Nonfiction biographies to inspire children

From the iconic Ruby Bridges and Colin Kaepernick to the lesser known Ethelda Bleibtrey (whom I had never heard of prior to reading this book), these nonfiction picture books will teach children about individuals from history whose determination, imagination, and strength impacted the world.

So Much More to Helen!

We’ve all heard of Helen Keller, and in “So Much More to Helen!: The Passions and Pursuits of Helen Keller,” by acclaimed author Meeg Pincus (who also wrote Cougar Crossing, Winged Wonders, and Miep and the Most Famous Diary: The Woman Who Rescued Anne Frank’s Diary) provides insight into many of the lesser-known facts about Anne Frank. As almost everyone knows, Anne Frank was the first deafblind woman to show that those without sight or hearing are still capable of being productive members of society. Each page begins by presenting a single description of Helen, such as “Helen was a student…” or “Helen was a dog lover” or “Helen was a romantic.” There is also a rhyming couplet simply summarizing that trait, and then Pincus provides a paragraph with details about each of those short descriptions that help us understand the life of Keller. At the end of the book, there is a section labelled “More to Helen’s Story: Further Explanation of Each Spread” which provides even more detail about the previous pages. It’s truly inspirational to read about her accomplishments. And there is a teacher’s guide available. (Sleeping Bear Press)

Alexander von Humboldt by Danica Novgorodoff

I sometimes wish I were still teaching because I miss the opportunity to share a book like “Alexander von Humboldt: Explorer, Naturalist & Environmental Pioneer” by Danica Novgorodoff with my students. The book is quite breathtaking. From the information inside to the incredibly beautiful watercolor illustrations, you just want to stop and look at each page and all the beauty and information each imparts. The gist of the book regards Alexander’s realization during his lifetime that all of us, all over the world, are connected. He notices a hawk flying alone in the sky, but through a series of small watercolor illustrations, we see that the hawk flies down, catches a mouse who had eaten a nut that had fallen from a tree that had been watered by rain that had traveled from the ocean. “Now I see, Alexander thought, that the hawk is not alone. She is connected to the earth and the sea and sky.” The information in the illustrated pages is fascinating, but equally fascinating are the many facts included in subsequent pages. “Author’s Note,” “Some Notes on the Text,” “Alexander von Humboldt Timeline,” “Quotation Sources,” and a “Bibliography” all provide more valuable information. A nonfiction picture book with gorgeous illustrations like this one is special. Maybe young readers will be inspired to ask important questions of their own about the world around them. (Crown Books for Young Readers)

Splash! Ethelda Bleibtrey Makes Waves of Change

A book about a woman unknown to most of us is “Splash! Ethelda Bleibtrey Makes Waves of Change,” by Elisa Boxer. It’s about a girl who suffered from polio, making it painful to walk, but who learned that swimming helped her move without pain. Ethelda was a force for change, and in 1919, when she was seventeen, she shocked everyone when she took off her socks to go swimming at the beach. At that time, for women to swim without covering their feet was against the law. Ethelda was arrested, but women all over began shucking their socks as well, and the law was changed. Just a year later, Ethelda competed in the Olympics. Women were barred from most events because no one wanted to see a woman sweat (seriously), but swimming had been added to table tennis and golf as an Olympic competition, so Ethelda competed. She was the first woman to win medals in all three events and the first American to win a gold medal in swimming. Ethelda eventually became a nurse, helping other victims of polio learn about the healing power of swimming. She might just be a source of inspiration to those children reading about her, as Boxer explains in the narrative at the end of the book why writing about Ethelda was important to her. “I was especially moved by Ethelda’s story. Here was a girl with a debilitating disease who found her strength in the water and used it to overcome obstacles and create social change.” Illustrations are by Elizabeth Baddeley. (Sleeping Bear Press)

I Am Ruby Bridges by Ruby Bridges

Unlike the previous book, most of us know who Ruby Bridges is and how, in 1960, she was the first Black student to integrate a previously all-white school in the South. This book is special for several reasons. First of all, it’s a memoir written by Ruby about that tumultuous year of her life when she desegregated a white school. We see how she didn’t realize how groundbreaking it was when she began to attend that school, the school she took a test to attend. She was the only person in her classroom, and she thought that the test must have been very difficult! She writes, “…my mom said I would be starting at a brand new school the next morning and I had better behave!” This is a cheerful tale that really presents Ruby’s upbeat, sometimes sassy personality. It’s about how wonderful it is (certainly in retrospect) to have been the first to accomplish that action, and one that ended up benefiting so many others. I think young children will be able to identify with her thoughts and feelings because of the fresh and authentic narrative. (Orchard Books/ Scholastic)

I Color Myself Different by Colin Kaepernick

“I Color Myself Different” by Colin Kaepernick is a picture book memoir about an incident from the author’s childhood, but there are hints throughout the story about the significant actions he took in the future. I’d love to discuss this story with children and have students research what he did as an adult, as a professional football player — and as a protester — that logically follow from his experiences as a child. He explains the hurt he felt at his classmates’ casually racist actions and comments, but also how the fact that he stuck up for himself made him feel better and, perhaps even more importantly — though the book never mentions the event — led to his most well-known action on the football field: he knelt during the playing of the national anthem as a protest against the racist attitudes and behaviors that still plague America. The incident caused a firestorm of controversy and anger as other Black athletes soon followed his example. Those who do not recognize the reality of institutional racism raged against his daring action, and he was essentially blackballed from the National Football League despite his very obvious talent. But this memoir makes no mention of the controversy. Instead, it’s his simple but powerful demonstration and example of the pride that all people who are “different’ — like him — should feel in and for themselves. (Scholastic)

Just Like Jesse Owens by Ambassador Andrew Young

“Just Like Jesse Owens” is a picture book for older children. It’s about the childhood of Ambassador Andrew Young, but written by Paula Young Shelton, his daughter, in first person and using his words as she remembers them. The stunning pastel illustrations are by Gordon C. James, and his note at the end is truly touching. The narrative takes us back to New Orleans in the 1930s. It’s a time when some in the Young neighborhood espoused the ideas of the German chancellor, Adolph Hitler. Young’s father was a dentist, and the Jewish dental supply salesmen shook their heads at the people in the neighborhood who believed in Hitler’s ideas. We see Young as a child and the racism and bigotry that flourished around him. His father explained about prejudice, and said that racism is like a sickness. To combat it, he advised his son to be “the best person you can be.” To be polite and have good manners. To do your homework. “This will show others that it doesn’t matter what color your skin is. It’s what you do that counts.” But what really inspired young Andrew Young was when he saw a newsreel about Jesse Owens, who ran faster and jumped farther than everybody else. And he did it in front of Hitler. The narration explains, “After seeing Jesse win, I decided I would play harder, work harder, and try harder than ever to be the best I could be. And I would show the world that it doesn’t matter what color you are. What matters is what you do. All people deserve a chance to go for the gold, just like Jesse.” Yet while this book is inspiring and beautifully written and illustrated, it makes me sad—sad that in spite of the best efforts of intelligent, successful people like Andrew Young, our country—and the world—seem to be going in the wrong direction. Perhaps if enough parents and teachers show their children books like this one, about prejudice and overcoming stereotypes and bigotry, things will change. The narrative definitely makes this a book for fourth and fifth grade aged students. It could also be read to a third grade class or child with the teacher or parent explaining the concepts. It’s definitely an important picture book and one that is much needed in the very schools in which it would probably be banned. (Orchard Books/ Scholastic)

Review by Pamela and Jack Kramer

Please note: This review is based on the final picture books provided by the publishers for review purposes.