I loved Little Women for many reasons, but I think there was a magic there knowing that Jo really was going to make it: she was going to grow up and write her book, and it would sell, and she would write more books. In the Betsy-Tacy books, Maud Hart Lovelace went even more into the nitty-gritty of the writer’s process: Betsy would send her stories and poems off with self-addressed, stamped envelopes on a monthly rotation that she tracked in a notebook, a process that would-be authors used for decades before email and spreadsheets. I loved to read about the admin as much as the attic-dreaming.
I think that’s why I find myself to be so drawn to these picture book biographies of various authors. They take many different approaches: some are paragraphs of facts, but some are like poems that tell one element of an author’s life that illuminates the rest. There’s admin and there’s attic-dreaming.
These books, I think, can be a way to make creativity accessible to small children. We talk a lot about representation in children’s books, and STEM careers can sometimes seem to get the flashier picture books, but I like that these picture books show children that they can use their words to describe their inner and outer worlds.
A note about diversity: I have spent a lot of time in the last few months reading picture book biographies of authors and I was shocked at the lack of books written by people of color. I was able to find books written about authors of color, but only two written by authors of color. While I’m talking about the ways these books can open up a world for young authors, I have to talk about how kids need to see people who look like them writing books in the present day, too.
A Book, Too, Can Be a Star by Charlotte Jones Voiklis and Jennifer Adams, illustrated by Adelina Lirius
This is a lovely biography of Madeline L’Engle written by one of her granddaughters, along with Jennifer Adams of BabyLit fame. The title is taken from a quote from L’Engle’s best known book, A Wrinkle in Time, and while there are stars throughout the book — Madeline wanted to write books that shone light into a dark universe — my favorite thread through the book is the idea of L’Engle writing books that ask questions and answer them.
A Boy Called Dickens by Deborah Hopkins, illustrated by John Hendrix
This is one of my favorite author bios that I’ve come across. The narrator literally takes the reader by the hand and drags them around London to follow Dickens through his young life. Charles Dickens had a difficult childhood, and his cold, dreary existence isn’t ignored here, but the book keeps a merry pace that balances misery and humor in a way that doesn’t feel too far removed from Dickens’s own writing. John Hendrix’s illustrations, too, display a gritty old city that still seems like someplace to be explored.
Ode to an Onion: Pablo Neruda & His Muse by Alexandria Giardino, illustrated by Felicita Sala
I think this book does such a neat trick with its point of view. It’s told in the third person, but we’re firmly in Neruda’s head, even in the illustrations. Neruda is sad at the book’s opening, but he goes off to find his muse and cheer himself up in her garden. It’s a tiny slice-of-life story that shows the reader something big about Neruda’s life.
Papa is a Poet: A Story About Robert Frost by Natalie Bober, illustrated by Ammi-Joan Paquette
I think sometimes picture book biographies struggle to find a way to make the subject accessible to the young readers, and Papa is a Poet found a perfect solution. The story of Robert Frost is told by his young daughter as they arrive back in America. Frost has just found an unauthorized collection of his poems being sold at a newsstand, and while he goes off to find the publisher, Lesley tells the story of their family life.
Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton written and illustrated by Don Tate
I recently came across one of George Moses Horton’s poems, his first ever published, but this picture book biography was what filled me in on his, well, remarkable story. Horton was the first enslaved person to publish a poem, and he eventually earned enough from his book sales that he could afford to buy his own freedom, though his master refused to make the sale. It’s a heartbreaking, hopeful story.
It Began with a Page: How Gyo Fujikawa Drew the Way by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Julie Morstad
My favorite picture book biographies open like a poem, and It Began with a Page does exactly that: “It began with a page, bright and beckoning.” It goes on to tell the story of Fujikawa’s immigrant family and her isolated childhood. But Gyo’s loneliness is tempered by her drawings, and Julie Morstad’s illustrations surround Gyo and keep her company throughout her life. The book touches on Fujikawa’s family’s internment and, of course, the publication of Fujikawa’s groundbreaking book, Babies, one of the first children’s books in the U.S. to portray a diverse cast of characters.
Balderdash!: John Newbery and the Boisterous Birth of Children’s Books by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter
I couldn’t make a list of picture book author biographies without including this one about the man who revolutionized children’s books. Before John Newbery, children’s books were mostly moralizing stories with no real interest for kids. But Newbery thought that children should enjoy reading (imagine that!) and this picture book biography is definitely something Newbery would approve of. It’s a bouncy, fun story about a changing publishing world.
16 Words: William Carlos Williams & “The Red Wheelbarrow” by Lisa Rogers, illustrated by Chuck Groenink
16 Words starts with an invitation. The first spread is a simple illustration of a window with a question for the reader: “Look out the window. What do you see?” The book immediately jumps from there into William Carlos Williams’s mind, to look out his window. The book takes the reader through Williams’s very normal life and shows all the places he found poetry.
John Ronald’s Dragons: The Story of J.R.R. Tolkien by Caroline McAlister, illustrated by Eliza Wheeler
I love when these bios choose one element of the author’s life that makes the rest of their life make sense, and it’s just delightful that McAlister chose dragons to tell the story of J.R.R. Tolkien’s life. It’s a cozy, gentle biography of a gentle man following a dragon.
The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet are a power couple in the world of author picture book biographies, and The Right Word is one of their best. The book combines straight text prose that tell Peter’s story, but the illustrations include comic book style speech bubbles to expand on the story. Sweet’s illustrations include lists and lists of words, helping the reader understand the overwhelming feeling Peter Roget must have had as he tried to catalog a language.
Want more picture book biographies? Here’s a great diverse list. And here’s a list of picture book bios of awesome ladies. Looking for more nonfiction for little ones? Here’s a list of picture books about creepy-crawlies.