The best books to discover fascinating people

Who am I?

Technically, I’m a lawyer and pharmacy technician but I spend my time writing, mostly for kids. I'm inspired by a childhood in different countries as well as what’s currently occurring in our world. I delight in stories for all ages, believing that even adults can enjoy and learn from picture book biographies. At the very least, they provide jumping-off points for further research, and at best they inspire us to achieve the seemingly impossible.


I wrote...

Mama Africa!: How Miriam Makeba Spread Hope with Her Song

By Kathryn Erskine, Charly Palmer (illustrator),

Book cover of Mama Africa!: How Miriam Makeba Spread Hope with Her Song

What is my book about?

Miriam Makeba, a Grammy Award–winning South African singer, rose to fame in the hearts of her people at the pinnacle of apartheid―a brutal system of segregation similar to American Jim Crow laws. Mama Africa, as they called her, raised her voice to help combat these injustices at jazz clubs in Johannesburg; in exile, at a rally beside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; and before the United Nations.

Set defiantly in the present tense, this biography offers readers an intimate view of Makeba’s fight for equality. Kathryn Erskine’s call-and-response style text and Charly Palmer’s bold illustrations come together in a raw, riveting duet of protest song and praise poem. A testament to how a single voice helped to shake up the world―and can continue to do so.

The books I picked & why

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Chester Nez and the Unbreakable Code: A Navajo Code Talker's Story

By Joseph Bruchac, Liz Amini-Holmes (illustrator),

Book cover of Chester Nez and the Unbreakable Code: A Navajo Code Talker's Story

Why this book?

Who doesn’t like secret codes? And the Navajo code in World War Two was the ultimate secret code as well as a critical weapon that helped us win the war. In addition to this fascinating piece of history everyone should know, Chester Nez’s life exemplifies how important it is to be proud of your heritage, no matter what others think or how much they try to change you (as in, Indian boarding schools). By combining cultures, you can make a richer life for yourself and those around you—and potentially save the world. The book shows how the code was used and lists part of the code (now declassified) in the backmatter.


Me Llamo Celia/My Name Is Celia: La Vida de Celia Cruz/The Life Of Celia Cruz

By Monica Brown, Rafael López (illustrator),

Book cover of Me Llamo Celia/My Name Is Celia: La Vida de Celia Cruz/The Life Of Celia Cruz

Why this book?

As the title suggests, this biography of the beloved Cuban singer is in both English and Spanish, a gift for those who are bilingual and, indeed, for all of us. The vibrant illustrations are as engaging and rollicking as the text, which sings like the salsa singer herself. It’s also a timely story of immigration since Celia Cruz left Cuba after the revolution, showing how you can love your country and people, but have to leave because of the regime.


Queen of Physics: How Wu Chien Shiung Helped Unlock the Secrets of the Atom

By Teresa Robeson, Rebecca Huang (illustrator),

Book cover of Queen of Physics: How Wu Chien Shiung Helped Unlock the Secrets of the Atom

Why this book?

This isn’t just the story of a woman who excelled in physics in a time and culture that devalued the intelligence of women, it’s also about the courage and determination it took to become a leader in her field—a leader who wasn’t recognized because of her gender and heritage. While the men around her received awards for the discoveries she made, she kept working for the love of science. Now she’s recognized as the “queen” of physics. It’s “historical” fiction but it’s also the story of discrimination against people of Asian descent, a contemporary problem, so it’s still very timely.


Malala's Magic Pencil

By Malala Yousafzai, Kerascoët (illustrator),

Book cover of Malala's Magic Pencil

Why this book?

In Malala’s own kid’s eye view of the world, she tells how she yearned for a magic pencil, like the boy in a TV show she watched, so she could magically make the world a better place. One of the fortunate girls in Afghanistan who was sent to school because her parents believed strongly in education for women, she eventually realized she had that magic pencil already. Her words, her voice, could bring change. This is an empowering book for kids to see that they can make a difference in their world from one of the heroes of their time.


Sprouting Wings: The True Story of James Herman Banning, the First African American Pilot to Fly Across the United States

By Louisa Jaggar, Shari Becker, Floyd Cooper (illustrator)

Book cover of Sprouting Wings: The True Story of James Herman Banning, the First African American Pilot to Fly Across the United States

Why this book?

This is a story of an epic journey borne of determination and hard work. Despite facing discrimination, challenges to education, and lack of funds, Banning rose, literally, to the sky. The book deals with our history of racism but focuses on how Banning, with his high hopes and grit, was able to fulfill his dream. Floyd Cooper’s artwork will pull you into that place and time, heightening the experience. The backmatter shows the research that went into this book and how Banning’s fascinating story came to light.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Navajo, Chinese Americans, and Latin America?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Navajo, Chinese Americans, and Latin America.

The Navajo Explore 9 books about the Navajo
Chinese Americans Explore 28 books about Chinese Americans
Latin America Explore 45 books about Latin America

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Code Talker, Malala: Activist for Girls' Education, and A Spitfire Girl: One of the World's Greatest Female Ata Ferry Pilots Tells Her Story if you like this list.