Somewhere between childhood and adulthood, I forgot how to dream for my life. It was in between those “you can do anything you put your mind to” platitudes from my mother, to “you’ll never make any money if you get a degree in art” realities — also from my mother. As a good child, I believed everything people would say about my potential. If I expressed interest in writing or journalism, they would scoff at me that it was “too hard” for me; if it was acting or dancing, it was “too competitive.” Clearly it was confusing and sent me into an adolescent identity crisis. Who could I be if I couldn’t be who I was?
Now, as a grown up and a mother, I realize that in order to live our truth…we must follow our curiosity. We must embrace our curiosity. We must be allowed to explore. To get things wrong. To find out how we individually interpret the world around us. That will help us make the world a better place.
Thankfully, the way has been paved before us by millions of amazing people who refused to internalize the negative messages about their dreams. People who were so into what they were doing that nothing else mattered except that one thing. Who knew that what their heart was saying was the way without someone’s expectations of them.
Here are stories of 20 people who made their own way and changed not only their lives but ours. 20 stories of people who followed their curiously, followed their love, and led the way for us to be a better society. These 20 biography books for kids can help your kids dream big.
20 of the Best Biography Books for Kids
The Story of Harriet Tubman by Christine Platt
Before she became known for her fight to free people from enslavement, she was a little girl who was sad to see her family be separated. Tubman is going to be a key person in most kids’ history classes — so this book also gives a timeline of her life, with age appropriate discussion questions. And if you love this, the series also has Barack Obama, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Benjamin Franklin biographies, and more.
Six Dots: A Story of Young Louis Braille by Jen Bryant and Boris Kulikov
This picture book biography tells the story of how Louis Braille lost his sight and invented an alphabet. Young Braille wanted nothing more than to be able to read after an accident causes him to lose his eyesight. His invention gave blind kids all over the world a new way to navigate a world that wasn’t made for them. This book is not only inspiring, it shows children that everyone is capable of doing good things.
Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau by Jennifer Berne and Éric Puybaret
Once there was a boy named Jacques. He loved to explore the oceans. This whimsical and poetic biography of Jacques Cousteau will inspire kids to follow their explorer natures, as well as help them realize that every person who has made history started as a kid with curiosity.
Elizabeth Leads the Way: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Right to Vote by Tanya Lee Stone and Rebecca Gibbon
From a young age, Elizabeth understood that things weren’t equal in her life. How could only a few people have the right to vote? Voting is the foundation of our democracy. So she went to college, gathered like-minded friends, and made their statements, not stopping until women in the United States won the Right to Vote. She was a girl who saw a problem, and grew up to find the solution.
Turning Pages: My Life Story by Sonya Sotomayor and Lulu Delacre
The first Latina on the Supreme Court, Sonya Sotomayor recollects her life and the steps that brought her there. For her, it was books. Books helped her cope with difficulties in her life, connect with her roots, and helped her see that her future was full of possibilities. In her autobiography, Sotomayor encourages kids everywhere to read, dream, and puzzle for themselves.
Malala’s Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai and Kera Ascoet
As a girl, Malala wished for a magic pencil. A tool she could use to make everyone happy. To make the world around her a little brighter. As she got older she realized that even if she didn’t have a magic pencil, she could still work hard to make the world a better place. Told in a way that’s appropriate to children, we learn about the struggles that Malala faced to follow her dreams and how even then she held onto a hope for a better future for herself and her friends.
Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People by Monica Brown and Julie Paschkis
Sometimes people create with paint, but for a little boy in a city in Chile, words were better. Pablo wrote poems about all the things he loved. Things he found in nature, things his friends made, and the things he found at the marketplace. He wrote about the people of Chile, their struggles and passions. It all started with a little boy who loved to paint with words.
Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music by Margarita Engle and Rafael López
Millo Castro Zaldarriaga dreamed of drumming. However, girls weren’t allowed to drum on her little island. She dreamed of pounding tall congas and tapping small bongós. One day, she decided to follow her dream — what happened next when her bright music was heard was magic: people dancing and singing and deciding that boys and girls can make music. Showing that both boys and girls can be free to drum and dream, Millo’s story is an inspiration for children everywhere.
The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles and George Ford
Ruby was just a normal 6-year-old until she was chosen to be the first Black person to be enrolled in an all white elementary school. A lot of people didn’t like that idea and said some mean and threatening things. Ruby did what she was told to do, and went to school anyway. How does a little girl change the world? By being brave in the face of racism and injustice.
A Voice Named Aretha by Katheryn Russel-Brown and Laura Freeman
How did a quiet and shy girl from Detroit become the Queen of Soul and the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? She stayed true to herself and her ideals by refusing to play for segregated audiences and never forgetting her roots. She stood up for what was right. Aretha Franklin proved that with passion, perseverance, and R-E-S-P-E-C-T, you can do anything.
Counting the Stars: The Story of Katherine Johnson, NASA Mathematician by Lesa Cline-Ransome and Raúl Colón
When NASA used mathematicians called “human computers,” one woman stood out among them all. Katherine Johnson was integral in getting John Glen around the world, helping men walk on the moon, and getting Apollo 13 home safely. This book is for girls who love numbers — who don’t let problems stand in the way from the work.
Vincent Can’t Sleep by Barb Rosenstock and Mary Grandpre
Vincent Can’t Sleep is the story of how one of the most beloved and creative artists found his inspiration. When Vincent Van Gogh couldn’t sleep, he’d walk during the night, giving him the inspiration for his famous painting Starry Night. With lovely poetic writing, it tells kids to follow their passion, even if they don’t see the return in their lifetime. (Maybe wait to walk outside at night alone until after they’ve grown up, though.)
Magic Ramen by Andrea Wang and Kana Urbanowicz
“Peace follows a full stomach,” thought Momofuko Ando while working in his lab to find a quick, easy, and tasty way of making ramen soup. He wanted to help those in the long daily lines for soup after WWII. This is the story of one man, his commitment to his cause, and the world’s most popular “easy soup.”
Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills by Renée Watson and Christian Robinson
Florence was a little girl who loved to sing. She also loved her parents, who were formerly enslaved. So when her beautiful singing and dancing inspired patrons and playwrights alike, she knew that she wouldn’t be happy without standing up to the injustice that she saw daily.
I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy and Elizabeth Baddeley
“Disagreeing does not make you disagreeable” was something that young Ruth Bader Ginsberg had to learn. This book is the first picture book of Ginsberg’s life. Kids get to see how one girl who stood up for what she believed and became the most beloved Supreme Court justice.
Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mysteries of the Cosmos by Stephanie Roth Sisson
“The Earth and every living thing are made of star stuff.” —Carl Sagan. As a boy, Carl Sagan loved learning about the stars. His trip to the 1939 World’s Fair opened up the universe to Carl. A boy who was captured by the wonder of the cosmos became a man who would launch satellites and teach the world about the stars.
Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah by Laurie Ann Thompson and Sean Qualls
Sometimes being told you can’t do a thing gives you all the incentive to do it more, especially if EVERYONE thinks you can’t. Emmanuel Ofosu Yepoah only had one leg — and this is the true story of how he biked across the entire country of Ghana (almost 400 miles!) and went on change the way many people in his country thought about people with disabilities.
She Loved Baseball: The Effa Manley Story by Audrey Vernick and Don Tate
Effa Manley loved baseball. She loved to go Yankee Stadium and see Babe Ruth swing for the fences. Soon she became her own hero by becoming the manager and owner of the Newark Eagles. Effa was the first (and only) woman inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame, because of her work with the Eagles. From a girl growing up in Philly to a Hall of Famer, Manley shows us how to swing for the fences.
Jimi Sounds Like a Rainbow: A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix by Gary Golio and Javaka Steptoe
Can someone paint pictures with sound? Jimi was a normal kid who loved to paint and listen to music. This is the story of a kid who interpreted the world in his own unique way, and over time learned how to weave music and imagery to become one of the most influential people in the world.
The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read by Rita Lorraine Hubbard and Oge Mora
Mary Walker was born into slavery. She had her first child at the age of 20, lived through a Civil War and two World Wars, and worked many many jobs. Finally, at the young age of 116, Mary Walker learned how to read, proving that it is never too late to follow your dreams and also recognize how incredible life can be.