The best picture book biographies of Jewish women

Mara Rockliff Author Of Try It! How Frieda Caplan Changed the Way We Eat
By Mara Rockliff

Who am I?

I am a children’s author best known for digging up fascinating, often funny stories about famous people—and forgotten people who deserve to be famous again. After a trip to Israel with the PJ Library program, which sends free books each month to hundreds of thousands of Jewish children and their families, I was spurred to find out more about the many brilliant, bold, creative, persistent, and too often unsung Jewish women who have made a difference in our world.

I wrote...

Try It! How Frieda Caplan Changed the Way We Eat

By Mara Rockliff, Giselle Potter (illustrator),

Book cover of Try It! How Frieda Caplan Changed the Way We Eat

What is my book about?

Try It! is the true story of the produce pioneer who introduced Americans to kiwi fruit—and filled our supermarkets with fresh fruits and vegetables, from seedless watermelon to sugar snap peas. Whether she was tasting smelly-but-delicious durian, or breaking into an all-male industry and totally transforming it, Frieda Caplan never hesitated to try something new.

The Books I Picked & Why

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Brave Girl

By Michelle Markel, Melissa Sweet (illustrator),

Book cover of Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers' Strike of 1909

Why this book?

I loved Brave Girl from the first line: “A steamship pulls into the harbor, carrying hundreds of immigrants—and a surprise for New York City.” The surprise is Clara Lemlich, who discovers that life in America is not all she imagined, and sets out to fight for change. Brave Girl doesn’t pull any punches about the harsh conditions in the sweatshops where Clara worked, or the very real risks of organizing strikes. (The police arrested her seventeen times, and broke six of her ribs.) Yet, somehow, the story remains upbeat and inspiring—and SO relevant today. Like the girls Clara worked with, readers may conclude, If she can do it, we can do it too.  

Emmy Noether

By Helaine Becker, Kari Rust (illustrator),

Book cover of Emmy Noether: The Most Important Mathematician You've Never Heard of

Why this book?

This might be the most important picture book biography I’d never heard of. Why do all of us know Albert Einstein but not Emmy Noether, who sewed up a hole in his theory of relativity and went on to a discovery that transformed physics? Three guesses why. Like every account of the many brilliant women of STEM who were barred from classrooms, denied degrees, refused fair pay, and robbed of credit for accomplishments, Emmy’s story is often enraging. Add a narrow escape from the Nazis followed by a tragically early death, and you might not expect a fun read. But Becker and Rust manage to inject plenty of kid-friendly humor, and the scientific explanations were so clear and colorful that even I could (almost) understand. 

I Dissent

By Debbie Levy, Elizabeth Baddeley (illustrator),

Book cover of I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark

Why this book?

There are many excellent picture books about the legendary lawyer and Supreme Court justice, including Jonah Winter’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The Case of RBG vs. Inequality and Kathleen Krull’s No Truth Without Ruth, but my own favorite is I Dissent. The flashy opening spread grabbed my attention right away, with text and art brilliantly paired. (Elizabeth Baddeley, who also illustrated my own book Billie Jean!, is in top form here.) I liked how so much of the book was light and funny, while it tackled painful issues like discrimination in a simple and straightforward way. Like Ruth as a little girl, few readers will forget the signs saying Whites Only and No Dogs or Jews Allowed. 

Hedy Lamarr's Double Life

By Laurie Wallmark, Katy Wu (illustrator),

Book cover of Hedy Lamarr's Double Life: Hollywood Legend and Brilliant Inventor

Why this book?

Hedy Lamarr’s Double Life appealed to me because it speaks to a world in which girls and women are still judged by their appearance, regardless of what they’re actually doing. “People seem to think because I have a pretty face I’m stupid,” Hedy Lamarr commented. “I have to work twice as hard as anyone else to convince people I have something resembling a brain.” In fact, she was a brilliant inventor in addition to a glamorous Hollywood star. Her many inventions included frequency hopping, a technology essential to cell phones and other devices used today. (And no, she wasn’t credited or paid.) This book is a great reminder to examine our assumptions about who people are and what they might be good at—including ourselves.

Emma's Poem

By Linda Glaser, Claire A. Nivola (illustrator),

Book cover of Emma's Poem: The Voice of the Statue of Liberty

Why this book?

Emma’s Poem is a lovely book about a girl who had plenty of everything and grew up to work for those who didn’t. The words are simple and well-chosen, the art is bright and vivid, and I was amazed to realize that one poem by one woman has had such a huge and lasting impact. Without Emma Lazarus, the Statue of Liberty would be just a giant metal sculpture, rather than a beacon welcoming the world’s “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Emma taught generations of Americans who we are at our best. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

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