5 Picture Book Biographies Highlight Older Role Models

Picture book biographies including the third stage of life offer huge benefits to young readers. Kids absorb adventure, perseverance, creativity and joy shown over the course of an evolving life.

Unlike the majority of picture books with an older character, the protagonist often stays active and well into old age.


Children need older role models devoid of negative age stereotypes such as sick, sad, lonely and forgetful. Research teaches us—a narrow view of aging can actually be harmful. Taking in negative age stereotypes over a lifetime are associated with poor health and function in later life.

As an enormous fan of picture book biographies I’m always on the lookout for new ones. If the subject labors with joy and tenacity at a pastime that brings them happiness and satisfaction in later life—it definitely makes my list.

It’s important to “help children to see their elder within,” say researchers Sandra McGuire, Diane Klein, and Donna Couper in their article Aging Education: a National Imperative. “The potentials in old age are limitless.” We need to “help children to see these potentials and envision the things they could do…”

Positive Aging picture books highlight the possibilities of ongoing goals, continued learning, and new interests and endeavors. You can read more at my post 6 Reasons to Seek Out Positive Aging Children’s Books.


The newer picture book bios below share the “elder heroes and role models” recommended by Dr. McGuire and her colleagues.

Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus. Illustrated by Evan Turk. (Atheneum 2014)

Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson tells the story of how his grandfather taught him to turn darkness into light in this uniquely personal and vibrantly illustrated tale that carries a message of peace. Read full book review at Kirkus.

Be the Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus. Illustrated by Evan Turk. (Atheneum 2016)

This picture book is a terrific follow-up to the book above, but it’s not a picture book biography.

At Grandfather Gandhi’s service village, each day is filled, from sunrise to sunset, with work that is done for the good of all. The villagers vow to live simply and non-violently. Arun Gandhi tries very hard to follow these vows, but he struggles with one of the most important rules: not to waste. (Book descriptions from website Grandfather Gandhi.) Read an interview of author Bethany Hegedus at Readerkidz.


Gus & Me by Keith Richards; illustrated by Theodora Richards (London Orion Children’s Books, 2015. ©2014.

A nostalgic look back at happy childhood days as Rolling Stone Keith Richards remembers his grandfather – a former big band player who encouraged him to take up the guitar. (Book description from Worldcat) Review at Rollingstones.com


I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes her Mark by Debbie Levy; illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley. (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers 2016)

Traces the achievements of the celebrated Supreme Court justice through the lens of her many famous acts of civil disagreement against inequality, unfair treatment, and human rights injustice. (Book description from Worldcat)

Book review at School Library Journal




When Grandma Gatewood Took a Hike by Michelle Houts; illustrated by Erica Magnus (Ohio University Press 2016)

It took her two tries, but in 1955, sixty-seven-year-old Emma “Grandma” Gatewood became the first woman to solo hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail in one through hike.

Gatewood has become a legend for those who hike the trail, and in her home state of Ohio, where she helped found the Buckeye Trail. In recent years, she has been the subject of a bestselling biography and a documentary film.
In When Grandma Gatewood Took a Hike, Michelle Houts brings us the first children’s book about her feat, which she accomplished without professional gear or even a tent. (Description from Amazon.com)


Miss Colfax’s Light by Aimee Bissonette; illustrated by Eileen Ryan Ewen (Sleeping Bear Press 2016)

In 1861, at the age of 37, Harriet Colfax took on the job of lighthouse keeper for the Michigan City lighthouse off Lake Michigan. It was a bold and determined endeavor, especially since there were very few female lighthouse keepers in the country at that time.

For 43 years, until the age of 80, Harriet kept her light burning, through storms, harsh winters, and changes in technology. This true story focuses on Harriet’s commitment and determination to fulfilling her charge and living life on her own terms. Excerpts from her actual log are included. (Description from Sleeping Bear Press)

Pointing out the potentials in picture book bios is a terrific start to important conversations—“Help children to…envision the things they could do; things such as attending Elderhostel, traveling, flying a plane, biking, joining the Peace Corp, using computers, being community leaders, going to school, working with Habitat for Humanity, being an environmental activist, learning a language, climbing mountains…”* 

*Aging Education: A National Imperative; Educational Gerontology, 31: 443–460, 2005

Read an earlier post here–about 6 picture book bios that also showcase the arc of a long life well-lived.

—And below are other Positive Aging biographies reviewed at A is for Aging:

It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw

Miss Moore Thought Otherwise

Mr. Cornell’s Dream Boxes

Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton

The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau

Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty, the Pursuit of Everything 

The majority of picture books reviewed are donated to community centers in Detroit. Thank you to the authors and publishers for their review copies.


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