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Develop students’ critical-thinking skills by examining multiple biographies that cover the same inspiring female figures.
Today’s young readers have the privilege of learning multimodally through print, audio, and video. With the appropriate scaffolding, they can be guided to compare and contrast not just the information provided but also the form of delivery, as well as their responses to those forms. Recent picture-book biographies and autobiographies offer the same critical-reading opportunities, inviting readers to learn about remarkable people through a variety of lenses.
The books featured below highlight the lives of women and girls who have made their mark and caught the attention of multiple authors. Artists, athletes, activists, mathematicians, and Supreme Court judges, these are women who have overcome sexism and racism on their journeys. Those who understand the concept of fairness will be inspired by the depicted courage and determination. In these biographies, systemic injustice is not sugarcoated, prompting thoughtful readers to ask questions—as well they should!
Free as a Bird: The Story of Malala. By Lina Maslo. Illus. by the author. 2018. HarperCollins/Balzer+Bray, $17.99 (9780062560773). K–Gr. 3.
Maslo creates a sensitive overview of Malala Yousafzai’s life in this picture-book biography. “She wanted to be free, like the kites. She wanted to fly,” Maslo writes. “Malala will be free as a bird!” Complementing the inspirational text are whimsical illustrations depicting Malala growing up outside the cultural confines of girls in Pakistan. Malala was encouraged to fly free by her parents as she sought to further her education. When her freedom was cut short by a Taliban shooter, her voice only became stronger.
Malala: Activist for Girls’ Education. By Raphaële Frier. Illus. by Aurélia Fronty. 2017. Charlesbridge, $17.99 (9781580897853). Gr. 2–4.
This story covers Malala’s early activist years, the shooting, her recovery, her speech at the U.N., and subsequent efforts to speak up for girls around the world since she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. If the narrative sometimes feels stiff, it is softened by Fronty’s gorgeous illustrations. Highly stylized and rich in detail, texture, and color, they suffuse Malala’s life with beauty.
Malala Yousafzai. By Robin S. Doak. 2015. Children’s Press, $6.95 (9780531212059). Gr. 4–6.
A pair of true-false statements prompts readers to “find the truth” by reading on. A double-page spread in the center, titled “The BIG Truth,” highlights Malala’s family as her source of inspiration, strength, and continued activism. The narrative presents Malala—the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize—as an ordinary girl driven by her desire for an education. Readers will learn about her outspokenness in the face of danger, how her community reacted to her work, the terrible day she was shot, and her recovery. Critical thinkers can be prompted to use the premise of “truth” to ask questions about resistance, oppression, facts, and figures.
A Computer Called Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Helped Put America on the Moon. By Suzanne Slade. Illus. by Veronica Miller Jamison. 2019. Little, Brown, $18.99 (9780316435178). Gr. 1–3.
Math came easily to Katherine Johnson while she was growing up. In the 1950s, when she was in her thirties, she was hired at NASA as a “computer” (a female mathematician who assisted the male engineers) and eventually worked her way up to the Apollo 11 project. Vignettes of Katherine’s work depict her talent with calculations, the drama of early space travel, and the way both combined to put humans on the moon. For younger readers, the racist arguments faced by Katherine’s African American family are depicted as being “as wrong as 5 + 5 = 12.”
Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13. By Helaine Becker. Illus. by Dow Phumiruk. 2018. Holt/Christy Ottaviano, $17.99 (9781250137524). K–Gr. 3.
Here we meet Katherine Johnson as a curious child who loved to count. She skipped three grades, started high school early, and later became a teacher. After hearing that the space program was hiring Black women as mathematicians, she began a new career. Johnson, who earned a reputation for accuracy, imagination, and leadership, made significant contributions to important Mercury and Apollo missions, including the Apollo 11 moon landing and the challenging Apollo 13 spaceflight.
Counting the Stars: The Story of Katherine Johnson, NASA Mathematician. By Lesa Cline-Ransome. Illus. by Raúl Colón. 2019. Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman, $17.99 (9781534404755).Gr. 1–3.
Cline-Ransome introduces young Katherine Johnson as a math whiz who started high school at age 10 and whose parents prized education. Her extraordinary skills and attentive mentors helped her eventually get a job at Langley Aeronautical Laboratory. When the space-flight unit asked for a “computer,” as the women were called, she became an integral part of the team calculating flight paths. John Glenn wouldn’t go up for his groundbreaking flight until she ran the numbers—a check on mechanical computers.
Venus and Serena Williams
Game Changers: The Story of Venus and Serena Williams. By Lesa Cline-Ransome. Illus. by James E. Ransome. 2018. Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman, $17.99 (9781481476843). Gr. 1–4.
This biography begins with Venus and Serena’s early years, when they got up before dawn to clear garbage off the tennis courts near their home and practice the game six days a week, under the tutelage of their father. Without formal training, the two devised methods to increase their natural talent, such as incorporating ballet for flexibility, running to increase their speed, and throwing footballs to help their serves become more powerful. Clear writing, an inviting layout, collage-style pictures, and quotes from the sisters and their parents make this nonfiction format accessible for emerging and more confident readers. Cut paper, pencil, and acrylic paints blend seamlessly to create beautifully bold, colorful illustrations in tribute to two amazing athletes. A detailed afterword lists their many accomplishments, including U.S. Open and Wimbledon victories, as well as their Olympic gold medals. Source notes, a bibliography, and further reading enhance an informative book that will appeal to children and sports fans of all ages.
Sisters: Venus & Serena Williams. By Jeanette Winter. Illus. by the author. 2019. Simon & Schuster/Beach Lane, $17.99 (9781534431218). K–Gr. 3.
Once their parents decided that Venus and Serena should learn to play tennis, the girls headed off to a dirty playground in their hometown of Compton. Readers get a sense of the hard work the Williams sisters put into their careers, the obstacles in their way, and how their eventual successes bonded them. What the book does very well is tell the Williams sisters’ story in a satisfying trajectory, with eye-catching illustrations that show the action from various perspectives. The tennis match scenes are particularly alive. A great introduction to an incredible sister act.
Sisters & Champions: The True Story of Venus and Serena Williams. By Howard Bryant. Illus. by Floyd Cooper. 2018. Philomel, $17.99 (9780399169069). K–Gr. 3.
This book opens with Richard Williams buying four-year-old Venus and three-year-old Serena tennis rackets and telling people “the wildest things” about his daughters. Folks who doubted him were soon proved wrong. Venus and Serena grew up talented, competitive, and emotionally close. Their occasional rivalry on the court is balanced by the closing quote from Serena, “Tennis is just a game . . . Family is forever.” Bryant writes in a straightforward manner about the Williams sisters’ setbacks and triumphs, emphasizing their determination and hard work, as well as their father’s role and the importance of family.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark. By Debbie Levy. Illus. by Elizabeth Baddeley. 2016. Simon & Schuster, $17.99 (9781481465595). Gr. 1–3.
As a child in Brooklyn, young Ruth learned the importance of a powerful dissent. Her mother objected to the notion that girls shouldn’t get an education. Ruth objected to the discrimination facing her Jewish family. In school, she objected to having to take sewing and cooking classes, and in college, she objected to the notion that, as a woman, she couldn’t pursue a law career. Dissent is a recurring element here, and it’s a tidy way to demonstrate how Ginsburg’s fearless objections to the unfair status quo not only led the way to her career as a Supreme Court justice but also contributed to dismantling many of those discriminatory laws that prevented equal treatment. Baddeley and Levy don’t just emphasize the importance of mere disagreement, however; using Ginsburg’s friendship with Antonin Scalia as an example (coupled with a charming illustration of them parasailing together), the creators demonstrate how disagreement can lead to meaningful discussion.
No Truth without Ruth: The Life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. By Kathleen Krull. Illus. by Nancy Zhang. 2018. Harper, $17.99 (9780062560117). Gr. 2–4.
Krull shows RBG pushed down in—but never pushed out of—a man’s world, demonstrating how she fought for equality in her life as well as the lives of others. Life in the 1950s defined Ginsburg as both a woman and a Jew whose relatives were killed during the war—events partly responsible for her decision to pursue a career in law that would make her a “fighter for fairness.” Her own life experience, including her initial inability to get a job as a lawyer, and early encouragement from her mother were her motivations. A final spread proves that Ginsburg wasn’t all work: she went parasailing, white-water rafting, horseback riding, and waterskiing, too.
Sonia Sotomayor: A Judge Grows in the Bronx / La juez que crecio en el Bronx. By Jonah Winter. Illus. by Edel Rodriguez. 2009. Atheneum, $16.99 (9781442403031). K–Gr. 3.
Born and raised in a poor neighborhood of the South Bronx, Sotomayor became the first Latinx Supreme Court justice, and this timely, accessible picture-book biography, which features both English and Spanish text on every page, brings Sotomayor’s exciting rags-to-riches story to young readers. Growing up with her loving, single-parent mom in a family that surrounded Sonia “like a warm blanket,” Sotomayor was a big reader as a child and wanted to be Nancy Drew. After being diagnosed with diabetes, she had to learn to accept her physical limits, but she graduated at the top of her high-school class and then at the top of her Princeton class. She felt different from her privileged classmates, and kids of all backgrounds will recognize the universal emotions and experiences of trying to fit in.
Turning Pages: My Life Story. By Sonia Sotomayor. Illus. by Lulu Delacre. 2018. Philomel, $17.99 (9780525514084). K–Gr. 2.
In this autobiography, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Sonia Sotomayor shows how reading was the gateway—and getaway—that allowed her to pursue her dreams. A child of Puerto Rican immigrants, Sotomayor had a childhood marked by hardship: poverty, diabetes, and the death of her father. Despite the odds, she was able to pursue a legal career. She had a mother who worked hard to take care of her children and provide educational opportunities, and an island family that showed her a different way of life—but mostly there were libraries and books, from her neighborhood branch to the impressive Firestone Library at Princeton.
A Life Made by Hand: The Story of Ruth Asawa. By Andrea D’Aquino. Illus. by the author. 2019. Princeton Architectural, $17.95 (9781616898366). Gr. 1–3.
As an artist experimenting with wire, Ruth Asawa discovered that “a line can go anywhere,” which led her to create a legacy of art, including the fine, delicate wire sculptures on display at museums around the U.S. Despite garnering critical acclaim for her work, Asawa has remained little known, even in contemporary art circles. D’Aquino showcases how Asawa’s curiosity and handiwork, set amidst charcoal and colored-pencil drawings and mixed-paper collages, carried her into adulthood, where her creative talent began to receive praise and attention. Back matter includes a resource section providing in-depth biographical information pertaining to Asawa’s experience being incarcerated during the internment of Japanese Americans in WWII.
Ruth Asawa: A Sculpting Life. By Joan Schoettler. Illus. by Traci Van Wagoner. 2018. Pelican, $16.99 (9781455623976). Gr. 1–3.
Ruth Asawa grew up working on her family’s farm in Southern California and attending schools where teachers encouraged her artistic talent. But during WWII, she and other Japanese Americans were taken away to internment camps. Later, she studied art at a progressive college and visited Mexico, where she learned looped-wire basketmaking techniques, which would become the basis of her innovative hanging sculptures. After Asawa married and moved back to California, she became known for designing many sculptural fountains and championing art education for children.
Frida Kahlo and Her Animalitos. By Monica Brown. Illus. by John Parra. 2017. North-South, $17.95 (9780735842694). Gr. 1–3.
Featuring charming visuals and lively, often lyrical prose, this picture book introduces Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, interweaving biographical details while highlighting her special relationships with pets. Through early efforts at painting, a childhood illness, and school escapades, Brown takes us into Kahlo’s adulthood—her developing passion for creating art, her marriage to Diego Rivera, and finally, her animals. She kept company with spider monkeys, parrots, dogs, turkeys, and much more, and Brown describes them as possessing personalities that reflect Kahlo’s own characteristics: “Like her eagle, Frida’s imagination could fly high.”
Little Frida: A Story of Frida Kahlo. By Anthony Browne. Illus. by the author. 2019. Candlewick/Walker, $16.99 (9781536209334). K–Gr. 2.
Award-winner Browne borrowed from Frida Kahlo’s own diary when creating this childhood account of imaginary adventures. Told in first person, the story explains how, after contracting polio at the age of six, Frida is left with a permanent limp. Other children make fun of her, causing her to retreat into her own world. She dreams of flying and asks for a toy plane for her birthday. When disappointment comes, she conjures up an escape to a land where she can run freely and have adventures with a strange, beautiful little girl. Even after returning home, Frida realizes she can visit the other little girl whenever she wants. As the story develops, adult readers familiar with Kahlo’s work will recognize themes and recurring iconic images from her art. Young audiences will enjoy the developing fantasy and appreciate little Frida’s happiness in finding a friend.
Viva Frida. By Yuyi Morales. Illus. by Tim O’Meara. 2014. Roaring Brook, $17.99 (9781596436039). Gr. 3–6.
Morales layers English and Spanish words—never more than four to a page—to depict a Frida who is curious, playful, wise, and inspired. Rather than telling a story, the text captures fragments of Frida’s life, like snapshots with bilingual captions. Readers who know about this artist will appreciate that she is so much more than the product of the bus accident that robbed her of her health, and readers who do not know about her will be intrigued to learn more. The heartfelt yet succinct biography at the end provides that information in both languages. The three-dimensional quality of the illustrations lends realism, even though they are quite surreal, and the photography always captures the sparkle in Frida’s eyes and the lights at any fiesta.
Maya Angelou. By Lisbeth Kaiser. Illus. by Leire Salaberria. 2016. Frances Lincoln, $14.99 (9781847808899). K–Gr. 2.
Part of the Little People, Big Dreams series that spotlights notable women, this is a short, simply written biography that conveys Angelou’s significant achievements. Maya is introduced as a child sent to live in Arkansas, where she experienced racism as well as a physical attack that left her unable to speak for a time. As an adult, she traveled widely, worked “to help all people get treated equally,” and wrote powerful stories and poems.
Rise! From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Maya Angelou. By Bethany Hegedus. Illus. by Tonya Engel. 2019. Lee & Low, $20.95 (9781620145876). Gr. 2–5.
Maya Angelou’s remarkable life is presented fully, through rhythmic free verse that emphasizes her formative years. We glimpse her as a dancer, mother, poet, and activist in St. Louis, Stamps (Arizona), San Francisco, Cairo, and Harlem. The work of metaphor often falls to Engel, whose sweeping oil-and-acrylic illustrations lend depth and power to the text. An especially dark moment is presented with care: “One day, Maya left alone / with Mr. Freeman, / is anything but free.” A man’s shadow is cast over Maya’s bedroom wall, with the little girl curled up on her bed afraid. The sexual assault is named more directly in the backmatter, which also offers resources for readers in need of support. A foreword frames this biography as an opportunity for conversation, hoping that children may learn from Angelou’s courage.
The biographies featured here can be used to teach the skills of comparing and contrasting information about a single person across multiple books, and about different people in different walks of life, across time and place.
Malala Yousafzai and Katherine Johnson
Concepts to compare and contrast: stylized illustrations versus photographs, expectations of girls and women in male-dominated educational fields, authorial and artistic choices in depictions of racism and sexism
Learn more about Malala Yousafzai and watch her speech at the U.N. at biography.com/activist/malala-yousafzai
African American women in science are featured at biography.com/news/black-female-scientists-black-history
Concepts to compare and contrast: depiction of their early years, the role of their parents, the variety of obstacles and the sisters’ resilience, focus on tennis versus family, friendships, and so on
Venus and Serena Williams talk about being sisters and competitors in this short video at youtube.com/watch?v=tvfu9ku5GtA
Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor
Concepts to compare and contrast: the ways these women were pioneers in their professions, the depictions of family life, childhood observations of injustice that shaped their lives
Teachers will be entertained by and appreciative of this C-SPAN video about the food traditions of the Supreme Court, featuring Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor: c-span.org/video/?410429-1/justices-ruth-bader-ginsburg-sonia-sotomayor-discuss-supreme-courts-food-traditions
Ruth Asawa, Frida Kahlo, and Maya Angelou
Concepts to compare and contrast: art in response to hardship, the complexity of being unique and creative, the ways that simple ideas can be transformed into amazing art in words or images
A Google image search of the artwork of these women can be used as “mentor texts” for youngsters to create their own works of art, dance, or poetry
Amina Chaudhri is an associate professor of teacher education at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago.
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