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.
These reviews are submitted by members of the International Literacy Association's Children's Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG).