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Books about historical figures

Books That Introduce Kids to New Names in History

Use these books to teach your children about important historical figures.

If you asked your kids to name famous athletes or musicians, they’d probably come up with a few. But how about important people in art, math, photography, literature, or even animal care? Maybe a few less? The names found in these picture book biographies will be lesser known, but as you read their stories, you’ll discover they are certainly not “lesser” in bravery, perseverance, hard work, or innovative ideas. Give your kids a few new names from history to remember.

Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee

by Andrea Loney; illustrated by Keith Mallett (Lee & Low Books, 2017)

James VanDerZee saved his money to purchase a camera when he was a boy. By the fifth grade, he was his school’s photographer and would take photos of anyone he could. Later he moved to New York City, but was told by his boss that no one would want their photos taken “by a black man.” James opened his own portrait studio in Harlem, and went on to photograph legendary figures of the Harlem Renaissance.

The Only Woman in the Photo

by Kathleen Krull; illustrated by Alexandra Bye (Atheneum, 2020)

For a college history course, Frances Perkins observed conditions in paper and textile mills, and was horrified to see small children working alongside adults. The experience made her sensitive to injustice, and she wanted to help. Frances went on to serve in President Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet as the secretary of labor, and became the mastermind behind the New Deal, the Social Security Act, unemployment insurance, child labor laws, and other initiatives to help American workers.

Cubs in the Tub

by Candace Fleming; illustrated by Julie Downing (Neal Porter Books, 2020)

Helen Martini longed to have a child. When her zookeeper husband Fred brought home a lion cub whose mother had stopped caring for it, he suggested she do for it what she would for a human baby. Helen did, and before long, she cared for more lion and tiger cubs in the couple’s Bronx apartment, until the baby animals were old enough to return to zoos. In 1944, Helen became the first female zookeeper at the Bronx Zoo.

A Girl Called Genghis Khan

by Michelle Lord; illustrated by Shehzil Malik (Sterling Children’s Books, 2019)

As a girl growing up in Pakistan, Maria Toorpakai Wazir wanted to play sports outside with the boys, but the Taliban regime demanded that women not be seen or heard in public. She cut her hair short and wore boys’ clothes so she could have more freedom and joined a squash club for boys. When people found out she was a girl, the Taliban threatened her squash club, her family, and her life. Maria went on to become the number one female squash player for Pakistan and one of the top 50 female players in the world.

Digging for Words

by Angela Burke Kunkel; illustrated by Paola Escobar (Schwartz and Wade, 2020)

José Alberto Guttiérres was a garbage collector in Bogotá, Columbia. One day, he found a copy of the book Anna Karenina that had been discarded, and began a collection of books in his home. He shared his collection with the children in the barrio of La Nueva Gloria where he lived. The author donated a portion of her advance to José’s literacy foundation, La Fuerza de las Palabras.

The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity

by Amy Alznauer; illustrated by Daniel Miyares (Candlewick, 2020)

Ramanujan was born in India in 1887 with a passion for numbers. He wrote mathematics in the sand with his finger, across the pages of his notebooks, and with chalk on the temple floor. Ramanujan had trouble in school, and struggled to find someone who could understand what he conceived. He grew up to reinvent much of modern mathematics, and change math and science forever.

It Began With a Page

by Kyo Malear; illustrated by Julie Morstad (Harper, 2019)

Gyo Fujikawa’s family came to California from Japan in search of a better life. In high school, two teachers noticed Gyo’s talent for art. Her family was too poor to send her to art school, but one of her teachers found the money to pay her way. Later as a working artist, Gyo envisioned children’s art that had not been done before. In 1963 she published Babies, featuring children of all colors and ethnicities together, thus paving the way for racial diversity in picture books.

Librarians and book experts also recommend:

The Only Woman: Simon & Schuster. Cubs in the Tub: Holiday House. A Girl Called Ghengis Khan: Sterling Publishing. Digging for Words: Penguin Random House. The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity: Candlewick. Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerSee: Lee & Low Books.

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