Marcia Strykowski

Picture Book Biographies

I’m finally getting around to writing another of my all-time-favorite posts—picture book releases! This time my focus is on picture book biographies. There are an abundance of excellent ones appearing on the scene. I don’t see this type of book ever losing ground in popularity. With their lavish illustrations and informative back matter, picture book biographies are enjoyable for all ages. I’ve read a ton of them, but I’ll limit this alphabetized collection to only those books released within the past year. Fasten your seatbelt, long post of great reads ahead!

A Lady Has the Floor: Belva Lockwood Speaks Out for Women’s Rights was written by Kate Hannigan and illustrated by Alison Jay. Published in 2018 by Calkins Creek. This is an awesome story about a fearless unsung champion who was way ahead of her time. She even ran for president in 1884 and 1888. Belva was a lawyer, teacher, and activist who strongly believed in equality for all. I love the crackled-style folk art illustrations.

Alabama Spitfire: The Story of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird was written by Bethany Hegedus and illustrated by Erin McGuire. Published in 2018 by Balzer and Bray. Alabama Spitfire is a fascinating look into the creator of one of my favorite novels: To Kill a Mockingbird. Nell’s journey to tell her powerful story is inspiring and the pictures are delightful.

Anybody’s Game: The Story of the First Girl to Play Little League Baseball was written by Heather Lang and illustrated by Cecilia Puglesi. Published in 2018 by Albert Whitman & Company. Very cute story about talented Kathryn Johnston who was determined to play baseball on a boys’ team even if it meant cutting her hair and breaking the rules to get there.

Balderdash! John Newbery and the Boisterous Birth of Children’s Books was written by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Nancy Carpenter. Published in 2017 by Chronicle Books. Wonderful tribute to the ‘father of children’s literature’ for whom the famous Newbery awards were named. The busy illustrations are full of interesting details.

Becoming Bach was written and illustrated by Tom Leonard. Published in 2017 by Roaring Brook Press (A Neal Porter Book). Johann Sebastian Bach was born into a family of great musicians. As one who saw musical patterns all his life, this is the story of how he followed his dreams to become a true Bach. Beautiful illustrations add much to this interesting biography.

Before She Was Harriet was written by Lesa Cline-Ransome and illustrated by James E. Ransome. Published in 2017 by Holiday House. (A Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book).  The illustrations are lavish and lush and go perfectly with the lyrical writing in this gorgeous book about Harriet Tubman who has gone down in history for her exceptional strength and bravery.

Big Machines The Story of Virginia Lee Burton was written by Sherri Duskey Rinker and illustrated by John Rocco. Published in 2017 by HMH Books for Young Readers. I love this special biography filled with information, great illustrations, and real photographs. Whether or not you are already a fan of Katy and the Big Snow, The Little House, Mike Mulligan and the rest of Virginia’s classic winners, you will be after you flip though this delightful book.

Charlie Takes His Shot: How Charlie Sifford Broke the Color Barrier in Golf was written by Nancy Churnin and illustrated by John Joven. Published in 2018 by Albert Whitman & Company. Another amazing story about an unsung hero, who took great risks to open up a national pastime game to all who want to play. Charlie became the first black golfer to win the Professional Golf Association Tournament.

Dangerous Jane was written by Suzanne Slade and illustrated by Alice Ratterree. Published in 2017 by Peachtree Publishers. Great story about Jane Addams, another strong, empathic woman who, rather than sit back and hope for change, stood up for what she believed. Fascinating details of her life from birth up through winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Well done watercolor illustrations throughout.

Danza! Amalia Hernández and El Ballet Folklórico de México was written and illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh. Published in 2017 by Harry N. Abrams. Duncan’s award-winning illustration style is so fabulous—colorful, unique, and always recognizable. And this fascinating story about the dancer and founder of Mexico’s Folkloric Ballet is no exception.

Dorothea Lange: The Photographer Who Found the Faces of the Depression was written by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Sarah Green. Published in 2017 by Albert Whitman & Company. Interesting introduction to one of the leading documentary photographers of the twentieth century. The illustrations do a good job of reflecting the time period.

The Flying Girl: How Aída de Acosta Learned to Soar was written by Margarita Engle and illustrated by Sara Palacios. Published in 2018 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers. Both the pictures and the poetic words soar in this colorful tale of another little-known champion who broke through barriers. Aída became the first woman to fly a motorized aircraft.

Frida Kahlo and Her Animalitos was written by Monica Brown and illustrated by John Parra. Published in 2017 by North South Books. The lively and colorful acrylic paintings were a perfect choice for bringing this fabulous Mexican artist to life. Unlike other picture books about Frida, this one also stands out for its focus on her pets.

Girl Running: Bobbi Gibb and the Boston Marathon was written by Annette Bay Pimentel and illustrated by Micha Archer. Published in 2018 by Nancy Paulsen Books. This depiction of a determined young runner gives nice details of the obstacles Bobbi overcame in order to participate as the first woman runner in the Boston Marathon. Fun collage pictures have added mile markers that follow the marathon route.

Grace Hopper, Queen of Computer Code written by Laurie Wallmark and illustrated by Katy Wu. Published in 2017 by Sterling. A cheerful positive message of going after what you want in life. Laurie’s done it again with choosing a strong female character who wanted to know how things worked. Vivid cartoon-style digital illustrations with quotations from Grace throughout add much to this lovely book.

Imagine That! How Doctor Seuss wrote The Cat in the Hat was written by Judy Sierra and illustrated by Kevin Hawkes. Published in 2017 by Random House Books for Young Readers. Although there have been plenty of Dr. Seuss biographies, this book was unique in that it focuses entirely on The Cat in the Hat and how it came to be written. As you can tell by the brilliant cover, this is a fun read!

Joan Proctor, Dragon Doctor: The Woman Who Loved Reptiles was written by Patricia Valdez and illustrated by Felicita Sala. Published in 2018 by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers. Yet another fascinating woman scientist I knew nothing about. Her uncommon interest in reptiles (she even brought her crocodile to math class one day) gives a humorous twist to this story of being true to oneself.

John Ronald’s Dragons: The Story of J. R. R. Tolkien was written by Caroline McAlister and illustrated by Eliza Wheeler. Published in 2017 by Roaring Brook Press. Really, who could resist opening a book on the life of this masterful storyteller? The lovely depictions of the English countryside bring a dreamy quality to Tolkien’s boyhood and fascination with dragons. Great back matter, as well!

Karl, Get out of the Garden! Carolus Linnaeus and the Naming of Everything was written by Anita Sanchez and illustrated by Catherine Stock. Published in 2017 by Charlesbridge. From his start as a curious young boy, Linné ended up naming more than 12,000 species of plants and animals. His Latin classification system was accepted and used by scientists across the globe. A lovely, well done introduction on an important aspect of biology.

The Legendary Miss Lena Horne was written by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Charlotte Riley-Webb. Published in 2017 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers. Beautiful art brings Lena’s story to life. Her constant determination and struggle against racism is an important aspect that bears retelling. 

Lighter than Air: Sophie Blanchard, the First Woman Pilot was written by Matthew Clark Smith and illustrated by Matt Tavares. Published in 2017 by Candlewick. Lovely writing complements the soft watercolor and ink paintings of this charming story of a courageous woman who took to the skies despite the dangers involved with this mode of transporation. 

Long-Armed Ludy and the First Women’s Olympics was written by Jean L. S. Patrick and illustrated by Adam Gustavson. Published in 2017 by Charlesbridge. This was a fun read. The paintings are well done with super writing to match. Told with humor, I enjoyed learning about this strong athlete.

Mae Among the Stars was written by Roda Ahmed and illustrated by Stasia Burrington. Published in 2018 by Harper Collins. A gorgeous picture book—bold digital and ink illustrations—inspired by the life of Mae Jemison, the first African American woman to travel in space.

Margaret and the Moon: How Margaret Hamilton Saved the First Lunar Landing was written by Dean Robbins and illustrated by Lucy Knisley. Published in 2017 by Knopf Books for Young Readers. Excellent combination of good writing and fun illustration with real pictures of Margaret at the end of this entertaining read.

Melvin the Mouth: Young Mel Blanc…before he was the Man of 1,000 Voices was written by Katherine Blanc and illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbeler. Published in 2017 by Charlesbridge. Fun to learn more about the man behind famous cartoon voices, such as Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny, and Woody Woodpecker.

The Music of Life: Bartolomeo Cristofori & the Invention of the Piano was written by Elizabeth Rusch and illustrated by Marjorie Priceman. Published in 2017 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers. This lively book, filled with fascinating details and gouache paintings, is sure to please all music lovers.

Ordinary, Extraordinary Jane Austen is written by Deborah Hopkinson and illustrated by Qin Leng. Published in 2018 by Balzer & Bray. Being the Story of Six Novels, Three Notebooks, a Writing Box, and One Clever Girl, this absolutely lovely book is a must for all Austen fans. At the end, each of her famous works is given a brief summary, including special quotations pulled from the novels.

Shark Lady: The True Story of How Eugenie Clark Became the Ocean’s Most Fearless Scientist was written by Jess Keating and illustrated by Marta Alvarez Miguens. Published in 2017 by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky. A great, colorful, inspiring story for young adventurers.

Strange Fruit: Billy Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song was written by Gary Golio and illustrated by Charlotte Riley-Webb. Published in 2017 by Millbrook Press. A powerful book dealing with difficult themes during a dark time in U. S. History, just before the Civil Rights Movement.

Strong as Sandow: How Eugen Sandow Became the Strongest Man on Earth was written and illustrated by Don Tate. Published in 2017 by Charlesbridge. Fun pairing of bright, outlined illustrations with this intriguing story. Interesting back matter includes Tate’s own time as a bodybuilder.

Vincent Can’t Sleep: Van Gogh Paints the Night Sky was written by Barb Rosenstock and illustrated by Mary Grandpre. Published in 2017 by Knopf Books for Young Readers. One can never have too many books about Vincent Van Gogh and this one is spectacular—gorgeous and lyrical!

Who Says Women Can’t Be Computer Programmers? The Story of Ada Lovelace written by Tanya Lee Stone and illustrated by Marjorie Priceman. Published in 2018 by Henry Holt & Company. Another fine book on Ada with bright whimsical illustrations and a solid storyline.


What great times we live in to have all these amazing people from history finally getting long overdue recognition for their grand efforts in making this a better world. What do you think? Aren’t picture book biographies a wonderful invention? Did I miss any of your favorites?


  1. Michele

    What a wonderful selection you’ve compiled! Thank you!


    • Aren’t they a great batch? Most are quite large, too, almost a foot tall. So many talented authors & illustrators out there. Thanks for your comment, Michele!


  2. What a lovely list of new books! I enjoyed reading about them.


  3. clarehelenwelsh

    I really enjoyed these, thanks Marcia. Some
    I’d heard if but many new ones to devour 🙂


  4. Michelle Elder

    Great choices and beautiful covers!


  5. Colleen

    Wow! What a collection of inspiring biographies. A wonderful way to learn about the lives of so many diverse people! Great Post,once again, Marcia!


    • I do find these books a great way to learn about people from the past. In the time it takes to read one long adult biography, you can dip into thirty of these and then dig deeper into the lives of your favorites, if you choose. Thanks, Colleen!


  6. Wow! These all look marvellous. I remember reading a book about Eleanor Rosevelt and one about Helen Keller when I was young and I still remember them. I like that there are so many about successful women that will encourage little girls. And one about Jane Austen!! I will have to get that one. Thanks for this amazing list.


    • You’re welcome, Darlene! I hadn’t thought about it before, but you’re right, biographies I read as a child still stick with me. I clearly remember my excitement of following Lewis & Clark on their expedition.

      Liked by 1 person

      • As a retired school librarian, I know that many of the biographies I read as a child and were prominent in our schools were not totally factual. Now we have the facts. The interesting way that authors and illustrators are portraying some great people of our history appeal to children and adults and they teach us universal values. Beth Schmelzer


        • I hadn’t thought of that aspect before. Children’s nonfiction books do seem to stick more to real facts nowadays. Even if the main story might fictionalize their life and/or words a little bit, the back matter facts are all well documented. Thanks so much for weighing in, Beth!


  7. Bette Norton

    What an amazing collection of picture book biographies! It is a fun way to learn the history about a lot of different people who made important contributions to our society. Picture books are a favorite of mine, especially the beautiful illustrations! A wonderful post! 🙂


    • I’m glad you liked the post, Bette. Thanks for letting me know! 🙂


  8. What a fantastic line-up, Marcia. There’s something there for everyone! I found a few that I want to read! Thanks for sharing.


  9. What a great list! Thanks for compiling this!


  10. Marcia! Thank you, thank you!! This selection is excellent. I need to read more biographies in my class, and I think I will start with Vincent Can’t Sleep. Starry Night is a favorite. We just read Barb Rosenstock’s book on Kandinsky (excellent), preparing for our Art Show. You list so many good books!


    • I thought you might like the Vincent book. 🙂 I’m looking forward to catching up on your art show preparations. Thank you, Jennie!

      Liked by 1 person

      • You’re welcome, Marcia. I hear that Barb Rosenstock has a new book on Marc Chagall coming out later this year. Enjoy the Art Show. 🙂


  11. claudinegueh

    I love this selection and recognised Alison Jay’s work right away. I’ll be heading to my library in an hour and will see if these are available! Your PB posts are always spectacular, Marcia. Thanks so much!


    • Good job recognizing Alison’s work; she does have a beautiful distinctive style. I hope your library will have some of these new titles. If not, maybe you can put in a few requests. Happy reading and thanks for stopping by, Claudine!


  12. Ashley

    Great selection, as always! I had no idea there were so many biographies written as picture books!!


  13. What a beautiful set of books! I believe today’s children are able to learn far more about important people around the world than previous generations, primarily because of the excellent illustrations and interesting presentations in these and so many others. Just wonderful!


    • I think you’re right. Kids have so many more opportunities to learn about past and current movers and shakers in the world. Partly thanks to the internet, but also because of the beautiful nonfiction books continuously being published. Thanks for your comment!


  14. I always enjoy your book reviews. The biographies look fascinating. I want to read them all.


    • Once you start reading picture book biographies (or any picture books for that matter), it does become hard to stop! 🙂


  15. You’ve got some real treasures here. I love art and music and would like to get those books about the piano, Lena Horne, Kahlo and others. Very nice list.


  16. Such a wonderfully extensive and interesting list of non-fiction PBs! I could stand to learn from them. 🙂 Thank you for all your hard work to post them.


    • Ha ha, it did take a while to post all these, so thanks for your appreciation of the task, Lynn! 🙂


  17. Deborah Nolan

    Dear Marcia – this list is wonderful. There were so many unsung heros that I had never heard of before. Will be doing some library shopping from your recommendations. As an artist I will be so interested in seeing the illustrations as well as reading the stories. Thanks for sharing.


    • Glad you found the list useful, Debbie. As I’m always saying, picture books are truly works of art. Enjoy your choices and thanks for your comment!


  18. Wonderful post Marcia!! What a stunning line up of biographies! Lots of times when I want to read a biography about someone, I’ll checkout a children’s version — when I’m willing to invest 60 pages of reading (not 600!) Gives me the basic info and is a fast read… And I love your list! We have a grand-girl Mae (who needs the Mae Jemmison book!) and our 6 year old grand-girl is named Ada Jo after Ada Jo Lovelace!! (her dad is a physics teacher) so we need that book too! thanks thanks for your descriptions! Your picture book posts are the best!! hugs form here Marcia!


    • Oh, what great names your granddaughters have! I’m happy you found some good titles from my list. There are several really nice picture book biographies about Ada. Thanks for popping in, Rhonda, I know you’re busy getting ready for another adventure! 🙂


      • Hi Marcia– can I say again– loved the post! So so many good books! And I know what you mean about Ada books– I’ve seen a few now and before our grand-girl got the name, I had never heard of her. I think there is a rise in books about women in general these days! But I like this version that you posted– such bright illustrations. thanks again Marcia! xox


  19. mirkabreen

    Picture book biographies are all the rage. I only wish we had them when I was growing up. The first “adult” books I read (really, books for all ages) were biographies, (starting with Marie Curie, at a librarian’s recommendation. How’s that for closing the circle, Marcia 😉 ?) and they are still among my favorite non-fiction reads.
    How fabulous they are now present in picture book format, with laudable examples such as you posted here^.


    • For nonfiction, I’d say biographies are my favorite read, too. They seem to bring a topic or period in history alive, beyond just finding out juicy stuff about real people. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your memory of reading Marie Curie, Mirka!


  20. Wow – that’s quite a list! It’s funny how picture book biographies have become a thing in recent years. I’ve been trying to find a home for one about a Canadian artist, and a publisher recently told me she thinks the PB market is getting a little too flooded with biographies.I suppose for the most part, they’re mainly bought by libraries. Thanks!


    • Well, I certainly hope there’ll be room for more picture book biographies, libraries do love them. Like you, I’ve got a manuscript I’d really like to see published. I wish I had completed the idea sooner, but fingers crossed, and good luck to you, too!


  21. Great post, Marcia! Thanks for sharing this great compilation and for giving me ideas (book-wise) for my little one. Very helpful! Have a good weekend, Marcia! Hugs from Cambodia! 😘😘😘


  22. These all look simply marvelous, Marcia. I love children’s picture books. Thank you for sharing.


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