Biographies of historical figures for children, flaws and all

As school book fairs and children’s library browsers can attest, there is no shortage of biographies aiming to educate young readers about the lives of historical figures, from George Washington to Jackie Robinson, Annie Oakley to Anne Frank, Helen Keller to Harry Houdini, Eleanor Roosevelt to Elvis Presley.

This month, several new picture books about famous thinkers and doers — bold breakers of boundaries and blazers of trails — will further crowd the shelves. The best of these deal forthrightly with their subjects’ complexities and contradictions, acknowledging that even heroes make mistakes and suffer setbacks and that one can be inspired by someone’s successes while acknowledging their failings.

It may be understandable that, in “I Am Amelia Earhart” and “I Am Abraham Lincoln” (Dial Books for Young Readers, $12.99 each, ages 5-8), the first two books in the new “Ordinary People Change the World” series, bestselling adult author Brad Meltzer declines to mention sticky details like his subjects’ untimely deaths, but the omissions contribute to the books’ facile flatness.

And if the author of “Malcolm Little: The Boy Who Grew Up to Become Malcolm X” (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, $17.99, ages 6-10), Ilyasah Shabazz, looks reverently at her subject through sepia-colored glasses in her sentimental book about his early life (sensitively illustrated by A.G. Ford), avoiding later controversies, that may come as little surprise since Shabazz is Malcolm X’s daughter.

But while these books delicately sidestep some thorny aspects of their subjects’ lives, two other new books bravely embrace them.


“Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker” (Chronicle Books, $17.99, ages 7-10), Patricia Hruby Powell’s scrupulously researched, high-spirited celebration of the color-line-crossing dancer, illustrated by Christian Robinson, takes its verbal and visual cues from the sights and sounds of Baker’s life and times.

Writing in jazzy, syncopated free verse, Powell, a former dancer, finds the seeds of Baker’s passion in her hardscrabble St. Louis childhood. “I didn’t have any stockings … I danced to keep warm,” Baker explains. The author detects heat too in the frustration and fury fueled by racism, which she compares to hot lava, burning deep in the dancer’s soul and released like steam “in little poofs” when she performs.

Powell’s poetic voice details not only Baker’s rise to stardom, onstage triumphs and offstage heroism but also her disappointments, excesses and her descent into homelessness before a glorious return to the stage and funeral fit for a queen.

Robinson’s richly vibrant, sensually expressive illustrations also capture the dancer’s lithe power and passion. Robinson credits the work of Paul Colin, who created the La Revue Negre posters that propelled Baker to fame in France and beyond, as his primary inspiration. But his palette also evokes Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series,” adding emotional weight.

Maira Kalman, meanwhile, brings her usual whimsical charms as well as a sense of sadness to “Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything” (Nancy Paulsen Books, $17.99, ages 5-8), her illustrated look at the brilliant yet complicated man who was the third U.S. president. Kalman can capture the nuances of character in the squint of an eye, the set of a mouth, and zero in on an object or detail that tells a whole story. Her text can seem to express our own unspoken thoughts. Here the author-illustrator uses those skills to their full effect.

While Kalman admires Jefferson’s avid interest in books, architecture, music, gardening and “Everything. I mean it. Everything,” as well as his remarkable role in shaping the ideals of liberty and equality for which our country still strives, she acknowledges his tragic contradictions. “The man who said of slavery ‘This abomination must end’ was the owner of about 150 slaves,” she writes. “The monumental man had monumental flaws.”

Kalman stops short of judging Jefferson. But when she shares what she tells us is a farm-book page on which he lists his slaves — Sally Hemings among them — and the meager supplies he has given them, she doesn’t shrink from expressing her sorrow. “Our hearts are broken,” she writes.

Kalman concludes, “If you want to understand this country and its people and what it means to be optimistic and complex and tragic and wrong and courageous, you need to go to Monticello.” If a trip to Jefferson’s Virginia home is not in your immediate plans, Kalman’s book will go a long way toward helping you grasp those concepts as well.

Reiter is a freelance writer in New York.