Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A Place at the Campfire

March 6 - Today's post provided by Shana Corey

A Place at the Campfire

I’m so happy to be a part of KidLit Celebrates Women’s History Month! To me, kids lit and history‑and especially women’s history‑have always been a natural fit because kids’ books are where history first came alive for me. I colored maps and learned names and dates in school, but nothing made me see the story in history, nothing made me connect to it, the way books did.

I read Little House on the Prairie and learned about butter churning and writing slates and westward expansion. And I could see that endless ocean of prairie grass and feel how small it felt to be in that lonely covered wagon. I still can. I read All of A Kind Family and learned about tenements and settlement houses and, as one of the few Jewish kids in my suburban Southern school, I was suddenly able to connect my experience to the story of my great grandmother coming to this country on a boat, and to the bigger picture of Jewish and immigrant life in America. Reading those books made history feel real, and for the first time, I understood that it was continuous; that my family and I were a part of the story as much as Laura Ingalls Wilder, as much those five little girls on Sydney Taylor’s Lower East Side. And that meant what we did mattered because we were influencing where the story would go next. Goosebumps.

When I went to college, I took classes with names like “The social history of Women in the U.S. 1850-Present” and I discovered that the books I’d grown up on had actually given me a pretty solid grounding in what daily life had been like for some segments of American women at different times in history. But so many of the names I learned in my Women’s History classes were new! Why didn’t I know them? I wondered. Where were those stories?

As an adult, I write and edit books for kids myself, and most of the stories I tell are the stories of those women—the real life stories I wish I’d known about growing up. I also tend to write about moments of change, moments when someone rebels against what society considers acceptable and does something new. I’m drawn to those stories partly because I admire people who have the courage to make their own paths and partly because I think that experience‑facing an authority more powerful than you‑is something kids can relate to (heck, that’s what childhood is). But mostly, I tell those stories because I think those moments of change are where we can most clearly see how much we as human beings influence history, that’s where we can actually see one person‑or a group of people‑taking control of the world’s story and moving the plot in a new direction. I find that incredibly exhilarating and empowering.

My first book, You Forgot Your Skirt Amelia Bloomer!, is about one of those moments of change. It tells the story Amelia Bloomer, the 19th Century feminist and fashion reformer. She’s the woman ‘bloomers’ are named after.

When I read this story to kids, they’re shocked that women couldn’t vote and weren’t supposed to work. But what really gets them is the clothes that women wore, because every kindergartner knows what it’s like to wear itchy, uncomfortable clothes and how frustrating it is to be told to wear something you don’t want to wear. And so for them, Amelia Bloomer and clothing become an accessible entry point into women’s history‑something that they can connect with.

Players in Pigtails is inspired by the All American Girls Professional Baseball League and a little known fact about the song “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”. By focusing on tangible things kids might have personal experience with‑uncomfortable clothes in Amelia Bloomer or the joy that comes with doing something you love in Players in Pigtails, my hope is that kids will be able to put themselves in the place of the characters and really feel what it might have been like to live that history. Instead of focusing on the bigger picture‑the names and dates and sweeping trends, sometimes I think we can learn just as much by really connecting to and understanding one piece of that picture. And I can’t think of a better way to do that than through kids’ books.

My new book Here Come the Girl Scouts! The Amazing All-true Story of Juliette "Daisy" Gordon Low and Her Great Adventure is the story of Girl Scouts founder Daisy Low and the first Girl Scout troop back in 1912.

Girl Scouts have always been on my radar, because my mom is from Savannah, Georgia, the city where the Girl Scouts were founded, and I grew up knowing what a positive, important experience the Girl Scouts had been in her childhood.

When I learned that Girl Scouts would be having their 100th anniversary this spring, I started wondering what the story was on Daisy Low. What had motivated her to start this organization that’s become so much a part of American girlhood? (At this writing, 50 MILLION American women have been Girl Scouts!)

So I began researching, and was completely inspired—both by Daisy Low and by the Girl Scouts themselves. By the time she was in her twenties Daisy had lost most of her hearing. She suffered through a difficult, painful marriage. But she not only survived these things, she went on to do the greatest work of her life—something that would empower a century and counting of women‑ at the age of 51, an age where woman are often written off in history.

And the work she did was truly groundbreaking. The Girl Scouts were early advocates of Conservationism, and even in 1912, they were all about encouraging girls to get outside and be active and exercise (the early Girl Scouts were big on basketball!) and to appreciate and take care of the natural world around them. They were “Green” before the term had been coined. (“Let us plant trees.” the first Girl Scout handbook urges.)

Daisy Low did this work very consciously—she’d learned from her own marriage, and was actively trying to inspire these girls and give them tools they could use in life. The first handbook tells the girls to be self sufficient, to be able to earn their own money, and that they can and should make a difference in the world

The early Girl Scouts were also remarkably inclusive. At a time when Jews weren't welcome in many places, the Girl Scouts were actively recruiting not just in private schools and churches, but in synagogues, and orphanages and factories and shops. In fact, the Girl Scouts lobbied the city of Savannah to put up lights around their basketball courts so that working girls could see to play in the evenings. Photographs from as early as 1921 show African American Girl Scouts, and within a few years there were also Chinese-American, Hispanic-American and Native American troops. Then in the 1950s, the Girl Scouts led the way again when they desegregated all troops.

I’ve told this story before, but I can’t write a post about woman’s history without telling it one more time. As part of my research I spoke to Girl Scout alums about their Girl Scouts experiences. One of the most thrilling moments of my career (of my life, actually) came the morning I turned on my computer and found an email from my personal hero, Gloria Steinem (Gloria Steinem!). She was a Girl Scout growing up and sent me a beautiful and powerful essay about what the Girl Scouts meant to her, ending with "We all have a place at the campfire. It was the Girl Scouts who taught me that first."

I think that perfectly sums up what Girl Scouts are about.

And I’d venture to say that we’re all a part of the story that’s being told around that campfire, too. The 1913 Girl Scout handbook says “the work of to-day is the history of tomorrow and we are its makers.” I think books are a great place for kids to begin to recognize that; to find their place at the campfire and discover how the fit into the story, and to understand that‑just like Daisy Low and Amelia Bloomer and Gloria Steinem and any number of women in history‑they have the power to pick up the pen and write the next chapter of the story themselves.

Editor's Note:
Shana Corey is an Executive Editor at Random House Kids Books and writes "girl power picture books."  You can find her on Twitter @shanacorey


  1. Shana, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on women's history and your newest book, Here Come the Girl Scouts! I was a Brownie when I was younger and in my later years, I became an assistant troop leader for older girls. Though many of "my" Girl Scouts are now in high school or even starting college, we still keep in touch and can laugh over who fell out of the raft in the rapids, who rolled out of the tent in the rain, who put the Skittles in the apple cobbler, or who got sick at the theme park! Girl Scouting is such a wonderful experience. I highly recommend it and your book!

  2. What an inspiring blog. Thanks.

  3. I also loved a few books by Emily McCully:

    The Bobbin Girl about Lowell mills during Industrial Age and the girl who started Unions for better conditions and pay.

    The Ballot Box Battle about women's suffrage

    Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor
    Emily Arnold McCully

    There's a Dead Bird on Your Head bout the women in Boston at the turn of the century that started the Audubon Society to protect birds.


  4. Ooh, I don't know Bobbin Girl but will definitely look for it. And I love the other 4 you mention. I have a list of other women's history picture books I love/rec on my website-http://www.shanacorey.com/extra/#books2
    So many good ones out there!

  5. Shana, I added your women's history picks to our link page. Thanks, Lisa