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Herstory: Achievements of Women in the Past and the Present

By Nancy Brashear and Carolyn Angus
 | Dec 10, 2018

As educators, we are excited about the rising number of trade books being published that celebrate remarkable women and their achievements in the past and the present. The inclusion in classrooms and libraries of books such as the ones reviewed in this week’s column will inspire young people and enrich the history curriculum with “herstories.”

Ages 4–8

Elizabeth Warren: Nevertheless, She Persisted. Susan Wood. Ill. Sarah Green. 2018. Abrams.

Nevertheless, She PersistedThis engaging picture book biography of Elizabeth Warren presents the senator from Massachusetts as an individual who, throughout her life, has been a fighter—a fighter for families, for those struggling to be heard, for those in need of help. And she has done that fighting with an insistent voice. While on the debate team in high school, she learned to craft persuasive arguments and to challenge her opponents. As a lawyer and law professor, her concern for the plight of struggling middle-class families led to a specialty in bankruptcy and work on consumer protection. During her first political campaign for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, she promised to fight for equal rights for everyone, and she won. And since 2012, Elizabeth Warren has insisted, resisted, and persisted inside and outside the U.S. Senate chambers in fighting for equality for all. Back matter includes an author’s note and bibliography.

Have You Heard About Lady Bird?: Poems About Our First Ladies. Marilyn Singer. Ill. Nancy Carpenter. 2018. Hyperion.

Have You Heard About Lady BirdMarilyn Singer's witty poetry and Nancy Carpenter’s whimsical pen-and-ink illustrations introduce readers to the women who have “served” as First Lady, from Martha Dandridge Custis Washington (“‘Lady Presidentess,’ dear wife of our first leader, / did not bemoan, she set the tone, / for all who would succeed her.”) to Melania (Knavsi) Knauss Trump. Back matter includes a “Being the First Lady” note, brief biographical notes on the women, and sources. You might consider pairing the reading of poems about the First Ladies in this collection with poems in Singer’s Rutherford B., Who Was He?: Poems About Our Presidents (2013).

Nothing Stopped Sophie: The Story of Unshakeable Mathematician Sophie Germain. Cheryl Bardoe. Ill. Barbara McClintock. 2018. Little, Brown.

Nothing Stopped SophieGrowing up during the French Revolution, when a woman’s education often consisted of learning about manners, marriage, and music, Sophie Germain (17761831) loved math. Even when her parents took away her candles so she couldn’t study at night, “nothing stopped Sophie.” After convincing her parents to support her studies, she secretly pursued a university-level study of mathematics by submitting written work to a world-famous professor under a man’s name, won a prestigious prize from the Paris Academy of Science for her work on predicting patterns of vibration, and made significant contributions to the field of mathematics and physics. Beautifully designed illustrations (created with pen-and-ink, watercolor, and collage) accompany this fascinating and inspiring story of a determined self-taught mathematician. Back matter includes an experiment on vibrations, biographical and historical notes, a bibliography, and author’s and illustrator’s notes. 

Ages 9–11

Bold & Brave: Ten Heroes Who Won Women the Right to Vote. Kirsten Gillibrand. Ill. Maira Kalman. 2018. Knopf/Random House.

Bold & BraveSenator Kirsten Gillibrand introduces three “bold and brave” women in her family (her great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother) before turning to 10 women who came before them, boldly and bravely fighting for justice and equality: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Jovit Idár, Alice Paul, Inez Milholland, Ida B. Wells, Lucy Burns, and Mary Church Terrell. Double-page spreads feature Maira Kalman’s vibrant full-page gouache portraits of these “heroes” and Gillibrand’s profiles focusing on the challenges they faced and the contributions they made to the suffragist movement. The book ends with a spread depicting the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C. and a final image of young protestors accompanied by the text “Now it’s your turn. You are the suffragists of our time. . . . Stand up, speak out, and fight for what you believe in. Be bold and be brave. The future is yours to make.”

Herstory: 50 Women and Girls Who Shook Up the World. Katherine Halligan. Ill. Sarah Walsh. 2018. Simon & Schuster.

HerstoryHistory is often about “his” stories, but this book includes “her” stories that encourage readers to “take inspiration from these 50 women and girls and shake things up!” The book presents the stories of a diverse selection of women and girls from different countries, cultures, and eras, including Sacagawea, Theresa Kachindamoto, Mirabai, Frida Kahlo, Mary Seacole, Eva Perón, Ada Lovelace, Valentina Tereshkova, Emmeline Pankhurst, and Malala Vousafzai. Each profile is given a double-page spread on which Katherine Halligan’s skillfully crafted and informative narrative is complemented by Sarah Walsh’s captivating illustrations (created in gouache, colored pencil, and Photoshop), and photographs. Back matter includes a “When They Were Born” timeline, a glossary, and an index.

No Truth Without Ruth: The Life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Kathleen Krull. Ill. Nancy Zhang. 2018. HarperCollins.

No Truth Without RuthKathleen Krull uses “No truth without Ruth!” throughout the narrative in this inspiring profile of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933–present) as a “fierce fighter for fairness and truth.” Facing gender and religious discrimination and overcoming obstacles, she studied law, had a successful legal career, and was appointed by President Bill Clinton to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1933. A “Top 10 Moments When Ruth Bader Ginsburg Fought for Fairness on the Supreme Court” section in the back matter supports the importance of Justice Ginsburg as a changemaker and fearless advocate for justice and equality. The picture book biography, complemented by Nancy Zhang’s expressive mixed-media illustrations in soft colors, also includes a chart of the U.S. federal court system and sources.

Ages 12–14

The Beloved World of Sonia Sotomayor. Sonia Sotomayor. 2018. Delacorte/Random House.

The Beloved World of Sonia SotomayerIn this middle-grade edition of her memoir for adults, My Beloved World (2013), Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor advises her readers to always “dream big.” Born in the Bronx into a working-class family of Puerto Rican descent, Sonia experienced tough times as a child (including poverty, juvenile diabetes, and the death of her father) but discovered how reading enlarged her world and gave her even bigger dreams. Most importantly, she developed techniques for succeeding in unfamiliar and challenging settings and found mentors who guided her through life, health, and career choices. The book includes an eight-page photo insert, and a glossary and brief history of the Supreme Court in the back matter.

She Made a Monster: How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein. Lynn Fulton. Ill. Felicita Sala.2018. Knopf/Random House.

She Made a Monster“Two hundred years ago, on a wild, stormy night, in a beautiful house on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland,” Mary accepted Lord Byron’s challenge to write a ghost story in just one week. With the help of a scary experience from her childhood and inspiration from the memory of her feminist mother (Mary Wollstonecraft, who felt women could do anything—even be writers), Mary developed a vision for her story. Only 20 years old when Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus was published in 1818, Mary became a trailblazer for women writers, especially creators of horror fiction. Felicita Sala’s illustrations, rendered in funereal tones with watercolor, ink, and colored pencil against dark backgrounds, complement Lynn Fulton’s account of Shelley’s creation of her classic horror story in the darkest hours of the night. Fulton’s author’s note provides background and indicates changes she made in the true story for this picture book.

Ages 15+

Jane Austen: Her Heart Did Whisper. Manuela Santoni. 2018. Graphic Universe/Lerner.

Jane Austen-Her Heart Did WhisperThis graphic novel tells the life story of British novelist Jane Austen (1775–1817) through the medium of spare black-and-white manga-style artwork and text (translated from Italian into English). Through letters she wrote to her sister Cassandra, the narrative begins at the end of Jane’s life with “Do you know where the line is between fiction and the real world?” and winds its way back to Jane’s childhood, against the backdrop of a time in which women had few legal rights in England. Jane follows her heart and gains rights to her father’s library, becomes a passionate reader, writes short stories and novels, falls in and out of love, and dies at a young age. Back matter includes biographical notes and a timeline. 

Nancy Brashear is Professor Emeritus of English, Azusa Pacific University, in Azusa, California. Carolyn Angus is former director of the George G. Stone Center for Children's Books, Claremont Graduate University, in Claremont, California.

These reviews are submitted by members of the International Literacy Association's Children's Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG) and are published weekly on Literacy Daily.

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