It used to be really rare that I came across iconic women’s biographies for kids. Sometimes I’d look for my own interest, sometimes children were requesting certain people, but there wasn’t much to offer. That’s changing now, slowly. I work in a library and am on the (literal) receiving end of shiny new children’s titles, so I’ve been noticing a glorious influx of biographies about historic women aimed at junior readers. It’s really inspiring to see all these badass stories coming out in gorgeous picture book form; the contributions featured range from music and art to science and activism. There are so many to choose from right now, and more just keep coming!
Here’s a list of some of my favorite of this recent trend, featuring current and historic feminist icons in locales as varied as space, Rome, and the inner sanctum of the U.S. Supreme Court.
I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy and Elizabeth Baddeley
I think most of us know about RBG, so it’s a safe bet to start with I Dissent on our tour of women’s biographical picture books. Currently in her 80s, Ginsburg grew up in a time when women were told to aspire solely to become wives and mothers. Instead, she fought to attend law school and eventually became a judge on the U.S. Supreme Court. But more even than just a simple biography, this book has an important role in teaching children about the concept of dissenting. It clarifies that people can disagree, resist and object with others while maintaining a respectful and insightful voice.
Counting on Katherine by Helaine Becker and Dow Phumiruk
Katherine Johnson was an African American mathematician who worked for NASA and saved the lives of the astronauts involved in the heroic Apollo 13 mission. As a child, she exhibited signs of genius—even skipping three grades in elementary school! Counting on Katherine gives the reader a detailed but accessible peek into Johnson’s incredible story, made famous recently through the nonfiction book turned Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures.
I Am Sacagawea by Brad Meltzer and Christopher Eliopoulos
Part of the “Ordinary People Change the World” series, it tells the story of Sacagawea, the only female member of the Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery. An expedition that traveled the United States in the early 1800s, she was the sole Native American on the team. She had the essential role of translator between the explorers and members of the Shoshone tribe—all this with a baby on her back. C’mon, that’s impressive as hell, I sometimes don’t feel like walking three blocks to the grocery store with nothing on my back.
Malala’s Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai and Kerascoet
Authored by Malala herself, this introduction to her life explores dark themes with a light but not condescending tone. As a child in Pakistan, Malala wished for a magic pencil that would allow her to create a better world—erasing grime and adding happiness. Malala’s Magic Pencil embodies the whimsical, optimistic worldview that helped her stay strong in the face of horrible events.
Bloom: A Story of Fashion Designer Elsa Schiaparelli By Kyo MaClear and Julie Morstad
Elsa, as a young girl growing up in Rome, was always told by her mother that she was ugly. She loves the smells, sounds and sights of her neighborhood and wonders: “What makes something beautiful?” Imagination piqued, Elsa becomes more artistic and at age 37 opens her own shop in Paris. Successful, she begins developing clothing that incorporate strange materials and odd shapes (a lobster dress, for one). An almost painfully gorgeous book combined with Maclear’s affectionate storytelling.
Josephine:The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker by Patricia Hruby Powell and Christian Robinson
Josephine is less traditional in terms of the picture book form, but an incredible work of art from both Powell and Robinson: images are vibrant and the words jump of the page through vivid, poetic storytelling. Baker worked as a dancer in segregated clubs, but was barred from using the front door. Eventually she left the U.S. for France, where she was embraced for her skills and creativity. The book is definitely one to share with children and then discuss more in depth, as racial inequality is not shied away from here. Brilliant.
Frida Kahlo and Her Animalitos by Monica Brown and John Parra
It’s not the most accurate book about Kahlo that you’ll find out there (pets she had as adults are presented alongside illustrations of her as a child). Still, a creative way of introducing young children to an iconic artist. The art is adorable and each animal is described in a way that connects Kahlo’s personality to their characteristics. Plus: any book with an illustration of a young Frida next to a pet fawn named Granizo is A-OK with me.
Gloria’s Voice: The Story of Gloria Steinem—Feminist, Activist, Leader by Aura Lewis
Though the writing is a bit simplistic, this is an accessible and beautifully illustrated primer for tiny future feminists. It covers Stein’s childhood through her early career, focusing on her founding of Ms. magazine (but obviously leaving out her undercover Playboy bunny period).
This is seriously just the tiniest taste of what is out there right now in terms of women’s biographies for kids. Ada Lovelace, Mary Shelley, Sojourner Truth, and Jane Austen all have newish picture books sitting on shelves in local bookstores and libraries. Read these for your own curiosity or share them with a small, interested friend or loved one. Let’s make sure that future generations know who trailblazed the way for them!