The People’s Painter

Levinson, Cynthia. The People’s Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice with Art. New York: Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2021.
Ben’s first memory was of drawing. At home, in his little Lithuanian village, he longed to draw everything he could see. But he also cared about justice. After his father escaped from imprisonment by Czar Nicholas II, the family moved to America in 1906, where Ben continued to draw pictures. By the time he died in 1969, he had become known as “the people’s painter,” an artist who drew attention to injustices in society. This sophisticated picture book – with full-page illustrations by Evan Turk and a lengthy afterward with additional information – is highly recommended for readers 9 years old and up.
P.S. References to people and events in American history may be unfamiliar to some readers, so this story would be ideal as a read-aloud and discussion.
P.P.S. I’m partial to picture book biographies. They let me learn about someone by reading a short story that gets to the heart of someone’s character. There are so many books to read and so many topics to learn about that I don’t always have time to read long books. Picture books can be just right, even for adults.

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Try It! How Frieda Caplan Changed the Way We Eat

Rockliff, Mara. Try It! How Frieda Caplan Changed the Way We Eat. New York: Beach Lane Books, 2021.
Kiwifruit, spaghetti squash, sugar snap peas. Those foods are now common in grocery stores. But it wasn’t always that way. In the 1960s, a woman in California changed people’s eating habits. She started her own produce company and introduced buyers to purple potatoes, artichokes, and habanero peppers. Blood oranges, Asian pears, and seedless watermelons. Frieda Caplan was an adventurer and happily brought the world to her customers. This informative picture book – with an afterword providing more details – will appeal to listeners and readers 6 to 12 years old.

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Reflections from Them Days

Winters, Nellie. Reflections from Them Days: A Residential School Memoir from Nunatsiavut. Iqaluit, Nunavut: Qinuisaarniq, an imprint of Inhabit Education Books Inc., 2020.
In 1949, when Nellie was eleven years old, she was sent to boarding school in Nain, Labrador on the east coast of Canada. In this 51-page autobiography, transcribed and edited by Erica Oberndorfer, she matter-of-factly shares her memories – both sad and happy, heart-breaking and humorous – in a voice truly her own. In the forward, she explains that we are all on earth to help each other and make our world “more wonderful.” This true story – illustrated by the author – will help readers see another life, another perspective, from a time not so long ago in Canada’s history. Highly recommended for readers 10 years old and up. 

More stories of indigenous people of North America 

More stories set in Canada

Picture book memoirs

Counting on Katherine

Becker, Helaine. Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2018.

Katherine was a child who loved numbers. But in the 1920s and ’30s, girls did not grow up to become mathematicians. So Katherine became a school teacher. Until in the 1950s, she finally got a chance to work for America’s National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics. For 35 years, her calculations of flight-paths helped to safely send astronauts around the world, to the moon, and back again to Earth. She died on February 24, 2020 at 101 years of age. This picture book illustrated by Dow Phumiruk is highly recommended for curious readers 9 years old and up.

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More stories about people of African heritage

The Oldest Student

Hubbard, Rita Lorraine. The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read. New York: Schwartz & Wade Books, 2020.
Once in a while, a book soars above the rest. The illustrations convey emotions as well as plot details. The size and style of the font matches the tone of the text and the age of the intended readers. The words sing with the rhythm of a story told over and over aloud, and the design turns it all into a work of brilliance.
This picture book is brilliant right from the beginning. It tells the story of Mary Walker, born a slave in 1848 and growing up to labour in the cotton fields, toil in the Big House, and follow the rules: work, work, work. Do not learn to read. When Mary was fifteen years old, freedom came, but she was desperately poor and still had to work. Mary Walker married, gave birth to a son, was widowed, married again and gave birth to two more sons. Year after year, she kept working and working – and dreaming of being able to decipher the squiggles she saw on billboards and signs. Finally, when she was 114 years old, she decided it was time she learned how to read. And she did!
This inspiring picture book – illustrated by Oge Mora – is most highly recommended for all readers 8 years old and up.

More biographies

More stories about people of African heritage

Little People, Big Dreams

Looking for a series about people who have made a difference in our world?
Looking for books at an easy reading level?

Try Little People, Big Dreams published in English by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books.

Each book in the series – originally written in Spanish – is by Maria Isabel Sánchez Vegara. The design is simple: a plain font with only a few sentences on each page along with full-page illustrations by a variety of artists. The style is informative rather than poetic and the reading level is suitable for children 8 years old and up. There are several dozen titles, so the the books would be useful for classroom teachers starting students on basic research projects or book reports. However, children who prefer nonfiction reading would also enjoy many of these titles, and therefore they are highly recommended for curious readers 8 to 12 years old.

Available online and in-store from Hemingway’s

(Type ‘little people, big dreams’ into the search box.)

A Biography Worksheet

 

 

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Paper Son

Leung, Julie. Paper Son : the Inspiring Story of Tyrus Wong, Immigrant and Artist. New York: Schwartz & Wade Books, 2019.
In 1919, a nine-year-old boy left his home in China to move to America with his father. Every night on the long voyage across the ocean, he memorized the answers he would need to correctly answer the questions sure to be asked by immigration officials. Years later, after studying art in California, he became one of the animators who helped create Disney’s famous film, Bambi. This beautiful picture book – accompanied by photographs and historical information – is highly recommended for readers 8 years old and up.

More stories of immigration

More stories of artists