The inspiring biographies reviewed in this column allow readers to share in the lives of inventors, scientists, adventurers, freedom fighters, and other individuals who followed their dreams and made a difference in our world—and continue to do so today— through their inventions, research, explorations, civil right activism, and diverse careers.
Beulah Has a Hunch!: Inside the Colorful Mind of Master Inventor Beulah Louise Henry. Katie Mazeika. (2023). Beach Lane.
Katie Mazeika gives the reader a look into the unique mind of Beulah Louise Henry (1887-1973), the American who became known as “Lady Edison.” As a child, when she saw a problem, Beulah came up with a “hunch,” an idea for a new invention to solve it. She had hyperphantasia, the seeing of extreme details of things in one’s mind. This unusual ability helped her discover innovative solutions. She also had synesthesia, what she called “color hearing,” with words, numbers, and music notes appearing in different colors in her mind. Beulah became one of America’s most prolific inventors, holding patents for an array of things from fashionable Snappon parasols to cuddly stuffed animals to factory machinery, and was an astute businesswoman. Back matter for this inspiring biography complemented by colorful digital illustrations includes an extensive “More on Beulah Louise Henry” section, a timeline of a few of her inventions with patent drawings, and sources. (Gr 3-5)
The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars Are Made Of. Kirsten W. Larson. Illus. by Katherine Roy. (2023). Chronicle.
Kirsten W. Larson’s lyrical side-by-side narratives and Katherine Roy’s exquisite artwork, rendered in pencil and walnut ink with added digital color, depict the birth of a star and the life story of British-born Cecilia Payne (1900-1979) from growing up in the country curious about everything in nature, to graduating from Cambridge with a degree in physics, to coming to America and earning a Ph.D. in astronomy for her discovery that stars are mostly hydrogen and helium. Her solving of the mystery of what stars are made of led to more discoveries about stars at Harvard and recognition for her lifetime of excellence in astronomy research. Back matter includes further information on Cecilia Payne and the birth of a star, a timeline, and a bibliography. (Gr 3 Up)
Holding Her Own: The Exceptional Life of Jackie Ormes. Traci N. Todd. Illus. by Shannon Wright. (2023). Orchard.
Cartoonist Shannon Wright’s illustrations for this engaging picture book biography of Jackie Ormes (1911-1985), the first Black woman cartoonist to be nationally syndicated in the United States, are bold and rich with color, like Jackie herself. Jackie Ormes wore multiple hats including those of a journalist, philanthropist, fashionista, and activist. After getting her dream job of writing for the Black newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier, and having her stories published in a column every Saturday, she began creating a comic strip about a Black Mississippi girl who confronts prejudice and fear in New York. Marrying and living in post-World War II Chicago, Jackie continued her civil right activism with fund-raising activities and support of Black people by sharing the inequalities they faced through her artwork, particularly a comic strip featuring a little girl named Patty-Jo. Back matter includes an extensive author’s note with photographs of Jackie Ormes and reproduction of several of her cartoons, an illustrator’s note, and a selected bibliography. (Gr 3-5)
The Indestructible Tom Crean: Heroic Explorer of the Antarctic. Jennifer Thermes. (2023). Viking.
Jennifer Thermes presents the story of Irish-born Tom Crean (1877-1938) with an accessible text that details seaman Crean’s adventures as a crewmember on three expeditions during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration: the Discovery (1901-1904) under Captain Falcon Scott with the goal to explore Antarctica and make scientific discoveries; the Terra Nova (1910-1913) with the goal to be the first to reach the South Pole (Norwegian Roald Amundsen won the race; some of Scott’s crew also reached the pole, but Scott did not survive), and the Endurance (1914-1917) under Captain Ernest Shackleton with the goal of crossing the entire continent of Antarctica. Crean became a leader who motivated others with his courage and perseverance as they face hardships and tragedies. Captivating double-spread illustrations featuring panoramic views of the icy landscape, maps, and panels depicting the explorers’ activities enhance the story of Crean’s heroic deeds and adventures. The front endpaper features a map and facts about Antarctica; the back endpaper has portraits of animals of Antarctic. Back matter includes an afterword, a timeline, and sources. (Gr 3-5)
Jerry Changed the Game!: How Engineer Jerry Lawson Revolutionized Video Games Forever. Don Tate. Illus. by Cherise Harris. (2023). Paula Wiseman.
This engaging picture book tells the life story of African American Gerald Anderson (Jerry) Lawson (1940-2011). As a boy growing up in Queens, New York, Jerry was obsessed with taking apart and playing with gadget-y things. As an adult, he became an engineer at Fairfield Semiconductor in Silicon Valley, in northern California. In 1976, he developed a home video game console that made it possible for players to switch out cartridges, an invention that revolutionized video gaming. He went on to found Video-Soft, Inc., the first African American video game company in the country. Video gamers everywhere have Jerry Lawson to thank for the accessibility of hundreds of games with the push of a button. Back matter includes an author’s note, an illustrator’s note, a timeline of the arcade and video game industry, a glossary, and a bibliography. (PreK Up)
Ketanji Brown Jackson: A Justice for All. Tami Charles. Illus. by Jemma Skidmore. (2023). Simon & Schuster.
On February 25, 2022, as he nominated Ketanji Brown Jackson to serve as an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, President Joseph Biden said, “For too long, our government, our courts haven’t looked like America. . . . It’s time that we have a Court that reflects the full talents and greatness of our nation. . . .” With Tami Charles’s poetic words and Jemma Skidmore’s colorful, expressive illustrations rendered in gouache and wax pencil, this inspiring biography tells the story of the journey of “historymaker, barrier breaker” Justice Jackson (b. 1970) becoming the first Black woman to serve as an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. The back matter includes an author’s note, a timeline, an “Important People and History in the Art” section, and a bibliography. (Gr 3 Up)
The Lobster Lady. Alexandra S. D. Hinrichs. Illus. by Jamie Hogan. (2023). Charlesbridge.
This picture book biography of Virginia Oliver (b. 1920) is the story of the remarkable woman from Maine known as “The Lobster Lady,” who has been lobstering since the age of eight—and may be the oldest lobsterer in the world. Alexandra S. D. Hinrichs’s engaging text and Jamie Hogan’s colorful illustrations, done in chalk pastel on sanded paper, chronicle a day in Virginia’s life aboard the Virginia lobstering with Max, her son. The book also spotlights Virginia’s memories of growing up on The Neck, her family’s small island off St. Andrew’s Island, but having to stay with her aunts and grandfather on the mainland in Rockland, Maine, during school months and her adult life working at various unsatisfying jobs before deciding to work with her lobsterman husband. The fiercely independent Virginia Oliver still takes to the sea on her boat and has no plans to stop lobstering. Back matter includes a “Meet Virginia” section with additional biographical information, a “Changes and Challenges” note on the lobstering industry and community in Maine, Virginia’s simple recipes for a lobster roll and a bean supper, and sources. (PreK-Gr 2)
Love Is in the Air: The Story of Aviation Pioneer Nancy Harkness Love. Dee Romito. Illus. by Vivian Mineker. (2023). Aladdin.
As a child, Nancy loved adventure and believed that girls could do anything they dreamed of. Nancy fell in love with flying after taking her first plane ride with a barnstormer pilot at the age of 16. She then attended aviation school and earned her private pilot’s license. During World War II, she served as a pilot in the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS), transferring planes from factories to military bases. She later was part of the new Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). Vivian Mineker adds colorful digital illustrations to this picture book biography of Nancy Harness Love (1914-1976). Back matter includes an author’s note with additional information about Love and her experiences as an aviation pioneer who paved the way for the female pilots who came after her, photographs, and sources. (PreK Up)
Love Is Loud: How Diane Nash Led the Civil Rights Movement. Sandra Neil Wallace. Illus. by Bryan Collier. (2023). Paula Wiseman.
Diane Nash grew up in Chicago with parents who wanted her to know only love. She faced racism head on for the first time when she moved to Nashville, Tennessee, to attend Fisk University. Experiencing indignation at the unfair treatment of Black people, she was determined to work to end segregation with love. Diane participated in sit-ins, marches, and Freedom Rides. She became a prominent leader in the Civil Rights Movement, making changes with courage and love. “Love is fierce. Love is strong. Love is loud!” Sandra Neil Wallace’s use of powerful language with words such as DEFIANT, DETRMINED, COMPASSIONATE, and BRAVE highlighted in the moving text and Bryan Collier’s stunning watercolor-and-collage illustrations make this a beautifully crafted picture book biography of Diane Nash (b. 1938), who showed that there are “JUST and PEACEFUL, POWERFUL ways to create change.” Back matter includes an author’s note, an illustrator’s note, a timeline, video interviews, books for young readers, quote sources, and a selected bibliography. (PreK Up)
Never Give Up: Dr. Kati Karikó and the Race for the Future of Vaccines. Debbie Dadey. Illus. by Juliana Oakley. (2023). Millbrook.
Never Give Up tells the inspiring story of Dr. Kati Karikó (b. 1955), the joint recipient of the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, who grew up on a farm in Hungary and at an early age decided she wanted to become a scientist. Earning a Ph.D. in biochemistry, Dr. Karikó’s research focused on messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA), and after coming to the U.S. in 1985, she continued to work on its use in helping the body fight illnesses in spite of the lack of support of colleagues and research funding. In 1997, she began working with immunologist Dr. Drew Weissman to find a way to make mRNA “teach cells to create a specific virus protein.” The breakthrough came in 2005 with their publication of a paper on how mRNA could be used to make vaccines. This modified mRNA technology was used in producing the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine— just what the world needed as a global pandemic was declared in 2020. Back matter includes a timeline, information on making vaccines, an author’s note, a glossary, source notes, and resources. (Gr 3 Up)
Lynette Smith is a member of the Contributing Faculty for Walden University’s Richard W. Riley College of Education and Leadership.
Nancy Brashear and Carolyn Angus
This column features books that introduce readers to stories about people, places, and events from the distant past to recent times, including some stories that young people will not encounter in their textbooks. The books are notable for presenting history from interesting points of view and perspectives in engaging formats and for encouraging contemplation and conversation about how the past is shaping the history that is being made now and will be made in the future.
America Redux: Visual Stories from Our Dynamic History. Ariel Aberg-Riger. (2023). Balzer + Bray.
America Redux offers readers a brilliant and completely entrancing new way of seeing American history through visual storytelling. In 21 nonlinear chapters (each introduced with a catchy title and quotation) filled with mixed-media collages created with archival photographs, maps, graphic images, and excerpts from documents and a lively text presented in handwritten typeface, Ariel Aberg-Riger immerses readers in an exploration of thematic stories that have shaped our sense of the history of America for centuries, including what is not in our textbooks. For example, the first chapter, “In the Good Old Days,” covers how The United Daughters of the Confederacy (formed in 1894) became an “army of influence” that got textbooks banned and teachers fired, affecting the way generations of children learned about American history into the 1970s, and also notes the struggle to control the historical narrative that continues today. America Redux ends on a thought-provoking note: “We can’t change the past. But we can live in relationship with it in a way that informs and energizes our present.” Back matter includes acknowledgments, image sources, a selected bibliography, and an index. (Gr 9-12)
Ancestory: The Mystery and Majesty of Ancient Cave Art. Hannah Salyer. (2023). Clarion.
Hannah Salyer introduces young readers to cave art, “the ancient rock paintings, drawings, and etchings” that are time capsules telling the stories of our ancient past. With a spare informative text and stunning double-spread artwork (including a dramatic double gatefold) created using ceramic sculpture, photography, colored pencil, charcoal, pigment, and digital media, she tells the story of how our ancient ancestors produced works of art using pigments made from minerals and handmade tools to draw and etch on stone. Today, archaeologists continue to study the details of the stories being told in ancient cave art found all over the world and are working with Indigenous people from communities with connections to these ancient sites that “hold pieces of our history on the planet.” Back matter includes a world map of rock art sites that have been rediscovered, “A Story Within a Story” about the wall paintings in the Lascaux Caves rediscovered in the south of France in 1940, an author’s note, a glossary, a time line, and resources for further reading and investigation. (Gr 3 Up)
Last Flight. Kristen Mai Giang. Illus. by Dow Phumiruk. (2023). Levine Querido.
This informational picture book, presented from the viewpoint of an eight-year-old girl, is based on author Kristen Mai Giang’s constructed memories from family interviews and other sources of leaving on the last commercial flight out of Saigon, a rescue mission carrying more than 400 people on April 24, 1975, just six days before Saigon surrendered to the North Vietnamese Army. When her family disembarks in the United States, the girl stands atop the steps looking down at the tarmac, frozen in place until she draws courage from remembering how she and her mom navigated busy Saigon streets. Sharing Ma and Ba’s wisdom with her younger sister, she says, “Don’t be afraid. Just walk. Don’t stop,” and they enter their new world. Dow Phumiruk’s mixed-media illustrations capture the emotions and actions of the people portrayed as they make their flight from the war-torn country to begin a new life. Back matter includes a photograph of Giang’s family taken shortly after they arrived in the U. S., an author’s note, flight facts, and a bibliography. (PreK Up)
A Long Time Coming: A Lyrical Biography of Race in America from Ona Judge to Barack Obama. Ray Anthony Shepard. Illus. by R. Gregory Christie. (2023). Calkins Creek.
In this collective biography of race in America, organized in three parts: 1773-1913 Enslavement and Emancipation, 1862-1968 Freedom and Justice, and 1961-2008 The Promise of America, Ray Anthony Shepard’s story-poems focus on significant events in the lives of six Black Americans who heroically faced the challenges of their times to fight for freedom and justice: Ona Judge, Fredrick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, Martin Luther King Jr., and Barack Obama. In the epilogue, Shepard’s poem “The Long Time,” in which each stanza ends with “It was a long time coming,” celebrates the legacy of each of these Black leaders with verses—dated from 1796 for Ona Judge to 2009 for Barack Obama—and two additional stanzas, Today and Tomorrow. The extensive back matter of this informative and accessible biography-in-verse, which is complemented by R. Gregory Christie’s black-and-white artwork done in gouache and India ink, includes a timeline, further reading, a bibliography, source notes, and an index. (Gr 6 Up)
Pictured Worlds: Masterpieces of Children’s Book Art by 101 Essential Illustrators from Around the World. Leonard S. Marcus. (2023). Abrams.
In this beautifully designed volume celebrating the history of the illustrated picture book, Leonard S. Marcus features 101 illustrators from around the world who have made significant contributions to the art of children’s book creation. Each four-page entry includes a photograph, biography, and career overview of the artist and a profile of one of their books with an “about the book” note, photographs of illustrations from the book, and its publication history. About one-third of the books were originally published in the U. S. Marcus’s presentation of the illustrators in alphabetical order—from Akaba Suekichi (born 1910, Tokyo, Japan; died 1990, Tokyo, Japan) to Lisbeth Zwerger (born 1954, Vienna, Austria)—effectively keeps the focus on artistic innovations in children’s books. Back matter includes acknowledgments, a chronology of the featured books, source notes, and image credits. Pictured World is a 431 page treasure-trove of a reference about children’s book art. Readers will find themselves revisiting favorites from their own childhood experiences with books and also discover illustrators whose books they want to explore. (Adult)
The Plot to Kill a Queen. Deborah Hopkinson. (2023). Scholastic.
In Deborah Hopkinson’s spy story set in 1582 presented as a play in three acts, 13-year-old lutest Emilia Bassano sneaks out in boy’s clothing to see a production because she is writing a play of her own for a contest. On the way to the theater, Emelia is robbed of her coins right before she overhears part of a conversation by two men: “kill the imposter” and “smuggled letters in and out of Sheffield.” Running into 18-year-old Will Shakespeare, who also traveled to the play to study writing craft, she agrees to his sneaking her into the attic to view the play. After Emilia reports what she has heard to her guardian, Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, he dispatches her to Sheffield Castle on a secret mission as a court musician to locate the spies of Mary, Queen of Scots, who is imprisoned there, and foil the plot to kill her cousin, Queen Elizabeth, to regain the throne. A cast, in order of appearance, is listed in the front of the book and asides to readers about theatrical productions (playbill, prologue, curtain call) and insets of an historical nature (photographs, maps, and diagrams) are interspersed throughout the story. The back matter includes historical notes, a timeline of actual events, Emilia’s one-act play “The Princess Saves the Cakes” (with production permission), acknowledgments, illustration credits, and an “about the author” note. (Gr 6-8)
Small Shoes, Great Strides: How Three Brave Girls Opened Doors to School Equality. Vaunda Micheaux Nelson. Illus. by Alex Bostic. (2023). Carolrhoda.
On November 10, 1960, six-year-olds Leona Tate, Tessie Prevost, and Gail Etienne stepped into history when, escorted by U. S. Marshals past a mob of protestors, they walked into McDonogh No. 19 Public School in New Orleans. Vaunda Micheaux Nelson tells this little-known story of the Civil Rights Movement from the points of view of the three first-graders who were the first black children to enter a previously all-white public school in Louisiana. (Ten minutes later, Ruby Bridges entered William Frantz Elementary School across town.) Alec Bostic’s exquisite artwork features expressive portraits of the courageous girls who “opened doors to school equality.” Back matter includes “After McDonogh 19: ‘House of Horror’—Thomas J. Semmes Elementary” about the racist mistreatment the girls faced after a transfer to this school for third grade; more about school desegregation in New Orleans; a photograph and information on Norman Rockwell’s 1964 painting The Problem We All Live With, published to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling; a “More About the McDonogh Three” section with photos; information on the U. S. Marshals Service; an author’s note; a glossary; websites; a selected bibliography; and a page of quotes and captioned photographs. (Gr 3 Up)
Stars of the Night: The Courageous Children of the Czech Kindertransport. Caren Stelson. Illus. by Selina Alko. (2023). Carolrhoda.
Caren Stelson begins this true story in 1938 with young Jewish children living in Prague when, as Hitler’s antisemitic campaign is sweeping through Europe, their parents meet with a man to arrange for them to join the Czech Kindertransport. In March 1939, as German soldiers march into the city, their parents whisper a final goodbye, “Let the stars of the night and the sun of the day be the messenger of our thoughts and love,” and the children board a train to begin their long journey to safety in England. Returning to Prague at the end of the war, most of the Czech Kindertransport children discovered their parents had perished during the Holocaust. Fifty years pass before the survivors learn the name of the man who had arranged for the rescue of 669 Jewish children from Czechoslovakia: Nicholas Winton. Five children, identified by different colored clothing, are followed throughout the book in Selina Alko’s evocative mixed-media illustrations. Back matter features information about the Kindertransport Movement, a timeline, “Winton’s Children” (the five children highlighted in the book), “Stars in Another Night: the Yad Vashem’s Children’s Memorial” in Jerusalem, a note on the needs of refugee children in the world today, author’s and illustrator’s notes, source notes, a selected bibliography, and recommendations for further reading. (Gr 3 Up)
Windrush Child: The Tale of a Caribbean Child Who Faced a New Horizon. John Agard. Illus. by Sophie Bass. (2023). Candlewick.
John Agard’s lyrical poem tells the story of the journey of a young Caribbean boy and his parents as they leave their island family to move to England aboard the ship Empire Windrush. “Behind you / Windrush child / palm trees wave goodbye.” During the long journey, the boy worries about the future— “… doors closing and opening // will things turn out right?” Once in London, he shares his Windrush adventure in a letter to his grandmother, who had told him “you’re stepping into history / bringing your Caribbean eye / to another horizon.” The final stanza ends with the boy being welcomed by new friends “… in a mind-opening / meeting of snow and sun.” Sophie Bass’s evocative gouache-and-pen illustrations on single- and double-spread pages contain strong figures and vivid colors that reinforce the emotions of leaving one’s past life to embrace a new home. Back matter includes a note from the author about the Windrush Generation, who relocated from the Caribbean to Britain between 1948 and 1971, and short author and illustrator biographies. (PreK-Gr 2)
Nancy Brashear is Professor Emeritus of English at Azusa Pacific University, in Azusa, California. Carolyn Angus is former Director of the George G. Stone Center for Children’s Books, Claremont Graduate University, in Claremont, California.
These reviews are submitted by members of the International Literacy Association's Children's Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG).