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I’m going to be honest. When given a choice, I don’t reach for biographies…. ever. I am a wee bit history phobic and have a very difficult time remembering dates and places. Don’t even get me started on trying to remember people’s names. It’s just never been something that comes naturally. Truthfully, I shy away from any type of history book. Luckily, I happen to love children’s books and spend more time in that section of the bookstore than anywhere else. When I saw Brad Meltzer’s biography series (Ordinary People Change the World) at a local bookstore, I didn’t have high expectations because, well, they’re biographies. Boring. The covers did, however, pique my curiosity enough to pick one up.
I don’t want to say I fell in love right away because that would be a lie. It actually took about 3 minutes.
The things that I adore about Brad Meltzer’s biography series:
Christopher Eliopoulos draws the reader in with engaging facial expressions (the eyes, WOW… they’re serious, goofy, expressive, and hilarious) and brilliant color. There is just enough action on each page so that it’s not boring, but not so much that it’s overwhelming and chaotic. The images are succinct with just the right amount of action. Well done, Mr. Eliopoulos, very well done!
The Speech Bubbles:
There is something really engaging and fun about infusing speech bubbles to break up the monotony of text. It gives readers an opportunity to connect to the people in a new way. In classrooms, it provides a teachable moment for a skill that students are required to know and understand (point of view). In many cases, Brad Meltzer utilizes the speech bubbles to infuse humor as well…. and it totally works! They are actually really funny.
The Emotion (Laughter and Tears):
It is rare for me to turn the page of a book in tears and then begin laughing within two sentences. I didn’t cry reading every single book in the series, but I did laugh in ALL of them. On a side note, the tears weren’t necessarily a result of feeling sad, but rather of feeling overwhelmingly moved by the plight, perseverance, and success of these incredible people.
Growth Mindset Connections:
These books are PERFECT for teaching kids about growth mindset. Every single, solitary “ordinary person” chosen for these biographies overcame major challenges and adversity, with the odds horrifically stacked against them. They are stories of courage, determination, compassion, and perseverance.
Age Doesn’t Matter:
I’m 41 years old (#noshame) and I learned new things in every book. I was entertained, engaged, and inspired. Technically, we could call these adult books for adults who don’t like boring biographies. The targeted market is actually 5-9-year-olds, but I think that’s just because the publisher needs to play is safe. How old are you? Oh, wait, it doesn’t matter. You’ll love them and so will your students and children.
A Gentle Approach:
Since many of these historical figures faced horrific circumstances, it is necessary to convey the information with “kid gloves”. I believe in taking an honest approach to teaching history, but sometimes that requires us to choose developmentally appropriate verbiage. Brad Meltzer has an uncanny ability to provide information in an honest and non-threatening manner.
The timeline that delineates major events in each person’s life at the end of each book is invaluable. Not only do we get the timeline, we also get to view REAL photographs with captions. They aren’t just any old photographs either. Have you seen the picture of Rosa Parks at the police station after she was arrested? How about a picture of Helen Keller feeling the lips of Eleanor Roosevelt to “hear” her? Impressed yet? How about a photograph of Abraham Lincoln in 1862 during the Civil War? They’re all there and they’re fascinating!
A Quick Review, Book by Book:
The utter courage and compassion of Abraham Lincoln is remarkable and stunning. Children relate to his childhood stories and truly get a sense of how things were different back then. No schools in Indiana at that time? Abraham only attended school for one year? Then became president? What? That blows their minds! The page that shows the images of the slaves in chains on a boat is a tear-jerker. Those tears lead to chills on the page where Abraham is marching arm in arm with his community members following the abolition of slavery. I am Abraham Lincoln was the first “I am” book that I read in the series. I didn’t think there was any way that the other books could be as good.
Amelia’s life ended in tragedy, so I wasn’t sure how I would feel about this one, but I was pleasantly surprised. Her disappearance wasn’t mentioned in the main body of the text but instead added to her timeline on the reference pages at the end. Whew. In lieu of focusing on her mysterious disappearance, I was struck by her fearlessness and passion. Who builds a rollercoaster in their backyard at the age of 7 and greases it up to go flying through the air? Brad Meltzer builds anticipation in just the right places and efficiently conveys her sheer determination to fly. By the end, we understand that flying, for Amelia, is commensurate to breathing. If she wasn’t following her dreams, she wasn’t living.
Rosa Parks is an icon and by virtue of her bravery and role in history, you’d be hard pressed to find a book about her that isn’t inspiring. On top of capturing her striking courage, Brad Meltzer makes Rosa easily relatable to children. He eloquently explains racism in developmentally appropriate language. In a concise and clear way, we understand the events leading up to and following the historic day when Rosa refused to give up her seat on the bus. She is humble and she is powerful. The message is clear… people must stand up for themselves and for what is right.
The best thing about this book is the number of children who relate to Albert when he was a child. Children who feel different than their peers, prefer to play alone, or are “daydreamers” will surely see themselves in Albert…. and, well, Albert is a genius! How cool is that? This book conveys an incredibly important message. Different does not mean less or undesirable. Different is just that… different. It’s exactly what makes each of us special. Albert’s life is fascinating from beginning to end and because the history of his life isn’t generally taught in schools, this is an important read. I have a sneaking suspicion that many children will be touched by this story and will never share the impact that it has on them.
I’m going to shoot straight here. This book made me cry. Real tears. The adversity and poverty that Jackie’s family faced and their response to it was beyond impressive. His mom’s lesson is a powerful one. “When you do something good, it brings out the good in others.” That karma came back around and, against all odds, Jackie Robinson was given an opportunity to play professional baseball. Despite support from many, he faced blatant discrimination and hatred during his baseball career. Why did I cry? The struggle. The success. The adversity. The support. The pride in him. The paradigm shift in the people. All of it. For whatever reason, sports have a way of bridging the divide. Jackie was an agent of change during a pivotal time in history.
Though this was my least favorite book in the series, I still enjoyed it and learned a great deal about the challenges faced by Lucille Ball. Her story, her tenacity, and her drive to achieve don’t lack inspiration in any sense of the word. I suppose that I just didn’t feel as invested in this story as I did with the other books in the series. With that said, I know there are people who will connect with Lucy. My 10-year-old daughter, for example, read this book and spent the next month searching and watching every single I Love Lucy episode she could get her hand on. A chocolate assembly line anyone? She busted a gut watching that episode and I have to say, it was really fun to hear the I Love Lucy show streaming in the background. My munchkin clearly felt connected in such a sweet way!
Do you want to talk about someone with a growth mindset? Holy buckets, Batman! Helen Keller is a completely kick-butt woman in every way possible! This is one of my favorite books in the series and though Brad Meltzer and Christopher Eliopoulos can take a boatload of credit, it is also just about Helen’s story of triumph and determination. The teaching opportunities in this book are endless as well… sign language, Braille, character traits, facing challenges, overcoming obstacles, growth mindset… the list goes on and on! If you don’t get any other book in the series, choose this one!
After hearing a great deal about Martin Luther King, Jr., it was interesting to learn more about his childhood and his connection to Rosa Parks. His perseverance and courage always leave me breathless. Brad Meltzer takes Martin’s story and brings it to life with a clearly delineated sequence of events, child-friendly language, and relatable dialogue. He doesn’t sugarcoat the realities of racism and prejudice, so this provides teachers and parents with a wonderful opportunity to educate their children and encourage them to be instruments of peace, justice, and compassion.
As a lover of chimpanzees (incidentally, I find Jane Goodall to be a supremely amazing human as well), I was thrilled to see this title pop up before it was released. I had it on pre-order through Amazon for months and couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. Since I’ve never met a child who isn’t intrigued by chimpanzees (especially when they learn about the close DNA relationship to humans), this book is an automatic win. More than anything, the messages about following your gut, sharing the Earth, and taking care of each other are absolutely priceless. There is also information about how kids can get involved in making this world a better place through the Roots & Shoots program, which was founded in 1991 by Jane Goodall. You can find more information at www.rootsandshoots.org.
I already had mad respect for George Washington, but after reading this book, he moved up a few rungs on my “cool presidents in history” list. Children will be able to relate to his childhood, despite the fact that he grew up close to three centuries ago. He struggled with spelling, liked to read books, and was a good dancer. Did you know that he didn’t go to high school or college and he still became the president? There are so many opportunities for reflection and discussion related to the changes that occurred between then and now. You really shouldn’t miss out on the book about the father of the United States. It’s a great one!
Jim Henson was surely a pioneer in the entertainment industry who showed perseverance, determination, and unprecedented creativity. With that said, this still wasn’t one of my favorites in the series. Children who have been exposed to Sesame Street and The Muppets will surely be engaged and entertained, but I think that those numbers are dwindling. Adults will probably appreciate this book more since these programs were more popular “back in the day“. Even so, every single solitary person in the world should know about Kermit because #kermitshouldruletheworld. “Every journey begins with a single hop,” he said. Now, hop along and grab a few Brad Meltzer books for your littles (or, ahem, for yourself).
Are you IN LOVE with these books yet? If you’d like classroom activities for any of these books, you can find them HERE.
If you’re completely head over heels and want ALL the activities for ALL the books, check HERE.
Edited to add: In the time since I published this post, there have been 6 new books released in this series! Holy wow! You can find them here:
- I am Gandhi
- I am Sacagawea?
- I am Harriet Tubman
- I am Sonia Sotomayor
- I am Neil Armstrong
- I am Billie Jean King
You may also be interested in these posts:
- Growth Mindset Picture Books
- Flip Books: The Ultimate Way to Engage Students
- Positive Messages for Students That Truly Pack a Punch