Today’s Stack Overflow is about amazing women. Here are 11 picture books about women who have made a difference in the world with their talents, whether it’s through music or activism or artwork. I’ve really enjoyed reading these with my four-year-old daughter, who has been fascinated with the idea of picture books being about real people. Most of these have a short biography and actual photos of the women at the back of the book, and my daughter enjoys seeing the reality behind the stories and illustrations.
Libba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten by Laura Veirs, illustrated by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh
I actually hadn’t heard of Elizabeth Cotten before reading this book, but she has an incredible story. She was a folk singer, who became famous for her song “Freight Train,” which she wrote when she was only eleven. One of the interesting facts was that Libba taught herself guitar when she was very young, but because she was left-handed, she turned her brother’s guitar upside-down and backwards (so the bass strings were at the bottom rather than the top), and that’s how she ended up playing. She also had a long period in her life where she stopped playing music altogether, until by chance she became a housekeeper for Ruth Crawford Seeger, and became surrounded by that family’s music.
This picture book tell’s Cotten’s story with simple, poetic language and lovely, subdued pencil drawings. There’s an author’s note at the end that tells a little bit more about Cotten, as well as a bibliography that includes further reading and YouTube links of Cotten performing.
In 2014, Malala Yousafzai became the youngest-ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of seventeen, for work that she began when she was only eleven. The Taliban had forbidden girls to go to school where she was growing up in Pakistan, and she began to write about life under the Taliban for BBC Urdu, advocating for girls’ education. This is her story, told in her own words. She wished for a magic pencil when she was younger, like the boy in a TV show she watched, and in this picture book she imagines the things she would draw with a magic pencil … and then realized that “when you find your voice, every pencil can be magic.”
Yousafzai encourages children to make the world a better place, and shows through her own example that you’re never too young to make a difference. The book is beautifully illustrated, with shiny gold ink showing the magical things that Yousafzai sees in her mind.
Even if you don’t recognize the name Virginia Lee Burton, chances are you may have read some of her picture books: Mike Mulligan & His Steam Shovel, Katy & the Big Snow, The Little House, and more. I remember reading them when I was little, and we have a few copies now that my own daughters have read. Big Machines is about Virginia, or “Jinnee,” and her magical imagination. She loves telling stories and drawing pictures, especially for her two sons, who always loved those big machines.
The text is fanciful and pairs well with the illustrations, which show Jinnee creating her drawings in mid-air, her sons hopping onto the cable car she drew. I also love the way her own illustration style is reproduced here, overlaid with the more realistic style of Jinnee and her sons.
Pocket Full of Colors: The Magical World of Mary Blair, Disney Artist Extraordinaire by Amy Guglielmo and Jacqueline Tourville, illustrated by Brigette Barrager
Mary Blair was an artist who’s perhaps best known now for her design of the “It’s a Small World” ride, but she also created a lot of other artwork for Disney, both for the films and for the theme parks, as well as picture books. She loved using color and modern styles—so much so, in fact, that many of her designs for Disney films were rejected. In Pocket Full of Colors, her love for colors is presented as literally collecting colors from the world around her, as she leaves rainbow swirls in her wake.
The book glosses over some of her difficulty at Disney Studios, skipping ahead to her friendship with Walt himself and his request for her to design “It’s a Small World,” but the Author’s Note at the back gives a little more detail. It’s a beautiful book that celebrates an incredible talent who had almost been forgotten.
Little People, Big Dreams: Audrey Hepburn by María Isabel Sánchez Vegara, illustrated by Amaia Arrazola
The Little People, Big Dreams series from Quarto Books introduces kids to many notable women who achieved great things. The picture books are written with simple text that is suitable for young kids, with fun, stylized illustrations.
This book is about Audrey Hepburn: after a brief look at her childhood—living through World War II and suffering from illness—the book shows her training as a ballerina, then her acting career, and then her humanitarian work as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF. A section at the back of the book includes some photos of Hepburn and a short biography.
This Little People, Big Dreams title explores the life of Rosa Parks, from her childhood past to her famous moment of civil disobedience on the segregated bus … and then beyond, with the results that her action that day had on the civil rights movement, and her continued fight for equality the rest of her life. What I like about this book is that, although it shows how Rosa Parks was a hero of the civil rights movement, it also emphasizes that she was “a regular person.” As with Malala’s Magic Pencil (above), this book encourages kids to think of what they can do to make the world a better place.
The Little People, Big Dreams series has several other titles, including Marie Curie, Amelia Earhart, Maya Angelou, and more!
Here is yet another story about an amazing woman that I hadn’t heard about. Zaha Hadid grew up in Iraq, and later studied in London and became an architect. Her designs were bold and unconventional—she was inspired by things like swaying marsh grasses, sea shells, swirling galaxies. For a long time, she had trouble getting her designs built, because people said they couldn’t be done. Even when one of her plans was chosen in a competition—twice—a city committee refused to build it.
But she persisted, and many of her designs are now a reality or are under construction now, including the Sheikh Zayed Bridge in Abu Dhabi, the Messner Mountain Museum Corones in Bolzano, and the Galaxy Soho in Beijing. Hadid passed away in 2016. My daughters and I enjoyed looking up photos and concept images of the various buildings illustrated in the book. They’re so much more exciting than rectangles!
Amsterdam is the bike capital of the world, but it wasn’t always that way. In the 1970s, it was filled with vehicles, and cycling was a dangerous activity. Maartje Rutten was a young mom who wanted to make the roads safer for her and her kids to ride bikes, so she spoke up and started organizing protests and demonstrations, including a bike ride through a new tunnel designed for cars (on a day when cars were prohibited due to fuel shortages). Her actions, along with those of many other cyclists, helped spur the changes that have made Amsterdam such a bike-friendly city today. The story is told in a simple narrative style that is (as you’d expect) very pro-bicycle, and encourages readers to use pedal power.
Girl Running: Bobbi Gibb and the Boston Marathon by Annette Bay Pimentel, illustrated by Micha Archer
The Boston Marathon is the world’s oldest annual marathon, but up until 1972, it was only for men. Women were not allowed to participate, because officials believed that women were not physiologically capable of running twenty-six miles. Bobbi Gibb loved running, and after seeing the marathon, she decided to train for the 1966 marathon. When her application was rejected, she decided to run anyway, wearing a sweatshirt at first to disguise herself. By the end, everyone knew that there was a girl running—she was not given a medal, but she proved that women could finish the race. In the years that followed, more women joined her unofficially, until they were finally allowed to participate in 1972.
This is another story that I had never heard before, and I enjoyed reading about Gibb’s experience. The illustrations are a combination of oil and collage, and they really bring the story to life.
Who Says Women Can’t Be Computer Programmers? The Story of Ada Lovelace by Tanya Lee Stone, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman
Ada Lovelace was the world’s first computer programmer, and the story of how she became one is a fascinating one. The daughter of the poet Lord Byron, Ada was taught mathematics from an early age, and her mother worked hard to quash her vivid imagination, fearing that she would wind up behaving as badly as her father. But Ada showed that she was able to merge imagination and mathematics, and an eventual friendship with Charles Babbage set her down a new path.
This book simplifies Ada’s story so that younger kids can understand, though I’m not sure that it entirely explains what a computer programmer is. My four-year-old asked what the title meant, but even after we read the book, I’m not sure that she was drawing the connection between the Jacquard loom cards and the iPad apps she plays with. Still, it’s a lovely book, and a fine introduction to Ada Lovelace that may spur interest in further reading about her.
Although the cover of this picture book just shows one amazing woman, it’s actually about two: Once, when Ella Fitzgerald was turned away from a popular night club because she was black, she was helped by another iconic woman: Marilyn Monroe. Monroe lobbied for Fitzgerald to perform there, and the two formed a friendship. This picture book recounts that incident, applauding Monroe’s advocacy and celebrating Fitzgerald’s music. It’s a triumphant story about the power of music and friendship.
That’s it for today! This past week I was making my way through my growing stack of books about real women. I’ve focused on the picture books today, but I’ve got some chapter books and longer non-fiction books, as well as some comics. Watch for those in the coming months!
I’m nearing the end of Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon … it’s taken me a while because the past month was very full, but I’m excited to share more about that one when I finish!
Disclosure: I received review copies or advance proofs of these books. Making purchases through my Amazon affiliate links helps to support my writing, thanks!