The United States v. Jackie Robinson

Picture book, biography
Interest level: elementary and middle school
5 out of 5 stars

It is well-known that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, but this book does not focus on that part of his life. The author has chosen to focus on Robinson’s time in the military and the stand he took against racism during that time.

This story is important for children so they can see that Robinson was more than a gifted athlete, and that he faced racism while serving in the U.S. military. It makes him a multidimensional civil rights icon.

The United States v. Jackie Robinson
written by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen; illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
Balzer + Bray, 2018
ISBN 978-0-06-2287847

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Picture book, autobiography
Interest level: grades 1 through 5
5 out of 5 stars

This is the autobiography of a young boy who taught himself how to turn trash into a working windmill to generate electricity and pump water for his family’s farm in Malawi, Africa. During a famine, his family can no longer afford to pay for William Kamkwamba to attend high school. He discovers the local public library, where his fascination with machines and how they work leads him to read about windmills. His perseverance and ingenuity enable him to help his family and village learn to survive the seasons of drought.

Kamkwamba’s story is a story in perseverance and using resources around you. The story makes a perfect addition to a maker space and is ideal for a real-world example of the engineering design process.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind
by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer; pictures by Elizabeth Zunon
Dial Books for Young Readers, 2012
ISBN 978-0-8037-3511-8

The Youngest Marcher: the story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a young civil rights activist

Audrey Faye Hendricks is one of the lesser-known figures of the civil rights movement. At the age of nine, she played a significant role in wiping out Birmingham’s segregation laws.

Picture book, biography, Civil Rights movement
Interest level: grades 1-5; Reading level: 4.7
4 out of 5 stars

This is a strong addition to Civil Rights books that have been published for children in recent years. Children often only hear of Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and I feel it is important to expand the narrative to include some of the other human stories of the movement.

What makes Audrey Faye Hendricks unique and such a great story for children, is that she was nine years old when she first stood up to injustice and made a difference. Not only is this story important because it expands the scope of the Civil Rights movement for young readers, but because it gives them a hero that is their age. That’s an important message for children — seeking to end injustice is not restricted by age.

The illustrations by Vanessa Brantley Newton are perfect. While they have a comic-like feel, they are still powerful. This scene of Hendricks in a jail cell is an evocative depiction of how it must have felt for Hendricks as the youngest marcher arrested. It was tough for her to remain strong in those conditions.

The back of the book includes an Author’s Note that tells more about Hendricks, including information about her adult life, a Civil Rights time line, a recipe for Hot Rolls Baptized in Butter, and a list of bibliographic sources.

This book is well-researched and presented in a sensitive manner for young readers. It helps children understand that there were many people involved in gaining civil rights for people of color, not just Rosa Parks and Dr. King.

The youngest marcher: the story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a young civil rights activist
by Cynthia Levinson; illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2017
ISBN 978-1-4814-0070-1

Radiant Child: the story of young artist Jean-Michel Basquiat

An amazing picture book biography of Jean-Michel Basquiat that focuses on his life as a boy and his love of art.

Radiant child : the story of young artist Jean-Michel Basquiat
by Steptoe, Javaka
Little, Brown and Company, 2016
ISBN 978-0-316-21388-2
Picture book, biography
1 volume (unpaged) : color illustrations ; 29 cm
Dewey: 740; Int Lvl: K-5; Rd Lvl: 5.2
Lexile measure: 1050
5 out of 5 stars

Radiant Child is a biography geared to young readers that introduces Jean-Michel Basquiat and focuses on his early life. As a young boy, Jean-Michel grew up in Brooklyn, creating drawings from the moment he woke up until he went to bed and dreamed of images.

His drawings are not neat or clean, nor does he color inside the lines. They are sloppy, ugly, and sometimes weird, but somehow still BEAUTIFUL.

He was heavily influenced by his Puerto Rican mother who would take him to to museums, draw with him on the floor, and help him see art in the everyday world around him. His mother had a mental illness and was removed from their home. He spent the rest of her life visiting and sharing his artwork with her.

As a teenager, Jean-Michel moved to New York City and would stay with friends while creating artwork first as a graffiti artist, but then creating collage-style works for gallery exhibitions. He would paint and collage on “anything he could find.” The same words that described his art as a child, continue to describe his professional artwork:

His drawings are not neat or clean, nor does he color inside the lines. They are sloppy, ugly, and sometimes weird, but somehow still BEAUTIFUL.

Javaka Steptoe has created a book that should be held as the standard for children’s picture book biographies. He has selected an interesting, yet lesser-known individual who plays a significant part in the modern art movement. Steptoe states in an author’s note in the back

Basquiat’s success seemed to me to begin an era of inclusion and diversity in fine arts where there had been little to none. This meant as a young African American artist coming up that my chances of having my voice heard and achieving mainstream success were majorly expanded.

In addition to an interesting person, Steptoe has created captivating illustrations that were inspired by Basquiat and are interpretations of his work. This provides the reader with a sense of what Basquiat’s art was like on each page of the story. There is further information in the back of the book that provides more details about Basquiat, including information about his adult life and early death. Steptoe also clues readers in to recurring motifs and symbolism in Basquiat’s paintings and provides an author’s note to detail what he hopes readers understand from his book. While I find Steptoe’s illustrations captivating and engaging, I would have liked the information in the back of the book to include at least one of Basquiat’s original works for comparison.

Overall, this book is an exemplary picture book biography that is perfect for young readers. It could be used in art classes to begin a creative session where students create art using found materials from their environment. In the opening “About This Book,” Steptoe states that “I invite my readers to create using the materials, people, and places in their environment.” This book is meant to be an active part of expressing creativity.

The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbably Life of Paul Erdos

A fascinating story about a quirky mathematician whose collaborations changed the world of mathematics.

The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbably Life of Paul Erdos
by Deborah Heiligman, pictures by LeUyen Pham
Roaring Brook Press, 2013
ISBN 978-1-59643-307-6
Picture book, biography, nonfiction, narrative
Dewey: 510.92, biography
Description: 37 pages : color illustrations ; 26 cm
YHBA intermediate nominee, 2015-2016
Interest level: K-3; Reading level: 1.8
4 out of 5 stars

I feel dual purpose books are very effective and are appropriate for many different genres. The idea of entertaining several different levels of maturity at once is something that children’s cartoons have been doing forever. If you’ve ever sat through a Disney movie as an adult, you will notice that young children laugh at different things than the adults do.

In a similar way, a book can also appeal to multiple audiences. The Boy Who Loved Math: the improbably life of Paul Erdos is a picture book that has a first/second grade reading level and is meant to appeal to lower elementary age children. The text and style of illustrations tell the story of a quirky boy who loved math, but had difficulties in most other areas of life. Children will love the part of the story where he learns to butter his bread as an adult.

The author and illustrator haven’t just created a picture book for elementary age readers, however. The many pages of author and illustrator notes in the back add depth to the book and make it usable up through high school. It is almost like solving a puzzle to go back through the illustrations and locate all the different types of prime numbers that have been included.

By appealing to multiple age levels, The Boy Who Loved Math is a book that can be used to share interests between adults and children. I feel that the wider a book can be read and shared, the longer life and greater impact that book will have. What is impressive about The Boy Who Loved Math is that there are not many books about famous mathematicians. Most don’t make for very interesting stories.

The Boy Who Loved Math was nominated for a 2015-2016 Young Hoosier Book Award. I am guessing that this book was probably nominated by an adult who felt this was a worthwhile book for children. Most children would not seek this book out on their own. By appealing to a wide audience, this book was nominated for an award and was seen by a larger audience than it would have if the illustrations and back notes were not as extensive.

A Poem for Peter: the story of Ezra Jack Keats and the creation of The Snowy Day

A Poem for Peter is an outstanding work of narrative nonfiction that functions as both biography, and background information for Ezra Jack Keat’s most well-known picture book, The Snowy Day.

A Poem for Peter: the story of Ezra Jack Keats and the Creation of The Snowy Day
by Andrea Davis Pinkney; pictures by Lou Fancer & Steve Johnson
Viking, 2016
ISBN 978-0-425-28768-2
Picture book, biography, nonfiction, narrative verse
52 pages : color illustrations ; 25 x 28 cm
Interest Level: grades 2 and up; Reading Level: 3.2
5 out of 5 stars

In A Poem for Peter, Andrea Davis Pinkney has created a book that pays homage to Keats’ award winning book, A Snowy Day, as well as provides a biography of the fascinating man who created Peter and shared his snowy interlude with the world.

As a biography, Pinkney uses a narrative verse style to tell the story of Keats’ early life, from birth until he wrote A Snowy Day in 1962. This style of writing makes an excellent read-aloud experience, and is an engaging way to introduce younger children to the idea of reading a biography for pleasure. Many students do not think of biographies for pleasure reading, but this book would make an excellent example of nonfiction books that read like fiction.

A Poem for Peter starts with a biography of Keats, who was born Jacob (Jack) Ezra Katz. His parents were Polish immigrants who struggled to provide for the family in Brooklyn, New York. From a very young age, Ezra was a gifted artist, but his father was “worried about his son’s dream. Feared for what he couldn’t see. An artist was a strange, impractical thing to be. You couldn’t earn a decent wage giving imagination wings.” Secretly though, his father would save money to buy paint for Ezra, who also had the support of teachers and friends.

The day before Ezra was to graduate from high school, his father died of a heart attack, and his dreams of attending art school went away. Part of what makes A Poem for Peter such a wonderful tribute to Keats is that the illustrations are created using the collage style that Keats himself used in his books. The image that is on the page telling about his father’s death, is incredibly powerful:
Untitled You can see the cap and gown, as well as the road that he was all set to travel, disintegrating into fragments. The story continues with Keats working odd jobs to earn money, joining the Air Force during WWII, and then working on comic books, until finally he is given the opportunity to create his own picture book. Pinkney has included a thread throughout the story that lets us see how all of Keats’ life has led him to create Peter and his snowy escapades. The illustrators even include original source documents to show where Keats got the idea for Peter: Untitled
For over 20 years, Keats carried this clipping from Life magazine, until he found the perfect use for the image of the expressive young boy.

I have always loved the simple, yet timeless story that is told in The Snowy Day. The joy of playing in the snow as a child was perfectly conveyed by Ezra Jack Keats using a collage style for illustrations. Peter’s story is one that all children can relate to and that brings back fond memories for adults.

What is truly amazing about The Snow Day is that it features a black child who is meant to represent the common experiences of childhood. In 1962, Keats noticed that the main characters in books that he was being paid to illustrate were all white. Keats had this to say about Peter:

“Then began an experience that turned my life around,” he wrote, “working on a book with a black kid as hero. None of the manuscripts I’d been illustrating featured any black kids—except for token blacks in the background. My book would have him there simply because he should have been there all along. Years before I had cut from a magazine a strip of photos of a little black boy. I often put them on my studio walls before I’d begun to illustrate children’s books. I just loved looking at him. This was the child who would be the hero of my book.” (from Ezra Jack Keats Foundation:

I highly recommend this book to all teachers and librarians, especially for upper elementary and older. This book, through both the biographical story, as well as the additional information in the back — Ezra’s Legacy; Keats, the Collage Poet; list of books written and illustrated by Keats; and a list of sources — provides a complete picture of what life was like during 1962 and why The Snow Day was such an important contribution to children’s literature.

Lesson ideas
School librarians could open a study of Ezra Jack Keats and The Snowy Day at the beginning of winter. The librarian could read A Poem for Peter to build inquiry, then follow up with a reading of The Snowy Day. Then, using ideas from the Novel Engineering website (, the librarian could lead students through a problem-based learning activity that has them solving some of the problems Peter faces in the story using engineering design process. What could students design and create that would keep the snowball from melting in his coat pocket? Is there a machine that could help Peter participate in the snowball fight with the older kids?

Ezra Jack Keats Foundation lesson plans and activities:
There are lots of fun activities that can extend the story of The Snowy Day. There is a read-aloud of the story on this site as well. There is also an author’s biography that is intended for children, as well as quotes from famous people who share their memories of The Snowy Day.

Scholastic Ezra Jack Keats author study:
This site includes extension activities and lessons plans. There is also a science themed lesson plan for The Snowy Day.

Bad News for Outlaws: the remarkable life of Bass Reeves, deputy U.S. marshal

This is an extremely well-written biography about a little known hero of the west. Bad News for Outlaws makes for an excellent read-aloud for older elementary classrooms, and is a great companion text for units on slavery, the Old West, or life after the Civil War.

Bad News for Outlaws: the remarkable life of Bass Reeves, deputy U.S. marshall
by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson; illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
Carolrhoda Books, Minneapolis, 2009
ISBN 978-0-8225-6764-6
Picture book, biography, nonfiction, narrative
Coretta Scott King Author Award, 2010; YHBA intermediate book nominee, 2011-2012
Description: 41 p. : ill. (chiefly col.) ; 31 cm.
Dewey: 363.28
Interest Level: 3-6; Reading Level: 5.5
Lexile measure: 860
5 out of 5 stars

The story starts out with an exciting showdown which completely grabs the reader’s attention and draws them into the story of Bass Reeves — “Bass ducked his head, dove off his horse, and rolled to his feet just as a fourth bullet clipped his hat brim.”

Much of Bass Reeve’s story reads like a tall tale. From his imposing size to his impressive record capturing outlaws, Vaunda Nelson shares remarkable stories that bring this former slave and lawman to life. The tone of the text sounds like an old fashioned western, so the glossary in the back is helpful to young readers who are probably not familiar with phrases such as “didn’t cotton to,” which means didn’t like.

Christie’s illustrations are bold paintings that capture the vast and untamed land, as well as show Bass as a proud and impressive figure, in his signature black coat, hat, and badge.

The back of the book includes a glossary, timeline, suggestions for further reading, and a detailed bibliography. Nelson has done a thorough job researching Bass Reeves and has carefully documented as much dialogue and information as she can. This is important so that readers are not misled and know they are learning facts. There is also a very moving Author’s Note that talks about the importance of learning about a black hero of the Old West.

While the stories about chasing down outlaws is intriguing, this story also provides an introduction into the history of Indian Territory, as well as what life was like for slaves after the Civil War. This information is not glossed over, but is presented in a sensitive manner that is appropriate for young readers.

Additional Resources

Lesson Plan from Coretta Scott King Book Awards:

Lesson Plan from Illinois School Library Media Association:

Lesson Plan from Social Studies Research and Practice:

Bass Reeves video (contains vintage photographs and reading of his obituary):