The best picture books about writers and the strange and magical things that inspired them

Caroline McAlister Author Of John Ronald's Dragons: The Story of J. R. R. Tolkien
By Caroline McAlister

The Books I Picked & Why

The Important Thing about Margaret Wise Brown

By Mac Barnett, Sarah Jacoby

Book cover of The Important Thing about Margaret Wise Brown

Why this book?

This book is deceptively simple with its lovely child-friendly language and illustrations featuring rabbits. Yet, the sophisticated questions it poses come right out of graduate programs in literary theory. Is it important to know about an author’s life? How does our knowledge of that life influence how we read an author’s books? Margaret Wise Brown’s life was unconventional, even scandalous, and not necessarily picture book appropriate. But Barnett captures the weirdness, the whimsey, and the beauty.  He invites the child auditor to participate with a plethora of rhetorical questions that will give both children and adults lots to think and talk about. I love this book.

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Emily and Carlo

By Marty Rhodes Figley, Catherine Stock

Book cover of Emily and Carlo

Why this book?

There are lots of books out there about Emily Dickinson, but this is my favorite one. Why? Because it challenges the myth of Emily as a lonely recluse. (After all, what child wants to read about a depressed lady who never leaves the house?) Marty Rhodes Figley humanizes Dickinson by focusing on her love for her dog. Children will identify with Emily as someone who needs a companion to help her navigate the big world. They will also love the rambunctious Carlo as much as she did. I did not know about Carlo before I read this book and as an adult reader, I came away with a more nuanced picture of this most mysterious and mercurial of poets. 

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Ode to an Onion: Pablo Neruda & His Muse

By Alexandria Giardino, Felicita Sala

Book cover of Ode to an Onion: Pablo Neruda & His Muse

Why this book?

This biography focuses on one moment, one lunch, and one poem in Neruda’s long and prolific career. And yet it captures so much! Giardino manages to suggest all of the paradoxes in Neruda’s life and work—the sadness and the joy, the grand themes of labor and oppression, and the ordinary sensuous details of daily life. The story arc begins with gloom and the solitary work of writing, but ends with a celebration and a shared meal. The end pages are papery onion skin that the child reader will want to touch. Neruda’s poem, “Ode to an Onion,” is printed in the back in Spanish and English. I can see children being inspired to write their own odes to ordinary objects.

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Jump at the Sun: The True Life Tale of Unstoppable Storycatcher Zora Neale Hurston

By Alicia Williams, Jacqueline Alcántara

Book cover of Jump at the Sun: The True Life Tale of Unstoppable Storycatcher Zora Neale Hurston

Why this book?

This picture book biography has energy and voice that will captivate the child reader. Speech balloons contain little tidbits of the stories that Zora Neale Hurston collected, inspiring curiosity and a hunger for more. Yellow, sundrenched pages alternate with blue, and Zora’s stylish hats decorate the end pages. The creativity of the Harlem Renaissance jumps from the pages. This picture book makes me want to jump for joy.

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How to Read a Book

By Kwame Alexander, Melissa Sweet

Book cover of How to Read a Book

Why this book?

This is not literally a biography of a writer, but an illustrated poem that immerses the reader in the experience of reading. All writers are readers first, and all writers need readers, so that is why I am including it in my list. When I looked at reviews online, many of them complained that the artwork and the script made the book hard to read. I could not disagree more. The writing and the art literally become one in this brilliant mesmerizing book.  I love that Alexander references Langston Hughes reading on a stoop at the beginning. Then he proceeds to the central simile: 

Once you’re comfy,

Peel its gentle skin,

Like you would

A clementine

The color of


Melissa Sweet’s orange, yellow, and pink collage literally rises from the page. This is a book to savor slowly, to read again, and again, and again.

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