My children are older now, ages ten and thirteen, and we still love checking out picture books and reading them aloud to one another. I’ve even been known to read picture books to college students or to people who attend my own literary events—the storytelling in them is astonishingly effective. I love the way they amplify the storytelling experience so that it becomes not only literary but oratory and visual. This image-text relationship can sharpen skills for readers of all ages, introducing us to a passion not just for the written word but for fine art, graphic design, and, well, books in general. Reading them aloud to someone fosters community and hones the ear, versing us in the musicality of language.
Some of my favorite picture books to read with my older kids are biographies, books that thoughtfully discuss and illustrate historical and present-day figures. As the We Are Teachers website states, “Picture book biographies are a great way to help bring historical figures to life, and to encourage students to ask deeper questions about a person, time period, or event.”
I’ve been overjoyed at how these biographies have informed and shaped my own awareness of the world and the good people within it. This month—a month that celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr.—our libraries have quite a few biographies on display. Here are a few notables to check out and read on your own or with your families. These include world-traveling adventures like Girl on a Motorcycle, biographies of unassuming heroes such as Nicholas Winton (Nicky & Vera), of young activists who fought for justice (The Youngest Marcher), of writers and illustrators and librarians who used the written word and more to tell vital, moving, earth-shaking stories (Exquisite, It Began with a Page, Schomburg, Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein). Being a writer myself, stories about storytellers are perhaps my favorite stories of all.
Checkout or place on hold some of these wonderful titles to read on your own or with your families; I promise you these picture book biographies are gift boxes filled with breathtaking stories and art:
It Began with a Page: How Gyo Fujikawa Drew the Way by Kyo Maclear and illustrator Julie Morstad
Girl on a Motorcycle by Amy Notvesky and illustrator Julie Morstad
Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein by Linda Bailey and illustrator Júlia Sardà
Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks by Suzanne Slade and Cozbi A. Cabrera
Frida Kahlo and her Animalitos by Monica Brown and illustrator John Parra
Kafka and the Doll by Larissa Theule and illustrator Rebecca Green
The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist by Cynthia Levinson and illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton
Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrator Eric Velasquez
Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré by Anika Aldamuy Denise and illustrator Paola Escobar
Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer by Traci Sorell and illustrator Natasha Donovan
Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued by Peter Sís
Opal Lee and What It Means to Be Free: The Truth Story of the Grandmother of Juneteenth by Alice Faye Duncan and illustrator Keturah A. Bobo