Saturday, March 31, 2012

Susan B. Anthony and Rachel Carson

March 31 - Today’s post provided by The Nonfiction Detectives

The Nonfiction Detectives have the honor of contributing to KidLit’s celebration of Women’s History Month. We write about two women, Susan B. Anthony, the first champion of women’s rights, and Rachel Carson, whose book Silent Spring triggered the environmental movement.

When I think about Women’s History Month, the name Susan B. Anthony pops into my mind right away.  It’s surprising how many children in elementary school are not aware of Anthony’s contributions to women’s history. We own a number of biographies of Susan B. Anthony in the library, but I rarely see boys and girls checking them out for school projects or for pleasure reading. I recently chatted with a group of students about Susan B. Anthony. Most could not tell me what she was known for or what she accomplished. Teachers and librarians take notice, it’s time to break out the Susan B. Anthony books and begin reading aloud to the youngest generation. Alexandra Wallner’s picture book biography, Susan B. Anthony, (Holiday House, 2012) provides young readers with an accessible story of Anthony’s life and accomplishments. In just 32 pages, Wallner describes Anthony’s childhood in Massachusetts, her advocacy for women in her father’s mill, and her work as a schoolteacher before joining forces with Elizabeth Cady Stanton to work on the women’s suffrage movement.

I recently read the book aloud to a group of 8-10 year-olds, and the children were surprised to learn that women in the 1800s had few career choices. They thought it was unfair that women earned less pay than men when performing the same job. The students had a lot of comments and connections when learning that Anthony was arrested for voting in 1872. The children quickly made connections to Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King being jailed for standing up for civil rights.

Susan B. Anthony: Fighter for Women’s Rights by Deborah Hopkinson (Simon Spotlight. 2005) is another picture book biography that could serve as a starting point for students unfamiliar with Anthony’s work for women’s rights. The leveled reader is part of the Ready-to-Read series and would work well as a both a read aloud and as a book for newly independent readers to read on their own.


If Susan B. Anthony had not been an advocate for women's equality, would Rachel Carson have had the opportunity to attend college? Luckily, she did because in 1962 Rachel Carson published her most important book, Silent Spring. It was published to applause and severe criticisms. Battling breast cancer, it took the courageous Carson four year to research and write. This important tome was written to alert people that insecticides were deadly to birds, insects, fish, other animals, our land, and also to people.  

In her picture book biography, Rachel Carson and Her Book that Changed the World, (Holiday House, 2012) author Laurie Lawlor and illustrator Laura Beingessner successfully conveys Carson’s determination and indomitable spirit. Most of the book’s 32 pages are devoted to Carson’s early life, her education, her family problems, and the frustration that men would not take her seriously as a scientist. Throughout her lifetime, Carson was a careful observer of nature and was saddened as trees were cut down to build homes and factories whose putrid smells and smoke clogged the air.

Carson also loved the sea and as a marine biologist would write extensively about the ocean. During the 1950’s Carson’s keen sense of observation noticed some disturbing trends. Rising sea temperatures, and more and more garbage being dumped in the ocean was having a disastrous affect on the web of life. The last three pages of this book are devoted to Carson’s work on Silent Spring.  “As early as 1945, Rachel had read about studies of declining bird populations across the country. Each year researchers reported fewer nesting and migrating birds. The more she investigated, the more alarmed she became.”  The chemicals created for use during World War II were being used haphazardly to kill insects on farms, in city parks, nature preserves, swimming pools, in neighborhoods, and even on crowded city streets.

It took great courage to stand up to the big chemical industry. People claim Silent Spring started the whole environmental movement. It certainly had an effect on those who have made it their life work to educate people about the dangers of pesticides and insecticides.

2012 is a presidential election year in the United States, and it’s the perfect time for teachers, librarians, and parents to introduce their children to courageous women, such as Susan B. Anthony and Rachel Carson. Picture books are an excellent way to teach about these brave and determined women.

Editor's Note:
Cathy Potter is K-5 school librarian in Falmouth, Maine. Cathy reviews apps for School Library Journal and currently serves on the Southern Maine Library District's Board of Directors. She served as a nonfiction picture book judge for the 2011 CYBILS awards and is currently a member of the Chickadee Award committee in Maine.

Louise Capizzo is a Youth Services Librarian at a public library in Scarborough, Maine. Louise has written reviews for Publisher's Weekly, AudioFile Magazine, and Kirkus Reviews and served on many committees including the Maine Cream of the Crop committee (2001-2009), the Maine Student Book Award Committee (2006-2010), the 2011 John Newbery Committee, and served as a judge for the 2011 CYBILS awards.

Together, Cathy and Louise are The Nonfiction Detectives.

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Value of Picture Book Biographies

March 30 - Today’s post by Jennifer Brown of Twenty by Jenny and Shelf Awareness

The Value of Picture Book Biographies
By Jennifer M. Brown

A librarian friend I deeply respect said to me recently that she wasn’t sure what purpose a picture-book biography serves. I immediately thought of many ways to celebrate and defend it as a form, but the most compelling reason is that a picture book biography done well will lead youngest readers to find out more about the person at its heart. And during women’s history month, here are a few favorites to bring youngest readers on board.

Georgia in Hawaii: When Georgia O’Keeffe Painted What She Pleased by Amy Novesky, illustrated by Yuyi Morales (Harcourt/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99 hardcover, 9780152054205) is an excellent example of a picture book biography that may well lead young readers to further investigation. Novesky chooses one episode in Georgia O’Keeffe’s career—when the Hawaiian Pineapple Company (later known as Dole) brings her to Hawaii to create two paintings of a pineapple—and she refuses to paint the fruit on their terms. She wants to live among the pineapple workers; the company won’t let her. So she travels the islands and paints “what she pleases.” In the end, back in New York, she does paint a pineapple, but she paints it her way. Novesky convincingly chronicles O’Keeffe’s change of heart, and the illustrations by Morales capture the essence of O’Keeffe’s trademark combination of close observations of nature while making them entirely her own. O’Keeffe’s paintings make us see flowers and sky—and yes, a pineapple—differently, and Morales evokes that same feeling.

Children who respond to Georgia in Hawaii, may then pick up My Name Is Georgia by Jeanette Winter (Sandpiper/HMH), which shows the artist’s early leanings toward her career from childhood, when she traced pictures out of books in her local library in Wisconsin. The picture book follows her through to adulthood, and Winter peppers the narrative with quotes from the artist as spare as her artwork. Young people can easily find a role model in O’Keeffe—the way she trusted her early calling and stuck with it her entire life. It makes a strong statement next to her steadfast stand with the pineapple company in the previous book.

The picture-book biography that prompted the remark from my friend was Jazz Age Josephine by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman (Atheneum/S&S, $16.99, 9781416961239), and while I acknowledge that Josephine Baker’s sensual dances as an adult might be a bit more than a child could handle, Winter does an extraordinary job of conveying her early experimentation in dance as well as how the race riots of her St. Louis childhood prompted her flight to France and planted the seeds for her involvement in the French Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement. Without giving these influences short shrift or delivering them with a heavy hand, Winter creates a portrait of a playful, inventive and principled young woman, and Marjorie Priceman’s kinetic illustrations convey Josephine’s charisma and talent.

One of the most fortuitous examples of a picture-book biography leading to further study is the collaboration between Pam Muñoz Ryan and Brian Selznick, Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride (Scholastic). Ryan and Selznick encapsulate in one evening’s adventure two women whose strength and fearlessness broke open gender boundaries during their lifetime. After First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt invites “First Lady of the Air” Amelia Earhart to dinner at the White House, Earhart repays her hostess’s kindness by offering her a night flight over the capital. The book gets across a sense of why these women were such icons and also why they became such good friends. (Those who wish to read more about Earhart or Roosevelt may turn to Candace Fleming’s Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart,Schwartz & Wade/Random House; and Fleming’s Our Eleanor: A Scrapbook Look at Eleanor Roosevelt’s Remarkable Life, Atheneum/S&S.)

That book led to further exploration by Ryan and Selznick, and another episode in Eleanor Roosevelt’s life, When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson(Scholastic). An African-American opera singer at a time when America was still in the throes of segregation, Marian Anderson took the stage all over the world—except when she returned to her homeland. When the singer was denied entry to Constitution Hall, Eleanor Roosevelt stepped in and arranged for Anderson to perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The notes at the back of this picture book let young readers know how Amelia and Eleanor led to the picture-book collaboration about Marian Anderson and Eleanor. What a power of example for where curious minds and creativity can lead.

Editor’s Note:
Jennifer M. Brown is the children’s editor for Shelf Awareness, an e-newsletter for the book trade that recently launched an edition aimed at consumers. She also writes for Kirkus Reviews and School Library Journal’s Curriculum Connections. Jenny is the founder of Twenty by Jenny, a Web site that helps families build their children’s libraries one book at a time.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Write on, Mercy!

March 28 - Today's post contributed by Gretchen Woelfle

Take one determined girl and add some education……
 Who is the perfect poster girl – who became the perfect poster woman – for this year’s Women’s History Month theme: Women’s Education – Women’s Empowerment? She’s Mercy Otis Warren, heroine of my latest book, Write on, Mercy! The Secret Life of Mercy Otis Warren.

Mercy was a farmer/politician’s daughter, born on Cape Cod in 1728, who lived through the American Revolution and the birth of the United States, to 1814. During Mercy’s lifetime, women learned to read and write and not much else. Their real education was in housewifery.
But not Mercy. Her older brother, James (Jemmy) Otis, was being groomed for Harvard by the local minister, and Mercy insisted on studying with him. Her father, unlike most, agreed.  She read The Iliad  and The Odyssey (in English, not in Latin and Greek, as Jemmy did,) the plays of Shakespeare, the poetry of John Dryden and Alexander Pope. But her favorite book was Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World.
Harvard wasn’t so progressive, so when Jemmy went off to Harvard, Mercy stayed home and read Jemmy’s Harvard books during his school vacations. Jemmy – James Otis – became a brilliant writer and orator who lit the spark that kindled Bsoton’s revolutionary fire.  He earned the nickname “The Patriot,” Not ‘a patriot,’ but The Patriot. He rose quickly in the colonial Massachusetts political world.
Meanwhile Mercy married James Warren and bore five sons. But she took time to write rather learned poetry, full of classical allusions. Mercy also kept up with the radical goings-on in Boston.  In fact, she held meetings in her parlor with leaders like John and Samuel Adams to discuss ways to deal with British oppression. Mercy didn’t just serve the cakes, she sat in the middle of it all, speaking her mind.
Then Jemmy Otis was brutally attacked by his Loyalist enemies. They injured him so severely that he never fully recovered and was declared legally insane.  Mercy was devastated. She wrote, “To see the mind of a man so superior thus darkened, and that man a most affectionate brother, is grief beyond expression.”
Mercy Otis Warren decided to continue her brother’s work.  She wasn’t trained in the law, but in literature. So she wrote political satires – plays mocking Loyalist leaders, and poetic satires that scorned men and women who ignored the patriotic boycott of British goods. “Real genius,” gushed John Adams.
Her work was printed in newspapers in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia – but anonymously. For one thing, she was a woman and people wouldn’t value her work. For another, these were dangerous times – look what had happened to Jemmy.
Mercy’s father and brother valued her intellect, but her biggest fan was her husband, James Warren. He wrote, “God has given you great abilities….For all these I esteem I love you in a degree that I can’t express. They are all now to be called into action for the good of Mankind, for the good of your friends, for the promotion of Virtue and Patriotism.”
In 1776 after independence was declared and the country plunged into war, James joined the army. What more could Mercy do?  She would write a history of the astonishing events she was living through.  Why not? She had a fine education, a clever way with words, and “a mind that had not yielded to the assertion, that all political attentions lay out of the road of female life.” 
She didn’t want to write about battles and armies.  She was interested in the people whose radical thoughts and bold actions rejected a king in favor of a republic.  People like her friends George Washington, Samuel Adams, John Adams, and dear Jemmy.
Mercy was nearly fifty when she began her history. Life often got in her way.  She suffered terrible headaches and eye infections.  One of her sons lost a leg in battle and she confessed, “the Muse has Grown too timid amidst the Noise of War.”  Yet she persevered.  One, two, then three of her sons died. But her passion for politics survived.

Thirty years on, in 1805, at age 77, Mercy published her three-volume 1300 page History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution, Interspersed with Biographical, political and Moral Observations by Mrs. Mercy Warren. There was her name, for all to see.
Mercy Otis Warren’s poetry is hard to read today.  Its stiff formality and obscure classical style don’t suit our modern tastes. Her history, though scrupulously researched and documented, is highly subjective.  She had strong opinions about the good guys and the bad guys, and sometimes voiced them rather stridently.
But she did voice them.  She had been educated and empowered to break through social barriers that claimed women weren’t smart enough to write about history and politics.  Mercy Otis Warren was.  She had, her husband said “a mind possessed of masculine genius well-stocked with learning.” 
And she used it.
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Mercy Otis Warren, by John Singleton Copley

For more my process of writing Write On, Mercy see my blog, “Writing Short, Writing Long” at For a review from Kirkus, see
Editor's Note:  
Gretchen Woelfle is an award-winning children's author who's published picture books, short stories, essays, novels, biographies, and environmental books.  When she's not traveling around the world looking for stories, she lives in Los Angeles.  

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Woman Explorer and Giant Panda Mythbuster

March 28 - Today's post provided by Practically Paradise

Quick! Name ten explorers. How many of them were women? Perhaps you listed Sacagawea or Amelia Earhart? Did you include Delia Akeley, Christina Dodwell, Mary Kingsley, Florence Baker, Alexandrine Tinne, Gertrude Bell, Alexandra David-Neel, Florence Von Sass Baker, Isabella Bird Bishop, Annie Peck, Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), Eva Dickson, Marie-Anne Gaboury, Jeanne Baret, Josephine Diebitsch Peary, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Freya Stark, Valentina Tereshkova, Robyn Davidson, Liv Arnesen, Kira Salak, Ida Laura Pfeiffer, Harriet Chalmers Adams, or Ruth Harkness?

Ruth Harkness
If it weren’t for Alicia Potter’s sharing the story of Ruth Harkness in Mrs. Harkness and the Panda, I would not have begun to seek names of women explorers. Melissa Sweet illustrates this gem from Alfred Knopf, 2012. This picturebook retelling of the story of Ruth Harkness’ expedition to China to bring back the first live panda inspired me to delve more into women explorers, particularly Ruth Harkness.
Deborah Watson-Novacek created pages on squidoo for Female Explorers.   Her article aided my exploration and helped provide many helpful links. I was able to read several accounts of Ruth Harkness’ achievements including

·      Harkness, Ruth, The Lady and the Panda, Carrick & Evans, New York, 1938
·      Kiefer, Michael, Chasing the Giant Panda, 2002, ISBN 1-56858-223-4
·      Croke, Vicki Constantine, The Lady and the Panda: The True Adventures of the First American Explorer to Bring Back China's Most Exotic Animal, 2005) ISBN 0-375-50783-3
·      Masloff, E.B., "A Time for Loving Pandas", Published on (2002)
·      The Wikipedia article “Ruth Harkness”:  Women should be reading these articles, correcting, updating, and writing more of our history.

I have often wondered why some people in history had such a strong desire to travel, to wander, and to explore that they were willing to give all in their efforts. What qualities did these people possess that enabled them to achieve more than others? None of these people were perfect. Most had conflicts in their personal lives and many did not reap great benefits from their explorations.

The article in the Christian Science Monitor by Adelle Waldman on August 9, 2005, “How a party girl went in search of a panda: The true tale of a 1930s New York socialite who trekked Tibet determined to bring home a cub.”  reviewed Vicki Constantine Croke’s book "The Lady and the Panda: The True Adventures of the First American Explorer to Bring Back China's Most Exotic Animal."  The writer states “That Harkness had flaws does not, of course, make her an unworthy subject for a biography - on the contrary, it perhaps makes her all the more interesting.”

To me, this acknowledgement of flaws makes a biography far more believable. Croke’s novel provides additional information and does not have to sift through details to fit in a 32 page picture book. Her 400 page novel provides a great deal more information, but also lauds Ruth Harkness a bit much for my own cynical taste. I can overlook this as I supplemented my reading with other accounts of Ruth Harkness’ deterioration and death at 46.

Kate Kelly on the web site America Comes Alive highlights Ruth Harkness as an Influential Woman. America Comes Alive! is a site Kate Kelly created to share little-known stories of America’s past. She wrote, When I selected Ruth Harkness for the 2012 “Inspirational Women” list, most descriptions were of a “socialite-turned-explorer who brought home the first living panda.”  As I read in greater depth there was much more that was unsaid regarding the well-being of wildlife as well as the life of Ruth Harkness. Her life tells a particular story of her time.  I was captivated, though it certainly was not what I expected!”

What does it take to motivate anyone, male or female, to leave their comfort zone and achieve something no one else has ever done? Ruth McCombs Harkness was a New York City fashion designer and a socialite. She had been friends with her husband William Harkness for ten years but married to him only two weeks before he left on a mission to bring back the first live giant panda. Since William had already successfully brought back Komodo dragons, it was a shock for Ruth Harkness to learn that while William was delayed in China, he died of throat cancer before setting out on his expedition.
As Croke states, “Left with a tiny fortune, Harkness decided to use it to follow in his footsteps, a stunning decision for a woman who wouldn't even walk a city block if there was a taxi to be hailed."
Alicia Potter in Mrs. Harkness and the Panda manages to point out the criticism Ruth faced from nearly everyone when she announced her intentions to finish William’s expedition. In describing the “Panda-monium!” that occurred when Mrs. Harkness arrived in America carrying the panda in her arms, Alica Potter simply vindicates Ruth Harkness’ bravery and determination by stating:

“None of these newspaper stories called Mrs. Harkness crazy. Or foolish. Or reckless. They called her a “woman explorer”.”

Potter downplays much of the conflicts Ruth faced; although she does acknowledge in the author’s note how our values and ideas towards animal conservation have changed. Since our story ends with Su Lin finding a home at the Brookfield Zoo, and Ruth Harkness finding a home in the “rugged, beautiful mountains of faraway China”, the chronology of events provided important follow-up details. Since I wrote my very first research paper on the giant panda in elementary school, I have been intrigued by this animal that was thought to be mythical even in most of China.

Su-Lin, Brookfield Zoo
The giant panda became known to the Western world in 1869 when a French missionary Pere Armand David sent a dead pelt to the Museum of Natural History in Paris. In 1929 Theodore and Kermit Roosevelt (sons of former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt) killed a giant panda which was then stuffed and exhibited at the Chicago Field Museum. Between that time and Ruth Harkness’ journey, twelve well-staffed and equipped professional expeditions to China failed to collect a single live specimen.  How did Ruth Harkness expect to succeed where they had failed? Somehow with her 22 bags of luggage and her guide Quentin Young, her expedition succeeded. There were rumors and innuendos to be faced, but Ruth’s achievements stood.

Even when women achieved milestones in exploration and adventure, they often could not receive the benefits. Deborah Watson-Novacek notes  “The adoration of the American public did not help Ruth overcome the chauvinism of the all-male institutions in the field of science and exploration, however. Many institutions snubbed her before the Explorers Club did her the "honor" of being the first women allowed to attend a dinner with the "gentlemen." It should be noted, however, that the Club listed Su-Lin, not Harkness, as their guest of honor for the evening.”

Other sources I explored after reading this picture book include:

Honest, Fair, Courageous and Strong: Four Picture Books Starring Real-Life Heroines” by CANDACE FLEMING Published: March 9, 2012 New York Times Sunday Book Review which reviews Potter’s Mrs. Harkness and the Panda. Fleming states “Sweet’s mixed-media images, which incorporate maps, handmade paper and delicate watercolor drawings, give the book the feel of a travel journal — a wonderful way of accompanying Harkness on her journey.”

The web page A Woman’s Bridge has an article on April 15, 2011, “Ruth Harkness and the Giant Panda” by Yoon Joung Lee. The mission of A Woman's Bridge Foundation, established in 2009, was to create a sense of unity, vision, and purpose among women as a community of professionals, wives, mothers, and simply as people. “Women must reach out to each other more to value and protect each other whether as housewives or as corporate executives. We create partnerships for women in need, particularly those in local area shelters, and help raise supplies and awareness for local area women’s' shelters and services. We also establish dialogue to further thought on national and international women’s' issues.”

While searching for Ruth Harkness’ obituary, I found instead the obituary for Adelaide “Su-Lin” Young who is the namesake for the panda Ruth Harkness brought to America.

“In the 1930s, Adelaide “Su-Lin” Young, the pampered and glamorous daughter of a New York nightclub owner, morphed into one of the first female explorers to venture into the part of China devastated by last week’s earthquake.” (Earthquake referred to was the Sichuan province 2008 earthquake

Mrs. Young was believed to be the first American female explorer to enter the Tibetan-Himalayan region.  San Francisco Chronicle

World Wildlife Foundation:  In 2004, the results of the most comprehensive survey of China's giant panda population revealed that there are nearly 1,600 pandas in the wild, over 40 percent more animals than previously thought to exist. These findings came from a four-year-long study of pandas and their habitat carried out by the State Forestry Administration of China and WWF. In Mrs. Harkness and the Panda, Alicia Potter states in the end notes that there are approximately 2,500 giant pandas in the world. I do wonder about this discrepancy.

Facts from the Brookfield Zoo history of the Giant Panda:  The Brookfield Zoo was the first zoo in the world to have a giant panda. The Brookfield Zoo was formally opened on June 30, 1934. Su Lin (male) was born approximately in September 1936. His name means "A Little Bit of Something Precious" in Chinese. He was captured by Ruth Harkness in the bamboo forests of the Szechuan mountains of southwestern China on November 9, 1936. Su Lin came to the Brookfield Zoo on February 8, 1937. He choked on an oak stick, developed complications from an infection, and died in April, 1938.  The Brookfield Zoo had a Giant Panda Zoo from 1937-1953.  

Panda Cam’s and Links:
·      San Diego Zoo
·      Atlanta Zoo
·      Memphis Zoo
·      Track the 4 US zoo cam’s at once
·       Bifengxia Panda Reserve!/live-cams/player/china-panda-cam-1
·      Wolong Giant Panda Center, Wolong, Sichuan Province, China
·      Hong Kong Ocean Park Zoo has four cam’s
·      Pandapoly 

None of these sources provides all the answers I seek. They provide “pieces of the puzzle” or “strands of life’s weavings”, glimpses into the past, but mainly more questions. Isn’t the study of history simply the refining of our questions and the rebuilding of our knowledge structures? We are constantly changing as we learn. Our questions change as we change.

I still ponder why some people in history explore more and what qualities they possess that enable them to achieve more than others. I am excited each time I discover a new gem like Mrs. Harkness and the Panda because I know authors will continue to create new biographies to try to answer these questions – and maybe provoke a few more in the process.

Editor's Note:  Diane (R. Chen) Kelly writes the blog Practically Paradise for School Library Journal. She has taught in Tennessee, Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Germany and Taiwan with 20 years at the elementary level & 3 at the middle school. She recently finished a term on the ALA executive board which kept her busy at conferences but she remains active on Council & in committees for ALA, TLA, TASL, TEA, MNEA, FTRF, and AASL. All blog posts reflect solely Diane's opinions. You can email her at dianerchen @ gmail dot com.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Passing it On

March 27 - Today's post provided by Ann Malaspina

Passing It On

          When I was researching my book Touch the Sky: Alice Coachman, Olympic High Jumper, I contacted Coachman’s son, Richmond Davis, for help in telling her story.  He relayed some of my questions to his mother, who was approaching her nineties. With their assistance, I pieced together Coachman’s amazing life—from running barefoot on dirt roads in Albany, Georgia, during the Great Depression and the closed doors of Jim Crow segregation, to her history-making performance at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, when she became the first black woman  to win an Olympic gold medal.       
            As I was sorting out the details of her winning jump on August 7, 1948 in Wembley Stadium, Davis called to say that Coachman wanted me to mention her childhood teachers back in Albany.  During the 1920s and 1930s, the segregated schools for black children in Albany had few resources except for their teachers. So I made sure to tell about the teacher who went out of her way to take the restless young girl to a track meet, where they watched a boy do the high jump. Soon, Coachman was making high jump bars out of sticks and strings and practicing every chance she got. The teacher had helped her find a passion—and a future Olympic star was already soaring.

          I also mentioned the high school coach who recognized Coachman’s high-flying potential before she was even on his team. He invited her to the Tuskegee Relays at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama.  The school founded by Booker T. Washington hosted the annual athletics contest for young black athletes during a time when segregation laws banned competition with white athletes.  Coachman didn’t have the proper clothes, so a group of teachers pitched in for tennis shoes, shorts, and white socks, making it possible for her to compete at this important event.
Cleve Abbott
        At the Relays, Tuskegee’s Coach Cleve Abbott saw Coachman win the high jump with record-breaking grace.  The pioneering coach, who started the Relays in 1927, had launched women’s basketball, tennis, and track and field teams at Tuskegee long before many schools, black or white, supported women’s athletics.  Abbott made a difference in Coachman’s life, too.  He drove all the way to Albany to ask her parents to let her enroll at Tuskegee and join the Tuskegee Golden Tigerettes track and field team.  Reluctantly, her parents let her go.  As Davis explained to me, young black girls in Albany did not leave home back then.  Traveling was dangerous and money was scarce, and Coachman would rarely be able to come home from school, but Abbott and the other coaches and teachers at Tuskegee would watch out for her.
            Coachman worked hard on the track and off at Tuskegee.  She sang in the choir, played on the basketball team, and sewed football uniforms to earn room and board…and she won the high jump, as well as sprints and relays, at the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) national meets every year.  For ten years straight, first at Tuskegee and later at Albany State College (now Albany State University), Coachman, aka “The Tuskegee Flash,” was the national high jump champion.   
Alice (far right) and her relay team
            When the U.S. Olympic team sailed for England in July 1948, Coachman was one of nine black female athletes on the track and field team, a significant change from the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, when two black women made the team.  Her teammates had trained at Tuskegee, Albany, Tennessee State and other black colleges where coaches and teachers had opened doors and lit the flames. While Coachman took home the team’s only gold medal,  Audrey Patterson won the bronze in the 200-meter race, another groundbreaking first for a black woman.
Alice (2nd from left, top row) and the U.S.women's track and field team on the ship S.S. America bound for England. 
            With the Summer Olympic Games returning to London this year, Coachman is again in the news. In January, my publisher Albert Whitman & Company, generously donated Touch the Sky to every student at the Alice Coachman Elementary School in Albany, and Coachman paid a visit to sign a few copies. Afterwards, the principal told a local television reporter, “Mrs. Coachman Davis gave them such an inspiring message about hope and dreams, but most of all, about determination.”
             The same message Coachman’s teachers and coaches had given her.
Hey, let’s pass it on!
Editor's Note:
Ann Malaspina’s next book, Heart on Fire: Susan B. Anthony Votes for President (Albert Whitman & Company), will be out in time for the presidential election in November.
Giveaway:  Would you like to win a copy of Touch the Sky and other books featured on this month's Kidlit Celebrates Women's History Month blog?  If so, leave a comment on any post--each comment will give you an entry to win.  A winner will be chosen at random early in April.  

Monday, March 26, 2012

Not just pretty and pink: the hatching of Goosebottom Books

March 26-Today's post provided by Shirin Yim Bridges
About four years ago, my niece went through a Disney Princess craze. At that time I had written two books: Ruby’s Wish about a girl who grows up in China when girls were not taught to read or write, who still finds a way to go to university like her brothers; and, The Umbrella Queen about a girl from a village in Thailand where everyone has been painting umbrellas in exactly the same way for hundreds of years. Of course our heroine, Noot, wants to paint hers differently.

From just the books I’d written you might be able to guess my reaction to an obsession with fairytale princesses. I said, “Tiegan, do you know that there were many real princesses who did not sit around waiting for a prince, but went out and changed history?”

She didn’t know, but she was interested. So, we went looking in bookstores and libraries for these stories. I knew the princesses were out there, because I’m a history nerd, but I was surprised to find that these tales were not being told for children.  So, I decided that I would have to tell them.

At first, I was just going to write the books. Then I realized how important it was to me how the stories were told. I’d been a creative director in advertising for...longer than I care to admit…and I wanted to have creative control over these books. I wanted the main story to be as lyrical as any storybook, but I wanted the narrative to be supported by lots of little details that bring the story to life.

In our books you’ll always find a map showing some interesting facts about where our woman from history lived. There’s always a section on what she wore and a fun section on what she ate. And, in addition to the illustrations, every page is covered with artifacts and historical images that illuminate the text. Even the background textures and colors of each book have something to do with the period of history we’re talking about.

It was also important to me that these books were launched as a series. Six real princesses appearing all at once tells a very different story from one real princess...and then maybe another...and another, over time. It says that you’re looking at a pattern, not an isolated incidence. And for the same reason, it was important to me to choose princesses from all around the world, and from different epochs and cultures. I wanted to trumpet the fact that in every society, girls have found a way to exceed expectations.

So, that’s why Goosebottom Books was hatched as a small press. We launched our first series, The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Real Princess, in Fall 2010, in the middle of the recession, at a time when the book industry in particular was under duress. Libraries were losing their funding. Bookstores were closing. And with the arrival of e-readers, nobody seemed certain there was even a future for the book.

Well, what are you going to do? If your message to girls is “yes you can”, you’re going to have to give it a try, right?

The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Real Princesses is doing well with the critics. The series won an IPPY medal for Multicultural Non-fiction/Juvenile. Two books in the series, Hatshepsut of Egypt and Isabella of Castile, were selected by the Amelia Bloomer Project as Recommended Feminist Books for Youth. And just as rewarding were the effusive thanks of mothers who’d reclaimed their daughters from the haze of pink glitter.

In Fall 2011, we launched our second series, The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Dastardly Dames. Some people had doubts about this series. “But they’re not good role models,” they said. Which got my fighting feathers all ruffed up.

We never question the importance of educating our children about powerful men. Do we banish the Genghis Khans, the Attila the Huns, the Caesars (any Caesar), the Hitlers, and the Stalins from our literature, our history books, our collective consciousness because they weren’t good role models? No. If a man is powerful and affected history, he’s deemed important to learn about. But women need also be saints. Quills aquiver, Goosebottom Books was going to change that by at least six slim volumes.

In any case, some of these stories were old favorites of mine: Mary Tudor who survived a harrowing childhood and rejection from first her father and then her husband only to get lumped with the nickname “Bloody Mary” while her sister, who killed as many, went on to be remembered as “Good Queen Bess”; the hapless Marie Antoinette, who lost her pretty head and has been immortalized for saying “let them eat cake”—a statement no historian thinks she made; Catherine de’ Medici, hated for simply being Italian, who yet managed to wrestle the reins of power; and the empress Agrippina—sister of Caligula, wife of Claudius, mother of Nero—so indomitable that when Nero had her capsized at sea, she swam in her long robes (and without the benefit of any gym training) back to shore, and then calmly chose to face the second murder attempt alone.

These women were not good. But in their own way, each was great. Each overcame barriers and adversities that few of us can now imagine. Each made a mark in history when those around them wanted them to be quiet.

The Dastardly Dames completed my initiation into publishing. I didn’t write all of this series, as I had written the Princesses. Instead, I was joined by five other authors, all of them, by coincidence, a) female; b) from Northern California. Their diverse talents enlivened not only the books but the publishing experience.

The Dames also let us put to good use lessons learnt from the Princesses. You’ll notice small design changes in trim size, font size. Visually, these books are even richer—dare I say, beautiful. This is due in no small part to the gorgeous illustrations of Peter Malone.

inside spread from Cleopatra

I’m proud to say that the Dames are also earning accolades. We’ve just been named one of the Top Ten Nonfiction Series for Youth by Booklist, and will be featured in the April edition of the magazine. And once again, whenever we speak to mothers, librarians, and teachers, the response has been very affirming. Some have even been heard to exclaim, “thank goodness, books about women who aren’t good.” Girls just say that the books are great fun to read. Which confirms that we’re on track with our goal of “stealth education.”

In 2012, we will be adding a new volume, Sacajawea of the Shoshone, to The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Real Princesses; and Njinga “The Warrior Queen” to The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Dastardly Dames. Volume by volume, we hope to contribute to a growing awareness of the real roles that women have played.

There can be a lot more to girlhood than “pretty and pink.”

So, here’s to a future full of thinking girls and many more women making history!

If you'd like to win a copy of a Goosebottom book, along with an assortment of other books on women's history, please leave a comment below.  Each comment that you submit this month on this blog will give you an entry to win this prize pack of women's history picture books for your library, classroom, or personal collection!

Editor's note:

Shirin Yim Bridges, "Head Goose" at Goosebottom Books, comes from a family of writers and artists.  She has lived in many countries around the world, as is reflected in her writing, including Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, and England.  She was educated in the United States and now nests in California.