My three sons appreciate a variety of books, but our family library is definitely skewed towards stereotypical “boy” interests like sports, vehicles, science topics, and slapstick humor. A major shake-up is on the horizon for us, though, with a baby girl due any day. We’ve pondered a lot of questions about adding a little girl to our family during the past nine months, both logistical and philosophical, but one I keep circling back to, is: “What will we do to make sure she grows into a confident female who believes she can do anything?” Books drive many conversations in our household, and with our daughter’s arrival appropriately anticipated during Women’s History Month, I’ve been more conscious about sharing nonfiction titles that portray strong women with my boys. I’ve found it notable that in many cases, the historic inequalities portrayed perplexed them—they wondered why a woman (or someone of a different race or ability) wouldn’t have had the same opportunities as others. I see this as a definite win for shifting norms, but also a good reminder that historical context is important to inform children’s perspectives. Are you interested in sparking these types of conversations with your own kids? Here are seven picture book biographies that were particularly well received in our household:
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Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor: The Woman Who Loved Reptiles, by Patricia Valdez and Felicita Sala
The title alone made my kids beg to hear this one as soon as we received it. This biography chronicles the life of a notable British herpetologist, who, among other achievements, designed a new Reptile House for the London Zoo in 1923 and facilitated the addition of two Komodo dragons to the exhibit, the first in Europe. Details about her relationship with her childhood pet (a baby crocodile!) and her deep knowledge of reptiles as an adult fascinated all of us.
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Midnight Teacher: Lilly Ann Granderson and Her Secret School, by Janet Halfmann and London Ladd
The idea that someone would be prohibited from learning to read and write or help others to do so can be a shocking one for today’s children. This story requires just basic background knowledge about slavery to be appreciated as the story of a dedicated teacher who bravely educated first herself, and then fellow slaves in secret. (Parents should note that there are several references to the threat of whipping, which I glossed over for the sake of helping my preschool and Kindergarten-aged kiddos focus on the inspiring aspects of the story.) The specific details about how Lilly taught letter formation and sounds to countless slaves in the middle of the night resonated with my kids, who spend their days learning the same skills, and it was powerful to imagine the ripple effects of her teaching as her students spread their knowledge to others.
Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code, by Laurie Wallmark and Katy Wu
My kids loved the descriptions of Grace Hopper’s “tinkering” hobbies during her childhood, and the idea of the first computers being the size of an entire room boggled their minds. The text offers a straightforward explanation of basic computer coding, and how Grace’s contributions were significant. We all got a kick from learning where the expression “computer bug” came from, too—an actual moth who wreaked havoc on one of the earliest computers. This is an excellent title to give as an example of a woman’s contribution to computer science, and to provide a model of perseverance and problem-solving for any gender.
Margaret and the Moon: How Margaret Hamilton Saved the First Lunar Landing, by Dean Robbins and Lucy Kinsley
A perfect pairing with the title above, this biography details how the computer coding prowess of Margaret Hamilton was integral in one of the most exciting events in US history: the first lunar landing. Not to knock Neil Armstrong, but Margaret’s story is a great reminder for children that it takes many people’s work behind the scenes—both men and women—for major advances to occur.
The Doctor With an Eye for Eyes: The Story of Patricia Bath, by Julia Finley Mosca and Daniel Rieley
If you aren’t yet familiar with the Amazing Scientists series, add it to your list to keep tabs on. The author packs an amazing amount of information into the rhyming text and this one reads beautifully as an engaging read aloud. My kids loved lines like, “This tool she developed—a new LASER PROBE—fixed the EYEBALLS of patients all over the globe.” My boys have been fascinated lately with the idea of doctors specializing in different fields (other than doling out antibiotics for kids’ ear infections and delivering babies, the two most familiar contexts for us). The fact that this title features a woman of color as a pioneer in a specialized medical field definitely ups its appeal.
Girl Running: Bobbi Gibb and the Boston Marathon, by Annette Bay Pimentel and Micha Archer
My husband slogged through the Boston Marathon a few years ago, which gave my kids and extra appreciation for the details in this story about how Bobbi Gibb trained through Boston winters and soldiered up Heartbreak Hill. (“Do you think she was even faster than Daddy?” Yes, I believe she was.) Even without personal context, the images of Bobbi hiding in the bushes at the starting line and running in a hooded sweatshirt to disguise herself as a male since women weren’t allowed in the race are captivating. The balance in the text between broad statements about gender equality and small details like Gibbs’s new running shoes definitely kept my kids interested.
Malala’s Magic Pencil, by Malala Yousafzai and Kerascoet
This autobiography is my favorite rendition of Malala Yousafzai’s story for little kids. Framed around her dream of having a “magic pencil” to draw solutions to the problems she observes, her story helps initiate conversations about cultures in which females are suppressed today. Malala envisioned a world in which all children, including girls, could obtain an education. She used the powers of writing and her voice to work towards that day, becoming the youngest-ever winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in the process. Her story exemplifies the power of child activism and encourages kids to think about how they might change the world for the better. I always appreciate nonfiction writing that manages to make complex ideas accessible to young thinkers, and this book is a good example of that.
Which other women’s biographies would you recommend to interest and inspire young readers?