all. You get this real sense of how bewildering the grown-up world is, shuttling her from place to place. Smith is, as always, on target with his art and the whole thing is a rousing success. Not your average Ruby Bridges book
Ida B. Wells, Voice of Truth by Michelle Duster, ill. Laura Freeman
It’s not every day 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, it doesn’t attempt the whole birth-to-death style, but opts instead to start with her highlights, backtracks pretty much to when she was sixteen, and shows from there how this woman had some kind of an unstoppable motor inside, 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 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 (what else has Yang done?) presents this really accomplished take on Gavin’s story. 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. 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. 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
Illinois State Senator Tammy Duckworth’s story is brought to vibrant life in this exciting, beautifully illustrated encapsulation, from battlefield to campaign trail. 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 fairly 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. As for Dow Phumiruk, 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 also 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 title is a perfect marriage of subject and artistic skill. I once heard a podcast episode on Lotte Reiniger, but this really breaks down how 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 bio. 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 both practical and stylish for 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.
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. The book follows Minoru throughout different historical moments in time. It’s a really 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 his 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.
With vivid poems and engaging mini-chapters, Zoboi offers a cosmic look at the legendary science fiction writer’s youth and the events that inspired her to create such otherworldly stories. This is great! I checked out a copy from the library and loved everything about it. There are facts about Octavia’s life in here but it’s also just chock full of poems. But what really came through to me throughout the book was just how real Octavia was as a person. Taking archery so that she wouldn’t have to deal with other people? I felt that. A pity she never wrote anything for kids, but who cares? This is some really cool stuff and I want it on every list that there is!
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. Innerst is doing some of her 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, that’s the problem! Nice author’s note, timeline, and bibliography at the back too. Worth noting!
Want to see other lists? Stay tuned for the rest this month!
December 1 – Great Board Books
December 2 – Picture Book Readalouds
December 3 – Simple Picture Book Texts
December 4 – Transcendent Holiday Picture Books
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 – Gross 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.
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