The books recommended below were all published within the last several years and reviewed by The Horn Book Magazine. Grade levels are only suggestions; the individual child is the real criterion.
Suggested grade level for each entry: K–3
Emma’s Poem: The Voice of the Statue of Liberty written by Linda Glaser; illus. by Claire A. Nivola (Houghton)
This account of how Emma Lazarus came to write her iconic poem is brief, yet telling — especially when complemented by bright, eloquent illustrations. 32 pages.
Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring written by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan; illus. by Brian Floca (Roaring Brook/Flash Point/Porter)
Choreographer Graham, composer Aaron Copland, and sculptor/set designer Isamu Noguchi collaborate on the iconic Appalachian Spring. Concise sentences and an energetic line echo Graham’s approach to dance: nothing’s wasted, and in such exactness lies beauty. 48 pages.
Annie and Helen by Deborah Hopkinson; illus. by Raul Colón (Random/Schwartz & Wade)
This book looks at challenges Helen Keller and teacher Annie Sullivan faced and surmounted. Peppered with excerpts from Annie’s letters, the book considers Annie’s point of view and strength of character as much as Helen’s. 40 pages.
Sarah Emma Edmonds Was a Great Pretender: The True Story of a Civil War Spy written by Carrie Jones; illus. by Mark Oldroyd (Carolrhoda)
Sarah Edmonds, disguised as a man, fought alongside and spied for Union troops during the Civil War. Jones enumerates these feats with touches of humor, and she continues Sarah’s story throughout the war and her subsequent marriage. 32 pages.
Rachel Carson and Her Book That Changed the World written by Laurie Lawlor; illus. by Laura Beingessner (Holiday)
From the naturalist’s early fascination with wildlife to her determination to finish Silent Spring before her death, this accessible account covers a commendable amount of information. Spacious ink and tempera spreads reflect the upbeat tone and Carson’s most passionate concerns. 32 pages.
Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel; illus. by Melissa Sweet (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins)
Clara Lemlich’s Jewish family immigrated to New York City where she worked in a factory. The dangerous, unfair conditions set Clara off on her lifelong path as a union activist. Illustrations presented on fabric scraps or torn paper with machine stitching accentuate the text. 32 pages.
Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell (Little)
This inspirational book focuses on the great primatologist’s formative years. Homey, earth-toned pen and watercolor pictures portray young Jane, with her stuffed toy chimp, studying nature wherever and however she can. 40 pages.
The Bravest Woman in America written by Marissa Moss; illus. by Andrea U’Ren (Tricycle)
After illness disabled her lighthouse keeper father, Ida Lewis took over his duties. At age sixteen, she rescued four boys whose boat had capsized — the first of many rescues during a lifelong career. The stirring events are beautifully visualized in watercolor, ink, and acrylic art. 32 pages.
Nurse, Soldier, Spy: The Story of Sarah Edmonds, A Civil War Hero written by Marissa Moss; illus. by John Hendrix (Abrams)
During the Civil War, Sarah Edmonds, disguised as a man, fought for the Union. Her dedication and bravery also made her the perfect spy. Moss emphasizes Sarah’s early work and initial mission, concluding the biography before war’s end. 48 pages.
Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle by Claire A. Nivola (Farrar/Foster)
Earle’s intimate knowledge of the creatures she’s spent over half a century observing, whether while snorkeling near the surface or walking on the ocean floor, permeates this enthusiastic biography illustrated with exquisitely detailed watercolor art. 32 pages.
Miss Moore Thought Otherwise: How Anne Carroll Moore Created Libraries for Children written by Jan Pinborough; Debby Atwell (Houghton)
Sun-dappled acrylic paintings accompany a simple narrative of influential librarian Moore’s early love of books on through to her career at the New York Public Library, where she created the innovative Central Children’s Room in 1911. 40 pages.
Sojourner Truth’s Step-Stomp Stride written by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney (Disney/Jump at the Sun)
Truth’s determination and hard work as an abolitionist, preacher, and advocate for women’s rights are portrayed in a folksy narrative with illustrations conveying the strength of her personality. 40 pages.
Eleanor, Quiet No More written by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Gary Kelley (Hyperion)
Roosevelt’s own words define her growth from insecure child to reluctant but forceful political voice to respected citizen of the world. A triple-frame illustration of Eleanor addressing an audience convincingly conveys her metamorphosis and increasing confidence. 40 pages.
Helen’s Big World: The Life of Helen Keller written by Doreen Rappaport; illus. by Matt Tavares (Hyperion )
Rappaport covers the span of Helen’s life from birth through her years with Annie Sullivan and after. The focus is on Helen, but readers get an acute awareness of Annie’s sacrifices for her. The ink, watercolor, and gouache illustrations are bold and often in intense close-up. 40 pages.
Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors?: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell written by Tanya Lee Stone; illus. by Marjorie Priceman (Ottaviano/Holt)
This picture-book biography chronicles the doctor who opened the first hospital for women, run by women, because no one else would hire her. Colorful gouache illustrations lend a perfect framework of energy to the text, drawing upon its provocative and often humorous tone. 40 pages.
The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life with the Chimps by Jeanette Winter (Random/Schwartz & Wade)
Spare, inviting text takes Goodall from backyard observations to scientific study of chimpanzees in Tanzania. Stylized paintings show the jungle in cool blues and greens. Overall the volume gives an accurate, visually appealing account of Goodall’s life. 48 pages.
Queen of the Falls by Chris Van Allsburg (Houghton)
At the turn of the twentieth century, elderly Annie Edson Taylor decides she’ll go over Niagara Falls in a barrel, a feat never before attempted. The matter-of-fact narrative emphasizes Annie’s technical planning, while sepia-toned illustrations convey her grit and determination. 40 pages.
Suggested grade level for each entry: 4–6
Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart by Candace Fleming (Random/Schwartz & Wade)
This gripping narrative begins aboard a ship helping guide Earhart, then backs up to explore Amelia’s life. Interspersed are short chapters about civilians claiming to have picked up mayday calls. The book’s structure and scope provide a taut backdrop for Earhart’s history. 118 pages.
Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose (Farrar/Kroupa)
In 1955 Montgomery, fifteen-year-old Colvin refused to give up her seat on the bus. A compelling narrative balances the events of the civil rights movement with Colvin’s biography. 133 pages.
The Fairy Ring: Or, Elsie and Frances Fool the World by Mary Losure (Candlewick)
A well-researched, engaging account of what happened when two young cousins in early twentieth century England staged photographs of fairies. The sympathetic narrative goes on to report how they responded as adults when the story periodically resurfaced. 184 pages.
Louisa: The Life of Louisa May Alcott written by Yona Zeldis McDonough, illustrated by Bethanne Andersen (Holt/Ottaviano)
Informative text and sophisticated illustrations capture the Alcotts’ uncompromising ideals, Louisa’s struggles with poverty, her growing fame, and her nurturing of her family through many losses. 48 pages.
Anne Frank: Her Life in Words and Pictures by Menno Metselaar and Ruud van der Rol, translated by Arnold J. Pomerans (Roaring Brook/Flash Point)
Annotated excerpts of Anne’s diary accompany extraordinary photographs of her life before and during hiding. The conclusion describes Anne’s death and the publication of her diary. 216 pages.
Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World by Sy Montgomery (Houghton)
This inspiring, informative biography of world-renowned animal-science expert Grandin features photos from her childhood and adult life, reproductions of her schematic designs for livestock facilities, and inserts on topics ranging from autism to factory farming. 148 pages.
Paiute Princess: The Story of Sarah Winnemucca by Deborah Kogan Ray (Farrar/Foster)
Nineteenth-century Native rights advocate Sarah Winnemucca used her education to make speeches, write letters, circulate petitions, and appeal to government officials. An evenhanded account of Winnemucca’s life, accompanied by dramatic full-color illustrations. 48 pages.
Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean written by Sarah Stewart Taylor, illustrated by Ben Towle (Hyperion)
Grace, who handwrites a newspaper for her small Newfoundland town, is riveted by Amelia Earhart. She gets the chance to ask Earhart all about her life when the pilot comes to town. Moody black, white, and cyan drawings evoke a strong sense of place and time. 80 pages.
First Girl Scout: The Life of Juliette Gordon Low by Ginger Wadsworth (Clarion)
Low founded the Girl Scouts to help empower girls of all races and ethnicities. Information is provided about the organization and its continued success after Low’s death. Wadsworth captures Low’s stubborn but charismatic spirit by blending facts and humorous sketches. 210 pages.
Suggested grade level for each entry: 7 and up
Zora!: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston by Dennis Brindell Fradin and Judith Bloom Fradin (Clarion)
Documenting the life of Zora Neale Hurston can present a challenge because she often lied about herself in print, beginning with the year of her birth. The Fradins make discrepancies part of the story, using Hurston’s autobiographical tall tales to give readers a strong sense of her. 180 pages.
Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller by Joseph Lambert (Hyperion/Disney)
A silhouette of a child in a dark room opens this comic strip biography. Cartoonist Lambert employs these silhouettes to give a sense of how Keller’s world might have felt from the inside — bewildering and, eventually, enlightened by language. 94 pages.
Genius of Common Sense: Jane Jacobs and the Story of The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Glenna Lang and Marjory Wunsch (Godine)
This biography shows Jacobs as independent-minded and outspoken; her authorship of her seminal work and role as scourge of so-called urban renewal are handled clearly and efficiently. 128 pages.
Up Close: Harper Lee by Kerry Madden (Viking)
This straightforward biography covers Lee’s childhood, her college years, her persistent rewriting of To Kill a Mockingbird, and her friendship with Truman Capote. Clear documentation from an impressive group of secondary sources is provided. 224 pages.
Jane Austen: A Life Revealed by Catherine Reef (Clarion)
Firsthand accounts of Austen written by relatives and friends, facts about late-1700s Britain, and Austen’s own novels and surviving letters highlight the connections between Austen’s works and her life. 195 pages.
The Brontë Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne by Catherine Reef (Clarion)
This thorough biography of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë chronicles their individual personalities and how early experiences with their surroundings, family, schools, and teaching had profound influences on their writing. 231 pages.
Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith (Putnam)
Ida Mae wants to fly, an improbable dream for a black girl in 1940s Louisiana. When war breaks out, she counterfeits a pilot’s license and passes as white to join the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots. 275 pages.
Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream by Tanya Lee Stone (Candlewick)
This story of the effort to get women into NASA’s Mercury astronaut training program is thrillingly told and meticulously researched, with first- and second-hand sources and historical photographs. 134 pages.
Suggested grade level listed with each entry
Borrowed Names: Poems About Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madame C.J. Walker, Marie Curie, and Their Daughters by Jeannine Atkins (Holt)
Each of these renowned women had a rocky early relationship with her child which blossomed into mutual respect. Thirty vignettes concerning each mother-daughter pair offer telling facts. Grade level: 7 and up. 209 pages.
Night Flight: Amelia Earhart Crosses the Atlantic written by Robert Burleigh; illus. by Wendell Minor (Simon/Wiseman)
This vivid free-verse account of Earhart’s 1932 flight from Newfoundland to Northern Ireland, the first-ever solo transatlantic flight by a woman, describes what the legendary pilot might have seen and felt during that long, tense, exhilarating trip. Grade level: K–3. 40 pages.
Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Story of the Greatest All-Girl Swing Band in the World written by Marilyn Nelson, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney (Dial)
Twenty poems, voiced by instruments, summarize the history of swing. Verbal evocations of the music and its players re-create the time period alongside vibrant watercolors. Grade level: 4–6. 80 pages.