In his Confessions, Augustine wrote this on the subject of “time”: “I understand well enough what time is, so long as no one asks me.” In the same way, we recognize leadership but find it hard to define. “Leadership” takes different forms in different circumstances, and it has many components. The best leaders are also good followers. Christians recognize that everyone in authority (the one consistent requirement for leadership) is also subject to a higher authority. To complicate matters further, it’s as important to recognize whom not to follow (in spite of brilliant leadership qualities), as well as whom to follow.
Fiction and nonfiction present outstanding examples of leadership, both good and bad. Here’s a selection of books we’ve reviewed (and a few we haven’t), in four categories or qualities of leadership, arranged from picture books to adult reading:
Overcoming; Beating the Odds
- Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Melissa Sweet. Picture-Book Biography about a little-known black artist who overcame war injuries and prejudice to make his mark. Ages 4-8
- Stealing Home: Jackie Robinson against the Odds by Robert Burleigh. Picture Book focusing on Robinson’s skill and determination.
- The Survivor Diaries series. Chapter books for early primary grades: each desperate situation shows kids stepping up to perform acts of courage and determination they never suspected they had. Ages 7-11
- The Way of the Warrior Kid by Jocko Willink. A Navy SEAL shows his wimpy nephew how to toughen up in body and heart. Ages 8-10
- Silent Days, Silent Dreams by Allen Say. In this picture book for middle grades, a boy who was autistic and mute learns to create lovely art. Ages 8-12
- Shackleton: Antarctic Odyssey by Nick Bertozzi. The true story of an epic exploration, in graphic novel format. Ages 10-15
- Lost in the Pacific, 1942 by Tod Olsen. The true WWII story of a mission to the Philippines that left 8 men stranded in the ocean. Ages 10-up.
- Ugly by Robert Hoge. A real-life Wonder: Born with a hideous face, a boy learns to to be content with who he is. Ages 8-up.
- The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba. The true story of a boy who employs grit, knowledge and determination to supply his village with electricity. Ages 12-up.
- Terror at Bottle Creek by Watt Key. A 13-year-old boy takes responsibility for his neighbor and her little sister as they endure a ferocious hurricane. Ages 12-15.
- Auma’s Long Run by Eucabeth Odhiambo. A bright girl in a Kenyan village escapes the cycle of poverty aggravated by the AIDS epidemic. Ages 12-15.
- If We Survive by Andrew Klavan. A short-term mission trip to Central America turns deadly for four teens as revolutionaries capture and threaten them. Ages 12-15
- Running for My Life: One Lost Boy’s Journey from the Killing Fields of Sudan to the Olympic Games by Lumong Lopez. The True story of a boy conscripted into war who survives to be adopted by an American family. Ages 15-up.
- March, volumes 1-3 by John Lewis. Graphic-nonfiction treatment of Rep. Lewis’s role in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Ages 16-up.
Breaking New Ground: Explorers and Ground-breakers
- Lift Your Light a Little Higher by Heather Henson. An ex-slave becomes a renowned cave explorer in this picture-book biography. Ages 4-10.
- The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jen Bryant. Picture-Book biography of the man who explored the world of words. Ages 4-10.
- Dragon Quest by Allan Baillie. In this whimsical tale, a young boy and an aged knight discover the joys of adventuring. Ages 4-8
- Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke. Intrepid Zita seeks out new worlds and rescues loyal friends in this fun graphic-novel series. Ages 6-12
- Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch. An Orthodox Jewish girl faces down witches and battles trolls, but still makes it home before Sabbath. Ages 8-14
- Travels with Gannon and Wyatt series by Patti Wheeler and Hemstreet. Homeschooled twins Gannon and Wyatt spin their real-life globetrotting into fictionalized adventures. Watch readers get bit by the travel bug! Ages 10-14
- The Girl Who Drew Butterflies by Joyce Sidman. Maria Merian challenged the limits imposed on women of her day, in order to study insects in Suriname and make some important scientific discoveries. Ages 10-14
- Steve Jobs: Thinking Differently by Patricia Lakin and Elon Musk and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance. One changed modern life through swift computing and handheld devices; the other may take us to Mars. Ages 10-15
- The Voyage to Magical North by Claire Fayers. A serving girl and a disgruntled magician’s apprentice discover new worlds in this satisfying fantasy. Ages 10-15
- Magellan: over the Edge of the World by Lawrence Bergreen. A flawed man, but a bold and decisive leader he accomplished what no man had before. Ages 12-up
- Vesper Holly series by Lloyd Alexander. Vesper Holly, a potential 16-year-old Indiana Jones, follows in the footsteps of her archaeologist father. Ages 12-up
- Through Gates of Splendor by Elizabeth Elliot. The true story of how a young widow carried the gospel of Christ to the very people who murdered her husband; a Christian classic. Ages 12-up
- Abigail Adams: Witness to a Revolution by Natalie Bober. The stalwart woman who helped her husband “break new ground” toward an experimental nation built on freedom and equality. Ages 15-up
Bucking the Trend and Fighting Back
- Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World about Kindness by Donna Jannel Bowman. A former slave and a mathematical horse fight prejudice with good will. Picture book, Ages 8-10
- Steamboat School by Deborah Hopkinson. How a St. Louis pastor got around an unjust law to offer education to African Americans. Picture book, ages 6-12
- The Tiny Hero of Ferny Creek Library by Linda Bailey. An unremarkable beetle does his part to save the school library from closing. Chapter book, ages 7-11.
- Brother Andrew: the story of the Dutch veteran who defied unjust authority to smuggle Bibles behind the iron curtain is told at several reading levels. For example: Brother Andrew: Taking Bibles to the World (Picture book, ages 4-8); Brother Andrew: Behind Enemy Lines (ages 8-10); and Brother Andrew: God’s Secret Agent (ages 10-15). And of course, God’s Smuggler for ages 15-up.
- Longburrow: Podkin One-Ear by Kieran Larwood. Though the son of a chief Podkin is lackadaisical about his duties until a terrifying enemy destroys his home. Then he’s forced to take on the mantel of leadership. Ages 8-12
- Robin Hood by David Calcutt. Tales of the classic outlaw-resistor get a spiffy retelling with glorious illustrations. Ages 8-up
- Katie Friedman Gives up Texting by Tommy Greenwald. Can she do it? And even more doubtful, can she get her friends to do it with her? Ages 10-14
- We’ve Got a Job: the 1963 Birmingham Children’s March by Cynthia Levinson. Four veterans of the Civil Rights movement share their experience of a pivotal event. Ages 10-up
- Betty Before X by Ilyasa Shabazz. A compelling look into the life of Betty before X (Malcolm X) and the influence of the black church in the racially charged 1940s. Ages 10-12
- The Giver by Lois Lowry. 12-year-old Jonas is content in his almost-perfect community until he’s chosen to be the village “Giver.” Ages 10-up
- Projekt 1065 by Alan Gratz. The 13-year-old son of Irish ambassadors in WWII Berlin joins the Hitler Youth as a saboteur. Ages 12-15
- Popular: Vintage Wisdom for the Modern Geek by Maya Van Wagenen. A memoir of a Texas teen’s experiment of following grooming and social advice from 1959. Ages 12-up
- I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai. The girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban tells of her survival and her continuing struggle to secure rights and education for girls all over the world. Ages 12-up
- The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill. A foundling raised by a mysterious old woman sets out to change things in the town of her birth. Ages 10-15
- We Will Not Be Silent by Russell Freedman. Led by four brave college students, the White Rose Society spoke truth against Hitler and his hideous war. Ages 12-up
- This Changes Everything by Jacquelle Crowe. Just being a committed Christian in today’s culture means bucking the trend. A 19-year-old author outlines steps for growing, acting, and speaking in faith. Ages 15-18
- 7 Men and the Secret of Their Greatness by Eric Metaxas. Short biographies of consequential figures such as George Washington, William Wilberforce, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer explore the qualities that helped them meet the challenges of their times. (There’s a 7 Women book out now too, but we haven’t reviewed it yet). Ages 12-up
- Bored, Nothing to Do by Peter Spier. This is out of print, but worth looking for. Two young teens decide to do something constructive with a long afternoon by building a plane–and flying it. Picture book, ages 4-up
- Sam the Man and the Chicken Plan by Frances O’Roark Dowell. 8-year-old Sam discovers that the benefits of entrepreneurship go far beyond profit. Chapter book Ages 7-10
- The Lemonade War by Jacqueline Davies. Rival twins learn to balance their competitive spirit with healthy competition. Ages 7-11
- The Boy Who Became Buffalo Bill by Andrea Warren. Fatherless at the age of 11, Billy Cody became the chief support of his family, packing a lifetime of adventure in before he was old enough to vote. Ages 10-14
- Jasper and the Riddle of Riley’s Mine by Caroline Starr Rose. 10-year-old Jasper joins his brother in the search for Yukon gold. Ages 10-14
- Mary Emma and Company by Ralph Moody. This is a sequel to Little Britches: Father and I Were Ranchers. The author continues his memoir with stories of how he helped support his intrepid mother and five siblings after his father’s death. Ages 12-up
- A Night Divided by Jennifer Nielsen. A 12-year-old girl and her teenage brother join in a plot to escape East Berlin. Ages 12-15
- The Year Money Grew on Trees by Aaron Hawkins. a 13-year-old “inherits” an apple orchard and starts from the ground up, not without agony along with the ecstasy of a profitable crop.
- The Boys Who challenged Hitler by Philip Hoose. The true story of Knud Pedersen and his school pals, who offered what may have been the first organized resistance to Nazi rule in Denmark. Ages 12-15
- Nine Days by Fred Hiatt. Ethan volunteers to take his Chinese friend Ti-anna into to Communist China on a secret mission to find her missing father. Ages 12-15
- Under a Painted Sky by Stacy Lee. Two teen girls, one Chinese American and the other African American, light out for the territories when things get to hot for them in 1850s Missouri.
- The Vanishing American Adult by Ben Sasse. The lack of initiative and responsibility in young people troubles Senator Sasse; here’s what parents can do about it.
Bad “Leadership”: Some men women have charisma, charm, courage, determination, skills, and/or initiative–great leadership qualities, used in a bad cause. Besides learning the characteristics of good leaders, we also should learn to recognize the bad ones.
- Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kenny. Greg Heffly, perpetual fifth-grade loser, is not leadership material but he’s so funny young readers might need to be reminded he’s not the best role model.
- Always, Abigail by Nancy Cavanaugh. Abigail is looking forward to sixth grade and joining the pom pom squad with her two besties. How far will she follow them into meanness? Ages 8-10
- River Rats by Leslie Wyatt. Kenny worships his big brother Jim, who draws admiration like honey draws flies. But there comes a time to stand against the way big brother is going. Ages 10-14
- Posted by John David Anderson. Four pals find one of their own being drawn into “the group” of verbal bullies: how can they rescue him? ages 12-15
- Twerp by Marc Goldblatt. Julian allows his gang to lead him into participating in an act of cruelty; now he has to redeem himself somehow. ages 12-15
- The Notorious Benedict Arnold by Steve Sheinkin. So much promise, not enough character. This excellent biography shows exactly how a hero went bad. Ages 12-up