February 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

On the Radar: Top Picks from the Editors at Junior Library Guild: Picture Book Biographies for Older Readers

Sometimes ordinary people are able to do extraordinary things. Annie Sullivan thought of a way to teach a deaf and blind student to communicate. Charles Ives listened to the sounds of everyday life and created a new kind of music. Henri Rousseau became one of the most gifted self-taught painters in history.  Sarah Winnemucca stood up against injustices and wrote the first autobiography by a Native American woman. And Bill Finger told the stories of Batman, though for 30 years he never received any credit.

These picture-book gems not only tell a story, but they also provide nonfiction text features, including  glossaries, bibliographies, websites, primary source documentation, and author notes. The bonus for librarians and teachers is that many of the titles mentioned below are geared toward older readers but are also great read alouds.

As you may have recently heard at The Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards and Colloquium at Simmons College, picture books are not dead. In fact, they are constantly changing. At the event, award-winning illustrators Erin E. Stead and Jon Klassen concur that they have just begun to experiment with the form, and  the “Picture Book Proclamation” penned by author Mac Barnett, states that “we believe that a picture book should fresh, honest, piquant, and beautiful.”

The following are some of 2012’s best biographies.

FERRIS, Jeri Chase. Illustrated by Vincent X. Kirsch. Noah Webster & His Words. Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2012. ISBN 9780547390550. JLG Level: BE : Biography Elementary (Grades 2-6)
Noah came from a long line of farmers. “But Noah did not want to be in that long line. Not at all.” When Noah was found studying instead of working on the farm, his father went to his teacher who “CON-VINCED [verb: overcame by argument] him that Noah should be in school. So Noah went to Yale College at age 15. In 1781, Noah wrote his first book, an American speller that would unite the new country by spelling words “the same way, every time, everywhere.” His blue-backed speller became the first American schoolbook and cost 14 cents. In 1807, Noah decided he needed to show where words came from and what they meant. With this decision, he began the writing and research of a book that would come to be the second best-selling book ever printed in English: Webster’s Dictionary.

HOPKINSON, Deborah. Illustrated by Raul Colon. Annie and Helen. Schwartz & Wade Books, 2012. ISBN 9780375957062. JLG Level: BE : Biography Elementary (Grades 2-6)
For her first teaching assignment, Annie Sullivan boarded a train in Boston and traveled thousands of miles to Alabama. Her first student was Helen Keller. Being partially blind herself, Annie knew Helen’s temper tantrums stemmed from her inability to communicate. Punctuated with excerpts from Annie’s letters, Hopkinson tells the story of two people who overcame physical disabilities and forged new frontiers. Beautiful watercolor illustrations complement the text and contribute to the time and setting of the story. The account ends with a photograph of Helen’s first handwritten letter home, just four months after her training with Annie began.

MARKLE, Michelle. Illustrated by Amanda Hall. The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau.  Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2012. ISBN 9780802853646. JLG Level: BE : Biography Elementary (Grades 2-6)
Henri Rousseau was 40 years old when he decided he wanted to paint. He loved nature and wanted to capture his feelings on canvas. Year after year, critics ridiculed his work. “If you want to have a good laugh, go see the paintings of Henri Rousseau.” Yet, Rousseau never gave up. He observed, painted, and continued to enter his works in exhibits. When he was 61 years old, he painted The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope. For the first time, not everyone was critical, and he developed a following. Today he is known as a great artist, inspiring many. Rousseau’s life and work are brought to life through an amazing story and illustrations.

NOBLEMAN, Marc Tyler. Illustrated by Ty Templeton. Bill The Boy Wonder: The Secret of Co-Creator of Batman. Charlesbridge, 2012. ISBN  9781580892896. JLG Level: BE : Biography Elementary (Grades 2-6)
Nobleman reveals that Bob Kane was not the writer of the long-lasting Batman comics; in fact, Bill Finger, using secret identities, not only anonymously wrote the comics, he also came up with the original look and concept of the famous character. Iron-clad contracts kept Finger, who died in 1974, from getting credit. In the author’s notes, readers learn that Nobleman conducted diligent research, uncovering not only primary source documents, but also more pictures than had ever been found before.  And, perhaps most importantly, he found Finger’s last living heir. Not just for comic book fans, readers will be caught up in the life of a creative genius and the secret he kept so soundly.

RAY, Deborah Kogan. Paiute Princess: The Story of Sarah Winnemucca. Frances Foster Books, 2012. ISBN  9780374398972. JLG Level: BE : Biography Elementary (Grades 2-6)
Ray tells the tragic story of the Paiute tribe in the 1800s when white settlers continued to take over their land. As a young girl, Thocmetony believed what her grandfather told her about the settlers: “You must not be afraid. They are very good [people].” Sarah Winnemucca, as Thocmetony became known, was sent to live with a white family and went to school. As she grew older, she became a champion for her tribe. She fought for education, staging dramatic events to raise money to help her people. She fought against corruption and abuses within the Bureau of Indian Affairs , and became an interpreter for the Army. The “Paiute Princess” spent her life trying to bring peace. Ray tells a story of prejudice, unfair policies, the mistreatment of women and children, and of a strong woman who lived in two worlds and fought to gain respect and dignity for her people.

STANBRIDGE, Joanne. The Extraordinary Music of Mr. Ives: The True Story of a Famous American Composer.. Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2012. ISBN  9780547238661. JLG Level: E+ : Easy Reading (Grades 1-3)
“Even the most ordinary sounds are like songs to Mr. Ives. He writes music as busy as a city street.” Sadly, no one wanted to listen. Mr. Ives wrote his music anyway. In 1915 the ocean liner, Lusitania, was hit by an enemy torpedo. It took the lives of a thousand innocent passengers. The horrors of war struck the people of New York. Mr. Ives could not write, but one day he heard a man playing a hymn at a train station and was inspired to create a song. More than 50 years passed before anyone heard this masterpiece. Finally, composers listened to his music and liked  and understood it. Stanbridge’s wordless account of the sinking of the ocean liner makes the story all the more poignant. The scene at the train station will fill readers’ hearts, and strains of “Gather at the River” will echo in their ears.

For ideas about how to use these books and links to supportive sites, check out the Junior Library Guild blog, Shelf Life.

Junior Library Guild is a collection development service that helps school and public libraries acquire the best new children’s and young adult books. Season after season, year after year, Junior Library Guild book selections go on to win awards, collect starred or favorable reviews, and earn industry honors. Visit us at www.JuniorLibraryGuild.com.

Extra Helping header

This article was featured in our free Extra Helping enewsletter.
Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to you twice a week.

Deborah B. Ford About Deborah B. Ford

Deborah is the Director of Library Outreach for Junior Library Guild. She is an award-winning teacher librarian with almost 30 years of experience as a classroom teacher and librarian in K–12 schools.

Diversity and Cultural Competency Training: Collections & RA

Do you want to ensure that your library’s collections are diverse, equitable, inclusive, and well-read?

Do you want to become a more culturally literate librarian and a more effective advocate for your community?

We've developed a foundational online course—with live sessions on February 28 & March 14—that will explore key concepts essential to cultivating and promoting inclusive and equitable collections.


  1. […] On the Radar: Top Picks from the Editors at Junior Library Guild: Picture Book Biographies for Older Readers from School Library Journal […]