Wednesday, March 7, 2012

(Un)Celebrated Women of 2012

March 7 - Today's post provided by Elizabeth Bird of Fuse #8

(Un)Celebrated Women of 2012

I've a secret for you.  What's the number one way to teach a kid about famous women of history?  Turn their lives into catchy songs of six lines or less.  You don't think a person's entire life can be turned into such a short piece of singing magnificence?  Oh ye of little faith.  Why, if it hadn't had been for earworms of this sort how else would I have learned all about Rosa Parks?  And I quote from memory:

"Rosa Parks was tired and sat
In the front of the bus not back
They tried to make her change her seat
Because she was black
She refused to move
And with quiet dignity
All by herself she helped her people
To the road to equality."

Okay, admittedly a lot of that is just plain wrong.  But I remembered it.  We were made to memorize a lot of these songs back in third grade, Oakwood Elementary, Kalamazoo, Michigan (and I can do Sojourner Truth on request).  Trouble is, we only learned about the same four-five women.  Every year.  Every single year.  I can even tell who they were:

- Sojourner Truth
-Amelia Earhart
- Harriet Tubman
- Sally Ride
- Rosa Parks

Um . . . . .  that's about it.  These days kids can add Marie Curie and maybe some politicians to the mix but the list is pretty much the same (except that Sally Ride has fallen out of favor, doggone it).  What chaps my hide is the fact that there are tons of women out there that deserve to be celebrated above and beyond the usual crew.  Women with fantastic accomplishments and others who fooled the world.  Women, more to the point, who are appearing in some fine biographies for kids this year.

So let's start with the shysters.  Here's how you booktalk The Fairy Ring or Elsie and Frances Fool the World (A True Story) by Mary Losure (though, let's face it, that title sort of sells it right there).  You tell the kid standing in front of you, "Hey!  Did you know that about 100 years ago a nine-year-old and a fifteen-year-old fooled the whole world into believing that fairies were real?  True story."  If the fairies don't get 'em the notion that two girls could accidentally make the grown-ups around them seriously think that the photographs they produced were real will. I've always loved this story, but it never occurred to me that someone could turn it into a fun chapter book of nonfiction for kids.  Now Ms. Losure has taken this story and run with it.  The result is a story worth visiting and, to a certain extent, celebrating. 

Now every year there's one biographical subject who shows up at two-three different publishers for no discernible reason.  It's never because the authors knew of one another.  Nope, it's always a complete coincidence.  Remember a couple years ago when those two great bios of Althea Gibson came out the same time?  No?  Well you should check 'em out if you get a chance. That year it was Althea.  This year it's all about the Alice.  Alice Coachman, that is.  From Albert A. Whitman comes Touch the Sky, written by Ann Malaspina, illustrated by Eric Velasquez.  Meanwhile over at BoydsMills Press comes Queen of the Track: Alice Coachman, Olympic High-Jump Champion by Heather Lang, illustrated by Floyd Cooper .  Both are gorgeous to the eye (with those illustrators how could they not be?).  Both are picture book biographies.  Both highlight a woman who has certainly never been this well known before but whose life story is one every schoolchild should know.  Brava.

You could argue that Temple Grandin is one of the better-known names out there,simply because she had a movie where she was played by Claire Danes (pre-Homeland, post-My So Called Life).  Still, kids have never had a good biography to look at.  There's no Temple Grandin picture book, after all.  What there is is a chapter book, one that happens to be written by the great nonfictionwriter Sy Montgomery.  Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Horses Embraced Autism and Changed the World is one of the few books out there that can honestly live up to its grandiose title.  Temple did indeed change the world, and her story provides not just the rare glimpse of social activism at work in the modern age but also a heroic portrayal of a woman with autism.  Because those, I can assure you, are very rare finds on the bookstore and library shelves.

Now let’s hear it for the Girl Scouts.  I was one, though I admit that the primary reason I liked the Brownies was because they inspired my mom to bake‘em (brownies not Brownies, that is).  Shana Corey did a lovely job celebrating swimmer Annette Kellerman ("champion swimmer, risk-taker, and fashion rebel") in the delightful picture book bio Mermaid Queen.  Now she returns with Here Come the Girl Scouts: The Amazing All-True Story of Juliette“Daisy” Gordon Low and Her Great Adventure.  This is hardly the first Daisy bio, since last year’s Ginger Wadsworth title First Girl Scout: The Life of Juliette Gordon Low came out.  Still, Wadsworth’s title was a chapter book and Corey’s, aided by illustrator Hadley Hooper, is of the picture book variety.  Daisy is well worth celebrating and truly did lead one strange and remarkable life.  To see how strange and remarkable, you’ll just have to read the book.

Finally, a tip of my hat to one author who has consistently written up or illustrated unsung women heroes year after year with remarkably little fanfare.  Claire A. Nivola drew the lives of Wangari Maathai in Planting the Trees of Kenya, Emma Lazarus in Emma’s Poem, and even herself in Orani: My Father’s Village.  Thanks to that last book her star has risen, which may account for the increased attention given to her newest work Life in the Ocean.  Pulling double duty by talking both about the life of Sylvia Earle and her ocean exploration and advocacy, Nivola's love of women activists takes a deep blue turn.

If you were to walk into Oakwood Elementary in Kalamazoo,Michigan (always assuming it’s still there) and then locate the third grade classrooms, I wonder if you would still find kids memorizing the same five to seven songs to celebrate the same five to seven women.  Like I say, songs are a great way to teach kids about historical figures. You know another way? Books!  And this year there are plenty for children of all ages to enjoy.  Go get ‘em.

Editor's Note:
(from SLJ)
"Elizabeth Bird is currently New York Public Library's Youth Materials Collections Specialist. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of NYPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. You can follow Elizabeth on Twitter @FuseEight."


  1. Great post! Looks like an enlightening selection of books. (And I love the phrase "chaps my hide." ;-))

  2. I'm looking forward to getting my hands on the Temple Grandin book and "The Fairy Ring". I know kids for whom these books are right up their alley.

  3. Thanks for the fabulous post! You are a great resource for some wonderful titles I hadn't heard about yet. I'm really looking forward to some of the titles you mention, and your great ideas for booktalking! I had a young girl come in the library where I work saying she needed a book for a biography report on a woman, "and she had to be dead." Well, at least that ruled out Katy Perry and all those actresses from the Disney channel!

  4. It will be fun to look into the book about the girls & the Faeries by Mary Losure.

    And tennis ace Althea Gibson lived here in Tallahassee as a student - so I must get these two titles for museum pals here.

    All the suggestions from Ms. Bird are splendiferous, in keeping with this fine roller coaster of KIDS LIT CELEBRATES WHM 2012. (And Elizabeth Bird's vast & spot-on notes.)

    Can't wait, can't wait to dig in. Thank you all!

  5. Love this selection of books!