Five favorite biographies

Lots of amazing women this year!


Fancy Party Gowns: The Story of Fashion Designer Ann Cole Lowe by Deborah Blumenthal.  Published by Bonnier Publishing.

“Ann thought about what she could do, not about what she couldn’t change.”  This repeating refrain provides words to live by in this gorgeously illustrated biography about the pioneering African-American dress designer who created Jackie Kennedy’s wedding gown.  Link to Amazon.


The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, A Young Civil Rights Activist by Cynthia Levinson.  Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

Yes, kids, this nine-year-old girl spent a week in jail in 1963 for participating in the civil rights movement.  Link to Amazon.


Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team by Steve Sheinkin.  Published by Roaring Brook Press.

Jim Thorpe, Pop Warner, the Carlisle Indian School, Olympics controversy…so much is covered here, all of it in Sheinkin’s inimitable style.  Here’s hoping this is on the Newbery Committee’s short list, as well as those deciding on the Sibert awards.  Link to Amazon.


The World Is Not a Rectangle by Jeannette Winter.  Published by Beach Lane Books.

Whatever the fate of The Secret Project, Jeannette Winter should also be considered for this gorgeous biography of Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid.  Link to Amazon.


Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The Case of R.B.G. vs. Inequality by Jonah Winter. Published by Harry N. Abrams.

There were  two excellent picture book biographies of Ruth Bader Ginsburg this year, but I only reviewed one on the blog.  This one just caught up with me this week.  Written as a legal argument, it lays out a compelling case for Ginsburg defeating the discrimination she has faced throughout her life.  And it’s by The Secret Project author Jonah Winter, who is Jeannette Winter’s son.  Link to Amazon.


Strong as Sandow: How Eugen Sandow Became the Strongest Man on Earth by Don Tate

Published by Charlesbridge

Summary:  As a skinny, frail child, Friedrich Mueller loved athletics, but frequently was too sick to play.  Although he was a good student, he left university to join a circus where his career as an acrobat helped him get stronger.  When the circus folded, Friedrich worked as an artists’ model and learned more about bodybuilding.  At the age of 20, he changed his name to Eugen Sandow and launched his career as a showman.  When he beat famous strongmen Sampson and Cyclops on a London stage, he became an overnight sensation, eventually traveling to America, where his performance at the Chicago World’s Fair increased his celebrity status.  Back in London, he focused on helping others become physically strong and healthy.  He held the Great Competition, the first organized bodybuilding contest, awarding a gold statue with his likeness, a version of which is still used today.  Includes an afterword with more information, four exercises for kids to try, an author’s note about his own bodybuilding experiences, and an extensive bibliography.  40 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  Humorous illustrations and lighthearted text combine to make this a fun biographical read.

Cons:  The fact that Sandow died at age 58 makes me question his health advice.

If you’d like to order this book through Amazon, click here.

Marti’s Song for Freedom/Marti y Sus Versos por la Libertad by Emma Otheguy, illustrated by Beatriz Vidal

Published by Children’s Book Press

Summary:  Growing up in Cuba, Jose Marti was outraged that some of his fellow countrymen were slaves.  As he grew older, he learned that the key to ending slavery was Cuba’s independence from Spain.  In 1868, the Cuban people started a war for independence.  Marti’s newspaper articles and pamphlets about it landed him in jail.  At age 17, he was released by the Spanish government on the condition that he leave Cuba forever.  He traveled around the world, advocating for Cuban independence, and finally settled in New York.  He loved the city, but sometimes found it oppressive.  He would retreat to the Catskills, where he wrote poetry and stories for children that are still read today. In 1895, Jose went back to Cuba, where he died a few weeks later in a battle for independence.  Seven  years later, in 1902, Cuba finally gained independence from Spain.  32 pages; grades 2-6.

Pros:  Told in both English and Spanish, this is an inspiring biography of a man who never stopped fighting against the injustices he saw.  The illustrations may make it a Caldecott contender.

Cons:  Why is New York consistently referred to as Nuevo York in the English version of the story?

If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.

Pele: The King of Soccer by Eddy Simon, illustrated by Vincent Bascaglia

Published by First Second

Summary:  Edson Arantes de Nascimento grew up poor in Brazil, tutored in soccer by his father who had missed out on a professional career because of a knee injury.  From a young age, Edson adopted the nickname Pele, and that was how he was known to millions of fans as he rose to the top in the soccer world.  As a member of the Santos team, he became unstoppable, becoming the only player to ever win three World Cups.  He retired from Brazilian soccer in 1974, but financial difficulties led him to sign with the New York Cosmos two years later, causing a brief rise in the popularity of the game in the U.S.  Since his final retirement, he has traveled the world as a goodwill ambassador and worked with the Brazilian government to improve sports in his own country.  144 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  A fast-paced graphic novel that will grab the attention of sports fans.  There’s plenty of soccer action, as well as biographical information that doesn’t shy away from some of Pele’s less admirable traits, including adultery, but ultimately portrays him as a positive role model.

Cons:  The font for some of the footnotes is so tiny as to be almost invisible to the naked eye.

If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.

Pocket Full of Colors: The Magical World of Mary Blair, Disney Artist Extraordinaire by Amy Guglielmo and Jacqueline Tourville

Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Summary:  From the time she was a child, Mary Blair loved colors of all hues.  She used them at art school, and they led her to a job at Disney Studios, one of the first women to be hired by them.  Once there, though, a group of older men rejected her colorful drawings, preferring to stick with mostly black and white.  She did succeed in catching the attention of one man, Walt Disney himself, who invited her on a tour of South America to create art.  Upon her return, under the South American influence, her art grew even more eye-popping, and some of her ideas were finally accepted, including Cinderella’s pumpkin coach and Alice in Wonderland’s caterpillar.  But too many of her ideas were turned down, and Mary went off on her own, where she created children’s book illustrations and theater sets.  A few years later, Walt Disney approached her with a new plan, and Mary became the chief designer for his “It’s a Small World” ride.  At last, her colors could flow freely, and the world could finally see Mary’s world as she had always imagined it.  Includes an author’s note with biographical information.  48 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A colorful biography of a little-known artist with a connection most kids will recognize and a “be yourself” message about creativity.

Cons:  Now we will all have “It’s a Small World” stuck in our heads for the rest of the day.

If you would like to purchase this book on Amazon, click here.

Before She Was Harriet by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James E. Ransome

Published by Holiday House

Summary:  Harriet Tubman’s story is told in reverse, beginning when she is “an old woman/tired and worn/her legs stiff/her back achy”.  Before that, she was a suffragist, and before that, a Union spy.  The narrative continues back in time, showing Harriet as Moses, conducting slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad, and finally, all the way back to a child named Araminta, “who dreamed/of living long enough/to one day/be old/stiff and achy/tired and worn and wrinkled/and free”.  32 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros: A brief, poetic look at Harriet Tubman’s life and many achievements, beautifully illustrated by Coretta Scott King medalist James Ransome.

Cons:  I was disappointed that there was no back matter giving more biographical information.

If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.

Silent Days, Silent Dreams by Allen Say

Published by Arthur A. Levine Books

Summary:  James Castle was deaf, mute, and autistic.  He never learned to read or speak.  He spent a good portion of his childhood in the loft of an unused icehouse, and later lived in an abandoned chicken coop.  His parents and teachers actively discouraged him from art, but he kept creating it any way he could.  He would collect scrap paper, and use a burned match and saliva to draw.  The people and animals he created from cast-off cardboard became his friends.  His nephew, Cort Conley, loved to watch him draw.  When Cort went to art school, he showed one of his teachers his Uncle Jimmy’s work.  The professor was so excited, he drove to Boise, Idaho to meet James, and later organized an exhibit in Portland, Oregon.  Other exhibits and sales followed, and when James Castle died, he left behind over 15,000 pieces of art.  An author’s note explains how Allen Say came to write this book after being asked by his friend Cort to create a portrait of his uncle.  64 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  A sad but fascinating story of a man who was pretty much treated like trash by everyone who knew him, including his own family, yet continued to create art whenever and wherever he could.  Much of Allen Say’s art is done in the style of Castle’s, and may very well be considered for a Caldecott.

Cons:  I wasn’t sure if the illustrations were done by Castle, or by Say in Castle’s style.  If they were the originals, some captions would have been helpful; if they weren’t, I would have liked to see some of the originals at the end of the book.

If you’d like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.