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31 Days, 31 Lists: 2018 Unique Biographies

Precision of Language Alert! What precisely do I mean when I say today’s list consists of “unique biographies”? What exactly makes a biography unique? Did the author write everything in pig latin? Is the character’s timeline backwards? What gives?

To my mind a “unique biography” is a biography of a person who may never have had a bio about them before. We know the usual biographical suspects. Walk into any school classroom or library and there they are. Your Abraham Lincolns, Rosa Parks, Thomas Edisons, etc. Important people to know, sure, but aren’t there other folks out there worthy of biographical attention?

Today I show off to you the books that dared to give love and attention to the lesser known. With the exception of, perhaps, Leonardo da Vinci, you’re going to see a lot of new names and faces out there. Hear what they did. Celebrate who they were. Learn from what they accomplished.

2018 Unique Biographies

Picture Book Biographies

Between the Lines: How Ernie Barnes Went from the Football Field to the Art Gallery by Sandra Neil Wallace, ill. Bryan Collier


It is one thing to change your fate, but to change what other people see as your fate. A professional football player who wants to be an artist is going to be regarded with, at the very least, a little skepticism. Beautifully rendered.

The Brilliant Deep: Rebuilding the World’s Coral Reefs by Kate Messner, ill. Matthew Forsythe


I included this in a recent Science & Nature list, but to be perfectly honest it really is a biography on top of everything else. Plus it’s purdy.

Counting On Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 by Helaine Becker, ill. Dow Phumiruk


There were a couple books about the women from Hidden Figures, but this one was by far my favorite. Plus, y’know. Math.

The Diamond and the Boy: The Creation of Diamonds & the Life of H. Tracy Hall by Hannah Holt, ill. Jay Fleck


Incredibly good! Pairs the story of a kid’s hardships alongside that of the creation of a diamond. Then it pulls back a little and you can see how that kid grew up to invent a method of actually making diamonds. Clever and creative.

The Eye That Never Sleeps: How Detective Pinkerton Saved President Lincoln by Marissa Moss, ill. Jeremy Holmes


Pinkerton’s life is inextricably paired with his job. My takeaway (beyond just enjoying the book) was how crummy his sons turned out to be.

The Girl With a Mind for Math: The Story of Raye Montague by Julia Finley Mosca, ill. Daniel Rieley


You hand this one to the kid who wants a picture book biography of someone still alive. There are more out there than there used to be, but the numbers are not vast. Plus, this book is a lot of fun.

Go Show the World: A Celebration of Indigenous Heroes by Wab Kinew, ill. Joe Morse


You won’t find many collective biographies on today’s list. If I do include any, it’s because they’re extraordinary. This one is. The bios are remarkably short. Little more than two-sentence mentions, but the backmatter fills in the gaps and I LOVE how many of these folks are alive today.

Irving Berlin: The Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing by Nancy Churnin, ill. James Rey Sanchez


Not only does this book do a stand up and cheer job talking about Irving’s Jewish ties, the influences of certain songs on his music get alluded to as well. Plus it’s a visual wonder.

Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor: The Woman Who Loved Reptiles by Patricia Valdez, ill. Felicita Sala


While I find the notion of walking a komodo dragon around small children a mildly alarming motion, who am I to judge Ms. Procter? Plus you’ve got Felicta Sala tearing up the pages with her beautiful art. A good STEM book.

A Lady Has the Floor: Belva Lockwood Speaks Out for Women’s Rights by Kate Hannigan, ill. Alison Jay


It would never have occurred to me to pair Alison Jay with a picture book biographer. Now that I look at it, though, it just makes good clean sense. That crackled style to her art is perfect when paired with Belva’s story.

Curious about it? Here’s my interview with author Kate Hannigan about the creation of the book:

Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein by Linda Bailey, ill. Júlia Sardà


I love this book to bits and pieces. I’ve put it on a couple lists already, so I’ll just have to repeat myself one last time: This is the book you should look at when you’re trying to figure out how to write a picture book biography.

Midnight Teacher: Lilly Ann Granderson and Her Secret School by Janet Halfmann, ill. London Ladd


Do you know why I label this list “Unique Biographies”? Because I want to see more books like this one. Stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary but possible things. Putting themselves in danger to do what is right. This book gets it. Why don’t more?

No Small Potatoes: Junius G. Groves and His Kingdom in Kansas by Tonya Golden, ill. Don Tate


I’m always intrigued by books where an entrepreneurial spirit is celebrated. They’re exceedingly rare types of books to find (that are any good) but there are always exceptions. This one’s great (and little wonder when you look at its creators). I think Don Tate should follow in this same vein and now write a biography of Mansa Musa, don’t you?

Nothing Stopped Sophie: The Story of Unshakeable Mathematician Sophie Germain by Cheryl Bardoe, ill. Barbara McClintock


I hope, come award season, that nothing stops this book from getting some love. Look at that effortless melding of numbers within the art. Look at that marvelous text. You won’t find a single line of fake dialogue or garbled facts at work here. Just good, clean writing and beautiful art. Give it all the things!

Picturing America: Thomas Cole and the Birth of American Art by Hudson Talbott


I was won over by this book in a big way. It actual isn’t just a biography of Mr. Cole. It’s a paean to the American naturalist movement. And could anyone besides Hudson Talbott have brought this to life? I think not.

The Secret Kingdom: Nek Chand, a Changing India, and a Hidden World of Art by Barb Rosenstock, ill. Claire A. Nivola


I’m always interested in picture books about, what some folks would call, outsider artists. Nek Chand’s story, however, is so good that I’m a little surprised it hasn’t been adapted into a Hollywood film yet. Extra points for the photographs in the back that let you see his real art.

Through the Window: Views of Marc Chagall’s Life and Art by Barb Rosenstock, ill. Mary Grandpré


I know we’ve seen a lot of pairings between this author and artist before, but I actually think this may be their strongest book yet! Chagall is a natural subject for Grandpré’s style, and Ms. Rosenstock always knows how to bring out the best in a subject.

The Vast Wonder of the World: Biologist Ernest Everett Just by Mélina Mangal, ill. Luisa Uribe


A fascinating story, with hints at other fascinating stories. I didn’t know the tale of Mr. Just, and now that I have I want to know so much more. Particularly because there’s this throwaway line about his mom founding an entire town on her own. What’s that? You gotta see this one for yourself. I think you’ll really enjoy it.

When Angels Sing: The Story of Rock Legend Carlos Santana by Michael Mahin, ill. Jose Ramirez


A tricky choice to figure out which Santana biography to include, but in the end I went with this one. Why? Ramirez’s art, honestly. There’s something about the pairing in this book that just made me inexorably happy.

Older Biographies

The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler by John Hendrix


Every time this book gets another award, an angel gets its wings. You know what I want? I want this book to have so many awards on its cover that designers get headaches over how to keep from covering up parts of the cover images.

The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science by Joyce Sidman


I hereby vow to memorize Maria Merian’s name every single day, until I can conjure it up at a moment’s notice. She’s just that important to history.

Leonardo Da Vinci (Meet the Artist! series) by Patricia Geis


Pop-ups, flaps, and other nifty elements do a killer job of driving home the sheer weirdness of Leonardo’s work. There’s a nice emphasis on optical illusions and how the artist played with human sight, that’s bound to make this a much more enjoyable bio than you’ll find of the man elsewhere.

People of Peace: 40 Inspiring Icons by Sandrine Mirza, ill. Le Duo


You will not find many group biographies on my lists. Odd since 2018 was practically The Year of the Collected Biography. Even so, I don’t much care for them as a whole. They’re very samey and, while useful, does anyone ever read them for fun? Yes, they’re inspiring but the topics are, again, the same with some slight variations. Now when Cristin Stickles, the  the Children’s & Young Adult Buyer at McNally Jackson Books in Manhattan, wrote that the Wide Eyed biographies put out by Quarto were her favorites, I decided to look into it. I trust Cristin’s taste in these matters, and at first I wasn’t on board. Greek Gods & Heroes? Super white. Music Legends? Not a lot of ladies. Soccer Stars? Awesome if you like soccer but no thank you. People of Peace? Huh. Have I ever seen a collective biography of people in favor of peace? I was intrigued. I looked through it. Lo and behold, this is a pretty great collection! There are famous names and more obscure heroes. I’d never even heard of Victor Schoelcher before, and now I want to know more about him. My sole objection is the choice to include Woodrow Wilson. Sure, the League of Nations was a good notion, but can you honestly say that he was all for peace? They list him as “The idealist president”. Mmm hmm. In any case, a useful book covering a too little discussed topic.

Rosa’s Animals: The Story of Rosa Bonheur and Her Painting Menagerie


If you have a kid who like nature, a kid who likes painting, or a kid who likes animals, this may be the biography for them. The meticulous research at work here shows, and you grow rather fond of Ms. Bonheur. Plus, and I mean this truly, killer cover.

Struttin’ With Some Barbecue: Lil Hardin Armstrong Becomes the First Lady of Jazz by Patricia Hruby Powell, ill. Rachel Himes


After reading this book, don’t be afraid to admit that you’re now ashamed that you didn’t now Lil Hardin before. Told in verse, we follow Lil and see her trials and triumphs. I also learned that my college hometown (Richmond, Indiana: “Home of recorded jazz”) had such a strong Klan presence once that Lil and her musicians were afraid to sleep there overnight. Oog.

Thomas Paine and the Dangerous Word by Sarah Jane Marsh, ill. Edwin Fotheringham


Gave me an all-new appreciation for Thomas Paine. Where’s his musical?


Interested in the other lists? Here’s the schedule of everything being covered this month. Enjoy!

December 1 – Board Books & Pop-Ups

December 2 – Board Book Reprints & Adaptations

December 3 – Wordless Picture Books

December 4 – Picture Book Readalouds

December 5 – Rhyming Picture Books

December 6 – Alphabet Books

December 7 – Funny Picture Books

December 8 – CaldeNotts

December 9 – Picture Book Reprints

December 10 – Math Books for Kids

December 11 – Bilingual Books

December 12 – Translated Picture Books

December 13 – Books with a Message

December 14 – Fabulous Photography

December 15 – Fairy Tales / Folktales / Religious Tales

December 16 – Oddest Books of the Year

December 17 – Poetry Books

December 18 – Easy Books

December 19 – Early Chapter Books

December 20 – Comics for Kids

December 21 – Older Funny Books

December 22 – Fictionalized Nonfiction

December 23 – American History

December 24 – Science & Nature Books

December 25 – Transcendent Holiday Picture Books

December 26 – Unique Biographies

December 27 – Nonfiction Picture Books

December 28 – Nonfiction Chapter Books

December 29 – Fiction Reprints

December 30 – Middle Grade 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. Linda Mitchell says

    A stunning list. Thank you!

  2. Great list! Got quite a few in my sixth grade picture book biography unit already but you’ve handed me quite a few more to add! Thanks!

  3. Jinnie Trabulsi says

    Wonderful list! I’ll add Grandma Gatewood Hikes the Appalachian Trail by Jennifer Thermes. It’s a great biography with gorgeous illustrations that defies age stereotypes. My adult friend who’s hiked the AT three times LOVED this book, delighting over the illustrations that show actual points on the trail.

  4. Thanks so much for including Midnight Teacher in this great list. Hope the name of Lilly Ann Granderson and the others featured in these “Unique Biographies” are someday household words!

  5. Carl in Charlotte says

    Ernie Barnes was born in Durham, NC and went to college there, majoring in art while attending on a full athletic scholarship. Sometimes, in tribute to his dad he framed his paintings with wood that had been part of a wooden picket fence around his father’s house. A remarkable life. We saw an exhibition of his work in Raleigh, NC in November.

  6. Esther Frazee says

    Thank you so much for providing this list. I am excited to explore these titles with my students.

  7. Also Lights, Cameras, Alice! by Mara Rockcliff, about the first female film director, who helped invent the movie. I’d have given it the Caldecott if I could! Such a beautiful book.