April 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Inventors, Innovators, and Inspirers | Great Picture Book Biographies

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Vivid writing, eye-catching artwork, unforgettable true tales—these books have it all. Splendid for sharing aloud or reading independently, these engaging biographies introduce fascinating individuals, spark interest in diverse subjects, and encourage kids to think about their own lives and their place in the world.

FranklinbigsplashBen Franklin’s Big Splash: The Mostly True Story of His First Invention. By Barb Rosenstock. illus. by S.D. Schindler. Calkins Creek. 2014. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9781620914465.

K-Gr 4–Many a sweltering summer day in colonial Boston, “sturdy, saucy, smelly” young Ben snuck away from his father’s soap-making shop to cool off in the Charles River, where his musings about why he couldn’t swim like a fish led to speculation, observation, sketching, building, and his very first invention—swim fins! Jaunty rhythms, smile-sprinkling alliteration, and buoyant pen-and-watercolor artwork capture the essence of America’s most famous problem-solver.

boyandajaguarA Boy and a Jaguar. By Alan Rabinowitz. illus. by Cátia Chien. HMH. 2014. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780547875071; ebook $16.99. ISBN 9780544358874.

Gr 2-5–Conservationist Rabinowitz describes a boyhood characterized by the painful alienation and lack of empathy he experienced as a stutterer, his love for—and ability to speak fluently to—animals, and a heartfelt vow that if he should ever find his voice, he would use it to “keep them from harm.” This promise, whispered to a sad and lonely jaguar caged at the Bronx Zoo, came to poignant fruition years later with Rabinowitz’s successful verbal plea for establishing “the world’s first and only” jaguar preserve in Belize. An eloquent and affecting first-person narrative and paintings that shimmer with emotion convey an inspiring tale.

drawwhatyouseeDraw What You See: The Life and Art of Benny Andrews. By Kathleen Benson. illus. with paintings by Benny Andrews. Clarion. 2015. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780544104877; ebook $16.99. ISBN 9780544106055.

Gr 3-6–Born into a large and impoverished family in Georgia in 1930, Benny started to draw at age three, sketching the world around him: “hot suns and red clay,” “little wood-frame houses,” and black people toiling for white bosses in “cotton fields that stretched as far as he could see.” He kept drawing as he worked to follow his dreams of a different sort of future, a life beyond the mind-numbing labor, segregation, and limited opportunities of his childhood home. Articulate text, illustrated with Andrews’s vibrant paintings, introduce an African American artist who celebrated ordinary people, fought for equality, and shared his passion by teaching others to tell their stories through art, starting “as he did, by drawing what they see.”

earmuffsforeveryoneEarmuffs for Everyone: How Chester Greenwood Became Known as the Inventor of Earmuffs. By Meghan McCarthy. illus. by author. S. & S./Paula Wiseman Bks. 2015. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781481406376; ebook $12.99. ISBN 9781481406383.

K-Gr 4–Primarily cast toward Greenwood’s life and accomplishments, McCarthy’s widely thrown nonfiction net also hauls in a bounty of related ideas—patents and how they work, the fact that recognition is often given to those who improve on the inventions of others (e.g., Thomas Edison), and how and why legacies develop over time. An accessibly told and vivaciously illustrated trip into history.

emmanueldreamEmmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah. By Laurie Ann Thompson. illus. by Sean Qualls. Random/Schwartz & Wade Bks. 2015. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780449817445. PLB $20.99. ISBN 9780449817452; ebook $10.99. ISBN 9780449817469.

K-Gr 4–Born in Ghana, West Africa, with only one strong leg, Emmanuel was deserted by his father, ostracized by other children, and told by shopkeepers to go out and beg when his beloved mother’s illness required him to seek employment in the city. Determined to make his own way, this young man rose to each challenge with intelligence, heart, and perseverance, finally proving “that being disabled does not mean being unable” by completing a 400-mile bicycle trip across his homeland in just 10 days. Simple language and bright mixed-media paintings tell an uplifting tale about how one person can change the world.

mesmerizedMesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France. By Mara Rockliff. illus. by Iacopo Bruno. Candlewick. 2015. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780763663513.

Gr 2-5In France to seek support for the ongoing American Revolution, Franklin was the toast of Paris, until the elegant and enigmatic Dr. Mesmer swept into town claiming to have discovered an invisible force that “streamed from the stars and flowed into his wand.” Though the French elite were entranced by the Austrian doctor and his curative treatment, physicians complained that Mesmer was un charlatan, and King Louis XVI charged Ben with uncovering the truth. Masterfully told with lively text, artwork filled with historical detail and humor, and step-by-step sidebars showing the scientific method at work.

mrferriesandhiswheelMr. Ferris and His Wheel. By Kathryn Gibbs Davis. illus. by Gilbert Ford. HMH. 2014. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780547959221; ebook $17.99. ISBN 9780544465633.

K-Gr 3With the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair only months away, organizers scrambled for a star attraction that would outshine the highpoint of the previous event—France’s Eiffel Tower—and launched a nationwide contest for proposals. Stepping forward with a bold idea, “a structure that would dazzle and move,” an ambitious young mechanical engineer eventually won reluctant approval…if he could secure financing, overcome doubters and building-site challenges, and complete construction in four months. A gripping narrative, artwork that deftly brushstrokes time and place, and sidebars sprinkled with supporting facts celebrate the can-do Ferris and his mechanical marvel.                                                                                                                       

starstuffStar Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mysteries of the Cosmos. By Stephanie Roth Sisson. illus. by author. Roaring Brook. 2014. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781596439603; ebook $9.99. ISBN 9781466882218.

Gr 1-3–Introducing a small boy with a creative spirit, insatiable curiosity, and a passion for astronomy, this lovely book puts a finger on the intersection between imagination and scientific discovery. Star-infused illustrations and lyrical text underscore the sense of connection to the cosmos that Sagan shared with the world, whether pinpointing Earth’s place in the universe, showing the young Carl sky-gazing from his bedroom widow, or delineating the paths of the unmanned space probes that he helped to launch. “Wowie!”

twentytwocentsTwenty-two Cents: Muhammad Yunus and the Village Bank. By Paula Yoo. illus. by Jamel Akib. Lee & Low. 2014. Tr $18.95. ISBN 9781600606588.

Gr 2-5–From a boyhood spent in the bustling city of Chittagong (then part of India) to Yunus’s founding of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, Yoo traces the life and work of the professor and Nobel Laureate who pioneered the concept of microcredit: small, low-interest, no-collateral loans given to impoverished individuals (mostly women) that help to break the cycle of poverty. Rousing text and expressive jewel-toned paintings make the economic ideas accessible and convey Muhammad’s compassion, patient persistence, and unwavering conviction that one person—and only 22 cents—can make a difference.

wangarimaathaiWangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees. By Franck Prévot. illus. by Aurélia Fronty. Charlesbridge. 2015. Tr $17.95. ISBN 9781580896269.

Gr 2-6–Resplendent artwork in eye-pleasing peacock-feather hues complement this stunning picture book that commemorates the renowned Kenyan environmentalist, political activist, and Nobel Peace Prize honoree. Stylized folk paintings and poetic text emphasize Wangari’s quiet wisdom and close connection to nature as she explains to villagers and politicians alike that forests are “the most precious treasures of humanity,” founds the tree-planting Green Belt Movement to empower women and local tribes, and stands strong against a corrupt president to sow the seeds of democracy. Back matter, including photos and a timeline, support this discussion-starting biography.

Joy Fleishhacker About Joy Fleishhacker

Joy Fleishhacker is a librarian, former SLJ staffer, and freelance editor and writer who works at the Pikes Peak Library District in southern Colorado.



  1. I respect the work of all the innovators mentioned, however, 10 books and only one highlighted the genius of a woman. And we wonder why our girls run a poor second in self-esteem.

    • Joy Fleishhacker says:

      Thanks for your comment. Please help to expand this list by pointing out any 2014/2015 picture book biographies that you think are worth note.