We at Why Not Books believe that history is the foundation of an enlightened education—and it starts early with nonfiction picture books. So for this Why Not 100 edition, we’ve chosen 20 stories that, as a whole, tell the tale of the 20th century (plus one bonus book for the 21st).
Johnny Moore and the Wright Brothers’ Flying Machine (Walter A. Schulz)
On Dec. 17, 1903, Johnny Moore was a 16-year-old living in Nags Head on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. He happened to be walking along the beach when he noticed several men working on an unfamiliar machine. Two of those men were Orville and Wilbur Wright. Moore joined the team and helped them prepare for four flights that day. Like any good book for kids, this picture book tells the story from a child’s perspective. That and Doug Bowles’s illustrations capture the wonder of the moment—a moment that changed the world.
The Boy on Fairfield Street: How Ted Geisel Grew Up to Become Dr. Seuss (Kathleen Krull)
How to concoct an enchanting book? Take a lovable literary icon. Explore his childhood—“Once upon a time there was a little boy who feasted on books and was wild about animals…” Illustrate it with paintings by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher that transport the reader, almost Rockwell-like, back to the early days of the 20th century (Geisel was born in 1904, and this book was published a century later). Complement those paintings with Dr. Seuss’s own drawings. Mix it all together, and enjoy.
T is for Titanic: A Titanic Alphabet (Michael and Debbie Shoulders)
From A to Z, the husband-and-wife authors educate readers about the legendary ship and its sinking in 1912, providing fascinating details that bring the story alive. In a format used so successfully by Sleeping Bear Press, the book, wonderfully illustrated by Gijsbert von Frankenhuyzen (yup, that’s his name), offers a poem for each letter of the alphabet, along with sidebars where you find the juicy stuff. Did you know that original plans called for three funnels, not four? Did you know that the fellow who spotted the iceberg—too late, as it turns out—was named Frederick Fleet? Did you know that a six-year-old survivor named Douglas Spedden (and his teddy bear) became the subject of a book by his mother—Polar, the Titanic Bear? Did you know that three dogs survived? Now you do.
Francis and Eddie: The True Story of America’s Underdogs (Brad Herzog)
This is a beautifully-illustrated account of perhaps the greatest underdog story in sports history—and a tale with a child at its very heart. In 1913, golf was only a few years older than 20-year-old Francis Ouimet and was largely a sport reserved for the leisure class. But that year, the world’s finest golfers gathered at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, to compete in the U.S. Open. Joining them was Ouimet, who lived across the street from the course and taught himself to play by sneaking onto the fairways in the rain. His caddie? Ten-year-old Eddie Lowery, who stood only four feet tall. Together, against their idols and in front of a crowd that grew from a handful of spectators to a horde of thousands, they shocked the world, transformed a sport and forged a lifelong friendship.
Jazz Age Josephine (Jonah Winter)
The publisher’s summary says it best: “Singer, dancer, actress, and independent dame, Josephine Baker felt life was a performance. She lived by her own rules and helped to shake up the status quo with wild costumes and a you-can’t-tell-me-no attitude that made her famous. She even had a pet leopard in Paris! From bestselling children’s biographer Jonah Winter and two-time Caldecott Honoree Marjorie Priceman comes a story of a woman the stage could barely contain. Rising from a poor, segregated upbringing, Josephine Baker was able to break through racial barriers with her own sense of flair and astonishing dance abilities. She was a pillar of steel with a heart of gold—all wrapped up in feathers, sequins, and an infectious rhythm.”
Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade (Melissa Sweet)
Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade is now an American institution, thanks primarily to the massive helium balloons that became its trademark. This book, published in 2012, tells the tale of puppeteer Tony Sarg, who designed and built the first tethered helium balloons to be used in Macy’s parade, starting in 1928. The author-artist’s collage illustrations bring to life the genius and dedication of the man who essentially invented larger-than-life puppetry.
Amelia and Eleanor Go For a Ride (Pam Munoz Ryan)
Two paragons of the 1930s and icons of female empowerment in the 20th century go off on an adventure together—and it’s all true. In April 1933, Amelia Earheart and Eleanor Roosevelt stole away from a White House dinner, commandeered a transport plane while still dressed in evening gowns, and took off on and adventure. The black and white drawings (by Brian Selznick) are meant to suggest a vintage movie. And the author, Pam Munoz Ryan, is a master of the genre.
A Nation’s Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis (Matt de la Pena)
Through some magic mix of time, place, talent, fame and courage, a handful of athletic figures—African-American athletes in particular—have made more of a difference in a short span of success than other role models have made in a lifetime of achievement. Remarkably, few people were more significant national figures in the transition of race relations that occurred between the 1930s and the 1960s than a boxer. When Joe Louis fought German Max Schmeling in the years just before World War II, he was fighting for far more than the world heavyweight title. This 40-page book, published in 2011, tells the tale of a man who, during an era of widespread prejudice, managed to become an American hero.
A Place Where Sunflowers Grow (Amy Lee-Tai)
American kids tend to be undereducated about the more shameful parts of American history—like the Japanese internment camps during World War II. A Place Where Sunflowers Grow, based on true experiences, tells the tale of a girl named Mari and her family abruptly relocated to the harsh desert of Topaz, Utah, where “the mountains, the vast sky, and the blazing sun made me feel as small as a sunflower seed.”. She finds hope in the form of a new friend, an art class and the sprouting of sunflower seeds in her mother’s parched garden.
A Picture Book of Anne Frank (David A. Adler)
An honest yet discrete account of the young Jewish girl who kept a diary during her family’s attempts to hide from the Nazis in the 1940s. From Publishers Weekly’s review: Adler traces the intersection of Anne's brief life with the forces of Nazism, chronicling the girl's earliest years in Germany as well as her time spent in the now-famous Amsterdam attic and the months following arrest and deportation. He refuses to apply the standard encomiums about his subject's courage and genius, with the result that Anne Frank emerges all the more poignantly… Even her picture of shaven-headed, hollow-eyed Anne and Margot huddled together at Bergen-Belsen avoids cliche and condescension. "Some people find it difficult to understand the Holocaust," Adler concludes with grace. "But when they read Anne's diary, it all becomes real. Then they know one of the victims. They know Anne Frank."
The Other Side (Jaqueline Woodson)
Illustrated by E.B. Lewis, this book distills the story of racial segregation into a relationship between two girls—Clover and Anna—in the segregated South. Clover’s mom tells her it isn’t safe to cross the fence that segregates their African-American side of town from the white side where Annie lives. But the girls begin to watch each other, and over the course of the summer they strike up a friendship. When Annie says, “A fence like this was made for sitting on,” the symbol of division turns into a metaphor for overcoming it. As School Library Journal stated, “Eventually it’s the fence that’s out of place, not the friendship.”
If a Bus Could Talk: The Story of Rosa Parks (Faith Ringgold)
How do you explain the potentially complex facts surrounding the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott for a young audience? How do you make the profoundly serious civil rights movement whimsical and accessible for kids? Start with a bus that can talk, telling the story of courageous Rosa Parks and her stand (well, her refusal to give up her seat) that jumpstarted the movement. Author-illustrator Ringgold recounts those events that it triggered, including MLK’s rise to prominence. And at the end, Parks herself enters the bus for a birthday celebration. Somehow, a book about a talking bus manages to humanize the whole affair.
Rachel Carson and Her Book That Changed the World (Laura Beingessner)
Published in 2012 on the 50th anniversary of the publication of Silent Spring, which gained widespread attention following its serialization in The New Yorker in 1962, this picture book celebrates the pioneering environmentalist who has been credited with advancing global awareness about protecting the planet. Carson died of a heart attack only two years after publication, but Silent Spring inspired the grassroots movement that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and eventual reversal in national pesticide policy.
Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 (Brian Floca)
From the roar of liftoff to the silence of the moon, this is a 48-page account of the journey to accomplish the unprecedented in July 1969, published 40 years after the transcendent moment. It is told from the astronauts’ point of view, as they click on their helmets and gloves, strap themselves into horizontal seats, walk on the lunar surface and stare back at the lonely blue planet 240,000 miles away. From a Booklist review: “Written with quiet dignity and a minimum of fuss, the main text is beautifully illustrated with line-and-wash artwork that provides human interest, technological details, and some visually stunning scenes.”
The Wall (Eve Bunting)
In typical Eve Bunting fashion, the profound has been made accessible to young readers in this book about a father and his young son’s trip to Washington, D.C., to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Their mission: to find the name of the boy’s grandfather—and so the boy calls it “my grandfather’s wall.” While searching for the name, they encounter letters, teddy bears, flowers, and flags that have been left at the wall, as well as a handful of other visitors, including a weeping couple and a veteran in a wheelchair. In the end, they find the name and leave a school photograph of the boy on the ground below it. Although the book was published in 1992, it’s a fine way to explore one of the legacies of the War in Vietnam.
The Man Who Walked Between the Towers (Mordicai Gerstein)
It is a tragic reality that kids reading picture books today weren’t yet born when the towers of the World Trade Center stood tall. This book (winner of the 2004 Caldecott Medal) harkens back to a moment, in 1974, soon after those buildings were completed. French aerialist Philippe Petit spent an hour walking across a tightrope between the two towers… and dancing… and performing tricks nearly a quarter-mile above the ground.
The Remarkable Ronald Reagan: Cowboy and Commander in Chief (Susan Allen)
Some might agree with Amazon.com reviewer Danielle Burchman, who wrote, “This is a short and entertaining history lesson on a true American patriot! I bought it to read to my grandchildren, but enjoyed it myself as well.” Some might dismiss the patriotic premise. But nobody can deny that Ronald Reagan epitomized (and polarized) the 1980s. As expected, this 36-pager illustrated by Leslie Harrington views the life of our 40th president through a do-nothing-wrong filter. So it’s a matter of perspective.
Nelson Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (edited by Chris van Wyk)
A picture book, illustrated by Paddy Bouma, with text abridged from Mandela’s 1994 autobiography. The focus is primarily on Mandela’s early life—his childhood, the growing system of apartheid, his efforts coordinating protests, working for the African National Congress and traveling the world to spread his message. The full-page, color paintings enhance a story that is about courage—a man who rises from an “ordinary village boy” to a martyr finally released from prison in the 1980s to an international icon—as much as it is about color.
Stories Told by Mother Teresa (compiled by Edward Le Joly and Jaya Chaliha)
Mother Teresa died in 1997 after a lifetime of service to India’s poorest of the poor, a global icon doing good on the most local of levels. In this book, Edward Le Joly, a priest who worked with her for more than three decades, joins writer Jaya Chaliha in presenting illustrated vignettes of some of her favorite stories. Each tale conveys a different aspect of poverty and charity—a starving family sharing with neighbors, a rich man learning to give of his spirit, schoolchildren giving up prize money to help an orphanage, etc. It is a fitting tribute to a woman who became a symbol of selflessness.
The Mystery of Mars (Sally Ride and Tam O’Shaughnessy)
On June 18, 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman (and youngest American astronaut) in space as a crew member of the space shuttle Challenger. Fourteen years later, in 1997, NASA’s Pathfinder touched down on Mars and, along with its rover Sojourner, launched a new era in exploration of the planet. In this book, Ride (who passed away in 2012) and O’Shaughnessy utilize Pathfinder data to prevent an overview of the Red Planet, comparing it to Earth regarding everything from evolution to geography.
And, because we love the story, we’ll throw in this one from the 2000s:
Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq (Mark Alan Stamaty)
In 2003, Alia Muhammad Baker was the chief librarian of the Central Library in Basra, Iraq. With war looming in her country, she feared that the irreplaceable historical and cultural records would be lost, so she took it upon herself to spirit away some 30,000 books to a safe place. The book (published a year later) is told in dramatic graphic-novel panels by Stamaty and examines the impact of war on a nation and its citizens. True to Alia’s mission, it also reaffirms the importance of books and the value of the simple freedom to read.