Famous people change the world. But often people who are forgotten by history also have a hand in changing the world. Here’s a list of ten books about people you’ve probably never heard of who changed the world. They overcame disability, circumstance, prejudice, and poverty, and did what they could to make the world a better place.
A Boy and a Jaguar, by Alan Rabinowitz. Stuttering plagued Alan as a child, but it also led to a deep understanding of the voicelessness of wild jaguars.
Ada’s Violin: The Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay, by Susan Hood. Living in a dump and picking through garbage for a living didn’t keep a community from creating its own instruments and making music.
Miracle Mud: Lena Blackburne and the Secret Mud that Changed Baseball, by David A. Kelly. Lena Blackburne loved baseball but he wasn’t talented enough to be a star. But he used his passion for baseball and his talent for inventiveness to solve a problem that plagued the game.
How Kate Warne Saved President Lincoln, by Elizabeth Van Steenwyk. There were very few jobs open to women in the mid-nineteenth century, so Kate Warne created her own, and helped create the job of detective for all of us.
Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas, by Gwendolyn Hooks. We should have all heard of Vivien Thomas but because he was black his medical innovations were claimed by others. Despite that, he continued to innovate and improve, and is probably responsible for many babies surviving infancy.
A Spy Called James: The True Story of James Lafayette, Revolutionary War Double Agent, by Ann Rockwell. James Lafayette was a slave, someone nobody noticed. He used that to his advantage to help American troops during the Revolutionary War.
The First Step: How One Girl Put Segregation on Trial, by Susan E. Goodman. Susan Roberts failed in her court case to integrate schools, but this book shows how important the first step is, even when it fails.
Freedom in Congo Square, by Carole Boston Weatherford. Slaves’ names are generally unremembered but in New Orleans a group of slaves managed to create a vibrant community that still has echoes in our culture today.
The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth, and Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore, by Vaunda Michaux Nelson. Lewis Michaux, Sr. spent his life promoting African American writers and making sure thinkers and activists had a forum. He didn’t stand in the spotlight himself but this moving story shows how he helped create and fuel the civil rights movement.
Mountain Chef: How One Man Lost His Groceries, Changed His Plans, and Helped Cook up the National Park Service, by Annette Bay Pimentel. Tie Sing suffered anti-Chinese discrimination his whole life, but he loved America and used his considerable talents to help lobby for the creation of the National Park Service.
Thanks to Reflect and Refine for this invitation to come up with a list of 10 great nonfiction books!