Jan 25, 2021

For Children Who Want to Change the World

I remember one of my first babysitting jobs as a teenager. Just before the parents left for a wedding, the mother turned to her little girl and said, "Why don't you tell her what you want to be when you grow up?" The girl grinned and told me without hesitation, "A dinosaur!" Since then I've had quite a few children tell me they want to be a Velociraptor or a Brontosaurus or a Tyrannosaurus Rex so it's clear to me that little ones are the experts when it comes to dreaming big and imagining. From collecting books or food to planting bee-friendly gardens to creating apps to striking for action on climate change or gun violence, children are changing the world in big ways and small ways. It's never too early to inspire your little ones and foster their interests. Below are some of our favorite inspiring stories. Share with us the positive changes your child is making to their corner of the world.

The Secret Garden of George Washington Carver by Gene Barretta
The illustrations in this picture book biography are so lush, it's like you could reach out and touch every single seed, leaf, and petal. George Washington Carver was born into slavery in 1864, but kept a secret garden in the woods and developed a deep love and appreciation for nature. Carver learned how to make dyes and medicines from plants, discovered which plants needed more sunlight or water, and carefully studied plant life cycles and soils. In 1891, he was the first black student at Iowa State University. He earned not only a Bachelor's degree but a Masters as well, and addressed Congress in 1921 about the benefits of plants, especially the peanut.   

Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpre by Anika Aldamuy Denise
Pura Belpre grew up in Puerto Rico, adoring the stories her abuela told her. In 1921, she came to the United States and became a gifted storyteller in her own right. She landed a job at the New York Public Library as a bilingual assistant since she could speak English, Spanish, and French. When she noticed the lack of multicultural books at the library, she began telling and writing stories and even creating puppets to share the folklore of Puerto Rico. Currently, the Association for Library Service to Children has the Pura Belpre Award in her honor, which recognizes outstanding children's books depicting the Latinx cultural experience in the United States.   

Yayoi Kusama Covered Everything in Dots and Wasn't Sorry by Fausto Gilberti
Yayoi Kusama's "Infinity Mirrors" was wildly popular in 2018; the Cleveland Museum of Art kept selling out of tickets! This quirky picture book biography captures the spirit of Kusama and her art. Born in Japan, Kusama liked to cover things with dots, including clothing, furniture, and even people. After moving to the United States in 1958, she organized performance art called "happenings" where in addition to covering people with dots she protested against the Vietnam War. Kusama developed close friendships with other artists such as Georgia O'Keeffe and Eva Hesse, and became known for her conceptual, contemporary art.

All Because You Matter by Tami Charles 
This picture book is a lyrical love letter, anthem, and poem to black and brown children everywhere: You matter and you always will. Beginning with an expectant mother, the picture book follows the baby as he grows through first steps, laughter, teen anxieties, hardships, and the heartbreak of current events. Gorgeous illustrations, reminiscent of a quilt, make mentions of taking a knee, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Philando Castile. This is a profound book that needs to be read over and over again. 

The Bug Girl by Sophia Spencer 
Ever since a butterfly landed on her shoulder when she was two, Sophia Spencer, pictured above, loved bugs. Sophia's friends in kindergarten enjoyed hearing her favorite facts about grasshoppers, fireflies, and spiders, but by first grade her peers were teasing her for her passion. Sophia's mom reached out to the entomological community, and an entomologist personally wrote to Sophia to say she could still like bugs... and maybe even grow up to study them. From the simple text to the many bug facts to the watercolor illustrations, there is a lot to love about this book about following your passions.

Dinosaur Lady: The Daring Discoveries of Mary Anning, the First Paleontologist by Linda Skeers
This picture book biography is perfect for budding female scientists and dinosaur enthusiasts. Mary Anning loved scouring the beach with her father for shells and fossils. One day she came across an unexpected discovery: a skeleton of a creature never seen before! Mary had unearthed a dinosaur fossil, the first ever to be discovered. Her find dramatically changed the scientific world and led to the beginning of paleontology. Skeers doesn't downplay the many barriers and frustrations in Anning's life, writing about how men often took credit for her discoveries, and she shows Anning's incredible perseverance and how she continued to make astonishing fossil discoveries.  

Gidget the Surfing Dog: Catching Waves with a Small by Mighty Pug by Elizabeth Rusch
A pug on a hot pink surfboard? Count me in! When Gidget's owner realized she had a very energetic pug puppy on her hands, she decided dog surfing would be a good fit. Rusch tells the story of training Gidget, her surfing competitions, charity efforts, and even a life-threatening illness that threatened her time on the surf board. Rusch includes plenty of science too, including the physics of surfing, wave formation and buoyancy, water safety, and beach pollution making this a good choice for elementary students. 

How to Build a Hug: Temple Grandin and Her Amazing Squeeze Machine by Amy Guglielmo
This picture book biography is a wonderful glimpse into compassion, understanding, and living on the autism spectrum. Temple Grandin loves folding paper kites, making obstacle courses, animals, and building. She can even think in pictures. But she really doesn't like hugs. To Grandin, hugs feel like being stuffed inside the scratchiest sock in the world or sandpaper or very stinky cologne. What's the solution? To build a hug machine of course! A thoughtful author's note provides additional information on Grandin's life, career, and activism on behalf of those with autism. 

Drawing on Walls: A Story of Keith Haring by Matthew Burgess
There is something very accessible, vibrant, and open about Keith Haring's art - making it perfect for children. This picture book biography captures the playful, inventive life of Haring. Completely devoted to the idea of public art, Haring created murals wherever he went. Most often seen drawing in white chalk on the black, unused spaces of subway stations, Haring's art transformed New York City during the 1980s. Burgess uses uncomplicated language to describe Haring's thoughts about art and his relationship with his partner, and a biographical section doesn't shy away from discussing Haring's death due to AIDS-related complications at the young age of 31.  

Saving Granddaddy's Stories: Ray Hicks, the Voice of Appalachia by Shannon Hitchcock 
This picture book biography is a wonderful celebration of storytelling. As a young boy in the Appalachian Mountains, Ray Hicks loved hearing stories and songs from his grandfather. When his grandfather passed away, however, Hicks realized it was up to him to continue sharing family tales and the mountain way. After speaking at schools, festivals, and more, particularly telling "Jack Tales," Hicks became a renowned folklorist and a recipient of the National Heritage Fellowship. The book's artwork makes this title worth reading again and again.