Biographies and true-life stories are excellent sources for young readers to examine the lives of heroes and other distinguished people. Here are few picture books to celebrate those “who helped change the world.”
The biographies in the Ordinary People Change the World series tell of heroes in simple language and focus on an ability that made each person unique. “I was tired of my daughter thinking that reality TV stars and loud-mouthed sports players were heroes. That’s fame. Fame is different than being a hero,” said author Brad Meltzer, who is the host of the History Channel television show "Decoded."
Even the youngest readers will find the punky-faced characters to their liking and understand the issues addressed by these heroes of the past.
“THOMAS JEFFERSON BUILDS A LIBRARY,” by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by John O’Brien, Calkins Creek, $16.95 (ages 8 and up)
Even when Thomas Jefferson was a boy he read incessantly, completing his father’s big library before he entered school. Throughout his life and service as the third president of the United States, Jefferson collected books and established libraries. He created the world’s largest library, the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and refurnished it from his own collection after a fire set by British soldiers in 1814.
Pithy sidebars and traditional pen-and-ink sketches make “Thomas Jefferson Builds a Library” a delightful story that will highlight this American president’s life with his lasting commitment, which is a legacy to us all.
“TO DARE MIGHTY THINGS: The Life of Theodore Roosevelt,” by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by C.F. Payne, Disney/Hyperion, $17.99 (ages 6-8)
Doreen Rappaport’s biography begins with Theodore Roosevelt’s youth and his love of nature. She highlights his public service, his ventures with the Rough Riders and ultimately fulfilling the position as president of the United States after the assassination of President William McKinley. The story and the opaque illustrations confirm Roosevelt’s serious manners with his playfulness, especially where his own children were involved.
“LOOKING AT LINCOLN,” by Maira Kalman, Nancy Paulsen Books, $17.99 (ages 3-6)
Maira Kalman’s stylized gouache illustrations and understated text are a pleasing combination for a beginning biography on the 16th president of the United States. Each page portrays a single event in chronological order of Lincoln’s life.
Author’s notes list other short details of the era such as the Emancipation Proclamation and Frederick Douglass. One interesting feature is the end papers providing the entire Gettysburg Address.
“JFK,” by Jonah Winter, illustrated by A.G. Ford, Katherine Tegen Books, $17.99 (ages 4-8)
Instead of starting at the beginning of President John F. Kennedy’s life and proceeding chronologically, Jonah Winter opens with the president’s assassination, noting a personal remembrance of witnessing as a child the shooting in Dallas. Reflecting on this event, the author, with Ford’s paintings and iconic photos, details the life of "JFK" in short essays providing beginning readers an introduction to this charismatic man.
Here are two others about President Kennedy:
“THE PRESIDENT HAS BEEN SHOT! The Assassination of John F. Kennedy,” by James L. Swanson, Scholastic Press, $18.99 (ages 12 and up)
Meticulous detailing and careful design make this a valuable historical resource for young adults.
“I AM JOHN F. KENNEDY,” by Grace Norwich, Scholastic paperback, $7.99 (ages 6-8)
Written in chronological order, this is one of the I Am series using the first-person voices of historical figures. Most valuable are the maps and timelines.
Two other recent biographical picture books on notable people in history:
“CLARA AND DAVIE: The True Story of Young Clara Barton,” by Patricia Polacco, Scholastic, $17.99 (ages 3-5)
Beginning with Clara Barton’s early childhood and suffering from an inability to speak clearly because of a lisp, the story pays tribute to her brother, Davie, who guides and directs her talents for healing and love of nature.
Author’s notes include photos and details about Clara, who became the founder of the American Red Cross. Of special interest is Patricia Polacco’s familial connection to this remarkable woman.
“THE KITE THAT BRIDGED TWO NATIONS,” by Alexis O’Neill, illustrated by Terry Widener, Calkins Creek, $16.95 (ages 8 and up)
In the mid-19th century, the only way to cross the Niagara River between the United States and Canada was on a ferry boat. In 1847, Charles Ellet Jr. was commissioned to build a suspension bridge across the river. He offered a prize to anyone who could anchor a string 800 feet across both banks.
“The Kite That Bridged Two Nations” is the story of 16-year-old Homan J. Walsh, who constructed a six-sided (barn-door type) kite with a string long enough to be anchored on one shore and flown and secured on the opposite bank of the river.
Author’s notes tell more of the history as Ellet built the first bridge across the chasm. Additional reference sources make this a valued and interesting piece of history about a person “who made a difference.”