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31 Days, 31 Lists: Day 26 – 2016 Unique Biographies for Kids

31daysDuring the 2016 Boston Globe-Horn Book Colloquium Carol Boston Weatherford and Ekua Holmes spoke together about the art of writing about other people.  During the speech they mentioned how part of their job is to break down “the canonical boundaries of biography.”  Too often kids read the same biographies about the same people over and over again.  The canon, such as it is.  There were a bunch of perfectly good biographies out about those folks this year.  I prefer the more obscure figures and the people who don’t usually get studied.

On that note, here are the folks from 2016 that got some stellar bios.  The ones you probably shouldn’t miss:

 2016 Unique Biographies for Kids

Ada Lovelace, Poet of Science: The First Computer Programmer by Diane Stanley, ill. Jessie Hartland


Ada’s Ideas: The Story of Ada Lovelace, the World’s First Computer Programmer by Fiona Robinson


It’s a twofer!  Ask for one Ada Lovelace biography, get two!  Which one do I like better?  According to my notes  . . . my notes say I liked both of them equally.  We had some in 2015 as well, it occurs to me.  Does that mean we’ll get even more in 2017?  Stranger things have happened.

By the way, I heard the most amusing complaint the other day that Ada gets all the bios for kids and Babbage gets none.  I’ll just let you process that one in your brain yourself.

Anything But Ordinary: The True Story of Adelaide Herman, Queen of Magic by Mara Rockliff, ill. Iacopo Bruno


Lots of reason to love this. Rockliff did a lot of original research to learn about this early female magician and her most magnificent and infamous trick.  Iacopo Brunos’ art just add to the lustre, since he produces gorgeous art and gets very little public appreciation for it.  Luscious.

Are You an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko by David Jacobson, ill. Toshikado Hajiri, translations by Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi


How many other lists can I get this on?  At least one more, I think . . .

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois by Amy Novesky, ill. Isabelle Arsenault


You might remember Cloth Lullaby from such previous lists as 2016 Calde-nots (solely because the illustrator doesn’t reside here).  It’s hard to pinpoint why exactly I like it so much, apart from the art.  Maybe it’s the fact that it shows that art springs from inside you and comes out in all kinds of original, eclectic, interesting ways.

Dorothea’s Eyes by Barb Rosenstock, ill. Gerard DuBois


Photographers do get pic bios, but I’m still holding out for Weegee.  Dorothea Lange will do in a pinch, though.

Esquivel! Space-Age Sound Artist by Susan Wood, ill. Duncan Tonatiuh


I love that I live in a world where a picture biography of a lounge music composer can even exist.

The First Step: How One Girl Put Segregation on Trial by Susan E. Goodman, ill. E.B. Lewis


A biography of a kid!  Once in a while a child will be assigned such a thing.  Ruby Bridges can only be discussed by so many children.  Nice to have some (much earlier) alternatives.

Gabe: A Story of Me, My Dog, and the 1970s by Shelley Gill, ill. Marc Scheff


Technically this is an autobiography and not a biography but the psychedelic, nutty, dog-loving nature of this (which is to say, its awesomeness) compels me to include it.

I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy, ill. Elizabeth Baddeley


The first, I am sure, of many such biographies to exist.

Indian Boyhood: The True Story of a Sioux Upbringing by Charles Eastman, ill. Heidi M. Rasch


A new edition of a title that was released more than a hundred years ago.  Debbie Reese included an earlier republication on her list of Recommended Children’s/YA/Reference/Resource Books, FYI.

The Kid from Diamond Street: The Extraordinary Story of Baseball Legend Edith Houghton by Audrey Vernick, ill. Steven Salerno


Poor sports books.  They just don’t really come out all that often.  Particularly if they’re about women.  This one was fun and light-hearted, something we could all read once in a while.

Martin Luther “Here I Stand” by Geraldine Elschner, translated by Kathryn Bishop


2017 will mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.  If you’ve any kind of an older kid who wants to know more about that, start here.

Mountain Chef: How One Man Lost His Groceries Changed His Plans, and Helped Cook Up the National Park Service by Annette Bay Pimentel, ill. Rich Lo


A rather fascinating story of the Chinese-American chef who worked in what many might consider impossible circumstances.  We do not HAVE a huge number of older Chinese-American biographies on our shelves.  But we have this now, and that is good.

A Poem for Peter: The Story of Ezra Jack Keats and the Creation of The Snowy Day by Andrea Davis Pinkney, ill. Lou Fancher & Steve Johnson


A lovely ode to a lovely man.

Presenting Buffalo Bill: The Man Who Invented the Wild West by Candace Fleming


I still think the Newbery committee needs to seriously consider this book.  Distinguished hardly even covers it.

Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by Javaka Steptoe

Radiant Child

And speaking of major literary awards, oh, Caaaaaaaldecott committee . . .

Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story by Caren Stelson


Nominated for a National Book Award, it’s amazing.  And, very unfortunately, very timely at this precise moment in history.

She Stood for Freedom: The Untold Story of a Civil Rights Hero, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland by Loki Mulholland & Angela Fairwell, ill. Charlotta Janssen


A Civil Rights activist has her story told, and published, by her own children.  And what did YOU get your mom this holiday season, hmmmm?

A Spy Called James: The True Story of James Lafayette, Revolutionary War Double Agent by Anne Rockwell, ill. Floyd Cooper


Basically, you hand this book to the kids currently obsessed with Hamilton.  LOTS of Lafayette for them to enjoy, and a hero worth remembering.

Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness by Donna Janell Bowman, ill. Daniel Minter


I wish I had reviewed this book this year.  I’m not a horsey girl, and even I thik this is an amazing story.  Basically it challenges our ideas of what an animal can and cannot learn while celebrating a pretty fascinating man as well.

Ticktock Banneker’s Clock by Shana Keller, ill. David C. Gardner


When I was a kid I had to memorize a song about Benjamin Banneker.  These kids no one ever seems to study him.  I’m just pleased that there’s a new bio of him out now.  Let’s get more!

What Milly Did by Elise Moser, ill. Scot Ritchie


What did she do?  Basically made it possible for you to recycle your plastic.  You’re welcome.

When Grandma Gatewood Took a Hike by Michelle Houts, ill. Erica Magnus


And in other elderly woman news, Gatewood became famous for hiking more than any other person in the country.  Crazy inspiring story, this.

Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions by Chris Barton, ill. Don Tate


Geez, I loved this book.  I love books that celebrate real inventors and Barton makes the guy sound so approachable.  You’ll love him by the time you get to the end.

The William Hoy Story by Nancy Churnin, ill. Jez Tuya


Not the first Hoy bio I’ve ever seen, but I’m happy we’ve a variety to choose from now.

You Never Heard of Casey Stengel?! by Jonah Winter, ill. Barry Blitt


How crazy is it that this is the first picture book biography of the guy I’ve ever encountered?  Winter has a blast with the subject matter.  I wonder if he’ll ever consider doing one of Yogi Berra . . .


Interested in the other lists of the month? Here’s the schedule so that you can keep checking back:

December 1 – Board Books

December 2 – Board Book Adaptations

December 3 – Nursery Rhymes

December 4 – Picture Book Readalouds

December 5 – Rhyming Picture Books

December 6 – Alphabet Books

December 7 – Funny Picture Books

December 8 – Calde-Nots

December 9 – Picture Book Reprints

December 10 – Math Picture Books

December 11 – Bilingual Books

December 12 – International Imports

December 13 – Books with a Message

December 14 – Fabulous Photography

December 15 – Fairy Tales / Folktales

December 16 – Oddest Books of the Year

December 17 – Older Picture Books

December 18 – Easy Books

December 19 – Early Chapter Books

December 20 – Graphic Novels

December 21 – Poetry

December 22 – Fictionalized Nonfiction

December 23 – American History

December 24 – Science & Nature Books

December 25 – Transcendent Holiday Titles

December 26 – Unique Biographies

December 27 – Nonfiction Picture Books

December 28 – Nonfiction Chapter Books

December 29 – Novel Reprints

December 30 – Novels

December 31 – Picture Books

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. So many interesting books about so many interesting people! Thanks for bringing them to our attention.

  2. AAAUUUGHHHHH I missed the Gershwin book for my own roundup!!!

    On the upside, we live in a world in which a picture book bio of Esquivel AND a picture book bio of the man who invented the Super-Soaker exist.

    (I really enjoyed both, btw.)

    (And thanks for the pointers to Fancy Party Gowns — out mid-Jan — and Step Right Up, both of which sound fascinating!!)

    Happy holidays!