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11 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

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

    by Jabari Asim, illustrated by E.B. Lewis

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    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.

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  • Turning Pages: My Life Story

    by Sonia Sotomayor, illustrated by Lulu Delacre

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    There is much to admire and enjoy in Sonia Sotomayor’s biography for young readers. Not only does it trace her life through her childhood and law career into becoming the first-ever Latina Supreme Court Justice, but it also traces her love of reading and shows how books were inextricable with her life trajectory. Books helped her cope with her father’s death and her childhood diabetes; they also inspired her to reach for her dreams in a world full of possibilities.

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  • Six Dots: A Story of Young Louis Braille

    by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Boris Kulikov

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    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.

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  • The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read

    by Rita Lorraine Hubbard, illustrated by Oge Mora

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    Mary Walker should be a household name, and this beautifully illustrated picture book gets us one step closer to just that. Born into slavery in 1848, Walker was freed at age 15 and went on to work numerous jobs and raise a family in the South. At the youthful age of 116, Walker achieved her goal of learning to read — knowledge she used for the last five years of her long and storied life. Her biography will spark conversations about persistence and everyday heroes.

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  • Young Adult

  • Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the 1965 Selma Voting Rights March

    by Lynda Blackmon Lowery, illustrated by PJ Loughran (as told to Elspeth Leacock and Susan Buckley)

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    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.

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  • March Trilogy

    by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell

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    With the release of the third volume in this stirring and historic trilogy, Congressman 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 Congressman Lewis, who continues to speak out on important issues today accept his award here.

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  • The Complete Persepolis

    by Marjane Satrapi

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    This riveting graphic novel-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. This edition includes both Persepolis and Persepolis 2. Reading guides with discussion questions and additional reading suggestions for each volume can be found here (Persepolis) and here (Persepolis 2).

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Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2016 and updated in 2020.