Know who gets left out when learning about famous artists throughout history? The performing artists! This list of picture book biographies of women actors, dancers, magicians and film makers will fill that gap.
You will see familiar names as well as women who have made important contributions to performing arts fields and who have been all but forgotten, and even some whose work was credited to men! (Shameful!)
I have you covered though. When you want to learn about the visual arts check out the companion list: Picture book biographies of women visual artists.; and don't forget our big list of picture book biographies of women who made history.
(Note: book covers and titles are affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)
Biographies of Actresses and Film Makers
Read about trailblazers of the stage and screen!
Lights! Camera! Alice!: The Thrilling True Adventures of the First Woman Filmmaker by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Simona Ciraolo. Between 1896 and 1920, Alice Guy-Blaché made over 700 movies, but history has wrongly credited her films to men! As a girl, Alice loved stories. When the family business failed and her father died, Alice went to work at a camera company. Upon learning about a moving picture camera, Alice was eager to make moving stories. She experimented with film, running it backwards, adding color and sound. In 1907, she left France for America and built a studio in New York. Although the rise of Hollywood would mean her studio wouldn't last, Alice went on to write her own story. Watch some of her films here!
Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story by Paula Yoo, illustrated by Lin Wang. Anna May Wong grew up helping her parents in their laundry business but dreamed of becoming a film actress. When she started getting film work she was frustrated that the only roles she could get were Chinese stereotypes, so she moved to Europe. Upon her return to the States, nothing had changed and she set to work to combat those stereotypes in film.
Just Being Audrey by Margaret Cardillo, illustrated by Julia Denos. This biography begins with Audrey's desire to become a dancer and the struggles she endured during the war. The narrative takes readers through her growth into a figure of elegance and her work with UNICEF. Throughout the book, the author emphasizes how as Audrey grew up she was encouraged to be kind to others.
Hedy Lamarr's Double Life: Hollywood Legend and Brilliant Inventor by Laurie Wallmark, illustrated by Katy Wu. Hedy Lamarr, known to the public as a beautiful 1930's movie star, was also a brilliant scientific thinker and inventor. With composer George Antheil, she designed and patented a ‘frequency hopping’ device that would be able to help the US Navy redirect enemy torpedoes. The Navy classified the invention as "Secret" and Lamarr's work as an inventor went unrecognized for decades. But now, your kids can learn all about this amazing female inventor!
Biographies of Dancers
Ballet, modern dance, jazz and more! Use these books as a springboard to get out and watch live dance performance, too!
Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, illustrated by Brian Floca. This is the story of how Martha Graham created her seminal dance performance, Appalachian Spring. Appalachian Spring was a 1944 dance collaboration between Graham, composer Aaron Copeland, and set designer Isamu Noguchi. The illustrations are gorgeous and this is a important book to demonstrate to children how performance is the result of people working together. Watch the Martha Graham company perform!
Firebird by Misty Copeland, illustrated by Christopher Myers. In this gorgeous autobiographical picture book, Copeland writes poetically about her feelings as an ordinary girl struggling with self-acceptance and her dreams of becoming a prima ballerina. Myers's illustrations are absolutely stunning.
Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Julie Morstad is an exquisitely illustrated book about the famed Russian ballerina. Anna grew up being told that her body was not right for ballet, but she persevered, believing that ballet was for everyone. She brought beauty to the world with a new, dramatic and romantic style of dance. This is a marvelous story but with a bit of heartbreak. An endnote gives more information on Anna's life.
Danza!: Amalia Hernández and Mexico's Folkloric Ballet by Duncan Tonatiuh. This is a great book to read to kids alongside books that feature traditional European-style ballerinas. 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 perfect for this picture book biography of an important performer. If you are lucky, you might catch some the company's next performance!
On the Line: My Story of Becoming the First African American Rockette by Jennifer Jones and Lissette Norman, illustrated by Robert Paul Jr. Despite hearing from others that, "Girls like you don't become dancers," Jones was encouraged in her passion for dance by her parents. Inspired by seeing The Wiz on Broadway, Jones joined the Rockettes, where she danced for 15 years.
Tallchief: America’s Prima Ballerina by Maria Tallchief and Rosemary Wells, illustrated by Gary Kelley. Narrated by Maria Tallchief, she begins by describing her childhood on the Osage reservation. With the encouragement of her mother, she grew up with a fierce love of music and dance and the family moved to Los Angeles so Maria could continue her training. This biography focuses on Maria's formative years and the book ends when she joins the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo at the age of 17.
Brave Ballerina: The Story of Janet Collins by Michelle Meadows, illustrated by Ebony Glenn. Unlike many picture book biographies, this book is not text heavy, and as such is suitable even for preschoolers. Short rhyming text tells the story of Janet Collins, the first black prima ballerina to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House. The book begins with Collins as a very young girl who loved to dance with the swoosh of the trees. The narrative focuses on the joy and beauty of dance. This is great fun to read aloud.
Jazz Age Josephine by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman is a wonderful picture book about the iconic singer, dancer and stage performer. Josephine Baker overcame a difficult childhood, pushed back against racist entertainment policies and dazzled audiences with her dancing. Winter’s spirited text and Priceman’s lively, jazzy illustrations, brings Josephine’s particular brand of joyful performance to life.
Other Performance Platforms
Anything But Ordinary Addie: The True Story of Adelaide Herrmann, Queen of Magic by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Iacopo Bruno. Adelaide loved performing and began her career as a dancer. After marrying the magician, Herrmann the Great, she joined his show, performing all sorts of crazy stunts. When her husband died, Adelaide carried on, becoming the star of the show. The splendid illustrations and creative use of font mirror the boisterous magic of the tale. Kids will certainly want to try a few magic tricks after reading this, only don't let them climb into any canons!
Mermaid Queen: The Spectacular True Story Of Annette Kellerman, Who Swam Her Way To Fame, Fortune & Swimsuit History! by Shana Corey, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham. Annette Kellerman had difficulty walking as a child so her father encouraged her to start swimming as a way to strengthen her legs. At a time when women were not permitted on the competitive swimming scene, Kellerman started developing a more artistic form of swimming that we would think of as water ballet. She performed her swimming, diving feats and aqua-acrobatics to adoring crowds and always pushed herself to do more and do better. This book about a little known heroine is great fun.
Biographies of Singers
For more musical luminaries visit the full list of picture book biographies of women musicians.
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 felt like a fish out of water. She began dancing lessons and discovers a love for the stage. She struggled with being typecast because of her ethnicity but eventually becanme 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.
When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson byPam Muñoz Ryan, illustrated by Brian Selznick. Contralto Marian Anderson found true acceptance first in Europe because Americans were unwilling to accept a black woman on the stage. When the DAR refused to allow her to perform at Constitution Hall, Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for her to sing at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. (Watch a video of that performance here.) Ryan skillfully recounts Anderson's life as a singer and civil rights activist and captures the emotional ups and downs of Anderson's journey.
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, vibrant 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 is great fun to read aloud.
Harlem’s Little Blackbird by Renée Watson, illustrated by Christian Robinson is the story of singer Florence Mills, who used her fame to fight for civil rights in the 1920s. She was well-known for her compassion for the less-fortunate and for helping to advance the careers other African-American performers who faced profound racism. Highly Recommended.