Inside: We have gathered a list of the most inspiring picture books for boys—books to encourage boys to discover their passions, dream big, be brave, work hard, and never ever give up. P.S. Girls love these books too.
Modern boys get a lot of confusing messages about success and happiness. Musicians, NFL athletes, and Hollywood stars get all the attention. It might even start to look as if the only way to be successful and happy in life is to sing, kick a ball, or be a star in a blockbuster movie.
A good place to begin is by expanding our kids’ vision of possibilities and introducing them to big dreamers who worked hard, didn’t give up, and succeeded in many different walks of life. Scientists, entrepreneurs, mountain climbers, slaves, musicians, artists, philosophers, writers, ordinary boys, tsars, architects, and divers: these are the people who appear on the pages of books on our list to broaden your kids’ choices and expose them to many different ideas.
I’ve been reading hundreds of books with my kids every year and writing down biographies that we liked. Recently, when I looked over the list, I realized that I absolutely must share it with you.
Here is a collection of wonderful books to encourage your boys to discover their passions, dream big, and work hard.
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Themed Booklist: Boys Can Do Anything!
Sometimes it just takes one fantastic book to inspire your child…
When Walt Disney Rode a Pig, Mark Weakland
I read a couple of Disney biographies, and I think Mark Weakland did a great job of putting it together for a younger audience. From his humble beginnings in Chicago to becoming one of the richest people in the world, the life of Walter Disney is full of inspiration and hard work. Yes, he was extremely poor, didn’t finish high school, and had no connections in show business. But he had something very important. He had a dream. He was also willing to work hard. “No one works harder than Walt,” people said about him. “The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing,” Disney replied.
Read this book to find out how Disney turned his dream into a kingdom. The illustrations are super cute and entertaining, and the story is very well written. I love this book for its educational and inspirational value. It fills me with a certainty that “All our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them.”
Little Ed was a small and shy boy from a little town in New Zealand who dreamed of adventure. By the time he grew up, he was tall and strong and became the first person to reach the top of Mt. Everest, the world’s highest peak. My kids were impressed with how much preparation, training, and hard work goes into climbing. They also were shocked to find out that the actual climbing isn’t the only hard part. Lugging tents, food, oxygen, and other supplies while climbing is just as challenging.
This is a great book about courage and determination. It shows that your passion will lead you places if you work for it. Colorful illustrations and engaging writing make this biography accessible even to small kids.
The Noisy Paint Box, Barb Rosenstock
Vasya Kandinsky had a pampered childhood. His grandmother was a princess, and his father was a rich tea merchant. Vasya spent the first 30 years of his life trying to be a proper Russian boy and do everything that was expected of him. He studied math, practiced piano scales, and became a law professor. But his heart wasn’t in it. At the age of 30, he quit his prestigious university job and threw himself into his real passion—art. The story reminds readers to embrace their true selves and that it’s never too late to follow their dreams.
The Caldecott Honor illustrations are very interesting. You can use them to open a discussion about feelings with your children. On the page where Vasya is practicing scales, you don’t just see but feel his unhappiness and reluctance, and on the page where Vasya’s parents are entertaining guests, you can feel Vasya’s dizziness from an effort to be a proper Russian boy.
George Washington Carver had a terrible start to life. His father died before he was born, his mother was a slave, and he was a sickly baby. Cruel slave kidnappers snatched him and his mother when he was one week old, and even though George was found and returned to his owner, his mom was never seen again. As a child, George had an inordinate love for plants, and under his care, everything in the garden bloomed and flourished. Soon he was called the Plant Doctor.
After the abolition of slavery, George left Missouri on foot with a bundle of all his earthly possessions in search of proper education. It’s hard to believe, but his desire to learn was so great that he conquered all obstacles, attended many schools, finished college, and even did graduate studies, becoming a professor and world-known botanist. The point of the story is don’t be scared because we don’t have all the answers right away. Just put one foot in front of another and keep going in the right direction.
The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos, Deborah Heiligman
Quickly, from the top of your head, can you make me a list of ten famous Hungarians? Yep, me neither. I would have to take a nice long think right after coming up with Joseph Pulitzer and Rubik (the inventor of the Rubik’s cube). Well, Paul Erdos is a Hungarian mathematician you want to know about, and this bright and engaging biography is a fun way to do it.
Paul Erdos was the most prolific mathematician of all time. He holds a record for publishing over 1,500 mathematical papers and for solving many previously unsolved mathematical problems. Yet few people have ever heard his name. Hmm, is it because his life was so strange? He was an odd child, and he grew into an odd man. From an early age, he could do complicated calculations in his head, but he couldn’t do basic things like putting his shoes on or buttering a toast. He spent most of his adult life living in other people’s apartments with people who took care of him. The lesson in this book: being different is not bad. You don’t have to live your life the way people expect you to. Paul lived a long and happy life and died at a math conference. So, take the road less traveled. You will be ok.
Dizzy, Jonah Winter
The moment little John blew into a trumpet, his life changed forever. “He took all the anger he felt inside and blasted it out through the end of his horn.” The youngest of nine children, poor, often neglected, and abused by his dad, he taught himself how to play, and by the age of nineteen, he became a trumpet virtuoso. He was also a composer, a bandleader, and one of the inventors of a radically different form of Jazz called Bebop.
We loved the interesting illustrations, jazzy rhymes, and the important lesson of learning to channel your energy. Read this book to find out why John Gillespie was nicknamed Dizzy and to open discussion about interests, passions, anger, and how to channel energy the right way. Finish by watching some of Dizzy’s famous puffed-up cheeks performances on YouTube.
Otis and Will Discover the Deep, Barb Rosenstock
Ever since Otis Barton was a young boy, he loved the ocean and dreamed of going deeper than anyone had ever done before. He studied engineering at Harvard and came up with an idea for a deep-sea submersible. There was only one problem: he needed a partner. In a New York Times article, he saw Will Beebe’s blueprint for a new kind of diving tank and knew at once he was the best candidate. But how could he convince Will to become his partner if Will wasn’t interested?
All my kids enjoyed reading this story about the power of curiosity, teamwork, and never giving up. The multimedia paintings add a dramatic touch to the story. When my oldest was a ten-year-old, he was completely enchanted with the story and often talked about how much danger two explorers had to go through to make their incredible discoveries. But of course, nothing worth doing is easy.
Fish for Jimmy, Katie Yamasaki
So, are big dreams the most important requirement for greatness? Not at all. Taro and Jimmy were two ordinary boys growing up happily on the Pacific coast in America. Their parents, Japanese immigrants, managed a vegetable store, and their life was comfortable and predictable. But one night in 1941, their life was turned upside down when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Their father was arrested, and the boys with their mother were placed in an internment camp.
Jimmy, the youngest boy, didn’t cope well with the imprisonment. He couldn’t understand why it had happened to them. Why couldn’t they go home, swim in the ocean, and eat their normal food? He refused to eat and soon grew weaker from fasting. He also stopped talking and running around like other children. That’s when Taro, the oldest brother, came up with a daring plan to save his brother’s life.
This heartbreaking, true story of injustice, brotherly love, and our power to make a difference is based on true events from the author’s family history. The illustrations are intriguing and emotional. It’s a fascinating look at an uncomfortable history with a beautiful lesson. We don’t always choose what happens to us, but we can choose our attitude.
Peter the Great, Diane Stanley
Peter the Great had an insatiable appetite for learning. When he crossed a bridge, he stopped to explore how it was constructed. If he went to a watchmaker to have his watch repaired, he stayed to learn how to take a watch apart and put it back together again. And when he went to Amsterdam to look at modern ships, he hired himself out as a carpenter and stayed till he was given papers that said he was a master of the art of naval architecture. “Everywhere he went, he took his curiosity with him. “What does it do?” he would ask. “How does it work?”
When people told Peter that something was impossible, he shrugged his shoulders and did it anyway. He even erected a beautiful, modern city in the inhospitable marshes of a frigid, desolate place that we now know as St. Petersburg. Diane Stanley’s biography combines meticulously researched text and colorful drawings. Read this book to learn more about an energetic young man who changed Russia’s history and also to discover the importance of growing, learning, questioning, and wondering.
Young Frank Architect, Frank Viva
Do people who go far always have someone to support and encourage them? Not at all. A young boy by the name of Frank (I don’t know if it’s supposed to be Frank Lloyd Wright or not, but his work is mentioned in the book) likes to be creative and build structures. “He uses anything he can get his hands on—macaroni, books, dishes, spoons, dogs…” But his grandpa, a professional architect, disapproves of his work. A toilet paper roll chair is impractical, and leaning buildings are not right. It’s not surprising that one day young Frank just doesn’t want to be an architect anymore.
However, there’s a happy ending to the story when a trip to a modern art museum changes the mindset of both Franks. Your kids will get their creative juices flowing from watching these two Franks build. Don’t let others’ negativity deflate your sense of purpose. There will always be someone to criticize you; don’t pay attention and be your own cheerleader.
A Home for Mr. Emerson, Barbara Kerley
Nature, books, and friends (not necessarily in that order) were Ralph Waldo Emerson’s three passions throughout his life. The son of a preacher who struggled to make ends meet, a Harvard University graduate, and a spiritual rebel, Emerson is most famous for his fervent belief in the inherent goodness of people and nature.
No matter what calamities affected his life—his beloved house full of books burned to the ground, his young wife died from tuberculosis, his son died from scarlet fever—Emerson insisted that we should “love the day” and live each day to the fullest. This colorful and inspirational biography of a great man will encourage your kids to build the life they want, aim high, and not worry about failing because “Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising every time we fail.” He also believed that “The hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer.” I just love this quote. Don’t you?!
The Brilliant Deep, Kate Messner
At the age of 13, Ken Nedimyer fell in love with coral reefs and the ocean. He dived every chance he got, watched Jacques Cousteau’s documentaries, and got a degree in marine science. It hurt him deeply when he noticed the coral reefs dying in front of his eyes. It was caused by a combination of factors such as overfishing, boating, disease, and changing ocean temperatures. Ken grew up believing that anything is possible if you set your mind to it, but now it seemed that there wasn’t anything anyone could do.
Trust a person with a passion to find a solution! Ken found a way to restore coral reefs and became the world’s leading coral restoration expert. This nonfiction book is well-written, and the illustrations by Canadian artist Matthew Forsythe are gorgeous. What a great way to inspire kids to follow their passions and never give up.
The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau, Michelle Markel
Sometimes people don’t know what their dream is until later in life. Henri Rousseau was forty when he decided that his dream was to become an artist. He didn’t have money for art classes, and his whole salary as a toll booth collector went to purchase paints, brushes, and canvases. Nature, art museums, and illustrations in magazines became his teachers.
Henri was brave enough to display his work at an art exhibition, but critics hated it. Henri kept displaying his works every year, and every year he was rudely criticized. Critics even said he painted with his feet and “if you want a good laugh, go see the painting by Henri Rousseau.”
The story has a happy ending. By the end of his life, few people laughed at his work, and Picasso threw a banquet in his honor. Now you can find his works at the National Gallery in London and other prominent art museums around the world. The illustrations in the style of the artist’s work are remarkable, and Rousseau’s inspiring story about never ever giving up is very uplifting.
Through the Window, Barb Rosenstock
This is a very well-written and beautifully illustrated book about an inspiring artist. As the oldest of nine children in a very poor family (his father loaded boxes at a warehouse), Marc Chagall experienced many hardships, but he always referred to his childhood as happy. His optimistic outlook on life and habit of looking for the silver lining in everything helped him through a lot of hard times.
No matter what happened in his life (prosecution by Imperial Russia, harsh criticism, two world wars, the death of his beloved wife), Chagall kept moving on with his head held high and his painting brush in hand. I love the lesson: look for the solution –> instead of cursing the darkness, light the candle.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
Even though it was the 21st century, this Malawi village had no electricity or running water. Things got worse when farmers lost their maize crop in a severe drought. Families had to eat one meal a day, and kids had to drop out of school. That was a big blow for William, who always liked learning. Under his bed were pieces of a radio he had taken apart to figure out where the music came from and a truck made out of junk finds. With his dictionary close by, William sat in the library, pouring over science books and studying windmills that could produce electricity and pump water.
One day he visited a trash heap, found odd bits and ends, and started a painstaking process of building a windmill. People called him crazy. His hands were slow from hunger, his English wasn’t good, and he had never seen the internet, but where there is a will, there’s a way. It’s a true story to inspire your sons (and daughters) to go after their dreams and also realize that access to education is a huge privilege. We loved the creative illustrations, too.
On a Beam of Light: The Story of Albert Einstein, Jennifer Berne
What makes great people great? Albert Einstein showed us that there is always a creative solution and that “imagination is more important than knowledge.” When Albert Einstein was a little boy, he was scolded in school for being different from others, for asking too many questions, and for spending too much time thinking and imagining. Think about how the qualities and things he was scolded for were useful to him in his scientific career! I wonder what his teachers thought when they learned of his discoveries.
The artwork by Vladimir Radunsky, an extremely talented Russian illustrator, is absolutely brilliant. The watercolors outlined with ink on textured paper are well-suited for the subject matter. With this book, Jennifer Berne has done something seemingly impossible: she has made Albert Einstein exciting to little kids. The writing flows well, and the story is filled with great information.
There are many more wonderful picture book biographies for kids that I have written about in other places. Look Up with Me is about modern-day scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson, The Glorious Fight is about a brave aviation pioneer, and Manfish is about French explorer Jacques Cousteau. And there are many more amazing picture-book biographies we haven’t read yet!
What inspiring books have you read that didn’t make our list?