Great Role Models for Boys

~posted by Ruth

I’ve been on a search for books boys love to read–and at the same time, tell the stories of intriguing and amazing lives of  great men.  Not just famous men, but men who can be wonderful role models for the boys and young men we know and love.  So, here’s a start and keep us posted if you learn of other great reads to add to this list.

Paul Robeson by Eloise Greenfield

Paul Robeson heads the list: civil rights activist, incredible performer, talented athlete. . .Through Greenfield’s picture book biography we learn about his childhood in Princeton, NJ with caring, committed parents, devoted to human rights and freedom for all.  His stand on civil rights during the McCarthy era was controversial, and affected his popularity,  but he never faltered.  The black and white illustrations are perfect to go along with the story of his struggles and his courage-somehow, they seem more emotional than vibrant colors would be here.


Piano Starts Here:  The Young Art Tatum by Robert Andrew Parker

“When I am at the piano, ” Art Tatum declared, “I play clouds of notes, rivers of notes . . . I forget that my eyes aren’t good. I have everything I need.” All children will  appreciate this beautiful tribute to Tatum.  Art Tatum is known as a keyboard wonder, beginning his career as an incredible jazz artist at an early age.  His commitment, courage, and determination come through strongly in this biography of Tatum’s childhood, as he copes with his near blindness, and continues to play and perform, a strong member of his family and community.  The artwork, also done by the author, creates a dreamy mood and shows the world from Art Tatum’s perspective.  A real gem of a book.


Jim Thorpe’s Bright Path by Jospeh Bruchac and S.D. Nelson

Jim Thorpe’s birth name “Wa-Tho-Huck” or “Bright Path.”  From early childhood, he showed talent as an athlete–and his perseverance.  Both traits were severely tested when he was sent to Indian Boarding School.  Though this is mostly a book about Thorpe’s ability to overcome obstacles and succeed on the football field, Bruhac includes important details about the unfair treatment of Native Americans, such as the mandatory Indian boarding schools that had unsanitary living conditions and educated students only to be maids and laborers. I particularly appreciated the detail about two important men in Thorpe’s life who gave him the gift of music as well:  Swift Eagle, an Apache/Pueblo elder who worked with Thorpe in Hollywood taught the author a song Thorpe had given him back in 1935.  And Jack Gladstone, a Blackfeet folk singer, also wrote a song entitled “Bright Path.”  The Author’s Note and timeline in the back of the book provide additional details about Jim Thorpe’s life, which may tempt readers to learn more.


Jim Henson:  The Guy Who Played with Puppets by Kathleen Krull

With the resurgence of interest in The Muppets and (and Fraggle Rock!), it’s nice to be able to recommend a picture book bio of the man who  re-imagined the possibilities for puppets.  As this book demonstrates,  it was Jim Henson’s visionary mind that pushed the boundaries of what is possible for reaching wide audiences playfully and artistically.  It’s a surprise to learn that Henson early years were  pre-TV , so he spent hours creating, practicing, and constantly trying out new things. Of course, when his family did buy a TV set, he immediately created his own playtime show.  As an adult, he brought the world the Sesame Street puppets–and then, of course The Muppets.  Love the illustrations, too, where the Muppets look more realistic than the slightly-out-of-focus humans.  A wonderful study in gentle creativity and the power of bringing people together.


Harvesting Hope:  The Story of Cesar Chavez by Kathleen Krull

There are several picture books about Cesar Chavez, but this I think is the best of themThe words and pictures flow together to create an absorbing and really gorgeous biography of this man’s inspiring life. As migrant workers in California, his family was poorly paid and very badly treated.  None of the 35 schools Cesar attended as a child allowed him to speak his native Spanish (Once, after Cesar broke the rule about speaking English at all times, a teacher hung a sign on him that read, I AM A CLOWN. I SPEAK SPANISH.) He came to hate school because of the conflicts, though he liked to learn.  As an adult, he organized workers against the inhumane conditions for migrant workers.  The book focuses on the historic 1965 strike against grape growers, and the subsequent march for “La Causa” is vividly recounted–and so is Chavez’s victory in the struggles.   A moving and important life story to share with children.


Where Have All the Flowers Gone:  A Singalong Memoir by Pete Seeger

Ok, I admit this isn’t really a children’s bio–but as a book for a family to share, it can’t be beat for learning about Pete Seeger’s life and work through his songs, journals, sources of inspiration, and references to the politics that shaped his life and art.  Sit down with your favorite young ones and pore over the pages of this book while listening to the songs.  You’ll all be inspired by this brave singer/social activist!

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