While searching for a children’s book about that incident with Teddy Roosevelt and the bear (which you really would think someone would write a kid’s book about,) I decided to rank the importance of historical figures by number of children’s books (not YA) about them in the library database.
The round numbers are estimates, due to searches generally returning a number of irrelevant or duplicate titles that just have an author or title with a similar name to what your looking for. With the rarest subjects, I was able to count how many relevant books there were (I decided to exclude, for example, a fictional series with characters named Nick and Tesla, but you might have included them,) but for the guys with multiple hundreds of books, I just subtracted about a quarter of their score. This did not change the rankings, but it does remove some granularity.
The most important guys in the room:
George Washington: 100
John Brown (raid on Harper’s Ferry): 30
Rosa Parks: 30
Harriet Tubman: 30
Sojourner Truth: 30
Amelia Earhart: 25
Washington Carver (peanuts): 15
Frida Kahlo: 15
Marie Curie: 15
Nelson Mandela: 12
Isaac Newton: 10
Malcolm X: 9
Teddy Roosevelt: 5
Malala Yousafzazi: 5
Mary Terrell (female civil rights activist): 3
Jonas Salk (Polio Vaccine): 3
John Snow (helped eliminate Cholera, but who cares about that?): 1
Niels Bohr (father of quantum physics): 0.1 (part of a series.)
Thoughts: This is a winner-take-all economy. The cultural leaders are clearly enshrined on top. Does the library really need 100 books about George Washington? Probably not. Could it use a few more books about Teddy Roosevelt or Niels Bohr? Probably.
The cultural leaders appear to be hanging on to their positions despite modern liberalism; John Lennon is not out-selling Jesus (at least among kids.) Columbus’s numbers were a surprise to me, given that a lot of people really hate him, but his popularity is probably due to the fact that Columbus Day is still celebrated in elementary schools and school kids have to write reports about Columbus. (I wouldn’t be surprised to see Columbus’s numbers shrink quite a bit over the next few decades.)
In the Moderately Important category, we have most of our diversity and civil rights inclusions. MLK might not have risen to the levels of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln (yet), but he’s beaten out Jefferson for third-most-famous American status.
This section most exemplifies how fame is created by cultural elites (aka the Cathedral). Jesus’s popularity isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, but the fact that you know Rosa Parks’s name and not that of thousands of other people who made similar stands against segregation is due simply to a committee deciding that Rosa Parks was more likeable than they were, and so they were going to publicize her case. If someone decided to make an obscure Serbian scientist who used to work for Thomas Edison famous, he might suddenly jump from John Snow-level obscurity to Amelia Earhart fame, though the acquisition of children’s books for the library would obviously lag by a few years. And if someone decides that maybe Teddy Roosevelt isn’t so important anymore, maybe we should talk about some other guys, then Roosevelt can drop pretty quickly from #4 American to the bottom of the list.
At the bottom, we have people who are even less important than Frida Kahlo and Amelia Earhart, like Jonas Salk and John Snow. I know I harp on this a lot, but I consider it a fucking tragedy that the guys who saved the lives of millions of people are less famous than some woman who crashed a plane into the Pacific Ocean.