While fairy tales and myths are so popular with small people because they are removed from reality – which are filled with lavishly furnished castles, dragons and pixies and houses made of sweets and women with hair that princes can use as ladders – that doesn’t stop children having a hunger for true stories.
But biographies are especially tough to write for even the most well-read audiences because they are by definition a detailed, factual account of a person’s life and achievements.
But when the reader is a child, a biographer’s job is much, much tougher. Children are engaged by drama: highs, lows and the exciting headlines of a story.
Much of the important detail which underpins drama is dismissed as boring by children – and this is why biographies for kids which manage to retain all key facts, provide context and make another person’s life feel, well, alive are so precious.
The same goes for biographies that can use accessible language and explain complex ideas without being patronising. We think everything in this round-up fits these briefs.
We wanted to feature a broad range of subjects in this round-up – from historical figures to contemporary icons, household names to lesser-known heroes. We have included books dedicated to individuals as well as anthologies full of life stories.
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‘Portrait of an Artist: Frida Kahlo’ by Lucy Brownridge and Sandra Dieckmann, published by Wide Eyed Editions
One of the first of many things we loved about this biography of Frida Kahlo is that the vibrant and colourful illustrations incorporate reproductions of the Mexican painter’s most famous pieces. At the end of the book, a handful of her most prominent works are discussed in detail, like an illustrated glossary, which was a lovely touch.
Kahlo’s life was complicated, vivid and accomplished, despite being short. This version of it uses direct language to convey her illnesses, her heartbreak and her love of her homeland. Readers find out how she often worked from her bed, are given an insight into how she felt about her body and what magic realism is.
This is the perfect introduction to a true visionary, a woman who broke boundaries for women in art. Also, be prepared for young readers to demand to visit Kahlo’s blue house immediately.
‘Cleopatra’ by Katie Daynes, published by Usborne
She is one of the most famous women in history – ruling in a land of pharaohs and pyramids with an an instantly recognisable haircut to boot so Cleopatra’s biography is something of a must-read for children. This volume is wordy, suitable for older children who can digest more. Children will discover the infighting of Cleopatra’s family and how she could only rely on herself.
The pictures are bright and detailed, and what we really liked about this was that it will take a few days to get through if read as a bedtime story, which will feel grown up to plenty of children who are used to getting through at least one book per bedtime.
‘Gloria Takes a Stand’ by Jess Rinker, published by Bloomsbury
The life of women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem is beautifully laid bare in this tome. The perfect way to encourage girls and boys to debate, speak up and listen, as well as educate them about the fight for women’s equality.
Gloria’s love of reading and writing, the courage of her own conviction and the way she advocated for herself is all the more impressive when you think that it happened at a time when it was very much a man’s world – rare for women to be highly educated or have careers.
Gloria wanted gender equality for all and made it her life’s work to achieve that. She is the ultimate feminist icon and a hero for everyone regardless of their age or sex.
‘Young, Gifted and Black’ by Jamia Wilson and Andrea Pippins, published by Wide Eyed Editions
With acid-bright illustrations, this book is a glorious celebration of 52 black heroes – past and present. It’s such an inviting book – everything about it is big and bold, the pages teem with detail and information. There are household names here – the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Nelson Mandela, as well as lesser-known heroes like chess player Maurice Ashley and tennis pro Yannick Noah. “You have to see it to be it” is the driving force of this book – this is what young people of all races need to see.
‘HerStory: 50 Women and Girls Who Shook the World’ by Katherine Halligan and Sarah Walsh, published by Nosy Crow
The contents are divided into sections depending on field of expertise, skill or achievement – for example “Help & Heal” includes the lives of Florence Nightingale and Maria Montessori. Each page is broken up into patches of text, drawn illustrations, photographs and pull quotes, making for an absolute banquet for the eyes and mind.
Grown-ups and kids alike are going to come away with a wealth of knowledge about 50 intrepid women who have shaken up the world in one way or another. We particularly enjoyed learning about Elizabeth I and Ada Lovelace and appreciated how sensitively the stories of women with particularly traumatic lives, like Anne Frank, were treated.
Each woman’s biography is thorough, detailing their childhoods, personal adversity and achievement. There is a hero to inspire any youngster whether they dream of being an artist, author, astronaut, or activist.
What we love about this book is that it’s essentially a reminder that the world is a huge place, the possibilities are exciting, infinite, and there for the taking.
‘Good Night Stories For Rebel Girls 2’ by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo, published by Timbuktu Labs
The first Rebel Girls volume was such a runaway success – with little girls (and boys) across the land being given this weighty tome as a means of exploring real life stories of remarkable women in short, manageable bites – that it’s no surprise there’s a follow up.
As with the first, each biography is no longer than a double page spread and focuses on a prominent, exceptional woman who has in one way or another achieved something extraordinary. Our four-year-old reviewer is particularly delighted by Beyoncé but has developed a new-found fascination with Peggy Guggenheim and Steffi Graf.
The writing is simple, clear and concise – perfect for younger children to be read to out loud or for older ones to tackle alone. Don’t be put off by the gendered title, this is arguably even more useful for boys than it is for girls. We aren’t too proud to admit it, but every single one of these stories taught us something new, too. A delight.
‘Work It, Girl: Michelle Obama’ by Caroline Moss, published by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books
We think this bright and beautiful book is perfect for children who are perhaps not quite ready for Michelle Obama’s memoirBecoming but are capable of reading chapter books and digesting important quotations. This is a picture book, but it also includes plenty of written detail and pull quotes, all of which serve to tell the story of the former first lady who started life as Michelle Robinson on Chicago’s poor south side. This documents her hard work, resilience, racism, and empowerment. But, it’s also a love story, a handbook on leadership, and a joy to read.
‘On A Beam Of Light’ by Jennifer Berne and Vladimir Radunsky, published by Chronicle Books
Who isn’t interested in the story of the man whose name is synonymous with genius? This book about the life of Albert Einstein is beautifully illustrated using muted tones not usually employed for children’s books, but it came as a refreshing change.
Readers discover that Einstein took years to even utter a word, didn’t do particularly well in school and afterwards couldn’t find a job in his chosen profession of teaching. But Berne’s easy and straightforward storytelling offers readers and overarching and dominant theme: it was Einstein’s curiosity and questioning that made him the household name he is now. His ability to ask why things are so and to never stop working to find answers was at the heart of his success. Our four-year-old tester had plenty of questions of her own by the end of this book, including “why is Albert’s hair so wild?” and “why can’t we ride a bicycle on a beam of light?” Plus, she was thrilled to discover Einstein hated wearing socks as much as she does.
At the end, Berne writes a few further notes about Einstein’s theories, politics, and personality – perfect for older children (and grown-ups, let’s face it). We absolutely adored this beautiful, thoughtful book.
‘Boy oh Boy’ by Cliff Leek and Bene Rohlmann, published by Quarto
In the past few years, female role models have come to the fore and been given a much bigger platform after years of being excluded and marginalised. So, it initially felt a little jarring to see a book dedicated to men throughout history – isn’t history dedicated to men, anyway? But this book is so important offering, as it covers some 30 positive male role models including the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Edward Enninful and David Hockney.
The men in this volume redefine masculinity, allowing children to see that men cannot and should not be stereotyped: strength is not simply physical, emotions are for everyone and creativity is to be embraced.
‘Little People, Big Dreams: Jesse Owens’, by Maria Isabel Sanchez and Anna Katharina Jansen, published by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books
The Little People, Big Dreams series is ever-expanding, and we are here for it, not least because the books in it inform parents and grown-ups just as much as they do children.
There are so many brilliant biographies to choose from, but we picked the newest release –Jesse Owens – because his story is not simply about his excellence as an athlete, but it is also an important lesson in the pain and injustice of racism.
Readers will find out how Owens excelled at the Olympics, in front of Adolf Hitler, bringing glory to America, but he had to go to his own celebratory party at the White House through a servant’s door because he was black.
Be prepared to answer some tough questions on race, civil rights, and white privilege.
The verdict: Biographies for kids
Portrait of an Artist: Frida Kahlo is a thing of beauty and a prompt for thought. We think it's one ot the most beautiful books we've ever come across.
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