Ten Best Biographies for Children 2014

Here’s the list of the ten best biographies for children I’ve reviewed in 2014. These books are all educational, fascinating and the writing is outstanding. Each would make an excellent gift and a wonderful addition to any home or school library. The titles are not ranked; they are simply listed in order of the targeted audience ages:

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Davie Crockett from A to Z

Written by William Chemerka, illustrated by Wade Dillon (Pelican Publishing) Ages 5-8

What Makes This Book Outstanding

I so thoroughly enjoyed Davy Crockett from A to Z for many reasons. Author/actor William Chemerka, founder of the Alamo Society, breaks down the life of Davy Crockett into alphabetical topics and fills them with fascinating facts young readers enjoy learning. The illustrations by self-taught artist Wade Dillion are so colorful and beautiful, they are a pleasure to admire. He got the job illustrating the book, because he has been an Alamo enthusiast his entire life and now works as a tour guide at the Alamo. The dedication these two men have to preserving this part of America’s history is evident in this book. It was enlightening to read it and a pleasure to interview the men about writing and illustrating it.

Lewis Tewanima: Born to Run

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Written by Sharon K. Solomon, illustrated by Lisa Fields (Pelican Publishing) Ages 5-8

What Makes This Book Outstanding

Lewis Tewanima was a Hopi Indian living in Arizona, who in 1906, was taken from his family by government officials and forced to live away from home, without contact with his family and cultural traditions. Despite his challenging situation, he had a natural ability for running and made it into the Olympics in 1908 and 1912. He won the Silver Medal in the 10,000 Meters in Stockholm in 1912. Sharon Solomon’s well-told story educates and inspires children and is a lovely tribute to an American athlete many children would not otherwise know about. I absolutely love Lisa Field’s big, vivid and outstanding illustrations. (She illustrated one of the Best Biographies on my list in 2013, Barreling Over Niagara Falls.) Young children can be motivated by what they read, just as much as we adults, and Lewis Tewanima: Born to Run is one of those books that inspire kids to work through their challenges to do great things.

 

When Emily Carr met Woo

 

Written by Monica Kulling, illustrated by Dean Griffiths (Pajama Press) Ages 5-10

What Makes This Book Outstanding

If it were not for this wonderful book, so many children would not know about the eccentric Ms. Emily Carr. She lived in British Columbia, Canada in a mobile home deep in the forest with her pet monkey named, Woo. This wild animal – acting like a typical monkey – often got into trouble and one day did something that almost took her life. Emily Carr was an exceptionally talented artist, who loved to paint the natural world around her, but no one wanted to buy her artwork while she was alive. Nearly 70 years after Emily Carr’s death, one of her paintings sold for $3.39 million. Artist Dean Griffiths did a wonderful job depicting Emily Carr and Woo with his watercolor illustrations. Author Monica Kulling took a subject that would typically be limited to older children and adults and made it shine for younger readers.  I love the way she combined Ms. Carr’s love of animals with her talents and personal and financial struggles. It inspires readers to celebrate the uniqueness inside of them.

 

The Cosmo Biography of Sun Ra

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Written and illustrated by Chris Raschka (Candlewick Press) Ages 6-9

What Makes This Book Outstanding

Herman Blount was born on May 22, 1914 in Alabama, and nicknamed “Sonny.” He declared that he came from Saturn, studied the great philosophers and later changed his name to Sun Ra. As a young child, Sun Ra was an accomplished pianist, and by the time he finished high school he was a professional musician. While living in Chicago where he studied the blues, he created the Sun Ra “Arkestra.” The Cosmo of Sun Ra was written to celebrate the centennial of this jazz great’s birthday. Two-time Caldecott Medalist, Chris Rashka brings Sun Ra to life with his spectacularly original modern art illustrations. They are just as colorful and alive as Sun Ra’s music. It is rare to find a book that celebrates the life of a jazz musician genius for children this young. This exceptional biography inspires children to be passionate about whatever it is they choose to do and to celebrate what it is that makes them unique. The illustrations are so wonderful, they are sure to inspire many children to learn to paint.

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Stone Giant: Michaelangelo’s David and How He Came to Be

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Written by Jane Sutcliffe, illustrated by John Shelley (Charlesbridge Publishing) Ages 6-9

What Makes This Book Outstanding

This is the story of how the renowned statue, David, lay unfinished in Florence, Italy for many years during the Renaissance era until Michaelangelo came to finish it. It became one of the world’s most celebrated pieces of art. Author Jane Sutcliffe has a unique talent to tell biographical stories to young readers that fascinates them while educating them at the same time. (I previously read another of her outstanding biographies for kids called Chester Nimitz and the Sea.) Stone Giant combines biography, history and art all into one beautiful picture book for young, curious minds. Jane’s story, complemented by John Shelley’s extraordinary detailed illustrations, make learning about Michaelango something extra special. Readers will not only be wiser about art history but they will also be inspired to finish what they start – no matter how challenging.

 

The Paper Doll’s House

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Written and photographed by Eric Boman (Thames and Hudson) Ages 9 and up

What Makes This Book Outstanding

The Paper Doll’s House is a most unique book about an American girl named, Sara Elizabeth Birdsall Otis, who at the age of twelve in the late 1800s created a most magnificent paper doll house using collage materials she collected from magazines, scraps of wallpaper and catalogs. The story about how photographer Eric Boman came to write and photograph this exceptional book is just as interesting as the book itself.  The Paper Doll’s House, with its magnificent photographs, is worthy of a collector’s coffee table book. It shows readers what life was like in America at the end of the 19th century through the eyes of a little girl with a keen sense of style and grace. This book is unlike any other I’ve ever read, and it nurtures the creativity in all of us.

 

Africa is My Home

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Written by Monica Edinger, illustrated by Robert Byrd (Candlewick Press) Ages 10 & up

What Makes This Book Outstanding

There’s nothing like a school teacher to tell a story, and author Monica Edinger has the skill and knowledge to educate children on the sensitive subject of slavery with her carefully chosen words. This book is about a girl named Magalu who was traded by her father for money in Sierra-Leone and sent aboard the slave ship, the Amistad, where she was shackled for weeks with many others. She eventually ended up in New Haven, CT where the US Supreme Court decided her fate.  Although Magalu was a real person, there was a limited amount of information about the slaves on the Amistad, so Monica Edinger presents this biography as historical fiction. She spent many years researching before writing her exceptional story, and it teaches readers about geography, history, the US judicial system and civil rights. What I respect most about her work is her ability to tell this account of unjust slavery without frightening young readers. They learn just how much of a privilege it is to get a good education. The illustrations by celebrated artist, Robert Byrd add to the beauty of this outstanding book for children.

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Read my interview with author Monica Edinger and Robert Byrd

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Searching for Sarah Rector: The Richest Black Girl in America

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Written by Tonya Bolden (Abrams Books for Young Readers) Ages 10-14

What Makes This Book Outstanding

Searching for Sarah Rector is a fascinating, true account of a young black girl from the early twentieth century who accumulated great wealth for her land ownership due to a series of historical events. It is a complicated story about slavery and laws, but Tonya Bolden breaks it down in a riveting way so readers can comprehend it. In addition to the captivating text, the extensive collection of old photographs is impressive.  This story gives those readers a chance to discover a piece of true American history they likely never knew about before. Along the way they can learn new vocabulary words and about civil rights, honesty, greed and even about the importance of learning to manage their own money.

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Earthrise

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Edgar Mitchell with Ellen Mahoney (Chicago Review Press) Ages 12 and up

What Makes This Book Outstanding

Edgar Mitchel was the sixth man to land on the moon, and the story of how he came to be an astronaut is spectacularly told in this autobiography for middle readers and older children. In fact, Earthrise is one of the best-written books – of any kind – I’ve ever read. I was reading it on a commuter train and was so engrossed in the story, I almost missed my stop. The book is told with such honesty, it is impossible not to be captivated by it. The road to becoming an astronaut is long and arduous, and the price Edgar Mitchell and his family paid to realize his dream was a big one. Learning about the education and work experience involved in becoming qualified for space exploration helps readers understand that accomplishing great things requires years of dedication, sacrifice and hard work. Every child in America should read this book, and so should their parents and teachers. It’s that exceptional.

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Women of Steel and Stone: 22 Inspiring Architects, Engineers, and Landscape Designers

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Written by Anna M. Lewis (Chicago Review Press) Ages 12 and up)

What Makes This Book Outstanding

I have yet to read a Chicago Review Press title in the Women of Action Series I did not like, and when I started to read Women of Steel and Stone, I simply couldn’t put it down until I finished reading the last word. For starters, the subject matter is fascinating. How often have you heard about brilliant women in the 1800s and early 1900s who excelled in the male-dominated fields of engineering, architecture and landscape design, despite having little or no support of respect just because they were women? The amount of research that went into writing this book was extensive, and it shows. The only way I can describe Anna M. Lewis’ writing is to call it seamless. It is concise, flows beautifully and is super engaging. She never talks down to the reader; rather she inspires them to pursue their own career dreams, however challenging they may be.  I can’t wait until this author publishes her next book for children.