Want to read some good picture book biographies of women in history? You've come to the right place. This book list of books about famous women (and some not-famous-but-should be) are the perfect way to inspire your children: both girls and boys!
Although March Women's History Month, anytime is a good time to read children's books about trailblazing women. Picture book biographies are a wonderful tool to teach about how women changed the course of history, whether it be in the fields of science, art, social justice, government or on any other front.
I've sorted this book list by topic:
For most categories, I've also linked to a more extensive book list on the topic! Enjoy this book list featuring the best picture books about women in history.
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Environment and Nature
You will also like this book list: Picture books about the environment
The Water Walker
by Joanne Robertson
Native American communities were the first to recognize what humans were doing to the planet and have always played a crucial role in raising awareness about the environment. Every morning Josephine Mandamin, an Ojibwe grandmother, greets nibi (water) with gratitude. Knowing that unpolluted water will soon be a scarcity, she and a group of women start to walk around the Great Lakes in order to draw attention to the importance of clean water. It takes them seven years to walk around the lakes, but they do not give up. Both the text and the illustrations add sweet humor to this important story. Also available in Dual-language edition in English & Anishinaabemowin
Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya
by Donna Jo Napoli
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. You can find several other books about Wangari at your library, too.
The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever
by H. Joseph Hopkins
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.
The Watcher: Jane Goodall's Life with the Chimps
by Jeanette Winter
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.
Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle
by Claire A. Nivola
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.
Science and Math
These biographies feature women who made great strides in STEM fields like mathematics, medicine, computing and more.
You will also enjoy these lists:
- Biographies of women in STEM
- Picture books about the moon landing (contains several biographies of women instrumental to NASA)
The Doctor with an Eye for Eyes: The Story of Dr. Patricia Bath
by Julia Finley Mosca
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.
Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race
by Margot Lee Shetterly
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.
Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine
by Laurie Wallmark
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.
Mae Among the Stars
by Roda Ahmed
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.
Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code
by Laurie Wallmark
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.
Artists and Performers
You will also enjoy the following two book lists:
Frida Kahlo and Her Animalitos
by Monica Brown
You can find a number of 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.
Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines
by Jeanne Walker Harvey
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.
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!
Tallchief: America’s Prima Ballerina
by Maria Tallchief and Rosemary Wells
This is the story of an important figure in dance who is probably unknown to most of us. Narrated by Maria Tallchief herself, 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.
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 and artistic 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.
Lucky for us, many wonderful words written by women survive to tell their stories through the ages.
Rise!: From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Maya Angelou
by Bethany Hegedus
One of the most important poets of the 20th century, Maya Angelou's poetry gives voice to millions of women whose complicated lives are filled with hardship, triumph, self-awareness and perseverance. This utterly gorgeous book follows Angelou's journey with adversity to activism and literature.
She Made a Monster: How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein
by Lynn Fulton
Most kids can describe the popular image of Frankenstein's monster: the squared off green head with stitches. But do they know he was dreamed up by a women in the 19th Century. This fun biography tells the tale of the dark and stormy night Frankenstein and his monster were born.
Write On, Mercy!: The Secret Life of Mercy Otis Warren
by Gretchen Woelfle
I love the story of Mercy because not only did she become an accomplished writer and political thinker before, during and after the American Revolution, she was surrounded by men who encouraged and valued her contributions, despite the prevalent belief that woman's role was to cook and sew..
Ordinary, Extraordinary Jane Austen
by Deborah Hopkinson
Do we not all Love Jane Austen, my friends? Now you children can learn to love her, too. And they will! Especially after learning about her love of observing others, her humor and her fondness for theater and books.
My Name Is Gabriela/Me llamo Gabriela
by Monica Brown
Gabriela Mistral was the first Latina to win the Nobel Prize. This biography tells the story of how her imaginative spirit and love of words and sounds inspired her to become a poet. When she was fifteen she became a school teacher, sharing her love of reading, writing and education with the children of her home country of Chile.
It has taken a long time for women to be taken seriously as professional athletes, and there are still some sports where women can't compete!
You will also like this book list: picture books about baseball
She Loved Baseball: The Effa Manley Story
by Audrey Vernick
Effa Manley is the only woman to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. She was the business manager of the Newark Eagles, a Negro League Baseball team, which she and her husband founded. She fiercely campaigned for the rights and due recognition for African-American ball players.
The Kid from Diamond Street: The Extraordinary Story of Baseball Legend Edith Houghton
by Audrey Vernick
In 1922, 10 year old Edith Houghton tried out for—and made the cut with— the Philadelphia Bobbies. This biography not only tells the highlights of Houghton's interesting career (she later became a recruiter) but also includes interesting details that make the story come alive.
Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World's Fastest Woman
by Kathleen Krull
Wilma grew from a 4 pound baby to be one of the fastest women in the world and competing at the Olympics. This is amazing considering that after a childhood bout of polio, it was thought that her leg was permanently damaged. Wilma worked through her injury as a young girl, earned an athletic scholarship and won three Olympic gold medals. My kids were fascinated with the idea that she won her medals even though she had a twisted ankle!
Long-Armed Ludy and the First Women's Olympics
by Jean L. S. Patrick
Tall and skinny Lucille "Ludy" Godbold discovered at Winthrop College that her long arms gave her a great advantage in the shot put event. She then qualified for the first Women's Olympics in 1922. Fearing she wouldn't have the funds to travel to France for the event, the president her college, her peers and teachers raised the money to send her.
Nothing but Trouble: The Story of Althea Gibson
by Sue Stauffacher
Before Venus and Serena there was Althea. Althea grew up in Harlem as a rowdy tomboy and went on to become the first African-American to win the Wimbledon Cup. My favorite part of the book is the way Greg Couch illustrated Althea, with a sort of constant rainbow vibration. This is a fun read aloud, especially for sports fans, who will enjoy mimicking the voice of an announcer.
These activist women took on oppressive and unjust social institutions. Some of them even risked their lives in order that the women and girls who came after them would have a fairer system.
You will also like this book list: Picture books about social justice
Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family's Fight for Desegregation
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 fight back and eventually win a very important court battle, setting the stage for future desegregation cases. This is a great book to teach our kids that segregation extended beyond the Jim Crow laws of the South.
The House That Jane Built: A Story About Jane Addams
by Tanya Lee Stone
This is an inspiring story about Jane Addams, the first American woman to be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, who founded a settlement home known as Hill House (still in existence!) in Chicago in the late 19th century. Addams was born into a wealthy family, but from childhood she wanted to help the poor in her community. The narration effectively draws readers into the story by portraying the unique individuals impacted by Addams' work as well as the larger importance of her work. A great talking point when reading this book to children is how projects such as Hull House contributed to the rise of community centers and what kinds of benefits they have for citizens.
Yours for Justice, Ida B. Wells: The Daring Life of a Crusading Journalist
by Philip Dray
In Post-Civil War America, Wells was an anti-lynching activist and one of the first successful Black Americans to win a legal battle in court. She wrote tirelessly against Jim Crow and refused to back down, even in the face of threats to her life.
Malala Yousafzai: Warrior With Words
by Karen Leggett Abouraya
A biography of the young Nobel Peace Prize recipient. Malala has become an inspiring voice for peace and education and even though her story is frightening at times, this is a good, age appropriate picture book.
Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers' Strike of 1909
by Michelle Markel
Clara comes to NYC dirt poor but full of grit. She works a miserable, backbreaking job at a garment factory. An extraordinary individual, she taught herself to read and led the largest walkout of women workers in U.S. History, despite being beaten and jailed for participating in labor strikes. Melissa Sweet tells a valuable story of the history of women workers and the importance of fair labor practices. It is a story which still resonates today.
Politics and Law
These women were trailblazers in the political world, working in government and law fields.
You will also enjoy this book list: Picture book biographies of women politicians and activists
I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark
by Debbie Levy
I love this charming book about how Ginsburg never stopped disagreeing with ideas that put women and other underprivileged persons at a disadvantage.
Turning Pages: My Life Story
by Sonia Sotomayor
It's wonderful (and rare!) to have an autobiographical picture book of a sitting Supreme Court justice. Sotomayor, the first Latina Supreme Court justice tells her own story of how books and reading helped her get through life's hardships as well as inspire her to go after her dreams. A marvelous story that will encourage others to seek out the joys of the written word. Also available in Spanish.
Miss Paul and the President: The Creative Campaign for Women's Right to Vote
by Dean Robbins
Alice Paul, a suffragette and activist organized a protest outside the White House during Wilson's administration. She led parades, went to jail and even met with the president himself. Her creative tactics helped pave the way for the 19th amendment.
Ballots for Belva: The True Story of a Woman's Race for the Presidency
by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen
A fun biography of a woman who ran for president in 1884. Belva Lockwood was a determined woman. When her law degree was denied she appealed directly to President Grant and won. She argued a case before the Supreme Court, and she had the audacity to run for the highest office at a time when women couldn't even vote. Yet most kids (and grown-ups) don't even know her name. Time to change that.
Hillary Rodham Clinton: Some Girls are Born to Lead
by Michelle Markel
There are several picture book biographies about Hillary Clinton, I like this one as it offers an inspiring and positive message in the way it focuses on Hillary's journey in leadership, service and activism as a girl, young adult and grown woman in education, the law and politics. I also love Pham's appealing illustrations, especially the final pages which show Hillary in a group of her fellow inspiring female leaders. Jonah Winter's Hillary and Kathleen Krull's Hillary Rodham Clinton: Dreams Taking Flight are also worth reading.
Singers and musicians! These ladies will get your feet tapping!
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.
When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson
by Pam Muñoz Ryan
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.) Like all the other women on this list, 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.
Little Melba and Her Big Trombone
by Katheryn Russell-Brown
A charming story about little known musician Melba Doretta Liston who taught herself to play the trombone when she was only 7! This is an extremely well-written jazz picture book about a musician you will wish you had known about much, much earlier!
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.
Even More Trailblazers
These biographies are about women who don't fit into neat and tidy categories. But do any of us, really?
You will also love this book list: Biographies of amazing African-American women
Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré
by Anika Aldamuy Denise
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.
Molly, by Golly!: The Legend of Molly Williams, America's First Female Firefighter
by Dianne Ochiltree
I love when picture books teach me about obscure but fascinating bits of history I didn’t hear about in school! In the early 1800s, Molly was a cook for a New York City firehouse but during a snowstorm her courage turned her into the first female firefighter in the United States. The book also contains fascinating facts about early firefighting and a useful bibliography. Kids will like this one a lot.
You Forgot Your Skirt, Amelia Bloomer
by Shana Corey
In the mid-19th century, Amelia is fed up with the ridiculous and cumbersome clothes that women are expected to wear. So, she decides to forge ahead with a new style. As you can imagine, not everyone is impressed. If you have kids who have independent ideas about what they wear, they will love Amelia's story.
Here Come the Girl Scouts!
by Shana Corey
Scouting girls will enjoy reading this biography of Juliette Daisy Gordon Low, who founded the Girl Scouts in order to give girls a way to explore interests outside of "proper ladylike pursuits." I love Hadley Hooper's illustrations and the way the text uses quotes from the Girl Scout handbook.
What To Do About Alice?: How Alice Roosevelt Broke the Rules, Charmed the World, and Drove Her Father Teddy Crazy!
by Barbara Kerley
I love that Alice was known for just being herself. This award-winning book charms readers with Alice's exuberance and flouting of social conventions. She rejected a prim boarding school in favor of home learning, survived leg braces and slid down the stairs of the White House. She sounds like a great friend to have had.
The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq
by Jeanette Winter
When war threatens to destroy Alia’s precious library collection, which includes rare editions, she bravely works to move 30,000 volumes to safety. This is a powerful story about courage and determination.
The Spacesuit: How a Seamstress Helped Put Man on the Moon
by Alison Donald
I love this book because it introduces kids to something they may not have thought about, but without which, the lunar landing could never have happened! NASA has a competition to come up with the design for the spacesuit and Eleanor Foraker leads a team of talented seamstresses to make it happen.
Dare the Wind: The Record-breaking Voyage of Eleanor Prentiss and the Flying Cloud
by Tracey Fern
In the 19th century, women did not navigate ships, but Ellen's father saw his daughter's love of the sea and nurtured it. She grew up, married a sea captain and accompanied him on his merchant voyages. In 1851 the Flying Cloud, in large part due to the navigational skills of Ellen, sailed around Cape Horn from New York to San Francisco in a record-breaking 89 days, 21 hours. Both the text and the illustrations will make your child feel as though he is there, on the sea, with Ellen and the clipper.