These biographies of Latino/a/x and Hispanic-Americans will inspire kids to follow their dreams. National Hispanic Heritage Month is September 15-October 15, but these books about Hispanic and Latinx luminaries are great to read any time of year.
Most of the books on this list are picture book biographies, focused on a single individual, but a few are middle grade chapter books or collections. The biographies and autobiographies describe the inspiring lives of people across a wide spectrum of experiences, from artists to athletes, from scientists to politicians!
Table of contents
A quick note on identity as it pertains to this book list. Latino and Hispanic designations encompass a wide range of identities and experiences. A few books focus on members of Indigenous communities who may not consider themselves "Latino." Terminology in this list may vary, because for individual reviews I use terms that appear in that specific book.
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Scientists and Explorers
This category features Latinx and Hispanic scientists, chemists, aviators, biologists and other people working in STEM fields.
The Flying Girl: How Aída de Acosta Learned to Soar by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Sara Palacios
In June 1903, before the Wright brothers, Hispanic-American Aída de Acosta became the first woman to fly a motorized aircraft. While visiting Paris as a teenager, she meets the Brazilian inventor, Alberto Santos-Dumont, and convinces him to let her pilot his airship. The rhyming text is fun to read aloud, and a great way to introduce very young children to a pioneering woman. Ages 4 and up. Also available in Spanish.
The Astronaut with a Song for the Stars by Julia Finley Mosca, illustrated by Daniel Rieley
Author-Illustrator team Mosca and Rieley have several great books about women in STEM fields. This one introduces readers to Dr. Ellen Ochoa, a Cuban-American scientist who became a NASA astronaut and the first Latina in space. Written in rhyme, it makes a delightful read aloud, with plenty of informative back matter. Ages 5 and up.
Mario and the Hole in the Sky: How a Chemist Saved Our Planet by Elizabeth Rusch, illustrated by Teresa Martinez
Rusch's picture book biography of Mexican-born chemist Dr. Mario Molina begins with a childhood spent inspecting everything under a microscope. His mother encouraged his scientific curiosity, removing the toilet from the bathroom so he could use it for a laboratory. It's a good thing she did because her son would go on to help solve the problem of the rapidly depleting ozone layer in the atmosphere. Ages 6 and up. Also available in Spanish.
Just Wild Enough: Mireya Mayor, Primatologist (She Made History series) by Marta Magellan, illustrated by Clémentine Rocheron
Cuban-American Mireya Mayor grew up in Miami with a passion for animals and dance. Eventually becoming a primatologist, she struggled to be taken seriously when others judged her based on her appearance. She became the first woman wildlife TV reporter for National Geographic and discovered a new species of lemur in Madagascar. I particularly loved how this biography emphasized that scientists can have lots of different interests. She also has six children! Kids wanting to learn more about Mayor can visit her website. Ages 6 and up.
How to Hear the Universe by Patricia Valdez, illustrated by Sara Palacios
This is a fun biography about Gabby González that also introduces young kids to Albert Einstein’s theory about ripples in space-time (bet you didn't see that coming)! Decades after Einstein, González immigrated to the U.S. from Argentina, became fascinated by Einstein's theory, and set out to prove it. Ages 4 and up.
Sharuko: El Arqueólogo Peruano Julio C. Tello / Peruvian Archaeologist Julio C. Tello by Monica Brown, illustrated by Elisa Chavarri
Tello was a part of a Quechua-speaking Indigenous people community in Peru and the first first Indigenous archaeologist in the Americas. He started off in medical school and developed an intense curiosity of skulls. Using his skills to improve the lives of Peru's Indigenous people, he was tireless in working to preserve Indigenous history and culture. Note: Publisher Lee and Low has a teacher's guide here. Ages 6 and up.
Path to the Stars: My Journey from Girl Scout to Rocket Scientist by Sylvia Acevedo
In her autobiography for young readers, Acevedo describes growing up in a Mexican-American community in the 1960s. She felt out of place, as her interest in science diverged from most of her friends. She didn't want to follow the prescribed path set out for her on account of her gender. Joining the Girl Scouts presented new and exciting experiences that satisfied her need for adventure and set her on a path to becoming a scientist. Ages 8 and up (middle grade). Also available in Spanish.
Creators, Artists and Performers
Inspire kids to follow their dreams with the real-life stories of dancers, athletes, musicians, actors–even cooks!
Danza!: Amalia Hernández and Mexico's Folkloric Ballet by Duncan Tonatiuh
Amalia Hernández always knew she would be a dancer and she studied a variety of dance forms. She traveled all over Mexico, learning traditional dances of each region. She then formed El Ballet Folklórico de México, which combined ballet with these folk dances. Tonatiuh's illustrative style, which evokes Mixtec artwork, is great fun. If you are lucky, you might catch some the company's next performance! Ages 6 and up.
Sing with Me: The Story of Selena Quintanilla by Diana López, illustrated by Teresa Martinez
Selena grew up in Texas as part of a large, musical family. This vibrant biography focuses on Selena's youth and her determination to work hard. Selena learned Spanish so she could sing the Tejano music her audience wanted, sewed her own costumes and spent time on the road taking her music to different locations in Texas. The text does not mention the cause of her death, but an afterward gives more information. Ages 5 and up.
When Angels Sing: The Story of Rock Legend Carlos Santana by Michael Mahin, illustrated by Jose Ramirez
As I write this I can hear Santana's version of "Oye Como Va" playing in my head. (Incidentally, the song was originally composed by Tito Puente, whose biography is also on this list!) The colorful illustrations, reminiscent of Huichol yarn art, are the perfect backdrop for an introduction to Santana's early life, his discovery of the guitar and the music he made with The Santana Blues Band. Ages 6 and up.
My Name is Celia/Me llamo Celia: The Life of Celia Cruz/la vida de Celia Cruz by Monica Brown, illustrated by Rafael López
This lively bilingual biography tells the story of Cuban-born Celia Cruz, an important salsa singer and performer. The narrative traces Celia's journey, starting with her love of music and through her experience as a refugee escaping the communist regime in Cuba. She brought her musical art to Miami and New York, fighting racial stereotypes and never giving up. The text evokes the rhythm of salsa music and makes a good read aloud. Ages 5 and up.
Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreño Played the Piano for President Lincoln by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rafael López
Engle's poetic text and López's marvelous illustrations shine in this picture book biography of a little-known musician. Carreño and her family came to the United States when revolution broke out in her home country of Venezuela. But in the U.S., Civil War was disturbing the peace. Nevertheless, Carreño continued to practice the piano, learning different musical styles and then, at the age of 10, Lincoln invited her to play at the White House. Ages 4 and up. Also available in Spanish.
Frida Kahlo and Her Animalitos by Monica Brown, illustrated by John Parra
You can find many biographies of Kahlo on the library shelves and I like this one because it focuses on the animals that inspired many of Kahlo's paintings. Kahlo had a number of pets including monkeys, birds, turkeys, even a fawn. The text draws comparisons between the artists love of her animalitos, Azetc culture and her Mexican heritage, commenting on their influence in her art. Major life events are briefly mentioned, but they are not the focus of the biography. Ages 4 and up. Also available in Spanish.
Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl's Courage Changed Music by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rafael López
This wonderful picture book is inspired by the life of Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, a Chinese-African-Cuban girl. Millo bucked Cuba's taboo against female drummers and became a famous musician, even playing the bongos at a birthday celebration for FDR. The book is written as a poem, following a girl's longing to beat on all sorts of drums: congas, bongos, and timbales. She practices secretly until finally she is allowed to share her gift with the world. Rafael López's illustrations are absolutely stunning. Ages 4 and up.
Tito Puente, Mambo King/Tito Puente, Rey del Mambo, by Monica Brown, illustrated by Rafael Lopez
The swinging, jazzy text tells the story of Puente's life from the time when he was a small child banging out catchy rhythms on pots and pans through his time in the Navy, at Julliard, all the way to the end of his career when he was recognized with 5 Grammys. Swirling illustrations take the reader on a colorful journey. There is a biographical note at the end. Here's is Puente's original "Oye Como Va." (See Carlos Santana book, above) A Pura Belpré Honor Award Book. Ages 5 and up.
A Girl Named Rosita: The Story of Rita Moreno: Actor, Singer, Dancer, Trailblazer! by Anika Aldamuy Denise, illustrated by Leo Espinosa
This biography of Rita Moreno begins with her family's immigration from Puerto Rico to New York City, where she feels like a fish out of water. She begins dancing lessons and discovers a love for the stage. She struggles with being typecast because of her ethnicity but eventually becomes the first Latino to win an Academy Award. An author's note provides information on Moreno's work and activism in the years after West Side Story. Ages 4 and up.
Esquivel! Space-Age Sound Artist by Susan Wood, illustrations by Duncan Tonatiuh
You may not know the name, "Juan García Esquivel," but you've certainly heard his lounge music! Although it's fun to read about Esquivel's experimentations with musical instruments and his popularity in Mexico and the U.S., my favorite part of the book is Tonatiuh's illustrations! Listen to some of Esquivel's groovy music here! Ages 6 and up.
Nacho's Nachos: The Story Behind the World's Favorite Snack by Sandra Nickel, illustrated by Oliver Dominguez
In our home, we love nachos. Nachos for lunch, nachos for snacks, nachos for dinner. The only nachos we don't like are those gross ones you get at ball parts with the plastic, shiny cheese on top. Here's the fascinating story of how nachos were invented in the mid 20th century in a restaurant just over the border by a gentleman named–yes–Nacho. Ages 6 and up.
Roberto Clemente: Pride of the Pittsburgh Pirates by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Raúl Colón
Clemente made his first baseball bat from the wood of a guava tree in Puerto Rico and when he didn't have a ball, used an empty soup can. His talent eventually led him to play professional baseball in Puerto Rico and later in the major leagues for the Pittsburgh Pirates. His amazing success as a ball player didn't prevent racism from rearing it's ugly head but he continued to play. Winter's straightforward approach to Clemente's tragic death emphasizes the generous nature of Clemente's talent and spirit. Ages 6 and up.
Selena Gomez (Hispanic Star series) by Claudia Romo Edelman and Sara E. Echenique, illustrated by Manuel Gutierrez
Your young readers will be inspired by reading this chapter book biography of a performer they know and love. Born in Texas, Gomez got her start as a child television performer and went on to become one of Time magazine’s most influential people. The Hispanic Star series also includes books about Roberto Clemente, Sylvia Rivera, Ellen Ochoa, among others. Ages 8 and up (chapter book). Also available in Spanish.
Pelé King of Soccer by Eddy Simon, illustrated by Vincent Brascaglia
This graphic novel biography of Brazilian fútbol star, Pelé is fantastic. You know a book is good when it's about sports and I can't put it down. Author/Illustrator team Simon and Brascaglia convey the storied life of the greatest soccer player, from his youth, when his father taught him to love the game, to his amazing career and work as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. Translated from French. Ages 8 and up. Also check out our list of sports-themed graphic novels.
Activists and Politicians
This category includes Indigenous activists, men and women who studied law or politics, and others who worked towards equality for all.
Child of the Flower-Song People: Luz Jiménez, Daughter of the Nahua by Gloria Amescua, illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh
The story begins with Luz Jiménez, a member of the Nahua community, who are descendants of the Aztecs, learning how to farm, and listening to folk stories. Luz wanted to learn how to read and the government offered free schooling. However, the Mexican government was attempting to persuade the Indigenous population to conform to European colonial standards of language, dress and culture. Later, when anthropologists are seeking to record the "lost" culture of Indigenous communities, Luz assists them. Back matter offers further, detailed information. Ages 6 and up.
Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family's Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh
This book tells the story of school desegregation 10 years before Brown v. the Board of Education. In 1944, Sylvia's family moved to a new community. When she tried to attend school, she was told that she would have to go to "the Mexican school". Sylvia and her family fought back and eventually won a very important court battle, setting the stage for future desegregation cases. This is a great book to teach kids that segregation extended beyond the Jim Crow laws of the South. Ages 6 and up.
Building an Orchestra of Hope by Carmen Oliver, illustrated by Luisa Uribe
Favio Chávez, an Argentinian who loves music, heads to Paraguay. Cateura is a small village built on a landfill, where the population spends their days searching through the refuse for items they can sell. Favio wants to teach the children music but he doesn't have enough instruments and comes up with a solution to build the instruments from trash. An inspiring story. Ages 5 and up.
Harvesting Hope: The Story of César Chávez by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Yuyi Morales
I'm quite a fan of illustrator Yuyi Morales, which is why I chose this particular picture book about civil rights leader Chávez. The biography begins with Chávez as a young boy, who was "not a fighter," and follows him as his family leaves Mexico during a drought. When they arrive in California, the family experiences the hardship, racism and the brutal treatment rained down on migrant workers. Chávez was roused to take action and organized a 340 mile peaceful protest march on behalf of farmworkers. Ages 7 and up. Also check out our list of children's books about the history of labor.
Dolores Huerta: A Hero to Migrant Workers by Sarah Warren, illustrated by Robert Casilla
Dolores Huerta is another leading civil rights activist your kids should know. Author Sarah Warren describes Huerta in her many roles from a teacher to parent to protester and more. Her strength and determination to help the farmworkers led her to help organize a strike so they could achieve better working conditions and fair treatment under the law. The book includes terrific supplemental information in the afterward. Ages 6 and up.
Soldier for Equality: José de la Luz Sáenz and the Great War by Duncan Tonatiuh
José de la Luz Sáenz left his teaching job in Texas in hopes that enlisting in the United States Army would convince white Texans to treat Tejanos fairly and equally. In 1918 he served in France in the intelligence office, but was not treated equally with his fellow soldiers. Upon returning to Texas after the war, Luz saw that his service made no difference as to how he was treated and so he organized and worked as an activist with other Tejanos. Tonatiuh tells the story of a fascinating individual and introduces children to a lesser know story in the fight for civil rights. The book includes historical notes and a timeline. Also available in Spanish. Ages 6 and up.
Stand as Tall as the Trees, Patricia Gualinga and Laura Resau, illustrated by Vanessa Jaramillo
As a child, co-author Patricia Gualinga lived in Sarayaku, inside the Ecuadorian rainforest. Her mother taught her that humans are connected to nature and to the forest. She describes how, as an adult, she and members of the Indigenous Kichwa went to the Court of Human Rights as part of their campaign to stop oil companies from taking over parts of the rainforest. Spoiler alert: they win. This is a gorgeous, well-written book about a crucial and timely issue. Ages 7 and up.
Marti's Song for Freedom / Martí y sus versos por la libertad by Emma Otheguy, illustrated by Beatriz Vidal
Inspired by the natural world around him, José Martí started writing poetry. He then used his writing gift to speak out against the Spanish colonizers of his beloved home in Cuba. The government declared him an enemy of Spain and forced him to leave Cuba. Living in exile, he continued to compose poetry inspired by nature. RIF has supplemental activities for educators, based on this book. Ages 8 and up.
Jovita Wore Pants: The Story of a Mexican Freedom Fighter by Aida Salazar, illustrated Molly Mendoza
Growing up in rural Mexico in the 1910s, Jovita hated being forced to wear big skirts. So she fashioned her skirts into a pair of pants and went exploring with her brothers. When her father and brothers joined the Cristeros as part of the Mexican revolution, Jovita longed to join them. She eventually becomes involved, but the revolution brings tragedy to Jovita's family. Jovita does not back down, dressing "as Juan" and leading an army of peasants against the government. Includes a lengthy and informative author's note. Ages 7 and up.
Small Room, Big Dreams by Monica Brown, illustrated by Mirelle Ortega
Inspired by the activism and perseverance of their mother and grandmother, Mexican-American twins, Julián and Joaquin Castro started careers in politics. Brown's narration starts with their childhood in which they shared a room with their abuela and competed against each other in sports and school. She emphasizes the family's values around education and community and includes context about different Spanish-speaking populations and migration. A worthy biography of two contemporary change-makers. Ages 4 and up. Also available in Spanish.
Phemonenal AOC: The Roots and Rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez by Anika Aldamuy Denise, illustrated by Loris Lora
While she may be a lighting rod for political arguments with your neighbor on the opposite side of the political spectrum from you, this thoughtful and inspiring biography of Ocasio-Cortez, or "AOC" brings her humanity to the foreground. Growing up in suburban New York, AOC quickly noticed how few people in the community looked like her family, and that there were strong disparities of resources between neighborhoods, depending on the wealth of their inhabitants. She worked hard to succeed in school, becoming involved in activism and politics, and eventually became the youngest elected member of the House of Representatives. Ages 5 and up.
The Beloved World of Sonia Sotomayor (Young Readers edition) by Sonia Sotomayor
First of all, let's discuss how adorable that cover photo of Sotomayor as a girl is! This is Sotomayor's adaptation of her memoir, My Beloved World, for young readers. Sotomayor tells her story of growing in the Bronx and following her dreams with the support of her family and community. She presents a nuanced picture of the challenges and achievements which put her on the path to becoming the Supreme Court's first Latina justice. Ages 10 and up. For her autobiographical picture book, read Sotomayor's Turning Pages.
Storytellers and Teachers
Here is where you'll meet Latino and Hispanic writers, educators, librarians and those who tell their own stories.
Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré by Anika Aldamuy Denise, illustrated by Paola Escobar
Pura Belpré immigrated from Puerto Rico in 1921. She was New York City's first Puerto Rican librarian. She was also a storyteller and puppeteer who championed bilingual literature. This is an absolutely gorgeous book and a useful author's note give further background on this important trailblazer. Ages 4 and up.
Digging for Words: José Alberto Gutiérrez and the Library He Built by Angela Burke Kunkel, illustrated by Paola Escobar
José Alberto Gutiérrez works as a garbage collector in Bogotá, Colombia. On his rounds he keeps a lookout for books. Recognizing the transformative power of reading, he uses those books to start a library. Author, Angela Burke Kunkel, creates a parallel, fictional story of another José in Bogotá. This José is a young boy who looks forward to visiting the library every Saturday. I particularly loved the illustrations by Colombian illustrator, Paola Escobar, which depict scenes from books mentioned in the text. Ages 4 and up.
Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People/Poeta del Pueblo by Monica Brown, illustrated by Julie Paschkis
This picture book biography of Chile's famous poet, focuses first on Neruda's childhood, when he spent time observing nature, reading books and fostering a love for words and language. As he grew up, his love for the people of Chile, and desire to help the poor, motivated him to become an activist. Ages 4 and up.
Imagine by Juan Felipe Herrera, illustrated by Lauren Castillo
Herrera, a the first Chicano Poet Laureate, penned this lovely autobiographical picture book that encourages young readers to use their imagination. Using free verse, Herrera describes the change in landscape as he moves from rural California to the city and how he discovered a love for words which set him on the path to write poetry. Absolutely beautiful! This makes a lovely bedtime book, too. Ages 4 and up.
Tomás and the Library Lady by Pat Mora, illustrated by Raul Colón
Tomás Rivera went on to become the first minority chancellor at the University of California. As the son of migrant workers, Tomás listened every night to stories told by his grandmother. Then one day, a librarian opened up a whole new world for him. It's an inspiring story about of the power of education and reading which will ring true for all children, no matter what their backgrounds. Ages 6 and up. Also available in Spanish.
My Name Is Gabriela/Me llamo Gabriela by Monica Brown, illustrated by John Parra
Find it: Your Library | Amazon
Gabriela Mistral was the first Latina to win the Nobel Prize. Brown's bilingual biography tells the story of how Mistral's imaginative spirit and love for words and sounds inspired her to become a poet. When she was fifteen she became a school teacher, sharing her passion for reading, writing and education with the children of her home country of Chile. Ages 5 and up. For more biographers of authors, take a look at our book list of women writers and poets.
Areli is a Dreamer by Areli Morales, illustrated by Luisa Uribe
DACA recipient, Morales, begins her story describing life in Mexico, living with her abuela and waiting for phone calls from Mamá and Papá in America. Later, she travels to New York to reunite with her parents and brother. She poignantly describes life as an undocumented resident, both her complicated emotions over being considered "illegal," as well as the excitement of going new places. Ages 4 and up. Also available in Spanish.
My Shoes and I: Crossing Three Borders/ Mis zapatos y yo: Cruzando tres fronteras by René Colato Laínez, illustrated by Fabricio Vanden Broeck
Find it: Your Library | Amazon
In this autobiographical, bilingual picture book the author begins with a gift of new shoes that his mother, who is in the U.S., has sent him. Wearing the shoes brings him joy and he revels in running and jumping. Then, he and his father set out on to make the difficult journey from El Salvador to United States, which transforms the shoes. Ages 6 and up. More: Picture books about refugees.
Once I Was You: Finding My Voice and Passing the Mic (Young Readers edition) by Maria Hinojosa
When Hinojosa's father takes a professorship in Chicago, she and her family leave Mexico City. Award winning journalist, Maria Hinojosa describes her experience as a Latina immigrant living the United States, where she encounters opportunity, but also prejudice. Weaving in the stories of migrants with her own, Hinojosa guides readers to consider questions of identity, imposter syndrome, class and gender. Ages 10 and up (middle grade).
For readers who want a sampling of biographies in a single book, these collections of Latino and Hispanic voices are great choices.
Latinitas: Celebrating 40 Big Dreamers by Juliet Menéndez
Menéndez is able to convey a surprising amount of information with one page biographies of forty different Latina women. She looks at the lives of women from the 17th century to the present, featuring a wide array of individuals from writers to athletes and scientists to activists. Collage-style watercolor illustrations round out the collection. Ages 7 and up.
Bravo! Poems About Amazing Hispanics by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rafael López
One of the reason I love children's books is that I am always learning something new! Most of the figures in this poetry collection were new to me. End matter includes extra biographical information about each individual. Older children will also enjoy Yes! We Are Latinos: Poems and Prose About the Latino Experience by Alma Flor Ada and F. Isabel Campoy. Ages 8 and up.
Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes by Juan Felipe Herrera, illustrated by Raúl Colón
Herrera's collection features twenty Hispanic and Latinx American figures from all walks of life and professions, including both well-known individuals and less-known luminaries. Ages 8 and up. A Pura Belpré Author Honor Book.
Hear My Voice/Escucha Mi Voz: The Testimonies of Children Detained at the Southern Border of the United States, compiled by Warren Binford, various illustrators
This collection of interviews from 61 migrant children, ages 5-17, makes it impossible to argue that non-citizens shouldn't have the same human rights as citizens. The first person narratives are written in the original Spanish and translated into English. Although this book is appropriate for a middle school audience, I recommend reading it along with your students and children. Seventeen Latino illustrators bring the children's words to life in imaginative and thought-provoking ways. The forward and end notes add context and history to the children's experiences. Ages 8 and up.