Both boys and girls need to learn and read about women leaders in STEM subjects. Although March is Women’s History Month, I hope you will read these biography picture books about women scientists, as well as the titles on my lists of picture books about women in history with your children all year round. I have mentioned before that I am very picky when it comes to picture book biographies. I imagine it is difficult to write compelling and engaging nonfiction stories about historical figures in 32 pages. I generally steer clear of the paperback biographies you can find in history classrooms across the country. They serve a purpose, certainly, but they do not generally make good read alouds.
The number of picture books about women in STEM fields has increased in the last few years, I am happy to say. I see that schools, kids and parents are hungry for more interesting and inspiring books about women who made important contributions to the fields of natural science, math, biology, engineering and other scientific fields of inquiry. (Note: I know more books are coming and I am working on updating this list as needed.)
I’ve grouped the books below (loosely) by category. If you have further books to recommend, please leave them in the comments. (Note: covers and titles are affiliate links.)
Books about Women Natural Scientists and Biologists
The largest number of books about women scientists fall into this category. These women are doctors, naturalists, oceanographers, environmentalists and biologists.
The Doctor with an Eye for Eyes: The Story of Dr. Patricia Bath. This is a wonderful biography of a woman you have probably never heard of, but who has made significant contributions to medicine, including a treatment for blindness. Written in rhyme, the narrative flows well and the illustrations are engaging. End material, including a letter from Dr. Bath, photographs, a time line and further details about Dr. Bath’s life and work make this biography extra special.
Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors?: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell. This great book brings to life a woman who persistently followed her goals and broke 19th century barriers to be allowed into medical school, faced the rejection of her fellow students and then her colleagues, all the while proving she was smarter than they were. I love the vibrant, energetic illustrations.
Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle. This book starts out with the quiet “investigations” of a girl watching a pond. When her family moves to Florida, she starts her investigations of the Gulf of Mexico. Earle’s love for the ocean and its life drift off the page, and this is a surprisingly moving book with detailed illustrations to explore. It’s a wonderful book to start a conversation with your kids, not only about the importance of ocean life to the planet (as is Earle’s passion), but how one’s own interest can spark a greater purpose.
The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life with the Chimps. Author Jeanette Winter specializes in picture book biographies, and I usually find her books, with her spare but deliberate illustrative style, very readable. Winter conveys the out-of-the-box research and life of Jane Goodall and kids will come away with a richer understanding of what being a primatologist (and “a watcher”) really is.
Me . . . Jane is a good book to accompany The Watcher. It is more about Jane Goodall the dreamer, and focuses on her childhood as well as her achievements. I particularly like the way McDonnell juxtaposed photographs of Jane Goodall with his illustrations.
The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever. As a city dweller, I am particularly fond of tree huggers, especially those that see the value of trees and plant life in urban settings. Katherine Olivia Sessions was the first woman to graduate from the University of California with a degree in science. After moving to a nearly tree-less city in San Diego, she advocated and spearheaded a campaign that transformed the area to a lush green land. I hope Sessions’s story inspires other kids to make a difference in their community. This would be a great addition to my list of books to inspire kids to change the world.
Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian. Thirteen year old Maria has to catch and study insects in secret otherwise her 17th Century neighbors will accuse her of witchcraft. The metamorphosis of butterflies and moths, or “summer birds,” was not understood and such creatures were considered “beasts of the devil.” This book is as much about a love of the natural world as it is about one of the first known female naturalists.
Rachel Carson and Her Book That Changed the World. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was a wake up call about the impact our use of chemicals has on the environment. This book looks at Carson’s life from the beginning through the publication of her ground breaking book. It’s not a perfect biography, but one to pick up if your children are interested in environmental science.
Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya. Wangari Maathai was the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. She was recognized for her work restoring trees to Kenya. The wonderful thing about Maathai’s story is that it involves the cooperation of an extended community of women and will make kids aware of the power of individuals to bring positive, long-lasting global change. As always, Kadir Nelson’s illustrations are stunning. In addition, I enjoyed Jeannette Winter’s version of Wangari’s story in the picture book, Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa. You can find several other books about Wangari at your library, too.
Wangari is one of the fearless women on our women cards coloring page! Click here to download and print the women cards coloring page for free!
Rare Treasure: Mary Anning and Her Remarkable Discoveries. There are several books about Mary Anning, who discovered the first complete fossil of a plesiosaur in 1823. Anning began discovering fossils when she was a girl and some books describe her as having almost a supernatural ability to do so. I liked this story which focuses on her patient determination to carry on the fossil hunting legacy of her father, and her partnership with her brother.
The Elephant Scientist. This book is a text-heavy book suitable for kids 8 and up, or for younger kids who may have an intense interest in elephants. Scientist Caitlin O’Connell studied elephants in Africa and made important discoveries about their behavior and how they communicate with each other. This is actually a really fascinating book, full of information not just about O’Connell, but about elephants and their habitat. Adults will enjoy reading it just as much as the kids.
Books about Women Inventors and Engineers
There are some wonderful fiction picture books about girls inventing things. You can find a few of them on my lists of picture books to inspire inventors and engineers, but not too many about actual women inventors, of which there are many in this world.
The World is Not a Rectangle: A Portrait of Architect Zaha Hadid by Jeanette Winter. Born in Iraq, and educated in London, Hadid designed fascinating buildings around the world. But as a Muslim woman, the road was not easy and she had to overcome the hurdle of prejudice. This biography is written simply, making it a great choice for the early elementary set. Make sure to look at photographs of Hadid’s beautiful buildings, too.
Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines. This beautifully illustrated picture book tells the story of Chinese-American Maya Lin, the architect and artist who created the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It traces her journey from a girl who was fascinated by nature, building and learning about the art of structures to the college student who enters a contest to design the Memorial. An author’s note gives further information.
Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor Mattie started inventing things when she was just a girl. She figured out how to make faster sleds, better kites and when she was twelve, she invented a device to protect loom workers. She also invented a machine to manufacture paper bags. The illustrations in this book are wonderful. Flowing watercolors are accompanied by blueprint like drawings of Mattie’s inventions.
Julia Morgan Built a Castle. Do you have a child who loves to build? Introduce them to the architect responsible for Hearst Castle. Julia Morgan made her way into the all-male École des Beaux Arts, in Paris and became the first licensed female architect in California. Please ignore the poor choice of font on the cover of the book and pick it up a library.
Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women is actually not a 32 page picture book biography but I am sneaking it onto the list anyway. It’s a fascinating collection of stories about women you’ve never heard of and their inventions that you may or may not be familiar with. Ages 8 and up.
Books about Women Mathematicians, Physicists and Chemists
There are fewer books in this category than I would like, but the number is growing!
Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race. A film by the same name brought these little known women into the light and we are all better for it! This is the story of four amazing mathematicians, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden, who contributed to NASA’s success by providing important calculations. But it wasn’t easy and they had to overcome strong racial and gender barriers to succeed.
Look Up!: Henrietta Leavitt, Pioneering Woman Astronomer. This book focuses deeply on the intellectual life of woman who is now considered one of the most important astronomers. After she graduated, she got a job at Harvard Observatory, where — with other women — she counted stars for the male astronomers. However, Leavitt made discoveries about star brightness and distance calculations that made the other astronomers realize her value. Colon’s illustrations are top notch, as usual.
Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine. I love this illustrated biography of a woman who has recently been “discovered” as the first computer programmer. The daughter of the notorious poet, Lord Byron, Ada’s math-loving mother raised her away from her. Ada has an inquisitive, curious mind and when she meets Charles Babbage (who invented the first mechanical computer), it is Ada who figures out how to program it. A fascinating and gorgeous book with fun details that will fascinate children.
Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code. Never heard of Ms Hopper? You will be richer for having read this book! From and early age, Hopper loved to figure out how things worked. Encouraged by her parents to study math and science, despite the domination of the field by men, Hopper’s curious mind helped her persevere and her strength of mind led her to enlist in WAVES, the women’s division of the Naval Reserve, during WWII. Hopper remained in the Navy until she was 80 (!) solving incredibly complex computer programming problems. An utterly fascinating story.
Margaret and the Moon: How Margaret Hamilton Saved the First Lunar Landing. Margaret Hamilton grew up from being a curious girl who loved to solve problems to an MIT graduate who worked for NASA. She wrote a computer code that could solve any problem a spacecraft would encounter (which sounds like an impossible feat to me!)
Mae Among the Stars. Not as text heavy as many picture book biographies, this is a wonderful book about the first African-American in space, Mae Jemison, and it will inspire younger children. The narrative focuses on the young Mae and her dreams to see the earth from space. When she learns she needs to be an astronaut to go into space, she learns as much as she can about the stars and what it takes to be an astronaut. Her parents encourage her to dream big, even in the face of others’ skepticism.
Of Numbers and Stars: The Story of Hypatia. I would really like to see more biographies of female mathematicians. In the 4th century Egypt, Hypatia, the daughter of a mathematician, received the kind of education most women were denied. The story follows Hypatia from childhood as her father dedicates himself to teaching her everything he knows, from activities like fishing, to the importance of grammar. When she grew up, men and women alike sought her advice on many topics. Fortunately, Hypatia’s death at the hands of a mob is relegated to the author’s note so that kids can focus on her learning and accomplishments.
Marie Curie: Prize-Winning Scientist. I have actually not read this book but could not make a list of picture books about women scientists without including Curie. I am rather shocked that I could not find any other picture books about this important woman! There are many “history room” type books and perhaps some of them are good, so check them out but clearly there is a 32 page picture book about Marie Curie vacuum to be filled. (Perhaps I overlooked a book, please tell me in the comments.)
So, please tell me! Do you have any picture book biographies about female scientists to recommend? Read aloud books are especially desirable!
MORE BOOK LISTS TO EXPLORE:
- Picture book biographies of women in history
- Books about Women in Politics and Women Activists
- Picture book biographies of African American women
- Books for little inventors and engineers
- 55 science picture books
- Over 100 themed lists in the index of all my book lists for kids
Inspire your future scientists with STEM themed pairings of books and toys.