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12 Inspiring Illustrated Biographies That Introduce Kids to Diverse Heroes

by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

I enjoyed reading biographies from an early age — the idea that a person’s life was important enough for a book intrigued me, and I was thrilled and inspired whenever I found small similarities or points of connections between my own experiences and those of the larger-than-life figures on the pages. Readers of all ages can find much to consider, relate to, and celebrate in these transcendent stories of people who’ve had an impact on our lives and culture. These are some of my favorite illustrated biographies and memoirs for young book-lovers:

  • Picture Books

  • Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat

    by Javaka Steptoe

    Steptoe’s vibrant biography seems to be pulsing with the life of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. This book focuses on Basquiat’s boyhood in New York City, the city that fed his creative spirit and showed him art everywhere — in museums, in speech, and on the streets. Steptoe’s Basquiat-inspired art complements the story of a young artist whose work reminds us that art, and life, doesn’t have to fit a certain mold.

  • Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers' Strike of 1909

    by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Melissa Sweet

    Escaping anti-Semitic violence in the Ukraine with her family in 1903, Clara Lemlich arrived in the U.S. and faced the oppressive conditions of garment industry factories as a young girl. Beginning with small acts of resistance, young Clara went on to lead tens of thousands of women to conduct a large-scale factory walkout.

  • Preaching to the Chickens: The Story of Young John Lewis

    by Jabari Asim, illustrated by E.B. Lewis

    There is something extra special for young readers when they are able to get a glimpse into the early lives of contemporary icons, and Asim’s story of the future Civil Rights activist and congressman's early attempts at preaching — literally to the chickens on the family farm — is touching and inspirational. As readers witness John Lewis developing the skills needed to captivate the notoriously inattentive birds, they'll see how the politician and National Book Award-winning author became the powerful orator he remains today.

  • Six Dots: A Story of Young Louis Braille

    by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Boris Kulikov

    As a student, Louis Braille was frustrated by the lack of books for people with visual impairments, and began his mission to develop an accessible reading system by modifying a military coding technique. "Although many Braille biographies stress his disability, Bryant’s portrayal subtly emphasizes his creativity and celebrates him as an inventor, making this an excellent addition for STEM collections,” The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books points out in its starred review of the book.

  • Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story

    by Paula Yoo, illustrated by Lin Wang

    As a young girl, Anna May Wong saw a movie being filmed in her hometown of Los Angeles and dreamed of becoming a movie star. She pursued a career in Hollywood, persevering when faced with discrimination and racist portrayals. After a visit to China, Wong went on to become a leading voice for Asian-American actors and respectful representation in film.

  • Ida B. Wells: Let the Truth Be Told

    by Walter Dean Myers, illustrated by Bonnie Christensen

    Myers’s biography of Ida B. Wells, a journalist, suffragette, educator, writer, and leader of the Civil Rights Movement, chronicles her social activism and tells the little-known story of her important work to highlight the horror and brutality of lynching. A helpful Teacher’s Guide, encouraging children to be activists and allies against injustice like Wells, is available for download from the publisher here.

  • Middle Grade

  • Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras

    by Duncan Tonatiuh

    Mexican artist José Guadalupe (Lupe) Posada and his calavera drawings of skulls that have become associated with The Day of the Dead are the subjects of this award-winning book. Though much of his art appeared lighthearted, Posada was also a social commentator whose work often was a sharp critique of the political establishment. Tonatiuh’s striking illustrations and spare, lyrical prose are combined with excellent resources for learning more about the artist and the context of his work.

  • A Poem for Peter: The Story of Ezra Jack Keats and the Creation of The Snowy Day

    by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher

    This beautiful, critically acclaimed biography-in-verse focuses on Keats’s development of the character of Peter, the main character in his beloved picture book The Snowy Day. Illustrated in a style similar to Keats’s mixed-media collage, the book recounts Keats’s life and commitment to anti-Semitism as the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn, New York, and offers parallels between his personal experience and the significance of his revolutionary work including and promoting children of color in kids’ literature.

  • Rad Women Worldwide: Artists and Athletes, Pirates and Punks, and Other Revolutionaries Who Shaped History

    by Kate Schatz, illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl

    Following the success of Rad American Women A-Z, Schatz and Stahl are back with the even more impressive Rad Women Worldwide. Among familiar names like Venus and Serena Williams, and Malala Yousafzai are those of less well-known but history-making women like Nanny of the Maroons, Kalpana Chawla, Junko Tabei, and Queen Hatshepsut. These short, illustrated biographical portraits will inspire young people of all genders to do a little digging into these hidden figures of ancient and modern times, and perhaps be inspired to make a little history of their own.

  • Teen

  • Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the Selma Voting Rights March

    by Lynda Blackmon Lowery, illustrated by PJ Loughran (retold by Elspeth Leacock and Susan Buckley)

    For her activism, Lowery was jailed nine times before her 15th birthday, and was the youngest marcher in the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. This illustrated memoir of Lowery’s commitment to nonviolent resistance even when faced with violence like what law enforcement exhibited on “Bloody Sunday” is both sobering and inspiring.

  • March Trilogy

    by Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

    With the release of the third volume in this stirring and historic trilogy, Representative John Lewis made history once again as the author of the first graphic novel ever to win a National Book Award. My own daughter tore through these firsthand accounts of young people’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement, and was inspired by the connections Lewis makes to present-day events. Readers can watch Representative Lewis, who continues to speak out on important issues today (recently leading the first-ever sit-in in the House of Representatives to demand action on gun control legislation) accept his award here.

  • Persepolis

    by Marjane Satrapi

    This riveting graphic novel-style memoir of Satrapi’s childhood in Tehran and coming of age in the midst of tremendous political upheaval is now considered a modern classic. With humor and poignancy, Satrapi skillfully threads the personal challenges and triumphs of her adolescence with the history and cultural life of Iran. Adapted to film in 2007, Persepolis has become a high school classroom staple, and a reading guide with discussion questions and additional reading suggestions can be found online.

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