Saturday, January 10, 2015

Picture Book Biographies of Women Pioneers and Role Models

The Books section at A Might Girl features a couple of thousand books that support girl-empowerment. I check their list on and off to pick books that I'd like my kids to read.

Biographies can be compelling - inspiring stories of real people who did amazing things without ever really wondering about fame and power. They did what they did as they thought it was the right thing to do, and it came naturally to them.

There is no discounting the power of a well-made picture book. The combination of  few hundred well-chosen words, plus complementing pictures to drive home the point, and perhaps tell a parallel tale add up to a perfect package to stimulate the young reader.

This set of picture book biographies of strong women role models barely scratches the surface. Some issues discussed in these books may not be relevant today, which makes us think back to the times in history when things were skewed against women, or any particular community or ethnic group.

Miss Moore Thought Otherwise

How Anne Carroll Moore Created Libraries for Children
by Jan Pinborough
illustrations by Debbie Atwell

Children today take it for granted that they can borrow unlimited books from the library and read about anything that catches their fancy. My own two kids feel giddy as if in a candy shop when I take them to the library.

So, it was quite a shock to them to read this book and learn that once upon a time, children were not allowed to borrow books from the libraries.

Miss Moore, Annie, was a rebel from her young age. She was strong-willed and she usually got her way. When she became a librarian, she set out to offer children's library services that would become the model for the rest of the world.

Elizabeth Leads the Way

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Right to Vote
By Stone, Tanya Lee

What would you do
if someone told you
your vote doesn't count,
your voice doesn't matter
because you are a girl?

Would you ask why?
Would you talk back?
Would you fight for your rights?

Elizabeth did.

As a young teenager, Elizabeth was appalled by the law which stated that without a husband, nothing belong to the woman. Her father, Judge Cady, had ruled that the farm be taken away from the widow of a recently-deceased farmer, thanks to this law. A farm that the widow had worked on all her life. And now, she had nothing, because she didn't have a husband.

With short anecdotes from her life, the story pieces together the determined way in which Elizabeth Cady Stanton set out to champion for girls' sports, property and child custody rights for women, equal wages, coeducation, abolition and even birth control.

Annie Jump Cannon, Astronomer
by  Carole Gerber
illustrations by Christina Wald

The first woman to be honored with a Doctor of Science degree by the Oxford University, Annie Jump Cannon to this day holds the record for identifying more stars than anyone else in the world. Her system of classifying the stars from the coldest to the hottest is still in use today.

Despite the bout of scarlet fever leaving her partially deaf, she became an astronomer par-excellence who came to be knows as "census-taker of the stars".

Who Says Women Can't Be Doctors?

The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell
by Tanya Lee Stone
illustrated by Marjorie Priceman

Limited to being Wives, Mothers, maybe Teachers and Seamstresses at the most, women didn't have much of a career choice up to a century ago.

Born in England, Elizabeth's family moved to the US when she was eleven. The book established her determination and strong-will early on with the anecdote of her carrying her brother over her head until he gave in. She did not set out to be a doctor initially.

"But she hadn't always wanted to be a doctor. Actually, blood made her queasy. One time, her teacher used a bull's eyeball to show students how eyes work. Elizabeth was repulsed."

After a series of rejections, even her acceptance to a medical school finally, turned out to be a joke. But, she stuck to it. And, even though she graduated from medical school, she was not hired as a doctor anywhere. Even private practice didn't work out at the beginning. That's when Elizabeth decided to go out into the streets of New York and help women and children lead a healthy life.

With her sister Emily, also a doctor, Elizabeth opened The New York Infirmary for Women and Children in 1857 - the first hospital run for women by women.

Mary Walker Wears the Pants

The True Story of the Doctor, Reformer, and Civil War Hero
by Cheryl Harness
illustrations by Carlo Molinari

Despite being a medical doctor, despite volunteering to serve the North and help the wounded during the Civil war, even being a prisoner of war held in the South, and despite being awarded the Medal of Honor, Mary Walker was ridiculed for wearing pants during her time!

This was an interesting book for both my son and daughter as they take it for granted that women can wear pants if they want to today. but that was not the case up until a hundred years ago. More than the pants-fixation, they were surprised that she was taken prisoner. What did they do to her? And was she afraid? How did she manage alone? So many jumping off points for further discussion.

Brave Girl

Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers' Strike of 1909
by Michelle Markel
illustrated by Melissa Sweet

When Clara Lemlich's family immigrated into US and tried to settle in New York, they found life too difficult. Nobody would hire Clara's father. But, they were hiring young immigrant girls as seamstresses and tailors in large factories paying minimum wages. The original sweat-shop.

So, instead of carrying her books and going to school, Clara takes a sewing machine and goes to work in a garment factory. Her wages help pay the rent and get meager food for her family.

But, Clara wanted more. She went to night school and learnt to speak English. But the unsafe work conditions and unfair wages as a garment worker irked her. When several hundred women workers picketed in 1909, many companies did not budge. Not until the affluent Womens Trade Union League lent their support. Eventually, workers were allowed to form unions to fight for better working conditions and standardized pay based on their skill and labor.

What to do about Alice?

How Alice Roosevelt Broke the Rules, Charmed the World, and Drove Her Father Teddy Crazy!
by Barbara Kerley

Alice had issues. Her father was an over-achieving President of the country who never mentioned her mother's name. She had a blended family that didn't seem to blend so well with her personality and needs. She became rambunctious and acted out as any kid would under the circumstances.

While the older child has come across a few characters like this in fictional stories, it was interesting for her to read about a Alice Roosevelt who did her own thing and didn't care what others thought.

Not quite the inspiring story or a role model like the others so far, nevertheless, the book captures Alice's life at the White House and her antics, and puts a positive spin on it.

Louisa May's Battle

How the Civil War Led to Little Women
by Kathleen Krull
illustrated by Carlyn Beccia

Though well-known for penning Little Women, Louisa May Alcott had a tough life. She worked hard to pay for her family's needs. She went to the Union hospital to nurse the wounded men during Civil War.

Her letters home during that time, Hospital Sketches, became a successful book. When she caught a near-fatal typhoid and was unable to work, she turned to writing. The success of Little Women helped her find her writing style, and gave her financial security.

Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor

by Emily Arnold McCully

With over ninety original inventions and twenty-two patents to her credit, it is hard to believe that Mattie was not highly educated or privileged in any way.

Without trying to explain the scientific principle or theory behind her inventions she managed to successfully create many useful things.

Truly inspirational, considering she was dubbed "the female Edison".

Amelia to Zora
Twenty Six Women Who Changed the World
by Cynthia Chin-Lee
illustrated by Megan Halsey, Sean Addy

Alphabetical lists are exciting and yet tough to do, especially for those tricky letters. I was thrilled to find Vijayalakshmi Pandit, Nightingale of India and efficient diplomat, listed for 'V'.

The older child liked to read one or two pages at a time, of the twenty six women who spanned the late nineteenth to late twentieth century. While the book provides a brief biography, it is an ideal starting point to go deeper and let the kids research these illustrious women further.

While not quite picture books, the following had some interesting mix of women pioneers.

Girls Who Looked Under Rocks: The Lives of Six Pioneering Naturalists
by Jeannine Atkins  (Author) , Paula Conner (Illustrator)

Seven women: Maria Sibylla Merian (Following Butterflies), Anna Botsford Comstock (Among the Six-legged), Frances Hamerstrom (Secrets), Rachel Carson (Signs from the Sea), Miriam Rothschild (Life in an Old Lawn), and Jane Goodall (The Dream); are featured in this book.

The book shares facts from their lives, taking writing liberties with dialogues and emotions to add to the drama and the importance of their contributions. The format and presentation did not appeal to the kids much.

Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women
by Catherine Thimmesh  (Author) , Melissa Sweet  (Illustrator)

Can chocolate chip cookie be considered an invention? Not quite what I expected in terms of scientific inventions, but, quite fascinating nonetheless as these inventions have practical everyday use.

The format and presentation was not appealing to the kids, but the short & crisp descriptions, including some inventions by young girls had my daughter's attention briefly.

Here are some biographies of women role models shared randomly so far in this blog.

Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle
by Claire A. Nivola

Of Numbers And Stars: The Story of Hypatia
by D. Anne Love  (Author) , Pam Paparone (Illustrator)

Wangari's Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa Hardcover
by Jeanette Winter  (Author)

[image source:]


ranjani.sathish said...

Thank u so much for this post Sheela. Shraddha would absolutely love every book here I guess !

Choxbox said...

Awesome Sheels!

Have only read Girls Think of Everything.., borrowed from Hippocampus if I remember right. Hope to find the others in your list too.

Deborah said...

It would help to know the reading level of these books.

Sheela said...

@Ranjani: I must thank my public library for these books, else I would not be able to read them and share them here.

@Choxbox: Am hoping to compile another post as this is not enough - loved your early girl power post

@Deborah: The picture books are listed by publishers as 4 to 8 age group and that seems about right. The three listed as not picture books seem to be more for the 6-8ish range than the 4-6ish range of the spectrum. Hope that helps.

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