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8 Kids’ Books That Celebrate Diverse and Courageous Historical Figures

by Clay Swartz

Finding engaging history books for kids can be tough, and finding children’s history books that feature diverse figures is even tougher. While there have always been plenty of easy-to-find books about famous folks like Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin, and Theodore Roosevelt, there aren’t as many options about historical heroes such as Nellie Bly, Muhammad Ali, Ada Lovelace, Harriet Tubman, Amelia Earhart, and Nelson Mandela.

That’s one of the reasons I wrote my new book Who Wins?, a rambunctious and interactive collection of 100 incredible, inspiring — and, most of all, diverse — historical figures. Putting the book together gave me an excuse to research and write about remarkable people children might not hear a ton about. I’ve compiled some of the best kids’ reads I came across that celebrate many of the coolest, classiest, and most courageous historical figures of all time. Here are eight history books to add to your family’s bookshelves, along with some interesting facts I’ve learned along the way:

  • Rad American Women A-Z: Rebels, Trailblazers, and Visionaries Who Shaped Our History … and Our Future!

    by Kate Schatz, illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl

    This epic A-Z book includes 26 biographies of America’s most influential, diverse, and wholly interesting women, including Carol Burnett, Ella Baker, and Nellie Bly. The women in this book may be less heralded than most historical figures, but that doesn’t mean they played any less of a role in shaping our country's history. The book is filled with athletes, scientists, artists, entertainers, and even judges. It was released in 2015, but it’s already a modern classic.

    Who Wins? Fun Fact: The ever-courageous Nellie Bly was the first woman to report from the Eastern Front during World War I.

  • Twelve Rounds to Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali

    by Charles R. Smith Jr., illustrated by Bryan Collier

    Sadly, Muhammad Ali recently passed. While there’s no substitute for the fun-loving, fast-talking, world-class athlete and personality, we are left with many great books about the Greatest of All Time. Twelve Rounds to Glory, a Coretta Scott King Honor Book, is Ali’s story told through 12 beautiful poems, each focusing on a different stage in his life. It covers his story from 1942 all the way to his retirement from boxing in 1981, highlighting plenty of incredible moments along the way.

    Who Wins? Fun Fact: After retirement, Muhammad Ali partnered with charities for Parkinson’s disease research, the Special Olympics, and ending child poverty.

  • Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker

    by Patricia Hruby Powell, illustrated by Christian Robinson

    Josephine Baker was a legendary entertainer and civil rights activist who worked her way from living in the St. Louis slums to performing on famous stages all around the world. This inspiring story of a woman who overcame personal struggle and discrimination is as well-researched as it is incredibly fascinating. The illustrations by Christian Robinson are some of the most beautiful you’ll see in a nonfiction book.

    Who Wins? Fun Fact: Author Ernest Hemingway called Josephine Baker “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.”

  • I am Amelia Earhart

    by Brad Meltzer, illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos

    Earhart’s story is one of defying expectations, overcoming adversity, and making a mark on the world. In this beautiful picture book, readers get a brief overview of what made Earhart one of the most important figures of the 20th century. The book follows her life from childhood, to her first flying lessons, and all the way through her career as a record-breaking, world-famous pilot. Also cool, Metzler’s Ordinary People series includes books about historical heroes such as Lucille Ball, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and many more.

    Who Wins? Fun Fact: In high school, Earhart excelled in science and was a whiz at chemistry.

  • Let It Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters

    by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Stephen Alcorn

    Of all the figures in history, these women are some of the toughest and most inspirational I've come across. Heroes like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Rosa Parks helped to shape American history unlike anyone before them. This book includes detailed biographies and beautiful illustrations of 10 brave African-American activists for the causes of abolition, women's rights, and civil rights.

    Who Wins? Fun Fact: Due to her status as “a wanted woman,” Harriet Tubman was an expert at disguises and always carried a gun for protection.

  • Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine

    by Laurie Wallmark, illustrated by April Chu

    Chances are you’re not too familiar with Ada Lovelace, but you surely know of her legendary creation: the world’s first computer program. In fact, she came up with the program during the Victorian era, more than 100 years before the first computer was built. This beautiful picture book tells Lovelace’s incredible tale from her curious childhood all the way through her revolutionary career as a mathematician. More than anything, it’s a wonderful encourager for STEM-fascinated kids, and an inspirational story of how math (and mathematicians) can truly change the world.

    Who Wins? Fun Fact: Lovelace loved gambling so much she attempted to create a mathematical equation to win big. It didn’t work.

  • Nelson Mandela

    by Kadir Nelson

    This Coretta Scott King Honor Book celebrates the life of global icon Nelson Mandela. It follows his journey as a boy in South Africa, to his unjustified 27 years in prison, to his remarkable election as the first black president of the country in 1994. It’s the story of how one man transformed a country, and inspired equality around the world. Plus, the book is filled with glorious paintings that capture this legendary figure’s life in perfect detail. A bonus: Kadir Nelson wrote and illustrated We Are the Ship, an incredible history book about Negro League Baseball that features legends like Jackie Robinson and Rube Foster.

    Who Wins? Fun Fact: As a young man, Mandela was a skilled boxer and distance runner.

  • Pelé, King of Soccer/Pelé, El rey del fútbol

    by Monica Brown, illustrated by Rudy Gutierrez

    Simply put, this is the story of the greatest soccer player to ever play the game. The book is especially clever, told in dual English/Spanish text that swirls and blends with beautiful results. Follow Pelé’s story from his youth as poor kid on the streets of Brazil through his transformation into one of the most famous — and inspirational — people on the planet. The vibrant, high-energy illustrations help the readers imagine the personality and skills of this epic athlete.

    Who Wins? Fun Fact: While playing, Pelé was highest paid athlete in the world.

Want to discover more fun facts about famous historical figures and test your knowledge too? Check out our Famous Women in History Quiz!

And click here to watch the clever book trailer for Who Wins? featuring an epic showdown between Muhammad Ali and George Washington.

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