Yesterday we met 7 inspiring women in this year’s
Today I’ve got seven more brilliant picture book biographies
introducing us to 7 remarkable men.
I hope encountering these inventive, determined,
creative, courageous fellows
encourages you and your kids
to try to make the world a better place for others.
Gizmos, Gadgets, and Guitars: The Story of Leo Fender
written by Michael Mahin, illustrated by Steven Salerno
published in 2021 by Christy Ottaviano Books, Henry Holt and Company
For those of you with kids keen on guitars – and that’s a lot of you – this biography of Leo Fender will be of particular interest. In the Author’s Note for this book, Mahin remarks, “Today there is hardly a band in the world that isn’t using at least one instrument or piece of musical gear with the Fender logo on it…Leo’s influence can be seen and heard in every area of music and in every corner of the globe. Wherever there is a radio playing or a band taking the stage, Leo and his inventions are there.”
So! Who was this guy? He was a kid who loved tinkering. A kid who lost an eye in a fluky accident. A kid who was running a radio repair business out of his bedroom in high school. As an adult, he turned to electronics repair again during the Depression.
There, in his cramped, obscure, fix-it shop, Leo started getting in electric guitars and amps for repair. He discovered that “these instruments were easy to break and hard to fix.” So although he didn’t play the guitar, he set about building a better one.
Leo’s road to success wasn’t easy. It took a lot of years, a lot of observing, a ton of tinkering, and a boatload of patience before the music world discovered what a genius he was. Cool retro illustration work infuses these pages with style. I’d recommend meeting Leo especially with kids who have an interest in guitars, bands, or tinkering, ages about 6 and up.
A Life Electric: The Story of Nikola Tesla
written by Azadeh Westergaard, illustrated by Júlia Sardà
published in 2021 by Viking
A lot of us are familiar with Tesla cars as the number of electric vehicles on the roads steadily moves forward. But do you know the story of the man behind that name? It’s quite the story!
Tesla was born in 1856 in what is now Croatia. Even as a child, Tesla showed a remarkable proclivity for invention and an early fascination with lightning and the electricity it was made of. He studied electrical engineering and learned at university of a puzzle that was perplexing the minds of scientists.
One day, as if in a flash of lightning, the solution to that puzzle streaked into Tesla’s mind, an image of a way to transmit electricity over long distances. Tesla left for America and found a collaborator in George Westinghouse. Together they implemented Tesla’s vision, displayed for the first time at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and revolutionized the electrification of cities around the world.
So with all this superlative success, how did Tesla become an impoverished old man, living alone in a small room in New York City, known mainly as a guy who fed and cared for pigeons? You’ll have to read to find out. Exceptional storytelling and Sarda’s always-handsome, eye-catching illustration work combine to create a fantastic biography full of surprises. Come meet Nikola with children ages 5 and up.
The Gardener of Alcatraz
written by Emma Bland Smith, illustrated by Jenn Ely
published in 2022 by Charlesbridge
In 1941, prisoner #AZ-578, a guy named Elliot Michener, was ferried across San Francisco bay to one of the toughest prisons in America. Alcatraz. He’d been convicted in Duluth, Minnesota of counterfeiting.
Michener wound up being assigned to help with the landscaping on that rocky island, something he knew nothing about. Although he initially planned on using his position to concoct a way of escape, the joys and challenges of gardening instead captured his heart. He studied and experimented and gardened for nine years, began gardening for the warden and his wife, and developed quite a lovely friendship with them.
But all that growth of goodness in his heart that came through his gardening meant he was transferred to a lower-security prison – a surprisingly-unwelcome change for him. Just a couple of years later, though, he was able to complete his sentence at a dairy farm in Wisconsin.
Pages of fascinating Author’s Notes complete this biography by telling us what happened next to Mr. Michener, a bit of the history of Alcatraz, the benefits of gardening to those incarcerated, the state of Alcatraz’s gardens today, and a bit about the Native occupation of Alcatraz in 1969.
Emma Bland Smith has done an excellent job of depicting the realities of prison while maintaining a humanizing perspective and focusing primarily on the upward arc of Michener’s life. Ely’s illustration work lightens the mood and contrasts the grays and straight edges of prison life with the jubilant colors and organic shapes of gardens and homes. Come meet Elliott Michener with children ages 4-5 and up.
Two at the Top: A Shared Dream of Everest
written by Uma Krishnaswami, illustrated by Christopher Corr
published in 2021 by Groundwood Books
Over the years, I’ve recommended some great books about Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary in their dramatic summiting of Mt. Everest. I’m so happy, though, to see this rendition of their story because it brilliantly presents the two men in parallel accounts rather than subsume Norgay’s story within Hillary’s. This is a huge step forward in recognizing their equivalent achievement.
Each two-page spread features Tenzing Norgay’s account on the left and Edmund Hillary’s on the right. See them as young boys growing up in Nepal and New Zealand. Watch them both catch the mountain climbing bug and begin their careers as mountaineers. Witness their earlier, separate attempts at Everest. Then arrive at 1953 when they are climbing together.
Step by step, struggle up that mountain with them, and then stand at the top together. Fabulous! Corr’s exuberantly-colorful, naïve paintings express boldness, vivacity, rigor. I love this story and its concept. Please do meet Norgay and Hillary in this bio, even if you’ve encountered them before, with children ages 4 and up.
Forest Fighter: The Story of Chico Mendes
written by Anita Ganeri, illustrated by Margaux Carpentier
published in 2022 by Crocodile Books, USA
Here’s a news story you’re likely not hearing unless you are proactively seeking to learn about the extraordinary, worldwide struggle to care for the environment: Latin American environmental activists are being murdered in dreadful numbers. In recent years, hundreds of environmentalists have been murdered in Latin America as they sought to defend their communities from devastating destruction.
This is the story of one well-known activist, a Brazilian man named Chico Mendes, who was murdered in 1988. Mendes grew up deep in the Amazon rainforest where his family were essentially sharecroppers on a rubber plantation. He learned from his father how to collect latex without harming the trees, how to cure it, how to harvest Brazil nuts; he observed during interactions with the estate owners how his father and fellow tappers were being cheated; he learned from a visitor how to read.
As a young man with this knowledge in hand, Mendes began educating rubber tappers. At the same time, estate owners began selling their land to cattle ranchers, and the government began clearing rainforest to build roads and new settlements. Rubber tappers who had lived in these areas all their lives were abruptly evicted. The intricate ecosystems of the rainforests were destroyed and the soil was devastated. Mendes began organizing tappers to resist these incursions. His work helped bring international attention to the threat to rainforests and our need to protect them. In their anger, some ranchers turned to violence, killing tappers including, sadly, Chico Mendes.
This is the longest and most advanced biography that I’ve included in this year’s biography blitz. It’s still a picture book length biography, but there is more text and it covers challenging material. It’s an immensely relevant and important story for young people to know as they take up the challenges of climate change and environmental justice. I highly recommend meeting Chico Mendes with children ages 8 and up.
Beautiful Useful Things: What William Morris Made
written by Beth Kephart, illustrated by Melodie Stacey
published in 2022 by Cameron Kids
Englishman William Morris was a consummate craftsman whose commitment to beauty and his steadfast belief in the power of our surroundings to restore and inspire us helped establish the artistic style and philosophy of the Arts and Crafts Movement.
This lush, lyrical account introduces him. We meet the natural world he loved as a boy and the way nature’s slow pace and interconnectedness influenced him to want to honor this in his mode of living and creating. With a backdrop of industrialization and all its clang and smoke and mass-production, Morris steadfastly began producing patterns, textiles, stained glass, books – beautiful and useful things, made with care by hand.
Morris’s love of beauty is certainly echoed in this account with its delicious words and gorgeous paintings. A short author’s note tells more about Morris’s life. I think you’ll be inspired by reading it to choose even one small way to work in a slow, mindful way towards some little piece of beauty in your corner of the world. Come meet William with children ages 4 and up.
John Lewis in the Lead: A Story of the Civil Rights Movement
written by Jim Haskins and Kathleen Benson, illustrations by Benny Andrews
published in 2006 by Lee & Low Books
John Lewis was one of the great civil rights leaders and a personal hero to many of us. This story highlights his childhood, reveals the origins of his lifelong commitment to social justice, and portrays a few pivotal moments he faced as a young man in the movement.
Lewis was a serious person from the time he was a small boy and dreamed of becoming a preacher. When he was 15, he heard Martin Luther King, Jr. speak and was inspired to step up for the cause of justice at great risk to himself. Highlighted here are the beatings and arrests he endured as a Freedom Rider and protestor, his speech at the March on Washington, the horrific day at Selma, and the final, victorious march to Montgomery.
Benny Andrews’ glorious paintings bring intense color and drama to these pages. They are stunning. The text is longer than usual for a picture book. It would make a great introduction to Lewis for children ages 7-8 and up.
That’s it for this time.
Please pass these resources along to anyone who might benefit from them.
There are more than 500 fabulous biographies —
–by far most of them picture book biographies
on my list here each with a link to my review
so check it out and choose to meet someone brand new!