It’s Women’s History Month, the perfect opportunity to look back in time at women who have accomplished great things through their bravery, hard work, and perseverance.
What better way to celebrate their achievements and motivate ourselves and our children to follow in their footsteps than by reading beautifully illustrated picture books?
So today I am recommending 17 picture books featuring historical heroines, from the famous (Harriet Tubman and Helen Keller) to the obscure (Ruth Law and Luba Tryszynska).
I’ve arranged my list in chronological order according to dates of birth and included a recommended age range for each book, so you can find an inspiring readaloud for kids of any age.
Laura Secord: A Story of Courage by Janet Lunn, illustrated by Maxwell Newhouse (Tundra Books, 2001)
During the War of 1812 Laura Secord (1775-1868) walked 32 km (20 mi) to warn British forces of an American attack. In this long picture book, a vivid description of her courageous trek is complemented by information about the war, a map, and bold folk art style illustrations. Recommended for ages 6 to 10.
Molly, by Golly!: The Legend of Molly Williams, America’s First Female Firefighter by Dianne Ochiltree, illustrated by Kathleen Kemley (Calkins Creek, 2012)
Not only did Molly Williams (fl. 1818) make the tastiest food for the volunteer fire fighters, she also jumped into the fray to help the men put out a fire during a blizzard. Kids will love this action-packed tale. Recommended for ages 6 to 10.
Heroes of Isle aux Morts by Alice Walsh, illustrated by Geoff Butler (Tundra Books, 2001)
In 1832 Anne Harvey (1811-1860) helped her family rescue 163 people from a sinking ship off the coast of Newfoundland. This dramatic picture book will appeal particularly to dog-lovers as it highlights the contribution of Anne’s dog, Hairy Man. Recommended for ages 6 to 10.
Dare the Wind: The Record-breaking Voyage of Eleanor Prentiss and the Flying Cloud by Tracey E. Fern, illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)
Eleanor Prentiss’s (1814-1900) father taught her “the caution to read the sea and the courage to dare the wind.” This lesson paid off when she navigated a clipper ship from New York to San Francisco in just 89 days, beating the world record by 30 days! This book should inspire all of us to follow our passions, work hard, and take risks. Recommended for ages 6 to 10.
Gracie the Lighthouse Cat by Ruth Brown, illustrated by the author (Andersen Press, 2010)
Here is another story of a courageous girl rescuing people from a wrecked ship. While Grace Darling (1815-1842) is helping her father with the rescue, their cat rescues her kitten. The brief text and charming story make this a good fit for younger children. Recommended for ages 4 to 7.
Minty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman by Alan Schroeder, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney (Puffin Books, 2000)
This gorgeous picture book introduces children to Harriet Tubman (c. 1822-1913) through her childhood dreams of running away from a harsh life of slavery. You’ll be inspired to learn more about Harriet Tubman’s work helping hundreds of slaves escape north. Recommended for ages 6 to 10.
Stand Straight, Ella Kate: The True Story of a Real Giant by Kate Klisse, illustrated by M. Sarah Klisse) (Dial Books, 2010)
This picture book biography of Ella Kate Ewing (1872-1913), “The Missouri Giantess,” urges readers not to be ashamed of themselves and to use their circumstances for good. Recommended for ages 5 to 8.
Lucy Maud and the Cavendish Cat by Lynn Manuel, illustrated by Janet Wilson (Tundra Books, 1998) (1874-1942)
Fans of L.M. Montgomery will love this beautifully illustrated story of the publishing of Anne of Green Gables told from the perspective of Lucy Maud’s grey cat, Daffy. Recommended for ages 6 to 9.
Helen’s Big World: The Life of Helen Keller by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Matt Tavares (Disney-Hyperion, 2012)
Helen Keller (1880-1968) is an incredibly inspiring figure. In this oversize picture book Doreen Rappaport combines delightful description with quotations from Helen Keller’s writings. Recommended for ages 6 to 8. (Find my reviews of other picture books featuring Helen Keller here and here.)
Fearless Flyer: Ruth Law and Her Flying Machine by Heather Lang, illustrated by Raul Colon (Calkins Creek, 2016)
This is a dramatic account of Ruth Law’s (1887-1970) 1916 attempt to fly from Chicago to New York in one day. It’s a tale of overcoming obstacles, including society’s expectations.
I especially enjoyed the quotations from contemporary newspaper articles. Recommended for ages 6 to 10.
Frida Kahlo, the Artist Who Painted Herself by Margaret Frith, illustrated by Tomie dePaola (Grosset & Dunlap, 2003)
This picture book biography of artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) is written as a report by a school child. It emphasizes Kahlo’s vivid imagination and the hardships she endured. Recommended for ages 5 to 8. (See my reviews of other picture books featuring Frida Kahlo here.)
Viola Desmond Won’t Be Budged by Jody Nyasha Warner, illustrated by Richard Rudnicki (Groundwood Books, 2010)
With vibrant illustrations and a conversational style, this book tells the story of Viola Desmond (1914-1965) who was arrested for not moving to the balcony of a movie theatre in Nova Scotia in 1946. A good introduction to the theme of racial segregation. Recommended for ages 5 to 9.
Luba: The Angel of Bergen-Belsen by Lichelle R. McCann & Luba Tryszynska-Frederick, illustrated by Ann Marshall (Tricycle Press, 2003)
This is the heart-wrenching true story of Luba Tryszynska (c.1920 – ?), a Jewish woman in a concentration camp who saved the lives of 54 Dutch children by hiding and feeding them. Recommended for ages 7 to 10.
Little Melba and Her Big Trombone by Katheryn Russell-Brown, illustrated by Frank Morrison
For as long as she could remember Melba Liston (1926-1999) loved music. At age seven she began playing the trombone. This picture book traces her life — including facing sexism and racism — on her way to becoming a world-famous jazz virtuoso. Recommended for ages 6 to 10.
Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle by Claire A. Nivola (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012) (1935 – )
With descriptive text and detailed illustrations, Claire A. Nivola tells the story of Sylvia Earle’s love for nature and work as an oceanographer. Not only does this picture book emphasize the importance of caring for our world, it shows how our childhood passions can shape our life’s work. Recommended for ages 7 to 10.
Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya by Donna Jo Napoli, illustrated by Kadir Nelson (Simon & Schuster, 2010)
Wangari Maathai (1940-2011) was a Kenyan environmentalist and political activist. This book focuses on the way she helped women all across Kenya by teaching them what trees to plant to solve problems such as lack of food, firewood, and shelter. Recommended for ages 5 to 8. (See my reviews of other picture books featuring Wangari Maathai here.)
Malala: A Brave Girl from Pakistan by Jeanette Winter (Beach Lane Books, 2014)
This simple, colourful picture book tells the story of Malala Yousafzai (b. 1997) who was shot by the Taliban for attending school. It clearly emphasizes girls’ right to education. Malala’s bravery should inspire us all. (This two-in-one book also includes Iqbal: A Brave Boy from Pakistan.) Recommended for ages 6 to 10.