Picture Books that Inspire Kids to Take Action and Change Their World

Nerdy Book Club Post

I love the Nerdy Book Club. If you are a book lover and aren’t regularly following them, go sign up now to get their daily posts. Today, I’m guest posting “Ten Books that Inspire Kids to Take Action and Change the World!” Come visit me over there.



Historical Fiction and Nonfiction Mentor Texts

Mosaic of book coversMentor Texts

Whenever I’m reading someone else’s work for critique or whenever I’m struggling in a particular area of my writing, I always turn to mentor texts. They are like “guiding lights.”

I’ve been involved in some discussions online that are asking for great suggestions for picture book biographies (recent ones), historical fiction examples, and even books for the youngest of readers.

I created the list for writers who need some good mentor texts to guide them in learning about the genres and writing their own books. However, this list could easily be used for the classroom and I’ve shared many of these books with students.

I have also included this list in a PDF for easy printing.

But you may wonder why I delineated between historical fiction and nonfiction in my list or HOW I delineated.

Nonfiction vs Historical Fiction

I’ve noticed a lot of people who have been asking about what makes a book historical fiction. Here are some of my rules of thumb:

  • Parts of the narrative that cannot be proven as fact
  • Invented Dialogue
  • First person POV (unless it’s an autobiography)
  • Using the historical facts to create a believable, but fictional, story (example: using the facts of the Civil War battles and times to create a fictional story about a child during the Civil War)

How Can I Tell the Difference?

  • Read it yourself.
  • Read the author’s note at the back of the book. Most of the time, the author points out parts that he/she couldn’t find and had to imagine or invent. But they usually back up those imagined parts with impeccable research.
  • Take a look at the CIP (Cataloging in Publication) information on the copyright page. While sometimes, it claims that books are biographies when they use invented dialogue, it does give you some guidance. It points you to where it should be shelved in the library (though there is some wiggle room), which also will give you a clue.

But, What if??????

There are those books that seem to fit firmly in one category, but really aren’t clear cut. Case in point: THE RIGHT WORD: ROGET AND HIS THESAURUS. The main text is absolutely nonfiction, but there are parts of the text (not the main text) that have speech bubbles. My guess is that’s invented dialogue.

This is an excellent book! One of my absolute favorites this year. Because the main text or story is nonfiction, I’m going to include it in my nonfiction list. However, you could read this book without reading the dialogue and still understand it. The dialogue is woven into the illustrations, and it creates a kid-friendly part to the text.

Would I let students use this text as a reference source? Absolutely.

Betsy Bird articulated this very issue much more clearly than I did. Here’s her post about these books. I particularly encourage you to read the comments, for the conversation that occurred there is very, very important.

I also really like Tanya Lee Stone’s article about invented dialogue.

Some links were shared in the comments that delve even deeper into this issue. Marc Tyler Nobleman’s article in The Horn Book is excellent. and another article about what can happen when you invent dialogue.

I’m not an expert on this. I think the line between historical fiction and nonfiction is important. What is amazing to me is that the quality of books out there is continue to increase. All of these books are on my list because they are excellent. I enjoy reading them and sharing them with children.

My main goal for this list is to give writers some stellar mentor texts to take a look at when writing nonfiction or historical fiction. This has been a discussion on several Facebook groups I’m a part of.

I read widely to create this list, but I know there are books that I missed. If you disagree with my delineation, feel free to say so. Or if you have books to add to the list, please comment as well. I’m really interested in having you lead me to more good books!

Click here for the printable PDF version of this list.


All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom by Angela Johnson, illustrated by E.B. Lewis

Amelia and Eleanor Go For a Ride by Pam Munoz Ryan, illustrated by Brian Selznick

Ben Franklin’s Big Splash: The Mostly True Story of His First Invention by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by S.D. Schindler

Boycott Blues: How Rosa Parks Inspired a Nation by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney

The Flag Maker by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, illustrated by Claire A. Nivola

Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue

George Washington’s Birthday: A Mostly True Tale by Margaret McNamara, illustrated by Barry Blitt

Georgia’s Bones by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Bethanne Andersen

Going North by Janice N. Harrington, illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue

Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine, illustrated by Kadir Nelson

Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Kadir Nelson

The Mighty Lalouche by Matthew Olshan, illustrated by Sophie Blackall

The Noisy Paintbox by Barb Rosenstock by Mary GrandPre

Queen Victoria’s Bathing Machine by Gloria Whelan, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter

Ruth and the Green Book by Calvin Alexander Ramsey, illustrated by Gwen Strauss

Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales



Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet

The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos written by Deborah Heiligman, illustrated by LeUyen Pham

Dream Something Big by Dianna Aston, illustrated by Susan Roth

Edward Hopper Paints His World by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Wendell Minor

Jack’s Path of Courage: The Life of John F. Kennedy by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Matt Tavares

Miss Moore Thought Otherwise by Jan Pinborough, illustrated by Debby Atwell

Nelson Mandela by Kadir Nelson

Odd Boy Out: Young Albert Einstein by Don Brown

On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne, illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky

A Splash of Red by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet

Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mysteries of the Cosmos by Stephanie Roth Sisson

Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Everything by Maira Kalman

The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever by H. Joseph Hopkins, illustrated by Jill McElmurry

The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life with the Chimps by Jeanette Winter

Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell by Tanya Lee Stone, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman


An Egg is Quiet by Dianna Aston, illustrated by Sylvia Long (and all others in this series)

No Monkeys, No Chocolate by Melissa Stewart and Allen Young, illustrated by Nicole Wong

Parrots Over Puerto Rico by Cindy Trumbore, illustrated by Susan Roth

Redwoods by Jason Chin

Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Emily Sutton

Events/Slice of Life/Niche areas

Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1901 by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Melissa Stewart

Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas by Lynne Cox, illustrated by Brian Floca

Martin & Mahalia: His Words, Her Song by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney

Miracle Mud by David A. Kelly

My Country ‘Tis of Thee: How One Song Reveals the History of Civil Rights by Claire Rudolph Murphy, illustrated by Brian Collier

Now and Ben: The Modern Inventions of Benjamin Franklin by Gene Barretta

Sit In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney

Timeless Thomas: How Thomas Edison Changed Our Lives by Gene Barretta

We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song by Debbie Levy, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton


All the Water in the World by George Ella Lyon by Katherine Tillotson

Bring on the Birds by Susan Stockdale (she has several NF animal books for young readers)

Gravity by Jason Chin

The Iridescence of Birds by Patricia MacLachlan

Lifetime: The Amazing Numbers in Animal Life by Lola Schaefer, illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal

Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell

No Monkeys, No Chocolate by Melissa Stewart and Allen Young, illustrated by Nicole Wong

VerseDay: Picture Books About Poets



Picture Books About Poets

I love making poets accessible to young people. No single book does that better than Sharon Creech‘s LOVE THAT DOG. However, there are poems by famous poets that I love to use as mentor texts for my students. I love learning about the poets behind the poems, so today I’m going to highlight a few of my favorite picture books about poets. Some of them are straight biography, others are illustrated biographies, and still others worth mentioning are historical fiction based on famous poets.


Picture Book Biographies


Cool Melons


Story and Haiku Translations by Matthew Gollub

Illustrations by Kazuko G. Stone

Lee & Low, 1998

Issa is one of the classic haiku poets, but even though he wrote beautiful haiku, he didn’t not have an easy life. His life was one fraught with sorrow, and at times, one that discouraged his writing. This is the story of his life interwoven with his haiku. The illustrations combine the haiku in the original Japanese with a painting depicting the image in the haiku. The back matter includes information about writing haiku and stories behind some of the original haiku. Students studying haiku will find this book full of examples of haiku and also the inspiring life of a poet. For more haiku books, see this annotated haiku list. For a lesson plan on teaching haiku, see this haiku mentor text lesson plan. 



by Laban Carrick Hill

illustrated by Bryan Collier

Little, Brown, 2010

I wasn’t sure if I should include this in poet biographies because this book doesn’t focus on Dave as a poet. The text focuses on his life as a potter. It isn’t until we get to the back matter that we get a glimpse of the poetry that Dave sometimes wrote on his pottery. But I wanted to put this in because it is a unique story, and the story of a slave writing poetry on pots is a part of history that needs to be told. The text itself is a poem, full of exquisite language. I admired the writing of this book so much that I want to use it as a mentor text with my students. The illustrations by Bryan Collier won a Caldecott Honor. This short glimpse into Dave’s life as a potter also gives us a sense of the importance of words. Highly recommended whether or not you are studying famous poets. This book deserves to be read.

Pablo Neruda



by Monica Brown

Illustrated by Julie Paschkis

Henry Holt, 2011

I first discovered Pablo Neruda through his poems ODES TO COMMON THINGS and I fell in love his poems about, well, common things. This picture book biography is very short, poetic, and is accompanied by beautiful illustrations that make words swirl around the page. Between the poetic words and the poetic illustrations, the reader will feel like they’ve basked in poetry. In very few words, Brown gives history of Neruda, which was actually not his given name. She also talks about his activism and the types of poems he wrote. An author’s note is included along with more resources about Neruda. Young children would enjoy this book, but also older students who study Neruda will find this book to be a poetic introduction to the poet’s life.

A River of Words

A RIVER OF WORDS: The Story of William Carlos Williams 

by Jen Bryant

Illustrated by Melissa Sweet

Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2008

I use this book when I teach LOVE THAT DOG because William Carlos Williams is one of the featured poets. This biography starts with Willie’s childhood love of nature all the way through his adulthood when he was a doctor scribbling poems on prescription pads. This is a phenomenal introduction to William Carlos Williams. The  illustrations, done on the pages of old books, are filled with words and make every page interesting to study. His poems are woven in the illustrations and typed on the end papers. The back matter includes a timeline of Williams’ life, an author’s note, an illustrator’s note, and a list of resources for further reading. This is a must-have book for teachers who teach LOVE THAT DOG and anyone else who is interested in sharing William Carlos Williams with their students.

Pablo Neruda


Written and illustrated by Deborah Kogan Ray

Frances Foster Books, 2006

I debated about including this in the longer illustrated books section, but decided to keep it here in the picture book category. It is a traditional length page-wise, even though the text is lengthy. One of the things I truly love about this book is that Ray uses Neruda’s own language–his descriptions and poetry–and weaves them seamlessly into the story that she tells about his life. The final effect is a beautiful story, even though his life was isolated. Neruda was secluded, misunderstood, and shy. It took a mentor, Gabriela Mistral, to encourage him and give him confidence in his work. The illustrations create the setting of his childhood, Chile, and make it seem mystical and a perfect one to inspire such a poet. The back matter  includes an author’s note, more biographical information, and a timeline. While this book would not be as accessible to the young elementary students because of it’s length, upper elementary and middle school students would appreciate the story of this young poet.

Longer Illustrated Biographies

The books mentioned above are truly picture book biographies, meant to be read and shared in a shorter amount of time. The next ones I will mention don’t fit in the picture book category, even though they look like them. They are much longer texts but very much worth reading.

a voice of her own phillis wheatley



by Kathryn Lasky

illustrated by Paul Lee

Candlewick Press, 2003

This book looks like a picture book and has illustrations much like a picture book, but the text is lengthy and separated into sections or short chapters. It begins with her voyage from Africa and being sold in Boston as a slave. Lasky tells her story with such beautiful sensory language. Because Phillis could write, she was different than an ordinary slave and not really accepted in the slave or white communities. However, her poetry still amazed and was published. I highly recommend this book for teachers to read this inspirational story to their students.

William Shakespeare and the Glob



Written and illustrated by Aliki

HarperCollins, 1999

Broken into acts and scenes, like one of Shakespeare’s plays, Aliki details Shakespeare’s life from childhood to the opening of the Globe playhouse. Aliki’s illustrations break up the text and really show what the setting, the homes, and even the people looked like during Shakespeare’s time. She even includes maps and diagrams. This really makes the late 1500s-early 1600s accessible to young people who might not have any background for that time period. While the focus is more on the Globe playhouse, this part of the poet’s life is important and interesting and gives younger students (and probably some older students) the opportunity to get into Shakespeare’s world.

Historical Fiction

As I began taking books about poets off of my shelf, I realized they didn’t really fit into neat categories. The ones I detail below aren’t true biographies. They have a bit of a unique twist to them, mostly historical fiction. But they are still worth mentioning when highlighting picture books about poets.




by Michael Bedard

Pictures by Barbara Cooney

Delacorte Press, 1992

Emily Dickinson wrote a poem about the “angels” that lived next door. Bedard’s book is an imagined encounter with a young girl and Emily Dickinson. Bedard does highlight facts from Emily Dickinson’s life. It includes an afterword explaining some of the facts behind the story, and it also includes the poem that inspired the little girl’s point of view.

emily dickinson



Story and pictures by Jeanette Winter

Frances Foster Books, 2002

This tiny book is like a gift book. The short beginning is told from Emily Dickinson’s sister’s point of view after Emily’s death. She reflects on what others thought about her sister and then her discovery of hundreds of poems. The rest of the book contains poems of Dickinson’s illustrated by Winter. There is a short author’s note at the back. This would be a good introduction to Emily’s poems for young people or even as a gift book for an adult who loves Dickinson’s poetry.

grass sandals


by Dawnine Spivak

Illustrated by Demi

This is another celebration of a historic haiku master’s life. Much of Basho’s travels through Japan are highlighted. What makes this historical fiction, in my mind, is that Basho’s thoughts and dialogue is written in this book. I suspect they are imagined thoughts and dialogue, though this wasn’t made clear in the author’s note. Additionally, the author did note that some of the travels were combined for this book, so it is not an accurate biographical retelling. However, it does give the reader a sense of his travels and the things he saw and wrote about. The essence of the book is that he noticed the small, everyday happenings and wrote haiku about them. Basho’s haiku are interspersed on the pages. The illustrations are done in ink with Oriental brushes and it looks like they are on mulberry paper. If  you want to introduce another historic haiku poet to students, this is another excellent text to explore.

Love to Langston



by Tony Medina

Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie

Lee & Low, 2002

This tribute to Langston Hughes is told in poems. Medina brings the live of Langston Hughes to the reader through poetry imagined through the voice of Hughes. While not straight biography, students will enjoy the accessibility to Hughes’ life that Medina’s poetry brings. The poems themselves are full of amazing word choice, historical context, and emotions that ground us to Hughes. The back of the book gives historical context to each poem. This would be a great mentor text to help students create a poem from the viewpoint of a famous person. The acrylic paintings by Christie also enhance the emotions of his life.

Visiting Langston


by Willie Perdomo

Illustrated by Bryan Collier

Henry Holt, 2002

I’ve always been in awe of Bryan Collier’s illustrations, and this book is no exception. His watercolor and collage techniques manage to set the scene for the time of Langston Hughes in a way that makes it feel real and tangible. The text is one poem told from the viewpoint of a little girl whose Daddy is a friend of Langston Hughes. It’s told through her viewpoint as she sees Langston and anticipates seeing him, like she does often. While this is not a biography, we do get a glimpse into Hughes’ life through details the little girl shares and we get more of a glimpse into his world through Collier’s illustrations. This would be a great companion book to LOVE TO LANGSTON and I often use them together when I teach text-to-text connections.

What Have I Missed?

I’m always on the lookout for good picture books about poets. So, what have I missed. What are your favorites? I want to find more!