Sunday, March 31, 2013

Let's take a walk over to the Biography section

March 31 - Today's post contributed by Paula Willey

"Let’s take a walk over to the Biography section"

Professor Angela Davis

As I was thinking about what I was going to write for Women’s History Month, my mind played that little slideshow that I think plays in every librarian’s mind when report time comes around for the kids. Over the years we compile a mental gallery of Biography People – people that we can suggest when a kid mopes in and mournfully sighs, “I have to write a report.”

It happens a few times a year. Black History Month, Be Your Hero, Halloween, Who Invented That? – all of these topics send kids to the biography section of the public library. The kid stands there looking unenthused while mom and dad pull things off the shelves. “Betsy Ross? She lived right here in Baltimore! No? How about… Helen Keller? She was deaf and blind!”

Whenever I see that happening, I hustle over to help out. As a parent myself, I’d like to spare my comrades in arms the humiliation of trying to get a kid amped up for a project they never wanted to do in the first place. I at least have that interior slideshow to help me out.

Mentally flipping through all those faces and names this morning, the usual suspects popped up: Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart. But then Diana Ross. “What’s Diana Ross doing in there?” I wondered, and then I remembered.

Years ago, a little girl came in with her dad looking for a children’s biography of Foxy Brown. “The…rapper?” I asked. You try to stay pretty neutral while answering questions, but I think we’re allowed a little leeway sometimes. “Not the rapper,” she clarified. “You know, like, Foxy Brown in the movie.” Ah. Foxy Brown, the 1974 blaxploitation film starring Pam Grier, Pam Grier’s bosoms, and a handgun.

Pam Grier as Foxy Brown probably
 wouldn’t recommend this movie
 for a third grader.

While my mind processed this request, and made a sound kind of like tires spinning in mud, I vamped by explaining that not a lot of fictional characters have biographies written about them. Then I got her talking about the requirements of what was obviously a school project. Turns out, part of the assignment was to dress up like their report subject, and she picked Foxy Brown because she already owned an Afro wig.

Not a bad rationale, really.

This is where Diana Ross comes in, of course. I was brainstorming all the famous women – and men, hey, I’ve known little girls to dress up like Popes for this project – who had sported Afros, and it’s not like you can Google that, or maybe you can now, I’ll wait here if you want to try. I get tired of googling stuff - about 75% of telephone reference nowadays is googling stuff for people who are afraid of computers.

 Diana Ross. Probably gets someone
else to google things for her

I suggested Diana Ross. Little girl looked blank and her dad looked skeptical. Jimi Hendrix, but this was before the very nice children’s biography of Jimi came out, and dad nixed Jimi because of the drugs. Lauryn Hill? Michael Jackson? Rod Carew? Then the PERFECT NAME came to me out of the blue, and I knew I needed to sell this one, because next I was going to go to Bob Ross, and nobody needs to go there.

“ANGELA DAVIS,” I said, and bless his heart, dad threw a fist in the air in the Black Power salute – this guy was clearly a 70’s devotee – and said, “FREE Angela Davis!” Kid maintained her blank look, and dad and I set about telling her why she should learn about Angela Davis and printing out articles from our biography database and talking about what a scholar is, and what an activist is, and what Communism is, and oh it is one of my favorite moments from my librarian career.

But then this sweet kid asked, “And can I get a biography of her?” and that’s when I winced. Yeah. There’s no 50-page biography of Angela Davis suitable for a third grader. We gave her the grownup version to hold up during the costume parade, and she wrote her report from the database articles, but here’s the soapbox portion of my Women’s History Month post.

Countess Ada Lovelace. Early adopter

There are more women in the world than Sojourner Truth and Hillary Clinton. In fact, I will venture to say that there have been women making history since the dawn of time. And while I’ve got women in my kids’ biography section – I’ve got Michelle Obama and Ella Fitzgerald and Sally Ride and Clara Barton – I still don’t have enough. I don’t have a kids’ biography of Helen Gurley Brown. Nor Margaret Mead, Shirley Chisholm, code breaker Elizebeth Friedman, astronomer Carolyn Shoemaker, or Jane Yolen.

That’s what I have to say. When I go to conferences, I like to give myself ridiculous job titles on my name badge. You get about 25 letters, why not use them all? So in addition to “Librarian,” my badge might also say “Loudmouth” or “Hypnotist.” This year, my job will be “Exhorter.” I am exhorting us all to write about more women, and to beat on publishers until they publish our picture book biography of oceanographer Sylvia Earle, our 80-page illustrated book Who Was… Ann Richards, and of course, the book I’ll write, Tell Me Again Why We Left Wisconsin? a biography of fictional character Caroline Ingalls. Maybe my library customer will grow up to write Foxy Lady: Pam Grier for the just-invented middle grade nonfiction series “Profiles in Coolness.”

Paula Willey is a librarian, mom, and writer in Baltimore, Maryland. You can read her opinionated reviews of children’s and teen books on her blog Pink Me,, and listen to occasional on-air rants on Maryland’s NPR station, WYPR, .


  1. I think you should be the one to write the picture book biography on Angela Davis!

  2. Oh my, hilarious! Maybe all of us reading should start work on our own biography of a famous woman. It always shocks me how little people know of famous women and how difficult it is to access information about them for the school-age set.

  3. Great evaluation, Milo - One day we'll obtain you to Amsterdam where you can see the lodging for physically. A very sad story, but an important one for people to know. Thanks for reading the amendment and spreading the announcement. Now, off to New Hampshire for you! Biography

  4. The utopia of representation of tge REAL not the it