Latinx Luminaries: Picture book biographies featuring Latinx superstars | Great Books

The United States Census reported that the Hispanic population accounted for almost 20 percent of the U.S. population in 2020. However, only five percent of children’s books feature Latinx characters or subjects. Thankfully, more picture book biographies are being published about groundbreaking Latinx luminaries every year. These are some must-add choices for your collections.

The United States Census reported that the Hispanic population accounted for almost 20 percent of the U.S. population in 2020. According to an infographic released in 2019 by Sarah Park Dahlen, an associate professor of MLIS at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, MN, and illustrator David Huyck, only five percent of children’s books feature Latinx characters or subjects. And out of that small selection, many of these titles often examine the same subjects or historical figures over and over again. Thankfully, more picture book biographies are being published about groundbreaking Latinx luminaries every year. Here are some must-add choices for your collections.

Individual Biographies


DENISE, Anika Aldamuy. Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré. illus. by Paola Escobar. Harpercollins/Harper. 2019. ISBN 9780062748683; Spanish ed. ISBN 9781400212644.
K-Gr 3 –This lovely tribute to the first Puerto Rican librarian of the New York Public Library has won rave reviews and accolades, including the book award named after its subject. Pura Belpré forged a path for all librarians of color as a foremother of bilingual story times and an advocate for underrepresented communities. Denise’s lyrical text is peppered with Spanish words throughout and reflects Belpré’s own storytelling skills. Escobar’s inviting art shines. The warm hues and luscious colors echo the librarian’s use of a candle for story times. This breathtaking work of art makes for a memorable read-aloud.

ENGLE, Margarita. Dancing Hands: When Teresa Carreño Played the Piano for President Lincoln. illus. by Rafael López. S. & S./Atheneum. 2019. ISBN 9781481487405.
PreS-Gr 2 –The duo, who previously collaborated on Bravo!: Poems About Amazing Hispanics, offer a soaring biography about a child musician. Engle expands her extensive oeuvre about talented and singular women to detail the story of Venezuelan prodigy Teresa Carreño, who by six years old was an established pianist and composer. Escaping a civil war in their own country, her family found themselves in the middle of the American Civil War. Young Teresa was invited to play for President Lincoln in 1863, where she briefly comforted the First Family after the death of their son. Engle’s text and López’s illustrations are in perfect harmony in this empowering and joyful symphony.

KUNKEL, Angela Burke. Digging for Words: José Alberto Gutiérrez and the Library He Built. illus. by Paola Escobar. Random/Schwartz & Wade. Sept. 2020. ISBN 9781984892638; Spanish ed. ISBN 9780593181706.
Gr 1-3 –This debut picture book extols the power of stories and children’s right to access them. A garbage collector in Bogotá, Colombia, is galvanized to create a community library of all the volumes he finds on his nightly route. A little boy, also named José, delights in the fascinating tomes that José Alberto Gutiérrez collects. Based on Gutiérrez’s life, this imaginative interpretation of his legacy is librarian catnip and will be enjoyed by young readers. The spreads brim with Escobar’s majestic renderings, interpreting scenes from One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Little Prince. Back matter includes photos of the real “Lord of the Books” and information about his foundation La Fuerza de las Palabras.

LAÍNEZ, René Colato. My Shoes and I: Crossing Three Borders/Mis zapatos y yo: Cruzando tres fronteras. illus. by Fabricio Vanden Broeck. Arte Publico/Piñata. 2019. ISBN 9781558858848. BL
K-Gr 3
–This bilingual picture book showcases a timely and touching story inspired by Laínez’s own journey from El Salvador to the United States. René’s shiny shoes, sent to him from the States by his mother, slowly become tattered and broken down by the arduous trip across three borders. Using the shoes as a metaphor makes this experience more tangible. Vanden Broeck captures the spirit of the tale without talking down to the audience. This book illuminates the very real experience of many young children today.

RUSCH, Elizabeth. Mario and the Hole in the Sky: How a Chemist Saved Our Planet. illus. by Teresa Martínez. Charlesbridge. 2019. ISBN 9781580895811; Spanish ed. ISBN 9781580895828.
Gr 1-4 –This STEM-rich picture book biography celebrates the life of living scientist Mario Molina, a Mexican chemist who was a member of the team that discovered the harm of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) on Earth, including the deterioration of the ozone layer. The corecipient of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Molina was always a curious child. With a scientist aunt and the support of his family, young Mario was able to study medicine and eventually chemistry. Rusch’s straightforward text is perfect for explaining a complex topic like global warming. Martínez’s illustrations are inviting, which might make wary students warm up to STEM fields. The back matter is excellent. A wonderful and enlightening work that will inspire future scientists and activists.

TONATIUH, Duncan. Soldier for Equality: José de la Luz Sáenz and the Great War. illus. by author. Abrams. 2019. ISBN 9781419736827.
Gr 1-3 –In this Pura Belpré Honor book, Tonatiuh proves his mastery of children’s nonfiction once again. His latest spotlights Mexican American educator, veteran, and activist José de la Luz Sáenz. The cofounder of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), a social justice organization founded in 1929 that fights for Latinx rights, didn’t receive a warm welcome in the States after his return from fighting in the Great War. He spent the rest of his life advocating for the rights of Mexican Americans and other marginalized groups. The author-illustrator’s signature pre-Columbian style creates a strong contrast between the Latinx and white characters. The use of de la Luz Sáenz’s handwriting is an inspired touch.

Upper Elementary/Middle School

BROWN, Monica. Sharuko: El arqueólogo Peruano Julio C. Tello/Peruvian Archaeologist Julio C. Tello. illus. by Elisa Chavarri. tr. by Adriana Domínguez. Lee & Low/Children’s Pr. Aug. 2020. ISBN 9780892394234. BL
Gr 2-5
–Pura Belpré–winning author Brown, who is of Peruvian heritage, presents a stirring biography about a Peruvian doctor and archaeologist who shone a light on his country’s Native population. Even as a boy, curious Julio, aka Sharuko (“brave” in Quechua), loved to explore the nearby caves in the Andes, where he found centuries-old skulls. Years later, he would unearth discoveries about Peru’s Indigenous roots. Chavarri, also Peruvian, lends an added layer of appreciation for the nation’s original peoples with a palette of bright yellows, earthy browns, and jewel-tone reds, and symbols harkening back to the Quechua language. Illuminating and meaningful.

LÓPEZ, Silvia. Queen of Tejano Music: Selena. illus. by Paola Escobar. Little Bee. Aug. 2020. ISBN 9781499811421; Spanish ed. ISBN 9781499811438.
Gr 2-5 –Unbelievably, this is the first picture book treatment of the iconic singer, designer, and philanthropist who was murdered 25 years ago. López describes the origins and rise of Selena Quintanilla. Shaped early on by her family’s love of music, the hardworking and talented entertainer became a member of the family’s band as a child. Despite barriers to success, such as sexism, financial instability, and her lack of proficiency in Spanish, the young Mexican American woman skyrocketed to stardom. Escobar elevates the sometimes expansive text with her lush, energetic illustrations. The art is so striking that readers will want to linger on each page. A rose motif is present throughout, a homage to Selena’s hit song “Como la flor.” Back matter elaborates on the music artist’s tragic end. A moving tribute.

NICKEL, Sandra. Nacho’s Nachos: The Story Behind the World’s Favorite Snack. illus. by Oliver Dominguez. Lee & Low. Aug. 2020. ISBN 9781620143698.
Gr 3-6 –This scrumptious tale introduces young readers to Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya, the inventor of the delicious snack. Nacho loved to be in the kitchen from an early age; he often devoured his foster mother’s yummy quesadillas. Later, he became a chef, in addition to a waiter and maître d’ at a popular restaurant on the Mexico-U.S. border. One day, hoping to satisfy a foodie customer, Nacho came up with a new dish. Dominguez’s images, rendered in acrylic, gouache, watercolor, and pencil, capture the textured feel of the golden snack. The expressive faces and body movements will engage readers and lend humor and whimsy to the book. Multiple sources are included in the back matter, in addition to an author’s note, further information about Anaya, and a family photo.

Collective Biographies


HEREDIA, David. Little Heroes of Color: 50 Who Made a Big Difference. illus. by author. Scholastic/Cartwheel. 2019. ISBN 9781338326420.
PreS-K –Although this collective biography for preschoolers focuses on heroes of many ethnicities, many of those selected are of Latinx descent. One-sentence biographies accompany adorable, childlike illustrations of the subjects, including Dominican fashion icon Oscar de la Renta, Panamanian activist and educator Silvia Carrera, and Puerto Rican astrophysicist Wanda Díaz-Merced. The bright, eye-catching images will inspire joy.

REYNOSO, Naibe. Be Bold! Be Brave!: 11 Latinas Who Made U.S. History/!Sé audaz! !Sé valiente!: 11 Latinas que hicieron historia en Estados Unidos. tr. by María García & Vanessa Saenz. 2019. ISBN 9781733710305.
-----Fearless Trailblazers: 11 Latinos Who Made U.S. History/Pioneros audaces: 11 Latinos que hicieron historia en Estados Unidos. tr. by Victoria Infante. Apr. 2020. ISBN 9781733710350.
ea vol: illus. by Jone Leal. Con Todo. BL
Gr 1-3
–These adorable volumes herald the great contributions of past and present Latinx icons. Each subject’s accomplishments are summed up in three to five sentences in English on the recto and in Spanish on the verso. Leal’s charming illustrations depict the figures as children dressed in vibrant colors, making these volumes even more kid-friendly and engaging. In Be Bold! Be Brave!, the usual suspects (Ellen Ochoa, Frida Kahlo, Pura Belpré) are featured, in addition to NPR journalist Maria Hinojosa; Antonia Novello, the first female U.S. surgeon general; and artist Judy Baca. In Fearless Trailblazers, Broadway composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, activist César Chávez, and politician Julián Castro make appearances, as do astronaut José Hernández, physicist and inventor Albert Báez, and civil rights activist Rubén Salazar. Very cute, browsable, and informative. A board book is also available for Be Bold! Be Brave!


Upper Elementary/Middle School

FERNÁNDEZ, Pedro J. Había una vez…Mexicanas que hicieron historia. illus. by various. Alfaguara Infantil. 2019. ISBN 9786073176040.
Gr 3-7 –From Macuilxochitzin, an Aztec poetess, to present-day astronaut Carmen Victoria Félix, 50 women of Mexican descent are highlighted in this fascinating Spanish-language collective biography. In four to six pages, each person narrates her life story and shows how she has made an impact on the world. The tone of the vignettes alternates from playful to righteous anger; all of the profiles will leave readers empowered to make a difference in their communities. Preceding the entries are illustrations of the featured women by 13 different artists that showcase varying styles. Some are straightforward portraits, others are reminiscent of caricature art, and others appear to be abstract. This excellent volume will do well where the “Rebel Girls” books are popular.


More Recommended Latinx Nonfiction

These additional titles highlight how trailblazers of the past and present have broken through barriers to impact their communities.


GOLIO, Gary. Carlos Santana: Sound of the Heart, Song of the World. illus. by Rudy Gutierrez. Holt. 2018. ISBN 9781627795128.
Gr 1-4–Part of Golio’s (Smile) growing portfolio of musician and artist biographies, this title follows the journey of the legendary guitaristwho went from playing the violin at six years old to breaking the barriers among music genres. The electrifying narrative is accompanied by Gutierrez’s groovy acrylic art, reminiscent of Carlos Santana’s mariachi roots and echoing his rise to fame during the 1960s. The illustrator also created the cover of the subject’s Shaman album. Out of sight.

LAÍNEZ, René Colato. Telegrams to Heaven: The Childhood of Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero/Telegramas al cielo: La infancia de Monseñor Óscar Arnulfo Romero. illus. by Pixote Hunt. Lectorum. 2017. ISBN 9780964120327. BL
Gr 2-4 –It’s not often that a religious figure gets a picture book biography treatment. This homage to the Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez by the award-winning Laínez (also Salvadoran),  recounts the childhood of the Nobel Peace Prize nominee who shared his light with all he met. Hunt’s joyful illustrations add levity to the work and organically combine with Laínez’s buoyant text.


Upper Elementary/Middle School

HALE, Christy. All Equal: A Ballad of Lemon Grove/Todos Igulaes: Un corrido de Lemon Grove. illus. by author. Lee & Low. 2019. ISBN 9780892394272. BL
Gr 3-6 –The first successful desegregation case in the United States took place 23 years before Brown v. Board of Education. The Mexican American and “Anglo” American residents of Lemon Grove, CA, united to fight against school segregation. The school board planned to create an inferior school for the Mexican American students. Hale’s narrative takes the “ballad” in its title literally. The tale is preceded by a corrido, and the text has an epic feel to it. The illustrations, done with gouache and relief-printing inks, adroitly depict the culturally rich community and central figures.

SIERRA, Sarah & Stephen Haff. Becoming Kid Quixote: A True Story of Belonging in America. HarperCollins/Harper. Apr. 2020. ISBN 9780062943262.
Gr 3-6 –This young readers companion to Kid Quixotes centers the experience of a 10-year-old Mexican American girl from Brooklyn. Sarah is a member of a traveling performance group that has infused relevant and timely topics into their adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote. Sarah’s kid-friendly narration is matter-of-fact and warm. Readers will relate to her diary-like entries about her family life and shyness while taking on the role of dreamer knight. They will also connect with her entries about her immigrant family and cultural traditions. An empowering memoir.

SILVA, Jesse with Brin Stevens. My Corner of the Ring. Putnam. 2019. ISBN 9780525518402.
Gr 6 Up –Olympic hopeful Jesselyn "JessZilla" Silva has been boxing since she was seven years old. The 12-year-old New Jersey native shares her difficult climb to success in the male-dominated sport. With the support of her family and coach, Jesse has pushed hard to excel in boxing, despite bouts with older and experienced fighters. Especially challenging is finding other female partners to spar with—because, without those matches, she won’t be able to qualify for the Olympics. An inspiring memoir that will motivate tweens to strive for their dreams, regardless of the obstacles that may come their way. 

Shelley M. Diaz, formerly the SLJ Reviews Manager, is a youth selector at BookOps: Brooklyn Public Library and New York Public Library.

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Leatrice Floyd

Oh my gosh, I am elated and yet tearfully emotional while viewing the trove of literature reflecting the rich culture and life experiences of Latinx. I was just contemplating preparation for Latin Heritage Month (Sept-Oct). I wanted it to be both adequate and positively representative. I am submitting this list to my principal ASAP to purchase.

Posted : Jul 29, 2020 03:44



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