It’s never too early for kids to get acquainted with history—to have aha! moments as they identify role models and make important connections. The picture books featured here serve up factual information in story form and provide great introductions to significant figures from America’s past.


Barb Rosenstock’s Thomas Jefferson Builds a Library (ages 8 to 11) is a lighthearted profile of our third president—a statesman with a serious book fixation. Born in Shadwell, Virginia, in 1743, Tom Jefferson grows up with a love for books, a passion that serves him well as he enters politics. Through the years, he collects thousands of titles on all sorts of subjects. His wife, Martha, is a kindred spirit, and together, they instill a love of reading in their children. John O’Brien’s jolly, rollicking pen-and-ink illustrations show the great man reading in the unlikeliest of places (while balancing on the bowsprit of a ship, for instance). Teeming shelves and precariously stacked piles deliver a sense of the density of Tom’s personal collection, the vast size of which enables him to resupply the Library of Congress after the British burn it in 1814. Rosenstock, who knows how to make facts fun, has written a spirited story that stands as testament to the impact of books. This is a biography that young readers will learn from and enjoy—at the same time!


With The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever (ages 5 to 10), H. Joseph Hopkins offers an appealing, easy-to-understand profile of one of America’s greatest gardeners. Kate Sessions spends her childhood exploring Northern California’s lush forests, and their beauty ignites her imagination and her intellect. In 1881, she earns a degree in science from the University of California, becoming the first woman to do so. When a job lands Kate in San Diego, she sets her mind on transforming the dry, barren town into a site of tree-filled splendor. The story of how she makes her vision a reality is a remarkable one. Artist Jill McElmurry contributes the book’s delicate yet vivid gouache illustrations. Her colorful renderings of trees, leaves and bright blossoms (and ginger-haired Kate, of course) are the perfect vehicle for Hopkins’s intriguing bit of horticultural history.


The latest title from acclaimed husband-and-wife collaborators Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney, Martin and Mahalia: His Words, Her Song (ages 6 and up) is a great way to introduce the Civil Rights era to children. This inspiring book pairs the stories of Martin Luther King Jr. (a “master minister”) and gospel vocalist Mahalia Jackson (a singer with a “voice like brass and butter”), who worked side by side to break down racial barriers. He comes from a distinguished line of preachers in Atlanta. She grows up in New Orleans and sings in the church choir. Both use their gifts to deliver messages of freedom. Their partnership reaches a high point in 1963 at the March on Washington, where Mahalia sings and Martin delivers his “I Have a Dream” speech. Brian Pinkney’s swirling, impressionistic watercolor illustrations add to the narrative’s sense of uplift and victory. Andrea Davis Pinkney, who contributed the book’s accessible text, writes in a style that’s plainspoken yet poetic. Together, they’ve created a moving tribute to two history-making figures.

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