Read these great picture book biographies of women musicians and singers and learn with your children about the artistic contributions of fabulous women throughout history. While our list of 48 biographies of women in history does feature a few women with musical careers, this book list goes deeper and features women from many different musical styles: classical, jazz, folk and salsa.
The biographies tell stories of women who were talented in many areas. Some of them played instruments, others were singers, songwriters and even dancers.
And although some of the musical women on this list are household names, and others are still unknown to you, all of them were incredible performers. I know that once you and your kids read these picture book biographies they will want to get out and make music of their own!
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Libba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten
by Laura Veirs
Despite being left-handed and having a right-handed guitar, Elizabeth Cotten taught herself how to play. Although she showed early aptitude for music, she also went through a long stretch of life without playing. But when she becomes the housekeeper for the musical Seeger family, she picked up that guitar again and went on to sing one of the great folk songs of all time, “Freight Train.” Watch a video of Cotten playing “Freight Train” in the Seeger house here.
Joni: The Lyrical Life of Joni Mitchell
by Selina Alko
Growing up a free spirit on the Canadian Prairie, learning bird songs from her mother and writing poetry, Jone eventually picked up the guitar in high school. As an adult she put her passionate feelings of joy, sorrow, hope and frustration into music, composing more than 200 songs and becoming one of the greatest folk musicians of any generation. Alko’s vibrant illustrations wonderfully capture Mitchell’s turbulent life. Watch Joni sing here.
Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreño Played the Piano for President Lincoln
by Margarita Engle
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 now in the US, 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.
Ada’s Violin: The Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay
by Susan Hood
This is such an inspiring story. Young Ada Ríos lives in Paraguay in a town that was built atop a landfill. Ada loves music and dreams of playing the violin, but her family is too poor to afford it. When a new teacher comes to the community, he crafts instruments out of trash and the children form an orchestra. This is a great book which covers so many issues: musicianship, education, environmental justice and more.
For the Love of Music: The Remarkable Story of Maria Anna Mozart
by Elizabeth Rusch
Although her brother was unquestionably one of the greatest composers of all time, Maria Anna Mozart was a musical prodigy in her own right. As siblings, she and Wolfgang toured the great courts of Europe, impressing the nobility wherever they played. But Maria was a woman, and was encouraged to marry and give up her musical ambitions. Rusch tells the important story of a woman, who despite the confines of society, continued to perform music every day.
My Name is Celia/Me llamo Celia: The Life of Celia Cruz/la vida de Celia Cruz
by Monica Brown
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. Watch and listen to Cruz here.
When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson
by Pam Muñoz Ryan
Contralto Marian Anderson found true acceptance first in Europe because, shamefully, 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.) Anderson had to overcome strong barriers to achieve her success. Ryan skillfully recounts Anderson’s life as a singer and civil rights activist and captures the emotional ups and downs of Anderson’s journey. Selznick’s illustrations shine. An extensive author’s note is included.
Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills
by Renée Watson
This 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. If you’re looking for a book with a good role-model, this is the one.
Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat: Ella Fitzgerald
by Roxane Orgill
This is the story of Ella as a young orphaned teenager, who discovered her calling during amateur night at the Apollo. Her big break was A Tisket A Tasket at the age of 21. Qualls’ illustrations are perfect for bringing to life Ella’s jazzy style. Listen to Ella here.
Little Melba and Her Big Trombone
by Katheryn Russell-Brown
A charming story about lesser known (in non-jazz circles!) musician Melba Doretta Liston who taught herself to play the trombone when she was only 7! This is an extremely well-written picture book biography about a gutsy female musician you will wish you had known about much, much earlier! Listen to Melba here.
Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music
by Margarita Engle
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.
Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker
by Patricia Hruby Powell
What a splendid book! It’s a great blend between chapter and picture book. The text is what you might expect from a picture book: rhythmic, poetic, expressive (just like Josephine, really) but its 100 pages are divided into chapters based specific periods of her life. Bold graphics accompany the story and I love how pages are blocks of color. I found it to be a very visually appealing book. There is so much information about the singer in this book, but it is never dry and quite honestly, I found it quite suspenseful!
The Little Piano Girl: The Story of Mary Lou Williams, Jazz Legend
by Ann Ingalls and Maryann Macdonald
This picture book biography focuses on the childhood of amazing pianist Mary Lou Williams and her impoverished background in Pittsburg where she charmed the neighbors with her magical playing. As the story of an extraordinary girl who overcame hardship to be accepted for her talent it is interesting and I think music-loving kids will enjoy the story. Listen and watch Williams here.
More biographies to love: