The best picture book biographies

Diane Stanley Author Of Ada Lovelace, Poet of Science: The First Computer Programmer
By Diane Stanley

Who am I?

I have always loved history—not so much the politics, the kings and wars and battles, but the remarkable, often eccentric people who stood out in the age in which they lived. When I started writing books for children, I fell naturally into writing biographies. Each book I’ve written has been an adventure, with research that took me into vanished worlds and introduced me to remarkable people, from Shakespeare and Joan of Arc to Peter the Great, Michelangelo, Cleopatra, and Leonardo da Vinci. I got to read their letters, learn little personal details about their lives, and live vicariously in their worlds. It’s been my life’s joyful work, and I appreciate the brilliant work of other authors who write biography too.

I wrote...

Ada Lovelace, Poet of Science: The First Computer Programmer

By Diane Stanley, Jessie Hartland (illustrator),

Book cover of Ada Lovelace, Poet of Science: The First Computer Programmer

What is my book about?

Two hundred years ago, a daughter was born to the famous poet, Lord Byron, and his mathematical wife, Annabella. Like her father, Ada had a vivid imagination and a creative gift for connecting ideas in original ways. Like her mother, she had a passion for science, math, and machines. Ada hoped that one day she could do something important with her creative and nimble mind. She got her chance when she met Charles Babbage, the inventor of the Analytical Engine, the first fully-programmable, all-purpose, digital computer ever envisioned. Though it was never built, Ada wrote an article about it, explaining to the world how such a machine would work. In doing so, a hundred years before the dawn of the digital age, Ada Lovelace became the first computer programmer.

Diane Stanley’s lyrical writing and Jessie Hartland’s vibrant illustrations capture the spirit of Ada Lovelace and bring her fascinating story vividly to life.

The books I picked & why

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On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein

By Jennifer Berne, Vladimir Radunsky (illustrator),

Book cover of On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein

Why this book?

I know from personal experience just how hard it is to tell the life story of a highly accomplished person (Michelangelo, for example) without burying young readers in an avalanche of details and facts. With On a Beam of Light, Jennifer Berne (with the help of the brilliant Vladimir Radunsky) has achieved the impossible—she has written a book about Albert Einstein that is simple, charming, and clear while giving readers the most important thing they need to know about the world’s most famous genius: how his mind worked.

Albert is always asking himself questions. He watches sugar dissolve into his tea, the smoke from his pipe disappears into the air, and wonders how that could happen. He decides that “everything is made out of teeny, tiny, moving bits of stuff.” “Even this book,” he says in a word balloon, “is made of atoms!” Jennifer Berne has done a truly masterful job with this very difficult subject. If I could only recommend one book, this would be it.

When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson

By Pam Muñoz Ryan, Brian Selznick (illustrator),

Book cover of When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson

Why this book?

This is such a gorgeous book! Beautifully told by Pam Muñoz Ryan, this is the story of Marian Anderson, a little girl with a beautiful voice who battled racial prejudice in the pre-Civil Rights era to become one of America’s greatest singers. Brian Selznick’s illustrations are exquisite, done in soft sepia tones to give a feel for the period. And the book’s unique format will delight readers of any age. This is a book that inspires, touching hearts, and teaching young readers what courage, perseverance, and generosity can accomplish.

The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus

By Jen Bryant, Melissa Sweet (illustrator),

Book cover of The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus

Why this book?

Kudos to Jen Bryant for choosing such an original topic—Peter Roget of thesaurus fame—and pulling it off so perfectly. And Melissa Sweet takes her excellent book and transforms it into a playful work of art, a veritable feast for the eyes, with everything from elaborate collages to comic strip sections with word balloons. Synonyms abound, as in a street scene where people say things like, “My fish is cheap, a bargain, reasonable,” or “Do you need your chimney cleaned, swept, swabbed?”

The Right Word invites you to stop and study the details on every page and rewards you with endlessly charming, often funny little surprises. This is one of those rare books that adults will enjoy every bit as much as their children.

The Pilot and the Little Prince: The Life of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

By Peter Sis,

Book cover of The Pilot and the Little Prince: The Life of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Why this book?

Let me start by saying that Peter Sís is a genius and his books are like no one else’s. This story about Antoine Saint-Exupéry, the author of the beloved classic, The Little Prince, is original in every possible way. Maps and mountains are transformed into creatures smiling at each other. In a scene describing the German invasion of France in 1940, his careful tiny crosshatching gives way to loose watercolor, red paint that spreads across the page like fire or blood. At the end, where Saint-Exupéry dreams of the Little Prince, is a stunning double-page spread with no words, just an expanse of blue with prince-like golden stars on the far horizon. The book is sheer perfection.

Me... Jane

By Patrick McDonnell,

Book cover of Me... Jane

Why this book?

This is a book for the very young, with simple, poetic text. Not truly a biography, it shows us a curious, imaginative little girl who is fascinated by nature and wants to learn everything about it. She gives her favorite climbing tree a name, and as she lays her cheek against its trunk she seems to “feel the sap flowing beneath the bark.” There’s a scene in the henhouse where Jane, eager to learn where eggs come from, waits behind some straw and “observes a miracle.”

The transition between her childhood dreams and the future life they lead her to is a magical moment. The art is gorgeous, with loose pen and watercolor pictures mixed with collage and photographs. A perfect little package!

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