The best picture book biographies to inspire young poets

Who am I?

I love sharing poetry with children! I became inspired to write poetic picture books during my 20-year career as an elementary school librarian. In class, we often read aloud, discussed, and performed poems. My students considered word choices, identified alliteration, metaphor, and simile, and developed a sophisticated vocabulary of “beautiful” words. They delighted in using their senses to write about special places and moments and did research to create and illustrate fact-based poems about people and animals. In exploring poetry and biographies of poets, students found inspiration and used their authentic voices to craft their own funny, engaging, and thoughtful poetry.


I wrote...

16 Words: William Carlos Williams and the Red Wheelbarrow

By Lisa Rogers, Chuck Groenink (illustrator),

Book cover of 16 Words: William Carlos Williams and the Red Wheelbarrow

What is my book about?

"Look out the window. What do you see? If you are Dr. William Carlos Williams, you see a wheelbarrow. A drizzle of rain. Chickens scratching in the damp earth." The wheelbarrow belongs to Thaddeus Marshall, a street vendor, who every day goes to work selling vegetables on the streets of Rutherford, New Jersey. That simple action inspires poet and doctor Williams to pick up some of his own tools--a pen and paper--and write his most famous poem.

In this lovely picture book, young listeners will see how paying attention to the simplest everyday things can inspire the greatest art, as they learn about a great American poet.

The books I picked & why

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Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks

By Suzanne Slade, Cozbi A. Cabrera (illustrator),

Book cover of Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks

Why this book?

Like many authors, my most-asked question is “Where do you get your ideas?” Gwendolyn Brooks had the perfect answer: “Poetry comes out of life.” Brooks, the first Black person to win a Pulitzer Prize, grew up with parents who prized poetry. She began writing at age 7, published at 11, and kept writing about life—its tough times and its beauty—as she worked to make her words shine. That theme, that poetry can sustain and inspire, even through hardships, runs throughout this biography.

As Slade tells it, one day in 1950, Brooks, struggling to pay her bills--her electricity had been turned off--receives a call announcing that she had won poetry’s greatest honor. This bio will leave children amazed that it’s true and inspired to learn more.

Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks

By Suzanne Slade, Cozbi A. Cabrera (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Exquisite as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A picture-book biography of celebrated poet Gwendolyn Brooks, the first Black person to win the Pulitzer Prize

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) is known for her poems about "real life." She wrote about love, loneliness, family, and poverty-showing readers how just about anything could become a beautiful poem. Exquisite follows Gwendolyn from early girlhood into her adult life, showcasing her desire to write poetry from a very young age. This picture-book biography explores the intersections of race, gender, and the ubiquitous poverty of the Great Depression-all with a lyrical touch worthy of the subject. Gwendolyn Brooks was the first Black person to…


Imagine

By Juan Felipe Herrera, Lauren Castillo (illustrator),

Book cover of Imagine

Why this book?

I love books in which children can imagine themselves in the story. This gorgeous book, with its perfect match of gentle text and engaging illustrations, asks readers to imagine a child picking flowers, playing in a stream, moving with his migrant worker family, learning how to speak English, and beginning to write. As the child grows and changes, readers will delight in discovering that the narrator is actually Herrera, a U.S. poet laureate, writing about his own path to finding his voice and becoming a poet. Herrera points to his own journey as a way for children to imagine the wonderful possibilities that lie ahead of them. 

Imagine

By Juan Felipe Herrera, Lauren Castillo (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Imagine as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A buoyant, breathtaking poem from Juan Felipe Herrera — brilliantly illustrated by Caldecott Honoree Lauren Castillo — speaks to every dreaming heart.

Have you ever imagined what you might be when you grow up? When he was very young, Juan Felipe Herrera picked chamomile flowers in windy fields and let tadpoles swim across his hands in a creek. He slept outside and learned to say good-bye to his amiguitoseach time his family moved to a new town. He went to school and taught himself to read and write English and filled paper pads with rivers of ink as he walked…


Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton

By Don Tate,

Book cover of Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton

Why this book?

I’m hooked when authors get to the heart of how someone finds their passion. That’s what Don Tate does as he spins the tale of how an enslaved boy, forbidden to learn to read and write, became a sought-after poet. Children will cheer for George as he teaches himself to read and becomes a published poet. They will hold their breath as George returns to his enslaver, and they will share his joy at his eventual freedom. Tate’s storytelling — this picture book biography brilliantly encompasses the hope, tension, and satisfaction of a story — shows that George’s physical bondage could not imprison his dreams. Through George’s fascinating story, children surely will be inspired to follow their own dreams.


Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton

By Don Tate,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Poet as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

George loved words. Enslaved and forced to work long hours, he was unable to attend school or learn how to read.

But he was determined―he listened to the white children's lessons and learned the alphabet. Then he taught himself to read.

Soon, he began composing poetry in his head and reciting it aloud as he sold fruits and vegetables on a nearby college campus. News of the enslaved poet traveled quickly among the students, and before long, George had customers for his poems. But George was still enslaved. Would he ever be free?

Award-winning author-illustrator Don Tate tells an inspiring…


Emily Writes: Emily Dickinson and Her Poetic Beginnings

By Jane Yolen, Christine Davenier (illustrator),

Book cover of Emily Writes: Emily Dickinson and Her Poetic Beginnings

Why this book?

What experiences might children have that inspire them to write poetry? Author Yolen brings readers into the Dickinson home in Amherst, Massachusetts, where young Emily scribbles on scraps of paper in her father’s study. Emily reads her three-word poem to her parents, to the flowers in the garden, and to Mrs. Mack, who provides encouragement that’s as warm and appreciated as the desserts they share. Just as Emily takes time to ponder what is the essence of a poem, this imagined story unfolds at an unhurried pace. That pace, combined with the engaging illustrations, permits readers to linger on small moments and let their own imaginations wander. Poetry takes time, just as growing up does.

Emily Writes: Emily Dickinson and Her Poetic Beginnings

By Jane Yolen, Christine Davenier (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Emily Writes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Perhaps, she thinks, I'll make a poem.
Emily smiles.
The garden makes her feel all sunny,
like a poet.

As a young girl, Emily Dickinson loved to scribble curlicues and circles, imagine new rhymes, and connect with the bountiful flowers in her spring garden. The sounds, sights, and smells of home swirled through her mind and Emily began to explore writing and rhyming her feelings. She thinks about the real and the unreal. Perhaps poems are the in-between.

This thoughtful spotlight on Emily's early experimentation with poetry as a child offers a unique window into one of the world's most…


Langston's Train Ride

By Robert Burleigh, Leonard Jenkins (illustrator),

Book cover of Langston's Train Ride

Why this book?

If you doubt poetry’s power to sweep you up and bring you to tears, you must read Burleigh’s deep dive into Langston Hughes’ inspiration for his famous poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”. You’ll take this story to heart and keep it there. I got the chills from the author’s note, which explains that Burleigh’s goal was to explore “the moment when Langston Hughes came to believe in himself as a writer” – and have that moment inspire others. In vibrant, poetic prose perfect for reading aloud, Burleigh begins with Hughes celebrating his first book.

In a flashback, Hughes, on a train, muses over his personal history. As the train crosses the Mississippi, he reaches further back into his people’s history, until he entwines those strands into one gorgeous, resonant work of art.

Langston's Train Ride

By Robert Burleigh, Leonard Jenkins (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Langston's Train Ride as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Robert Burleigh's inspiring text captures the magical moment when Langston Hughes came to believe in himself as a writer, as he first wrote "The Negro Speaks of Rivers."

Clackety clack clack clack...
Can you hear the rhythm of the train?
Langston Hughes did. Traveling to see his father in 1920, as he listened to the sounds of the train -- metal on metal, wheels on rails -- Hughes's imagination took flight. On that ride, he was inspired to write his first famous poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers."
This picture book tells the story of Langston Hughes's rise to accomplishing…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in poets, poetry, and tadpoles?

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Important Thing about Margaret Wise Brown, Unbound, and Rise! From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Maya Angelou if you like this list.