Fascinating Past (and Present) Lives: Biography | Series Nonfiction

A rich and diverse lineup of biographies showcase fascinating subjects, from Alan Turning to Misty Copeland.

1611-sms-biographyStudents and teachers alike will find much to celebrate in this crop of biographies, whether they are looking for research materials or just trying to learn a little something new. Many of the series offer bright and colorful layouts and copious illustrations to hook younger readers or those reluctant to engage. But others aim for more mature readers with a deeper interest or broader vocabulary. In most cases, new takes on history class stalwarts are as fresh as profiles of contemporary celebrities. Many of the titles bring focus to young people facing relatable challenges with drive, creativity, and pluck.


Coleman, Miriam. The Life of Black Elk. ISBN 9781508148142; ISBN 9781508147909.

––––. The Life of Crazy Horse. ISBN 9781508148159; ISBN 9781508147893.

McAneney, Caitie. The Life of Sacagawea. ISBN 9781508148197; ISBN 9781508147862.

Nagelhout, Ryan. The Life of Joseph Brant. ISBN 9781508148173; ISBN 9781508147879.

Nelson, Kristen Rajczak. The Life of Pocahontas. ISBN 9781508148180; ISBN 9781508147855.

Niver, Heather Moore. The Life of Geronimo. ISBN 9781508148166; ISBN 9781508147886.

ea vol: 32p. (Native American Biographies). chron. glossary. index. photos. websites. PowerKids. Aug. 2016. lib. ed. $26.25. ebk. $26.25.

Gr 4-6 –Out of this set, some of the subjects are already well covered in existing biographies (Pocahontas and Sacagawea) and offer little new information, though the volume on Joseph Brant is a welcome addition. The perspective of Native Americans and the litany of betrayals and persecutions by the U.S. government and military, particularly in Crazy Horse and Black Elk, are well represented. Reluctant readers will be pleased to find the narratives presented in short blocks of text set in a colorful and decorative format. However, the back matter is minimal. Though illustrations are frequent, many images of paintings and drawings, some contemporaneous, are offered without context or credit. VERDICT Decent overviews for younger readers, but too thin for much research.

Ferguson, Melissa. Suzanne Collins: Author of the Hunger Games Trilogy. ISBN 9781515713265; ISBN 9781515713340.

Hunsicker, Jennifer. J.K. Rowling: Author of the Harry Potter Series. ISBN 9781515713289; ISBN 9781515713364.

Mortensen, Lori. Stephenie Meyer: Author of the Twilight Series. ISBN 9781515713296; ISBN 9781515713371.

––––. Veronica Roth: Author of the Divergent Trilogy. ISBN 9781515713272; ISBN 9781515713357.

ea vol: 32p. (Famous Female Authors). glossary. index. photos. websites. Capstone. Aug. 2016. lib. ed. $20.99. pap. $7.95.

Gr 3-6 –A gathering of contemporary, famous women authors. Text blocks are generally short and carry thematic headlines, a good draw for reluctant readers. Page layouts are visually dynamic. For example, stock photos of Veronica Roth’s home city of Chicago or a hand making editing marks on paper are well integrated, along with specific images of authors, their books, etc. Brief sidebars cover topics such as the rise of YA fiction or an overview of the New York publishing industry. Glossary entries are included at the bottoms of pages for ease of reference. Frequent quotations from authors are set apart in boxes, with dates and the given context. A “Read More” section contains references to books about writing. For web resources, readers are referred to a curated reference site, an extra step it seems unlikely many readers will take. VERDICT Solid introductory resources on intriguing, high-profile YA writers.

Hayes, Amy. Ada Lovelace: First Computer Programmer. ISBN 9781508148104; ISBN 9781508148005.

Kawa, Katie. Mark Zuckerberg: Founder of Facebook. ISBN 9781508148036; ISBN 9781508147992.

Machajewski, Sarah. Steve Jobs: Founder of Apple Inc. ISBN 9781508148043; ISBN 9781508147985.

Nagelhout, Ryan. Alan Turing: Master of Cracking Codes. ISBN 9781508148111; ISBN 9781508148012.

Niver, Heather Moore. Tim Berners-Lee: Inventor of the World Wide Web. ISBN 9781508148050; ISBN 9781508147978.

Roza, Greg. Bill Gates: Founder of Microsoft. ISBN 9781508148203; ISBN 9781508148029.

ea vol: 32p. (Computer Pioneers). chron. glossary. index. photos. websites. PowerKids. Aug. 2016. lib. ed. $26.25. ebk. $26.25.

Gr 4-6 –Besides common favorites like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, this series tackles other fascinating and essential figures in computer science history, including world wide web creator Tim Berners-Lee and 19th-century programming pioneer Ada Lovelace. Each subject’s childhood and early inspirations are explored. Layouts are colorful and well illustrated with stock and media images. Text blocks are typically brief. Sidebars elucidate concepts, for example, the working of Nazi codes in Turing or a thumbnail sketch of 19th-century Scottish mathematician Mary Fairfax Somerville in Lovelace. Some titles rely on photos credited to Wikimedia, still an alarm bell for some librarians, and narratives tend to veer into hyperbole, with an excessive use of exclamation points. There are no source notes or bibliography. VERDICT Overall, adequate introductions for sparking interest in technology and history.

Honders, Christine. Melinda Gates. ISBN 9781508148098; ISBN 9781508147930.

Kawa, Katie. Hillary Clinton. ISBN 9781508148067; ISBN 9781508147961.

McAneney, Caitie. Malala Yousafzai. ISBN 9781508148081; ISBN 9781508147947.

Machajewski, Sarah. Michelle Obama. ISBN 9781508148128; ISBN 9781508147923.

Mahoney, Emily. Kate Middleton. ISBN 9781508148074; ISBN 9781508147954.

Niver, Heather Moore. Ruth Bader Ginsburg. ISBN 9781508148135; ISBN 9781508147916.

ea vol: 32p. (Superwomen Role Models). chron. glossary. index. photos. websites. PowerKids. Aug. 2016. lib. ed. $26.25. ebk. $26.25.

Gr 3-4 –Despite the brevity of the content, much useful context is found here, such as an outline of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s legal reasoning. Frequent “In Her Words” sidebars showcase relevant quotations, culled from published or broadcast interviews, speeches, and letters. Photos include publicity portraits and more informal snapshots, for example, Malala Yousafzai recuperating in a London hospital, though none of the other subjects are portrayed as children. The focus on Hillary Clinton’s public service helps sidestep any uncertainty surrounding the fall election. However, it’s difficult to see Kate Middleton’s place among the other women, and the biography focuses more on her role as a princess than on her influence or achievements. A web address is provided for a curated list of online resources. VERDICT The series offers highly readable narratives about successful and prominent women, though most titles are less useful as research materials.

Juarez, Christine. Cesar Chavez. ISBN 9781515718925; ISBN 9781515719038.

––––. Ellen Ochoa. ISBN 9781515718888; ISBN 9781515718994.

––––. Hector P. Garcia. ISBN 9781515718918; ISBN 9781515719021.

––––. John “Danny” Olivas. ISBN 9781515718901; ISBN 9781515719014.

––––. José Antonio Navarro. ISBN 9781515718895; ISBN 9781515719007.

Shores, Erika L. Sonia Sotomayor. ISBN 9781515732594; ISBN 9781515732600.

ea vol: 24p. (Great Hispanic and Latino Americans). chron. glossary. index. photos. websites. Capstone. Aug. 2016. lib. ed. $16.49. pap. $5.96.

K-Gr 2 –These brief and amply illustrated selections provide basic outlines of prominent Hispanic and Latino Americans for younger readers, and several of the volumes portray current figures. However, Chavez, a figure who is generously profiled elsewhere, may be considered an additional purchase, and the title on José Antonio Navarro, a 19th-century advocate for Tejano rights, is an unusual fit in the series. A time line runs along the bottom of pages, noting milestones in the subjects’ lives. Sotomayor and Ochoa include photographs of their subjects as children, which could help establish connections with students. Olivas aptly and concisely characterizes his technological contribution to the space shuttle program. VERDICT Eye-catching introductions for lower elementary readers.

Kawa, Katie. Milton Hershey and the Chocolate Industry. ISBN 9781499421378; ISBN 9781499421385.

McAneney, Caitie. Madam C.J. Walker and Her Beauty Empire. ISBN 9781499421330; ISBN 9781499421347.

Machajewski, David. John Pierpont Morgan and the Banking Industry. ISBN 9781499421293; ISBN 9781499421309.

Nelson, Kristen Rajczak. Andrew Carnegie and the Steel Industry. ISBN 9781499421170; ISBN 9781499421187.

Niver, Heather Moore. Eli Whitney and the Industrial Revolution. ISBN 9781499421255; ISBN 9781499421262.

Shea, Therese. Cornelius Vanderbilt and the Railroad Industry. ISBN 9781499421217; ISBN 9781499421224.

ea vol: 32p. (Great Entrepreneurs in U.S. History). chron. glossary. index. photos. websites. PowerKids. Aug. 2016. lib. ed. $26.25. ebk. $26.25.

Gr 3-6 –The focus in each volume is on the ingenuity of the subject and the individual’s drive to overcome often difficult circumstances: C.J. Walker providing support for her daughter despite poverty, Milton Hershey enduring multiple failed business startups. Sidebars break up and complement the texts. For example, Walker includes an intriguing paragraph on an early mentor, hair product pioneer Annie Malone, while Vanderbilt addresses “What is a Robber Baron?” Photographs and other illustrations are plentiful and well documented. Even with the earlier historical figures (Whitney), stock images add flavor to the life and times. Additionally, the writing is straightforward but not oversimplified. VERDICT Worthwhile high interest introductions to significant figures in U.S. business history.

Murray, Laura K. Alex Morgan. ISBN 9781608186679; ISBN 9781566607032.

––––. Andrew Luck. ISBN 9781608186686; ISBN 9781566607049.

––––. Ariana Grande. ISBN 9781608186693; ISBN 9781566607056.

––––. Cristiano Ronaldo. ISBN 9781608186709; ISBN 9781566607063.

––––. Iggy Azalea. ISBN 9781608186716; ISBN 9781566607070.

––––. Stephen Curry. ISBN 9781608186723; ISBN 9781566607087.

ea vol: 24p. (The Big Time). further reading. glossary. index. photos. websites. Creative Education. Sept. 2016. lib. ed. $19.95. ebk. $28.50.

Gr 1-3 –Each of these brief biographies of celebrities opens with a fictionalized drama. For example, in Azalea, “She starts speaking so fast! Some of her words rhyme. The crowd claps and cheers!” Details are then offered about each subject’s childhood and family circumstances, as well as career progression. All of the titles, particularly Grande, are richly illustrated with recent media photos. The books close with themed quotations, none of which are cited or contextualized. Recommendations for further reading are spotty. The “Read More” sections of Morgan and Ronaldo each refer to the publisher’s biography of the other, though neither book mentions the other player. Indexes are very sparse. VERDICT While the series does provide coherent outlines of each celebrity’s life, the appeal is limited, even for reluctant or young readers.

Terp, Gail. Alex Morgan. ISBN 9781680720679; ISBN 9781680723175; ISBN 9781680721300.

––––. Bethany Mota. ISBN 9781680720686; ISBN 9781680723182; ISBN 9781680721317.

––––. Demi Lovato. ISBN 9781680720662; ISBN 9781680723168; ISBN 9781680721294.

––––. Malala Yousafzai. ISBN 9781680720648; ISBN 9781680723205; ISBN 9781680721331.

––––. Misty Copeland. ISBN 9781680720655; ISBN 9781680723151; ISBN 9781680721287.

––––. Taylor Swift. ISBN 9781680720693; ISBN 9781680723199; ISBN 9781680721324.

ea vol: 32p. (Women Who Rock). chart. chron. further reading. glossary. index. photos. websites. Black Rabbit/Bolt. Aug. 2016. lib. ed. $31.95. pap. $9.95. ebk. $31.95.

Gr 3-5 –Attractive presentation and current subject matter will attract potential readers. However, many of the narratives are vague, with key details left out. Birth dates are given, but there is little information about where the women were born or grew up, other than that Taylor Swift lived in Pennsylvania and Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. Often the information is vague. Misty Copeland suffered cracks in her “leg bone.” Alex Morgan played for a “college team” and a “professional team.” The layouts are very colorful and illustrations plentiful, though. (Yousafzai includes an informative graphic about Pakistan.) The series is distinguished by its inclusion of some subjects less often covered in print biographies, especially principal ballerina Copeland and YouTuber Bethany Mota. VERDICT Light on facts and breezily written, these are additional selections, especially where subjects are written about elsewhere.

Middle to High School

Allen, John. Great Magicians and Illusionists. ISBN 9781601529985; ISBN 9781601529992.

Allman, Toney. Women Scientists and Inventors. ISBN 9781682820322; ISBN 9781682820339.

Blohm, Craig. Great Cartoonists. ISBN 9781601529961; ISBN 9781601529978.

––––. Sci-Fi Directors. ISBN 9781682820308; ISBN 9781682820315.

Currie, Stephen. Women World Leaders. ISBN 9781682820346; ISBN 9781682820353.

Kallen, Stuart. Electronic Dance Music DJs. ISBN 9781601529664; ISBN 9781601529671.

––––. Internet Entrepreneurs. ISBN 9781682820285; ISBN 9781682820292.

Wilcox, Christine. Young Adult Authors. ISBN 9781682820360; ISBN 9781682820377.

Woog, Adam. Brand Empire Celebrities. ISBN 9781601529947; ISBN 9781601529954.

ea vol: 80p. (Collective Biographies). further reading. glossary. index. notes. photos. websites. ReferencePoint. Aug. 2016. lib. ed. $29.95. ebk. $39.95.

Gr 6-9 –Several titles here will provide useful overviews or starting points for further research. Young Adult Authors helpfully addresses the growing call for diversity in books for teens and features the late novelist Walter Dean Myers and sci-fi and fantasy author Nnedi Okorafor. Women World Leaders includes a chapter on Hillary Clinton, which will age quickly in the shadow of the 2016 election, but a chapter on Nobel Peace laureate and former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is informative and contextual. Women Scientists and Inventors brings focus to a number of fascinating but less widely celebrated figures, such as physicist Lise Meitner and pioneering neonatologist Virginia Apgar. All of the books contain comprehensive source notes divided by chapter. VERDICT Clearly written and well-documented short narratives suitable for formal research.

Bodden, Valerie. Vincent van Gogh. ISBN 9781608187218; ISBN 9781628323177; ISBN 9781566607568.

Fandel, Jennifer. Frank Lloyd Wright. ISBN 9781608187188; ISBN 9781628323146; ISBN 9781566607544.

––––. Pablo Picasso. ISBN 9781608187201; ISBN 9781628323160; ISBN 9781566607865.

Richardson, Adele. Michelangelo. ISBN 9781608187195; ISBN 9781628323153; ISBN 9781566607551.

Riggs, Kate. Ernest Hemingway. ISBN 9781608187171; ISBN 9781628323139; ISBN 9781566607537.

––––. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. ISBN 9781608187225; ISBN 9781628323184; ISBN 9781566607575.

ea vol: 80p. (Odysseys in Artistry). bibliog. chron. glossary. index. maps. photos. reprods. Creative Education. Sept. 2016. lib. ed. $29.95. pap. $14.99. ebk. $42.80.

Gr 7 Up –The works of visual artists profiled are reproduced in numerous richly colored illustrations. For premodern subjects (Mozart), images are no less copious, including paintings, engravings, maps, and, especially in the case of Michelangelo, high-resolution photographs of 16th-century sculptures. Each title concludes with a section outlining the artist’s approach as noted in lengthy quotations from interviews, letters, or published works. While the narratives are detailed and clear-eyed, they occasionally skip over long stretches of time. In Picasso, the text moves from the early to mature artist in only a few pages. All of the subjects are male and either European or American. Back matter is somewhat sparse, with each volume including an adequate time line and glossary but only a brief print bibliography. VERDICT Lushly presented overviews of influential artists in many fields, especially appealing for the artistically inclined.

Coddington, Andrew. Henry David Thoreau: Writer of the Transcendentalist Movement. ISBN 9781502619280; ISBN 9781502619297.

––––. Thomas Jefferson: Architect of the Declaration of Independence. ISBN 9781502619242; ISBN 9781502619259.

Cunningham, Meghan Engsberg. W.E.B. Du Bois: Co-Founder of the NAACP. ISBN 9781502619266; ISBN 9781502619273.

Griffiths, Katie. Harriet Beecher Stowe: Author and Abolitionist. ISBN 9781502619303; ISBN 9781502619310.

Rohan, Rebecca. Thurgood Marshall: The First African-American Supreme Court Justice. ISBN 9781502619327; ISBN 9781502619334.

Ryckman, Tatiana. Alexander Hamilton: The First Secretary of the Treasury and an Author of the Federalist Papers. ISBN 9781502619341; ISBN 9781502619358.

ea vol: 128p. (Great American Thinkers). bibliog. chron. further reading. notes. photos. reprods. websites. Cavendish Square. Aug. 2016. lib. ed. $45.64. ebk. $45.64.

Gr 9 Up –In-depth historical context situates the subjects in broader trends, for example, setting Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin against the intricacies of the 19th-century slavery debate or Thurgood Marshall’s early law career within the segregated Jim Crow environment of early 20th-century America. Appropriate illustrations are provided throughout, including period paintings, engravings, and, when possible, photographs. The artwork is integrated into the narrative with informative captions. Several useful photos feature a contemporary replica of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin on Walden Pond. Materials for further research are abundant at the close of each volume, with source notes by page number, a detailed time line, and references to relevant museums. The level of the writing and complexity of the arguments place these titles soundly in the upper high school range. VERDICT A very strong look at U.S. political philosophy viewed through history.

Gitlin, Martin. Chaz Bono. ISBN 9781508171577; ISBN 9781508171539.

Mapua, Jeff. Lana Wachowski. ISBN 9781508171607; ISBN 9781508171560.

Mooney, Carla. Caitlyn Jenner. ISBN 9781508171584; ISBN 9781508171546.

Staley, Erin. Laverne Cox. ISBN 9781508171591; ISBN 9781508171553.

ea vol: 112p. (Transgender Pioneers). bibliog. chron. further reading. glossary. index. photos. websites. Rosen YA. Aug. 2016. lib. ed. $31.10. ebk. $37.10.

Gr 7 Up –Details about the subjects’ lives are carefully woven around narratives of their challenges and milestones in understanding and transitioning to their gender identities. Sidebars sensitively treat issues such as the complications of gender pronouns and showcase prominent transgender figures in related fields, such as film composer Wendy Carlos in Wachowski and tennis star Renée Richards in Jenner. Occasional photos of the subjects before transition, coupled with captions using preferred pronouns, may be jarring for some readers. Each title concludes with an annotated time line, further reading recommendations, and extensive bibliography, as well as references to organizations serving and advocating for transgender people. VERDICT The series is highly recommended: sensitively yet uncompromisingly presented, clearly and comprehensively written, while covering intriguing and current subjects.

Throughout these series, narratives are strong, encompassing a wide range of reading levels. ReferencePoint’s “Collective Biographies” features shorter overviews of standout personalities in a wide range of fields, including club DJs and sci-fi film directors. Others present unusually rich resources, such as Creative Education’s “Odysseys in Artistry,” with its extensive quotations from subjects’ own words. A few of the collections include first-rate research materials, for example, Cavendish Square’s “Great American Thinkers.” Some branch out to highlight important figures not often profiled, such as Mohawk military leader Joseph Brant (Powerkids’ “Native American Biographies”). Still others, as in Creative Education’s “The Big Time,” bring attention to current stars like Stephen Curry, offering high-interest reads with contemporary appeal.

Bob Hassett, Luther Jackson Middle School, Falls Church, VA

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