Brave women who made a difference
Need a lift? You’ll feel inspired after reading about five women who accomplished big things, all subjects of engaging new picture book biographies aimed at young elementary school students.
A VOICE THAT ROARED
When a steamship pulls into the New York City harbor in 1903, a surprise is on board. So begins Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909. And never fear if a story about a strike doesn’t sound exciting; believe me, it is—especially in the hands of writer Michelle Markel. She begins by explaining:
“The surprise is dirt poor, just five feet tall, and hardly speaks a word of English.
Her name is Clara Lemlich.
This girl’s got grit, and she’s going to prove it.
Look out, New York!”
Instead of going to school, Clara joins other young women working long hours sewing in a factory under harsh conditions. Markel writes: “Clara smolders with anger, not just for herself, but for all the factory girls, working like slaves. This was not the America she’d imagined.” Thus the stage is set for Clara to lead the largest walkout of women workers in U.S. history.
Enriching this tale of might and right are fabulous illustrations by Caldecott Honor-winning artist Melissa Sweet, whose use of fabric and stitching within her art reminds readers that they’re reading about garment workers. In one wonderful spread, she creates an overhead shot of hundreds of tiny heads hunched over their sewing machines, while the adjacent page shows a timecard with notations of low pay and fines for being late. Sweet and Markel’s collaboration brings this strike to life in an immensely appealing way.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our Q&A with Michelle Markel for Brave Girl.
REACH FOR THE STARS
Henrietta Leavitt made an important contribution to astronomy, and Look Up! Henrietta Leavitt, Pioneering Woman Astronomer does a great job of explaining her role in a way that young readers can easily grasp. Robert Burleigh writes: “In an astronomy class, she was one of the very few woman students. But Henrietta wanted to follow what she loved, wherever it took her.” Leavitt’s journey took her to the Harvard College Observatory, where she and other women worked as “human computers” who counted stars for 30 cents an hour.
Studying stars became Leavitt’s life work, and thanks to a phenomenon she noticed, she helped scientists calculate how far away certain stars are. Burleigh’s lively text brings her discovery to life, while Raúl Colón’s illustrations are not only gorgeous, but inventively luminescent, filled with swirling cosmos, colorful stars and reminders of great astronomers like Copernicus and Galileo. This well-rounded portrait contains a nicely detailed afterword that includes a glossary and resources for additional information.
A DARING DOCTOR
Young Elizabeth Blackwell didn’t like the sight of blood, and was horrified when one teacher brought in a bull’s eyeball to show students how eyes work. These are the sorts of engaging details that Tanya Lee Stone includes in her lively biography, Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell.
When Elizabeth was 24, an ill friend lamented that she would love to have a woman doctor, and that Elizabeth would be perfect for the job. That suggestion changed Elizabeth’s life, and she wouldn’t take no for an answer once she decided to attend medical school. She first had to face 28 “no”s before finally getting a “yes” from New York’s Geneva Medical School. There, the male students ridiculed her, but she had the last laugh, graduating first in her class in 1849.
Stone repeatedly reminds readers that Blackwell’s hardships are unimaginable in today’s world, where more than half of the medical students in the U.S. are women.
Adding to the book’s appeal are whimsical, energetic illustrations by another Caldecott Honor-winning artist, Marjorie Priceman, whose style here brings to mind Ludwig Bemelmans and his famed Madeline books. This dynamic biography is sure to speak to a wide range of young readers.
TAKE THIS BOOK, PLEASE!
My, how the world has changed. Miss Moore Thought Otherwise: How Anne Carroll Moore Created Libraries for Children describes a time when children weren’t allowed inside libraries. A young woman from Maine became one of the leading forces of change, a pioneer in her position as head of the children’s rooms in the New York Public Library system, beginning in 1906.
Jan Pinborough’s biography unfolds in storybook fashion, with the title serving as an often repeated refrain. Miss Moore allowed children to borrow books, and she got rid of the “SILENCE” signs that hung in many libraries. When the New York Public Library opened its doors in 1911, Moore had designed a warm, welcoming children’s room brimming with the best books she could find, child-size furniture and art by the likes of N.C. Wyeth. Pinborough brings this literary crusader to life, explaining that upon retirement, Moore hit the road in an effort to improve libraries across the country.
Debby Atwell’s folk-inspired art perfectly suits this story of a little girl whose big ideas helped change how children live and learn. Atwell’s final tableau, showing Miss Moore setting off across America as the countryside spreads before her, is particularly charming. No doubt Miss Moore herself would give this book quite the stamp of approval!
A LITERARY NURSE
Older students will be mesmerized by Louisa May’s Battle: How the Civil War Led to Little Women. Award-winning writer Kathleen Krull focuses on a life-changing slice of Louisa May Alcott’s life, when she headed to Washington, D.C., to act as a Civil War nurse.
Krull paints a rich historical portrait of both Louisa and the desperate times, infusing her text with quotes from Alcott’s own account of her experiences, Hospital Sketches. Krull describes the extraordinary difficulties Louisa experienced while traveling from New England to Washington, and Louisa’s jubilation on the night she looked out her window and saw African Americans celebrating the ratification of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Carlyn Beccia’s illustrations are equally radiant with historical details, showing Louisa’s long hair reaching down to her ankles, the broad expanse of Pennsylvania Avenue, the unfinished Capitol Building without its dome and the lush countryside around Washington as Louisa ran up and down its hills.
The impact of Louisa’s experiences stayed with her forever, leading directly to her success as a writer. While much has already been written about this famous author, Louisa May’s Battle is a fascinating contribution to the canon.