The best children's picture books about ordinary people who change the world

Why am I passionate about this?

So often when things are going wrong in the world—war, natural disasters, pollution, poverty, disease—I feel really overwhelmed, and sometimes hopeless. That's when I seek out stories like these, about ordinary people (like me!) doing extraordinary, heroic things. It inspires me simply knowing these people exist, and it empowers me to do something—just one small act can snowball and generate terrific change. I, too, can help create goodness in the world by paying attention, giving my time and other resources, and joining with others. For every heartbreaking news story, there's a beautiful one waiting to happen. Every one of us has the potential to be a hero.


I wrote...

Book cover of The Cat Man of Aleppo

What is my book about?

The Caldecott Honor-winning true story of Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel, who in the midst of the Syrian Civil War courageously offered safe haven to Aleppo's abandoned cats.

Alaa loves Aleppo, but when war comes, his neighbors flee to safety, leaving their many pets behind. Alaa decides to stay—he can make a difference by driving an ambulance, carrying the sick and wounded to safety. One day he hears hungry cats calling out to him on his way home. They are lonely and scared, just like him. He feeds and pets them to let them know they are loved. The next day more cats come, and then even more! With worldwide support via social media, Alaa creates a sanctuary to care for and keep the cats safe.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Digging for Words: José Alberto Gutiérrez and the Library He Built

Irene Latham Why did I love this book?

When José Alberto Gutiérrez, a garbage collector in Bogotá, Colombia, found a discarded copy of Anna Karenina on his route, he got hooked on books. For years afterward, he scanned sidewalks and dug through household trash to rescue more books, creating a home library that he opened to his neighborhood. Readers will be inspired not only by the hunt for treasure during everyday life, but how sharing one's passion can change a community.

By Angela Burke Kunkel, Paola Escobar,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Digging for Words as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A gorgeous and inspiring picture book based on the life of José Alberto Gutiérrez, a garbage collector in Bogotá, Colombia who started a library with a single discarded book found on his route.

In the city of Bogata, in the barrio of La Nueva Gloria, there live two Joses. One is a boy who dreams of Saturdays-- that's the day he gets to visit Paradise, the library. The second Jose is a garbage collector. From dusk until dawn, he scans the sidewalks as he drives, squinting in the dim light, searching household trash for hidden treasure . . . books!…


Book cover of One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia

Irene Latham Why did I love this book?

In Njau, Gambia, Isatou Ceesay was concerned by the way plastic bags accumulated in ugly heaps alongside roads. The bags created odor and disease, and also strangled gardens and animals. Isatou found a way to recycle the bags and transform her community. Readers will be inspired by her imagination and dedication, proving that a single person's actions really can make a difference in our world.

By Miranda Paul, Elizabeth Zunon (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked One Plastic Bag as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 6, 7, 8, and 9.

What is this book about?

The inspiring true story of how one African woman began a movement to recycle the plastic bags that were polluting her community.

Plastic bags are cheap and easy to use. But what happens when a bag breaks or is no longer needed? In Njau, Gambia, people simply dropped the bags and went on their way. One plastic bag became two. Then ten. Then a hundred.

The bags accumulated in ugly heaps alongside roads. Water pooled in them, bringing mosquitoes and disease. Some bags were burned, leaving behind a terrible smell. Some were buried, but they strangled gardens. They killed livestock…


Book cover of Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table

Irene Latham Why did I love this book?

Former basketball player Will Allen is equally as comfortable palming a head of cabbage as a basketball. He's also an innovator and problem solver who doesn't let a little thing like lack of garden space prevent him from creating his dream of a city garden to feed hungry people in Milwaukee and beyond. I love how this book highlights a can-do spirit, uses cutting-edge technology, and shows that the only limits to achieving goals are the ones we put on ourselves. If Farmer Will can do it, then so can any reader!

By Jacqueline Briggs Martin, Eric-Shabazz Larkin (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 7, 8, 9, and 10.

What is this book about?

Will Allen is no ordinary farmer. A former basketball star, he's as tall as his truck, and he can hold a cabbage--or a basketball--in one hand. But what is most special about Farmer Will is that he can see what others can't see. When he looked at an abandoned city lot in Milwaukee he saw a huge table, big enough to feed the whole world.

No space, no problem. Poor soil, there's a solution. Need help, found it. Farmer Will is a genius in solving problems. In 2008, the MacArthur Foundation named him one for his innovative urban farming methods,…


Book cover of The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever

Irene Latham Why did I love this book?

The city of San Diego, California, is lush and leafy now in large part due to the efforts of tree-loving Kate Sessions, who in the early 1900s missed the redwood forests of her childhood when she relocated to dry, dusty San Diego. A scientist and naturalist, she procured seeds from experts far and wide to find species that might thrive in San Diego—and she started planting. She used the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park as a reason to plant thousands more trees that residents, wildlife, and visitors enjoy to this day. No one told Kate to plant all those trees; she did it because she wanted to make the world a brighter, more beautiful place.

By H. Joseph Hopkins, Jill McElmurry (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Tree Lady as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 5, 6, 7, and 8.

What is this book about?

Unearth the true story of green-thumbed pioneer and activist Kate Sessions, who helped San Diego grow from a dry desert town into a lush, leafy city known for its gorgeous parks and gardens.

Katherine Olivia Sessions never thought she’d live in a place without trees. After all, Kate grew up among the towering pines and redwoods of Northern California. But after becoming the first woman to graduate from the University of California with a degree in science, she took a job as a teacher far south in the dry desert town of San Diego. Where there were almost no trees.…


Book cover of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Irene Latham Why did I love this book?

Imagine a drought so terrible that everyone's crops fail, and the entire village falls into poverty. That's what happened to fourteen-year-old William Kamkwamba in Malawi. With no money for food or for attending school, it would be easy to give up. But William was determined to find a way. He read, researched, and built a functioning windmill out of junkyard scraps to generate electricity to transfer water to the crops. Everything was against him, but William didn't stop trying. He persevered until he found a way to “harness the wind,” and the whole village benefitted. (Readers can also watch the 2019 film written, directed by, and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor.)

By William Kamkwamba, Bryan Mealer, Elizabeth Zunon (illustrator)

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 6, 7, and 8.

What is this book about?

When a terrible drought struck William Kamkwamba's tiny village in Malawi, his family lost all of the season's crops, leaving them with nothing to eat and nothing to sell. William began to explore science books in his village library, looking for a solution. There, he came up with the idea that would change his family's life forever: he could build a windmill. Made out of scrap metal and old bicycle parts, William's windmill brought electricity to his home and helped his family pump the water they needed to farm the land. Retold for a younger audience, this exciting memoir shows…


You might also like...

I Meant to Tell You

By Fran Hawthorne,

Book cover of I Meant to Tell You

Fran Hawthorne Author Of I Meant to Tell You

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Museum guide Foreign language student Runner Community activist Former health-care journalist

Fran's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

When Miranda’s fiancé, Russ, is being vetted for his dream job in the U.S. attorney’s office, the couple joke that Miranda’s parents’ history as antiwar activists in the Sixties might jeopardize Russ’s security clearance. In fact, the real threat emerges when Russ’s future employer discovers that Miranda was arrested for felony kidnapping seven years earlier—an arrest she’d never bothered to tell Russ about.

Miranda tries to explain that she was only helping her best friend, in the midst of a nasty custody battle, take her daughter to visit her parents in Israel. As Miranda struggles to prove that she’s not a criminal, she stumbles into other secrets that will challenge what she thought she knew about her own family, her friend, Russ—and herself.

I Meant to Tell You

By Fran Hawthorne,

What is this book about?

When Miranda’s fiancé, Russ, is being vetted for his dream job in the U.S. attorney’s office, the couple joke that Miranda’s parents’ history as antiwar activists in the Sixties might jeopardize Russ’s security clearance. In fact, the real threat emerges when Russ’s future employer discovers that Miranda was arrested for felony kidnapping seven years earlier—an arrest she’d never bothered to tell Russ about.

Miranda tries to explain that she was only helping her best friend, in the midst of a nasty custody battle, take her daughter to visit her parents in Israel. As Miranda struggles to prove that she’s not…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in West Africa, libraries, and Africa?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about West Africa, libraries, and Africa.

West Africa Explore 27 books about West Africa
Libraries Explore 51 books about libraries
Africa Explore 247 books about Africa