Picture books and beginning chapter books: Biographies about important people and events

Reading biographies about important people—those who live near and far—is crucial for young minds to learn that at heart, we are all alike, and also to learn about people whose actions can inspire the rest of us to be better and think about how our actions can affect others.

Some American heroes include Dr. Fauci, the physician and scientist who led the fight against COVID-19 during the pandemic; Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman in Congress; and Hallie Morse Daggett, the first female fire guard in the US. All of these people serve as inspiration to others to fight for what they believe in as well as to help others. There are also quiet heroes, people whose names aren’t familiar in most households. Frieda Caplan was a woman who changed the way we eat, and Nicholas WInton saved the lives of children in the Holocaust. These people, and others, are featured in these children’s books which should all be considered for classroom and library shelves.

“Headstrong Hallie! The Story of Hallie Morse Daggett, the First Female “Fire Guard” is written by Aimée Bissonette and illustrated by David Hohn. It’s an inspirational story of a girl who grew up in California’s Siskiyou Mountains, a place where forest fires were greatly feared by people and animals alike. During summers, she and her sister saw the US Forest Service crews who came to fight the fires. They would bring food and supplies to the men. Hallie, who loved the woods, decided that she wanted to fight fires someday. And even though Hallie was sent to a boarding school in San Francisco, she hated the city life. She longed to return to the mountains and the forests. So when she finished school, she applied to the US Forest Service. She was rejected. Over and over, rejection after rejection. The Great Fire of 1910 burned millions of acres in Washington, Idaho and Montana. Entire towns were destroyed. But they wouldn’t hire a woman to fight fires. Finally, Hallie’s dream came true, and this picture book beautifully portrays her life in simple text and brilliant illustrations. The Author’s Note at the end shares what we really know about Hallie’s life and what was interpreted. This is an inspirational story of a woman who would not take no for an answer, and who was determined to do what she believed in even though it was something women weren’t supposed to do. (Sleeping Bear Press)

Children (and teachers) will adore “Shirley Chisholm Dared: The Story of the First Black Woman in Congress.” Alicia D. Williams and April Harrison present this troublemaker, Shirley Chisholm, as a young girl with spunk. And that spunk defined Chisholm throughout her life. It’s that spark that made her curious, and then angry, about the injustices she perceived all around her. She went to political meetings and questioned the lack of funds to improve schools in her Bedford-Stuyvesant community, and the lack of trash removal and police protection, too. She became known as a troublemaker. She worked and attended school at night to become a teacher, but also started a Democratic Club in her neighborhood to fight for after-school programs and better housing conditions in the inner-city. And finally, against all odds, Chisholm ran for political office. No one believed she could do it, but her stubborn nature, her determination, her perseverance, made her dreams come true. A great use of this book would definitely include discussion of Chisholm’s character traits and those that are normally deemed “bad” traits, but which, when directed in a positive manner, can cause someone to succeed in the face of opposition. This is a fabulous choice for school classrooms and libraries. (Anne Schwartz Books)

“Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued” by Peter Sis is, indeed, about a quiet hero. In fact, this hero, Nicholas WInton, was so quiet about what he had done, the lives he had saved, that it wasn’t until half a century later, when he was an old man, that his wife uncovered the story of his heroism.

We learn about Nicky and about one of the many children he saved, Vera, side by side. Sis tells the story using simple text, but the illustrations are anything but simple. There are stories within stories in the intricate illustrations, and children will feel drawn to look at the images and match what they are seeing to what they are reading. We see Vera’s beloved cats as well as Nicky, a very young man, in the middle of the events happening around him: The annexation of Austria, Nurenberg marches, Kristallnacht, the invasion of Czechoslovakia. And we learn about his determination to save the children who otherwise faced a deadly fate. The Author’s Note at the end spans three pages and is extremely touching. When word got out about Nicky’s accomplishment, a television show brought him to their studio to meet “some old friends.” Those turned out to be many of the children he had saved, many of them senior citizens as well. (Norton Young Readers)

“Try It! How Frieda Caplan Changed the Way We Eat” by Mara Rockliff and illustrated by Giselle Potter is the story of a woman fascinated by new foods and determined to share that interest with others. Frieda Caplan began working for a produce market as a bookkeeper but soon moved into sales. There she realized that the only produce people bought were apples, potatoes, tomatoes, and bananas. She wanted to try new foods, and she began convincing people to try mushrooms. When mushrooms became popular, she tried kiwi. Originally knows as Chinese gooseberries, it was her clever idea to call them kiwi, after the bird in the country they came from—New Zealand. Caplan soon started her own produce company, waking at 2:00 am to start work. She was the first woman to own and operate a wholesale produce business, and she made baby carrots and spaghetti squash everyday items we could find at the grocery. Her daughters and grandchildren work in the family business now, but the myriad kinds of fruits and vegetables we eat can often be traced to Frieda Caplan’s championing them. (Beach Lane Books)

We learn about a modern-day hero, Dr. Anthony Fauci, in the picture book “Dr. Fauci: How a Boy from Brooklyn became America’s Doctor” written by Kate Messner and illustrated by Alexandra Bye. Unlike some of the other heroes in this collection, most Americans know Dr. Fauci’s name and who he is. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it was Dr. Fauci whom we saw on television warning us about the virus and its ability to spread, and reassuring us that if we followed precautions, we would have a better chance of staying safe and healthy. In this book written perfectly for young readers, Messner manages to distill Fauci’s life into important moments that emphasize the mantras that he followed in his life, many of which were instilled in him by his father. “Don’t get discouraged. Don’t run away because you don’t understand the problem. Think about it carefully and try to work it out.” Not surprisingly, those are mantras that teachers tell their students daily. Failure is not a problem, but can lead to a solution. We see Fauci’s determination to succeed—whether it be on the basketball court or in the laboratory. His ability to work well with people and talk things out, his willingness to listen to others, and to keep an open mind, all those strengths helped Fauci become, as the title aptly states, “America’s Doctor.” (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)

“Walking for Water: How One Boy Stood Up for Gender Equality” by Susan Hughes and illustrated by Nicole Miles is about a real boy in a rural Malawi village. As stated in the Author’s Note at the end of the book, the author explains that the real-life Victor learned about gender equality at school and realized that such inequality was prevalent in his own community and his own family. Unlike most boys his age, he decided to do something about it, and thus he not only changed the life of his sister, but he became a role model for other boys in the village and changed the lives of many. The story is told in simple text with illustrations that show the lives of the villagers and the differences between boys and girls. There is a smattering of Chichewa, one of several languages spoken in Malawi, in the dialogue. I especially appreciate that while Victor is a hero, he is able to do that because of a teacher who taught the boys to think for themselves about equality. That is perhaps the most important responsibility of teachers—to empower students to think for themselves and work for change when they see inequalities or abusive practices around them. A student who strives to right wrongs, and to make the world a better place is a source of joy to educators everywhere. (Kids Can Press)

Part of the “I, Witness” series published by Norton Young Readers, “Hurricane: My Story of Resilience” is by Salvador Gómez-Colon. In this first person narrative, he tells us about his life. Most of the short, 100-page book, is about Hurricane Maria, which hit Puerto Rico in 2017, and how it devastated the island. Gómez-Colon shares the aftermath and explains how he and his family were luckier than others. Their apartment still stood after the hurricane left, and their building had a generator for power. Others were not as lucky. Some had no homes, or homes that were underwater. Others had no roof over their heads, and many were left with no electricity, which meant no light, no running water, no way to even wash their clothes. Gómez-Colon was also lucky enough to have a mother and a teacher who had modeled helping others. He wanted to help those who were struggling to survive, and he decided that by providing solar lamps and hand-powered washing machines, he could help the most. He began a fund raiser and then personally delivered the items to those in the most need. This is not a picture book, but rather a chapter book that will be of interest to students from skilled second grade readers through fifth grade. While the publisher states that the intended audience is nine to twelve year-olds, I think that the simplistic writing will appeal more to slightly younger readers. The story is simply told but impactful. It would be a wonderful choice for a read aloud as it might inspire students to think about how they can help others. (Norton Young Readers)

Please note: These reviews are based on the advance copies or final editions provided by the publishers for review purposes.

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  1. Pingback: Three picture books that will make kids laugh…and think | PamelaKramer.com

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