Ordinary People Change the World: A Review of Brad Meltzer’s Biography Series

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 difficulty 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 of Brad Meltzer’s books did, however, pique my curiosity enough to pick one up. 

I don’t want to say I fell in love immediately because that would be a lie.  It actually took about 3 minutes. 

brad meltzer books

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!


There is something really engaging and fun about infusing speech bubbles to break up the monotony of text.  It allows readers to connect to the people in a new way.  In classrooms, it provides a teachable moment for a skill that students must 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.


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 at 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.


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.


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.


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!

brad meltzer books

A Quick Review, Brad Meltzer Books:

I am Abraham Lincoln

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.

I am Amelia Earhart

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.

I am Rosa Parks

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.

I am Albert Einstein

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 am Jackie Robinson

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.

I am Lucille Ball

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!

I am Helen Keller

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!

I am Martin Luther King, Jr.

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.

I am Jane Goodall

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

I am George Washington

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!

I am Jim Henson

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).


We all want children to dream big. They are the future of the world, after all. Thankfully, Gandhi’s story provides so much inspiration to our readers. They will see how Gandhi saw the mistreatment people experienced. One of my favorite parts of this book is how readers see Gandhi speak up about this injustice in quiet, peaceful ways. I’m not going to lie- I teared up when reading how Gandhi freed India without any violence! Honestly, readers will love seeing how this heroism inspired the civil rights movement worldwide. Our young learners will see how size has nothing to do with making positive changes!


When I saw this Brad Meltzer book, I could not wait to read it. I remember learning about Lewis and Clark in school and being in awe of Sacagawea. She was the only Native American and the only female on a fantastic adventure and discovery. On top of this, she carried her child on her back! Throughout this journey, she helped the team communicate with people across the continent while being a translator. Honestly, students will see what it means to be a trailblazer and positive teammate. 


Students can’t learn about the fight to end slavery without hearing about Harriet Tubman. However, we never want to scare students away from learning about essential history. We want them to learn about the past to see how far the world has come. Additionally, the past greatly helps shape the future. So, a story about Harriet Tubman is essential! I love how this biography tells her story through a conversation format. This is a great way to show students how she risked her life and freedom to protect other enslaved people. Fortunately, this book does an incredible job of encouraging students to open up to an honest discussion about standing up for what is right. 


Honestly, my inner cheerleader came out when I saw this book! I love teaching students about all heroes. However, it was just so exciting to see a book published on someone who has been in the news recently. Many children can relate to dreaming big but feel doubtful that the dream can come alive.

This is one of the many reasons I love Brad Meltzer’s books. He focused on a recent hero to who many students can relate to. For instance, she did not grow up with a fancy lifestyle and just expected to attend an Ivy League school. She grew up in the Bronx and loved learning. She took her interest in social justice and began law school. To help overcome any struggles, she surrounded herself with her loving family and supportive mentors. Honestly, this story is one we cannot leave out. She is proof that there is no limit to what you can accomplish.


How exciting would it be to visit space? I would love to go! Since this is incredibly difficult to do, I can live my space dreams through Neil Armstrong. Now, before I read this book, I just knew Neil Armstrong was the first person on the moon. However, Brad Meltzer shows readers how he grew up on a farm. He was then an engineer and pilot to prepare him to achieve his goal of going to space. Since this was not an easy journey, this biography is the perfect way to show students never to give up when experiencing failure. Truthfully, this book was hard to put down and will go on my bookshelf as a personal favorite. 


It is so frustrating how people think women are less capable than men. Therefore, I love how Brad Meltzer’s books show how anyone- regardless of gender- can achieve goals with hard work. In this story, Billie Jean overcomes many odds to become one of the greatest tennis players. While playing, she always pushed for women’s rights. While many students may not have heard of Billie Jean, she is someone they will never forget. This book shows all readers how unstoppable people are with hard work, grit, and determination. 


I wish I could take my students to Walt Disney World while reading this biography! It is incredible how one man created so much in his life. This includes everything from the infamous Mickey Mouse to the iconic Walt Disney World! Understandably, students are eager to learn more about the man behind a place that promises to make dreams come true. This is a student favorite of the Brad Meltzer books because so many know who he is. Now, they learn how he used his creativity to help shape the world. 


Brad Meltzer’s books do a fantastic job of showing students how obstacles do not mean failure. They mean hard work and never giving up. This is exactly the case with Marie Curie. Being a woman physicist and chemist in the 19th century presented plenty of challenges to Marie Curie. However, she did not let this stop her from achieving her goal. Her love of science and passion for learning drowned out all the negativity society presented her with. As the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, she shows all readers how to stay strong no matter what. 

Honestly, many of our students feel like they are too simple or ordinary to make positive improvements in the world. Thankfully, Ordinary People Change the World: A Review of Brad Meltzer’s Biography Series proves this is not the case! All of Brad Meltzer books show students that any of their dreams are possible with determination! 


I was so happy to see that Brad Meltzer wrote a biography about Anne Frank! Honestly, she is such a role model for students as she shows them how to remain hopeful throughout many hardships. Even as a young Jewish girl living in hiding during World War II, she constantly remained courageous and brave. Thankfully, she kept a journal to share her hopes, fears, and observations that allowed the world to know the terror she lived in. 

This biography is a great way to prepare students for reading Anne Frank’s diary when they are older! Additionally, it shows students the importance of accepting everyone for who they are. 


Have you ever asked students how the United States formed? They have some of the funniest answers! Sometimes, they say it just appeared overnight. Other times, they say dinosaurs build the first house. So, I loved when I saw the biography of Benjamin Franklin! As one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, he helped draft the Declaration of Independence. His story informs students how the nation did not just appear and become successful overnight. Ultimately, he showed how people worked hard to establish a world with a stable government to care for citizens. However, he did not just do this! He also made critical scientific contributions that many adults don’t know about. This includes vital discoveries about electricity, which we would not want to live without! I love how inspirational this story is while showing students the importance of hard work! 


I will be honest about my reaction when I first saw this Brad Meltzer Biography. I’ve always loved the diversity of the biographies. However, I wasn’t sure if students would relate to this one. I was wrong! Students love to paint, so this personal interest became a great way to draw students into this book! They were so excited to learn about a famous Mexican painter and activist. 

One of my favorite parts of her story is how she shows students that being unique is fantastic! After Frida survived a bus crash, she looked at the world differently. So, she showed the world her unique viewpoint in her paintings. Brad Meltzer books are an incredible way to show students the importance of dreaming big while being true to themselves! 


Students love technology and media! However, they often don’t realize how it developed and progressed over time. This made me so excited to share with students all that Oprah Winfrey did to become known as the “Queen of All Media.” Best of all, she shows students how she used her childhood struggles to motivate them to achieve greatness. Oprah is more than just a talk show host. She is a cultural icon and inspiration to so many people. 


I became a bit emotional when I saw this Brad Meltzer book. I instantly knew it would be a great way to show students age does not dictate what they are capable of. They often feel their voice does not matter because they are too young. However, Mala Yousafzai shows students otherwise. She spoke out against injustice during a time women were not to speak. She wanted to attend school but was not permitted to do so as a Muslim girl. Instead of giving up, she protested for her right. Sadly, this led to her attack by a group in Pakistan that did not want women to gain a voice. I am always so excited to share with students that she did not give up! As the youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize recipient, she is a worldwide voice for women’s rights. I tear up every time I read her story! 


I love how all my dreamers and creators love hearing about Leonardo Da Vinci! As a Renaissance artist and inventor, he always followed his interests. Even when people doubted his ideas because they were way outside of the box, he never gave up! For instance, he studied birds’ wings when wanting to learn to fly. Ultimately, this led to his sketches being some of the earliest designs for flying machines. Honestly, Da Vinci shows students how good it feels to be curious and work hard. 


There are certain Brad Meltzer books where I just need to say a name to gain the interest of my class. This is one of them- especially for my boys! Many have heard of Muhammad Ali. However, they just know him as a great boxer. That is why this Brad Meltzer book is the perfect way to show students that he was not only an American boxing champ. He was also a vocal civil rights activist who objected to the military draft during the Vietnam War. Students love to see how Muhammad Ali became an icon and is still widely known today. 

biography series

Are you IN LOVE with these books yet?

If you’d like classroom activities for any of these books, you can find them HERE.

Want ALL the activities for ALL the books, check HERE.

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I am Kirsten Tulsian, an elementary educator with 18 years of experience as a teacher and counselor. My passion lies in empowering students to discover their inherent brilliance through the use of engaging, rigorous, and meaningful activities. I look forward to connecting with you!

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