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I learn so much from reading non-fiction picture books, and of course I’m sure kids do too! They give insight into historical figures and events, into the way people have solved problems and overcome incredible odds to follow a dream or to fight for justice, into the way dreamers and doers are formed.
With a new school year having started, I couldn’t help but think about a list of some recent favorites— standouts and truly terrific true stories. Here goes!
Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by Javaka Steptoe.
Terrific. Incredible. All the adjectives for this biography of Basquiat. “Art is the street games of little children, in our style and the words that we speak. It is how the messy patchwork of the city creates new meaning for ordinary things.”
Freedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford and R. Gregory Christie.
Congo Square was the only place enslaved (and free) Africans were allowed to meet together in New Orleans in the 1800s, a place where they played music, danced, and shared news. It embodied the hope of freedom and both the succinct, powerful prose and evocative illustrations truly capture that.
I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark written by Debbie Levy, illustrations by Elizabeth Baddeley.
A boldly designed picture book about a bold person whose journey started at the library!
Whoosh!: Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions by Chris Barton, illustrated by Don Tate.
This is truly a terrific book about an ingenious inventor. “…Because facing challenges, solving problems, and building things are what Lonnie Johnson loves to do. And his ideas just keep on flowing.”
Separate is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh.
Another excellent book, this one documenting the case of Mendez vs. Westminster School District—Sylvia Mendez and her family’s fight to desegregate schools in California. Plus, I’m a big fan of Duncan Tonatiuh’s artwork (stay tuned!).
Crossing Bok Chito: A Choctaw Tale of Friendship & Freedom by Tim Tingle, illustrated by Jeanne Rorex Bridges.
An emotional story with stunning artwork of a Choctaw girl in the 1800s who befriends a little boy who’s a slave and then her family helps his escape to freedom.
Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music by Margarita Engle and Rafael López.
This one is inspired by the true story of Millo Castro Zaldarriaga who dreamed of drumming in Cuba despite gender restrictions and eventually had an all girls band with her sisters and became a famous musician. The dreamiest text and illustrations.
Wangari Masthai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees by Frank Prévot, illustrated by Aurélia Fronty.
A breathtakingly beautiful book that tells of Wangari Maathai’s early life and obstacles in her reforestation work. “…a tree is worth more than its wood.”
Take a Picture of Me, James Van der Zee by Andrea Loney, illustrated by Keith Mallett.
A wonderful exploration of the life of photographer James Van Der Zee and the Harlem Renaissance as well as the way history shapes lives and lives shape history.
The Wolves of Currumpaw by William Grill.
A gripping tale of a legendary wolf and a man who had the capacity for change. A book for budding conservationists.
Her Right Foot by Dave Eggers, art by Shawn Harris.
With the Statue of Liberty as its subject, this one contains facts and laughs and cries and an important message about making the U.S. a welcoming place.
The Book Itch by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie.
Terrific in every way, this story of the National Memorial African Bookstore is also illustrated by a frequent appearer on this list—the talented R. Gregory Christie.
Are You an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko by David Jacobson, Sally Ito, and Michiko Tsuboi, illustrated by Toshikado Hajiri.
This is a poignant biography of a Japanese poet, followed by her poems. A wonderful (and honest) book.
A Time to Act: John F. Kennedy’s Big Speech by Shana Corey and R. Gregory Christie.
This is a fairly comprehensive biography of JFK given the short format and young audience. His childhood, his political rise, and his delay and then eventual speech and action on civil rights. It begins and ends with inspiration for young people, the readers of the book “to speak up, to act, to move the world forward—to make history.”
Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas by Gwendolyn Hooks, illustrated by Colin Bootman.
A story everyone should know about Vivien Thomas, a research assistant who developed a procedure to give children open heart surgery in the 1940s, but who was not credited because he was African American. This book recognizes his struggles and celebrates his contribution, as we should.
Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois, words by Amy Novensky, pictures by Isabelle Arsenault.
A biography of the artist, Louise Bourgeois, whose life was like a cloth lullaby, woven together with the threads of her childhood, her mother, their family tapestry business, Parisian fabrics, memory, and stitching itself.
Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah by Laurie Ann Thompson & Sean Qualls.
The story of a boy born with one leg who biked close to 400 miles when no one believed he could.
Firebird by Misty Copeland and Christopher Myers.
A gorgeous book told in second person as a kind of letter of encouragement to a young girl to follow her dreams, filled with fiery, vibrant illustrations.
Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Julie Morstad.
Another special book about dance and finding your passion, pursuing it despite obstacles and through practice, and sharing its joy with others. You can read my interview with the author here.
Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code written by Laurie, Hallmark, illustrated by Katy Wu.
An amazing biography of a woman who from a young age was a creative whiz at figuring out how things work and solving problems. When she grew up, she used her skills to transform computer programming and also coin the term “computer bug.”
You might be interested in another post: Knock Your Socks Off Non-fiction Picture Books about the Natural World.