Monday, March 31, 2014

Beyond Helen Keller--Women's History for Kids

(graphic from National Women's History Museum)
On behalf of Lisa Taylor and myself, thanks for following along for another year of Kidlit Celebrates Women's History Month.

This year, at the public library where I work as a children's librarian, I was reminded of the importance of continuing to promote women's history and children's books.  At a family storytime to mark Women's History Month, I asked the children of varied ages if they could name a famous woman from history.  Only one could think of anyone--Helen Keller, certainly a fine example, but none of the children was familiar with Jane Goodall, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, or Amelia Earhart, the women I chose to read picture books about that evening.

Having grown up in an era when biographies of women written for children were few and far between, I am particularly grateful to the fine authors, illustrators and publishers who continue to bring us a wide array of books about both famous and lesser-known women in history, and to the parents, librarians, teachers, and bloggers, who strive to introduce their children--both boys and girls--to these heroines past and present.  For how else will our children learn to dream--and dream big--without inspiration from figures like Mumbet Freeman, Emily Dickinson, and Kate Sessions, to name just a few of the figures who were discussed in this year's blog contributions?

We hope you will continue to spread the word about this blog, and look forward to highlighting more outstanding books in 2015!

Friday, March 28, 2014

Kate Sessions, The Tree Lady - an artist's perspective

March 28 - Today's post provided by Jill McElmurry

When I first received the manuscript for The Tree Lady written by Joseph H.  Hopkins, three things grabbed my attention: the rhythm of the language, the way the author used variations of the phrase "But Kate did." to punctuate each page, and the trees. Besides illustrating books, I paint plants, landscapes, and trees. I was eager to illustrate this well written manuscript about an independent woman and her love of trees.  (

Kate Sessions loved science as a girl and was the first woman to graduate from the University of California with a degree in science.  To start, I  put a rough sketch of Kate in among this group of boys. I use Photoshop  for all phases of illustration except for the finished art which I paint using gouache on watercolor paper. A dominant theme of the book is that Kate didn't let accepted norms keep her from pursuing her interests.

The online photo archive of the San Diego History Center was a valuable resource. It made researching Kate Sessions and Balboa Park fun and interesting. The early photos of San Diego were surprising: it was a desert when Kate first arrived from the North. (

The cover: The art that became the cover was done for the third spread in the book. The cover image was originally going to be the portrait of Kate as a girl that is now hiding under the paper cover. Andrea (Welch) and Allyn (Johnston) of Beach Lane Books loved the third spread and thought it would make a good cover. It worked out well. Kate grew up in Northern California with redwoods, sequoias, and all those wonderful Northern California coastal trees. I tried to figure out a way to capture the majesty of the trees and her relationship to them. "Trees seemed to Kate like giant umbrellas that sheltered her and the animals, birds, and plants that lived in the forest."

Editors' Note:
In addition to providing us with the above piece, Jill was kind enough to answer a few questions from Lisa, of Shelf-employed.

Lisa:  Please correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe this is your first nonfiction picture book. 

Jill:  I illustrated Who Stole Mona Lisa? (Bloomsbury Children's Books, 2010) written by Ruthie Knapp. That was my first. I loved working on that book and it gave me a taste for nonfiction. Now, after The Tree Lady, I'm in love with the process. 

Lisa:  Did you approach this book differently than previous ones? 

Jill:  My main objective was to capture the feel and spirit of the time, place, and person; not to be literal about absolutely everything. I referred to photos from the San Diego History Center for settings in San Diego and the buildings of Balboa Park. The paintings of early San Diego aren't exact, except for the Russ School, where Kate taught when she first arrived. I researched the trees she found, which was great fun - all those crazy plant forms! I was also delighted to hear from author Joseph Hopkins that San Diego historian, Nancy Carol Carter, picked out John Charles Olmsted from the illustration of the city fathers as they designed the Panama California Exposition. So, there are exact people, places, and things sprinkled throughout the illustrations. Although, Kate herself isn't an exact likeness. 

Lisa:  Do you feel a greater sense of responsibility or constraint because the book is true?

Jill:  Somewhat. I worry sometimes that I'll leave something out or get something wrong. I saw Brian Floca speak about the research he did for Locomotive. Wow. He was inspiring. Someday I'd like to give that amount of time and energy to researching my subject. 

Lisa:  Did you think of yourself as an important part in the preservation and dissemination of "women's history?"

Jill:  No, I don't think of myself that way, but I do think of The Tree Lady that way. I also hope it inspires some girls (and boys!) to think independently and be brave in their pursuits. 

Lisa:  In my way of thinking, you were lucky that there were photographs of your subject.  

Jill:  Yes, I was! Thank you, San Diego History Center. I need to send them a letter and an autographed copy of the book.  (NOTE: I subsequently sent them a letter and autographed copy of the book.)

Lisa:  What do you feel was the role of painters, sculptors and other artists in the pre-photography era? 

Jill:  I'm sure they were critical, but as a non-historian I'd have to do some research before I could give a useful answer. :)

Lisa:  Which do you believe is more important - to portray a subject as she actually looks, or to convey more of a sense of who she is?

Jill:  In this case, the latter. There are times when it would matter more to me that the person looks right. I wouldn't want to give Abraham Lincoln red hair and freckles. When I illustrated the Mona Lisa book I was concerned about having to paint the iconic painting over and over again. Intimidating...but I got over it. It shows up about 50 times in the book.  

Lisa:  Thank you so much for joining us at KidLit Celebrates Women's History Month! It's been a pleasure.  My review of The Tree Lady is linked here at Jill's request.  I'm glad she liked the review.  I loved the book!

Jill McElmurry was born in Los Angeles, CA into a family of artists and musicians and grew up in LA, Santa Barbara, and Taos, NM.  She studied art for a couple of years at SUNY Purchase and the School of Visual Arts in New York. Before fulfilling her lifelong dream of creating picture books, Jill illustrated magazines, book covers, and posters in the United States and Germany. She's had several pieces shown at the NY Society of Illustrators. She, her partner, and their dog, Harry, divide their time between a small island in northern Minnesota and New Mexico. When she's not working on books, she paints pictures, mostly landscapes. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Miss Emily - Our Laughing Goddess of Plenty

March 26 - Today's post contributed by Burleigh Mutén

Miss Emily – Our Laughing Goddess of Plenty
©2014  Burleigh Mutén

Emily Dickinson loved children.

This is one of the first facts
 I tell the five-year-olds I teach
when we study Dickinson.

“Not only did Emily Dickinson
grow up in Amherst, just like you,”
I tell them,  “She loved nature,
just like you, and  
she liked to write about it. 

She wrote many poems about bees
and flowers, the wind,
 birds, clouds at sunset,
the color of the hills at sunrise.

A lot of people all over the world
know about Emily Dickinson
and her poems,” I say,
“but most people don’t know
that she loved children.”

“Did she have any children?” someone asks.

I explain about the lucky children
who lived next door –-
her niece and nephews
and the children of the neighborhood
who loved to play in her yard
with hope that she might add  
a whimsical contribution to their fun.
Sometimes a sweet treat.

I ask the children in my class
if they know a grown-up who
knows how to talk to children,
which is my way of saying,
Do you know anyone
who really respects you,
someone who is genuinely interested
in you and your thoughts,
someone who knows  how
to join your play as an equal
for those precious moments
when you pretend together?            

Their hands shoot up eagerly.
Sometimes someone
names a special aunt.
The perfect response.

One of Dickinson’s young neighbors,
MacGregor Jenkins, grew up and wrote
for Harpers and The Atlantic Monthly.
He also wrote a memoir about
his young life on Main Street, Amherst called
in which he describes the poet as
 “our laughing goddess of plenty.”

“It is impossible to imagine a personality
that would appeal to children
more than Miss Emily’s,”
wrote Jenkins. “One moment her eyes
were dancing with fun, filling
our hearts with a very new
and very wonderful feeling.
She was a joyous person.”

©Matt Phelan

The Teacher and Writer Within Me
instantly leapt into a lively conversation.

“A mischievous,
playful Miss Emily
is the way
to introduce young children
to Dickinson,” said the Teacher.

“You can show youngsters,”
said the Writer,
“that Emily Dickinson didn’t
totally sequester herself
in her home. She, in fact,
never stopped interacting
with the children she loved.”

It’s well documented that Dickinson
wrote many notes to the children.
We also know from her letters and poems
that she enjoyed watching the circus
parade past her home.

“The plot develops!” cried the Writer Within.

I started the story, writing in prose.

“But you love verse novels,” insisted the Writer.

“And so do young readers,” said the Teacher.

“You’re a poet,” whispered Miss Emily
as I sat at the keyboard. “Enjoy yourself!
Have a heyday with lineation!
Play with alliteration!”

“Ooh,” said the Writer and the Teacher together.

So I did!
I played with all aspects
of writing free verse
just as I’m doing right now.

MISS EMILY generously offered me
the chance to go “public like a frog”
with the secret I’d kept
since I was a teen: I am poet.

I was walking ‘round the reservoir
near my home one day when the first lines
of the book came into my head.

©Matt Phelan

Van Amburgh & Company’s  Great Golden Menagerie
and  Frost’s Roman Circus and Royal Coliseum
came to Amherst in June 1877.
The posters announced 175 horses,
56 wagons, five of the world’s champion riders,
bareback somersaulting equestrians,
the largest elephant in the world,
and a two-horned rhinoceros.

©Matt Phelan
It was fun researching
and writing MISS EMILY,
but it was not easy writing
a note to the children
which fit the story
but in actuality were my words --
not Dickinson’s.

I held my breath after submitting
the manuscript to a Dickinson scholar
and sighed when she returned it
with compliments.

As a poet Emily Dickinson was true
to her authentic voice
as a writer and person.
She was not fond of convention.
In any realm of her life.

As an educator,
I believe it’s vital for a child
to explore and find
her own writer’s voice.
Thanks to Miss Emily,
I claimed my own voice as a poet.
May MISS EMILY’s young readers
do the same!

Burleigh Mutén is the author of five children’s books. She is a kindergarten teacher in Amherst, MA and a member of the Emily Dickinson International Society. She has led writing workshops for older children throughout New England, including workshops focused on Dickinson and her work in which young authors actually write in the houses of the Emily Dickinson Museum.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Happy Birthday, Kate DiCamillo!

March 25

Today's post is a departure from our usual format, but we cannot let March 25, pass by without a nod to author, Kate DiCamillo.  She does not write about influential or inspiring women in history, but Kate DiCamillo is someone about whom such books will be written.

Logo of the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature,
presented by the Library of Congress [Public Domain]

Among her many accomplishments, Kate DiCamillo is the 2014-2015 National Ambassador for Young People's Literature.  She is also the winner of this year's John Newbery Medal for Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures (Candlewick, 2013), her second Newbery Medal.

(See her PBS interview here)

She has written more than 15 books, and books have been written about her.  Whether it's Mercy Watson, The Tale of Despereaux, Because of Winn-Dixie, Bink and Gollie, or The Magician's Elephant, everyone has a Kate DiCamillo favorite.

Happy Birthday, Kate DiCamillo!

Cake image from

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Free Speech Movement: 50th Anniversary

March 24—Today's post is provided by Ruth Tenzer Feldman and Bettina Aptheker 

There are no real women of note in The Ninth Day, my recent companion novel to Blue Thread, which highlights the woman suffrage campaign in Oregon. The Ninth Day  focuses instead on a fictional girl caught up in the free speech protests on the campus of  University of California (UC) Berkeley in 1964. To answer what many have asked me… No, I wasn't there. But Bettina Aptheker was. Now a Distinguished Professor in the  Feminist Studies Department at UC Santa Cruz, Dr. Apthetheker was a leader in what  became known as the Free Speech Movement. She's helping to organize the fiftieth  anniversary reunion at Berkeley on September 26 – October 1, 2014. I am honored and  delighted to e-introduce you to a woman who fought for civil rights during a pivotal moment in American history—and who continues to speak out for civil rights today.

The Free Speech Movement: 50th Anniversary

By Bettina Aptheker

We call ourselves “veterans,” not of a war, but of a movement. On October 1, 1964, hundreds of us surrounded a police car on the Berkeley campus of the University of California and refused to allow the police to arrest Jack Weinberg, a graduate student in mathematics who was ‘manning’ a table for the Congress of Racial Equality on the campus’s central Sproul Hall Plaza. We held the car for 32 hours with Jack inside and 950 police massed just outside the campus’s main entrance waiting for orders to commence an assault to break us up. Shortly before 7 PM on Friday, October 3, student negotiators led by Mario Savio, who was to become the primary spokesperson for the Movement, had reached an intermediary agreement with the University President. The Free Speech Movement was born. It lasted through mid-December. In the end, after a sit-in in the main administration building that resulted in the arrests of nearly 800 students, a strike of faculty, graduate students, and staff sanctioned by the local labor council that paralyzed the campus, and the support of the entire leadership of the Black-led Civil Rights Movement, beginning with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we won our central demands.  On December  14, the Regents of the University of California stated that, “henceforth, regulations governing freedom of speech on university campuses will not go beyond the purview of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.” Regulations governing freedom of speech changed on virtually every campus in the country, ending the Communist Speakers’ bans, and most importantly allowing students and faculty to engage in political dialogue and organizing with less fear of arbitrary administrative reprisal.

Berkeley students dress in their best to support First Amendment freedoms on campus, 1964.

I was 20, a sophomore at the University of California, Berkeley at the FSM launch. I came from a prominent Communist family, raised in Brooklyn, New York, in the 1950s, through the worst of the McCarthy Era. I went to Berkeley intent on a pre-med major and escape from parental strictures. Steeped in politics all my life, myself ‘manning’ a table for the W.E.B. Du Bois Club (a socialist organization I had helped launch two years earlier) I was in Sproul Hall Plaza as Jack was arrested. As cries went up, “Sit down! Sit down!” I did, and launched my foray into the Movement.

FSM leader Bettina Apthecker sits on the police car housing Jack Weinberg, October, 1964. Students surrounding the car prevented the police from taking Weinberg off campus.

My first public speech was from the top of that police car at night, the guys helping me to scramble up to the roof of the car and offering encouragement, television news camera lights blinding my view of the students around it. When I quoted abolitionist Frederick Douglass, “Power concedes nothing without a demand,” the crowd of thousands roared its approval. The roar soared through my body with an energy that propelled me into co-leadership of the Movement, and most importantly into a sense of personal and political empowerment I was never to forget. A year later my picture appeared in the Sunday New York Times under the headline, “The American Communist Party’s Foremost Ingenue”! None of the male leaders of the movement ever received the “ingénue” distinction!

On the occasion of this 50th anniversary of the FSM, and as we recognize March as Women’s History Month, it is worth pausing for a moment to consider the ways in which gender, race, class, and sexuality may effect one’s access to freedom of speech. Although the First Amendment embraces a universal ideal in its wording, it was written by white, propertied men in the 18th century, who never likely imagined that it might apply to women, and/or people of color, and/or all those who were not propertied, and even, perhaps, not citizens, and/or undocumented immigrants. A woman’s freedom of speech is often inhibited by fears of reprisal, for example, if she reveals sexual or domestic violence. There is almost always denial, her speech vilified, her character assassinated. Incest survivors seeking acknowledgement of their suffering and redress are viciously attacked virtually without exception, even the men who as boys were molested by their parish priests, until it became too many, the evidence too overwhelming to sustain the denial. In other words, freedom of speech is a Constitutional guarantee, but who gets to exercise it without the chilling restraints of censure depends very much on one’s location in the political and social cartography.

Berkeley students now study at the Free Speech Movement Café.
We veterans of FSM were too young and inexperienced in 1964 to know this, but we do now, and we speak with a new awareness, a new consciousness, and a new urgency that the wisdom of a true freedom is inexorably tied to who exercises power and for what ends.


Bettina Aptheker is a Professor of Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz where she has taught for more than 30 years. Her most recent book is a memoir, Intimate Politics: How I Fought for Free Speech, and Became a Feminist Rebel (Seal Press, 2006). She is married to Kate Miller, her partner of 34 years. They have three children, three grandchildren, and live in Santa Cruz, California.

Ruth Tenzer Feldman has been an attorney, editor, research analyst, ticket seller, and keypunch operator. After writing ten nonfiction books on history, she turned to historical fiction/fantasy. Blue Thread (Ooligan Press, 2012) features the woman suffrage campaign, and won Oregon's top literary award for young adult literature. A companion novel, The Ninth Day (Ooligan Press, 2013) features the 1964 Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, California. Ruth lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and numerous dust mites.