November 18, 2017

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“Remember the Ladies” | Women Who Changed America

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Abigail Adams penned this phrase in a 1776 letter written to her husband John, who was serving as Massachusetts delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, prompting the organizers of a fledgling nation to consider the rights of women. The picture book biographies featured here answer Adams’s call by celebrating the courage and contributions of American women. Handsomely illustrated and well written, these captivating volumes introduce individuals who stared down stereotypes, hurdled over social boundaries, and utilized their unique talents and abilities to follow their dreams. Share them with students during Women’s History Month and encourage youngsters to “remember the ladies.”

Founding MothersRevolutionary Women
They accompanied soldiers into battle, served as spies, penned political works, managed businesses and farms, safeguarded their children, and kept body and soul together while men went off to war. In Founding Mothers (HarperCollins, 2014; Gr 3-6), Cokie Roberts introduces 10 Colonial-era females who were “feisty and funny and flirty” and “completely devoted to the American cause.”

Familiar figures include Abigail Adams, whose constant correspondence provided updates on the home front; first First Lady, Martha Washington; Dolley Madison, political powerbroker and famed rescuer of General Washington’s White House portrait; and Phillis Wheatley, an internationally acclaimed poet who had at one time been enslaved. Perhaps less celebrated are heroines such as Deborah Read Franklin, who built up the family printing enterprise and stepped in as postmaster when husband Ben was abroad (for years at a time); Mercy Otis Warren, who wrote influential poems and plays in support of the Patriot cause; and Caty Greene, known for having a hand in the invention of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin.

Two-page entries blend Roberts’s vivacious text with Diane Goode’s antique-looking whimsy-filled artwork. Delightful for sharing aloud or independent perusal, this engaging book provides a glimpse at American history from a fresh perspective and whets appetites for further research.

OMumbet's Declaration of Independencene woman’s courage, intelligence, and determination to be free shine through in Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence (Carolrhoda, 2014; Gr 2-5). Gretchen Woelfle’s lyrical text touches upon the day-to-day life of this slave in the household of a wealthy Massachusetts landowner, poignantly conveying the abusive treatment of a cruel mistress as well as the comfort Mumbet (c. 1742-1829) derived from her own strength and the beauty of nature. While serving refreshments to a gathering of town leaders, she found herself riveted by their impassioned discussion of British injustices (“‘The King means to take away our rights!’ one man shouted. Do I have rights? wondered Mumbet.”).

Seeking the help of a young lawyer, Theodore Sedgwick, she used the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution (“All men are born free and equal”) as grounds for successfully challenging the legality of slavery, a 1781 court decision that ultimately ended the institution statewide. Mumbet lived the rest of her days as Elizabeth Freeman, “free as a river and strong as a mountain.”

Filled with rich hues and bold brushstrokes, Alix Delinois’s color-drenched paintings resonate with emotion and proclaim Mumbet’s resolute character. According to an author’s note, little is known about Mumbet, and most information comes from an account written by Theodore’s daughter (after emancipation, Mumbet worked for years in the Sedgwick home as housekeeper and governess). Have your students discuss the source material for this and other historical accounts and biographies. Many of the titles featured here use primary sources such as letters and memoirs to support the texts. Does Woelfle fictionalize events or feelings? What aspects of Mumbet’s story can be tied to fact? What do readers take away from this type of presentation?

Sarah Emma Edmonds Was a Great PretenderCivil War Standouts
Two picture book biographies delve into the true-life tale of a brave woman who disguised herself as a man, joined the Union army, and served under an assumed name as field nurse and spy. According to Carrie Jones’s lively narrative, Sarah Emma Edmonds Was a Great Pretender (Carolrhoda, 2011; Gr 2-5) ran away from Canada to the United States as a teenager, dubbed herself Frank Thompson, and took to selling bibles for a living. Sarah (1841-1898) used the same name to enlist when the Civil War began, eventually volunteering to slip behind enemy lines and acquire intelligence in a variety of different guises—a slave named Cuff, an Irish peddler woman, and more, until a bout with malaria forced her to seek treatment at a civilian hospital (thus keeping her secret) and she eventually took up work as a female nurse. Quotes from Edmonds’s memoir are sprinkled throughout this riveting adventure, and Mark Oldroyd’s impressionistic paintings create a strong sense of time and place, while adding playful touches that will garner smiles and fuel discussion. A brief biographical note and photo are appended.

Nurse, Soldier, SpyMarissa Moss’s Nurse, Soldier, Spy (Abrams, 2011; Gr 2-5) zeroes in on Edmonds’s enlistment, early days in the Union army, and first spying mission, emphasizing her loyalty to her fellow soldiers and pride in her work. Elucidating details based on Sarah’s memoir and suspenseful instances of danger make for a gripping narrative. John Hendrix’s striking artwork mixes caricature-style renditions of individuals with well-researched depictions of army camps and battle scenes. Occasionally, dialogue appears in large typography based on 19th-century posters, lending both spectacle and historical authenticity. A lengthy endnote offers a glossary and index, photos of Sarah in and out of disguise, and additional biographical facts.

Students can compare these two works to discuss each author’s content, approach to conveying information, narrative voice, and explanation of sources. Have youngsters extract facts about Edmonds’s life from both texts and list them on a whiteboard to identify overriding themes. They can examine each book’s artwork, compare the very different visual styles of the two illustrators, and think about how artistic mediums, methods, and details are utilized to paint a picture of the past.

Mary Walker Wears the PantsIn Mary Walker Wears the Pants (Albert Whitman, 2013; Gr 2-5), Cheryl Harness highlights another boundary-breaking individual who campaigned for civil rights, became one of the first female physicians, and boldly sported “notoriously gentlemanly” attire during a time when custom required women to wear bulky skirts and other activity-constricting clothing. When war broke out, Walker (1832-1919) journeyed to Washington, D.C. as an unpaid volunteer, where her requests to officially enlist as a surgeon were repeatedly denied. No matter, “ambitious, patriotic, stubborn” Mary headed out on her own to assist at combat sites, and was finally appointed as the U.S. Army’s first-ever female field surgeon. Tailoring an officer’s uniform to size and topping it off “with a jaunty hat,” she treated soldiers on both sides of the battle lines, served time as military prisoner and possibly spy, and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1866 (the only woman ever to receive this accolade). Supported by Carlo Molinari’s realistic-looking paintings, the narrative clearly delineates Walker’s adventures, while also underscoring her courage, which allowed her to stand up to society as well as Confederate guns, and her unwavering resolve “to stay true to her ideals.” An author’s note provides additional background.

All three books provide an eye-opening look at the lives of women during the Civil War era. Have students compare the experiences of Edmonds and Walker. How does each women react to the social constraints of her times? What sorts of prejudices do they encounter? What makes these individuals different from their female contemporaries?

Paiute PrincessBetween Two Worlds: Native American Activists
Raised in the traditional ways of her Northern Paiute tribe and introduced to white settlers at an early age, Sarah Winnemucca (1844?-1891) was truly “a child of two worlds.” In Paiute Princess (FSG, 2012; Gr 3-6), Deborah Kogan Ray incorporates numerous quotes from Winnemucca’s autobiography and letters to introduce a woman who used her unique perspective and oratory skills to fight for her people’s rights. Encouraged to learn about the white man’s world by her grandfather, Chief Truckee (guide for explorer John Charles Frémont and untiring champion for peace), Sarah’s understanding of both cultures allowed her to advocate for the Paiute as they were forced off their lands and exploited by settlers and corrupt government officials. Defining moments are unforgettable: a young and terrified Thocmetony (Sarah’s birth name) and her little sister buried in the ground by their mother to conceal them from rumored-to-be-monstrous white settlers (she “planted sage bushes over our faces to keep the sun from burning them…not daring to breathe, we lay there all day”); “Princess Sarah” (so dubbed by newspapers) staging an “Indian spectacle” to earn money to feed her starving tribe; Sarah accompanying her suffering people on 350-mile forced march during winter; her joy at opening a school that taught Paiute youngsters English while also celebrating their cultural traditions. Throughout, shimmering paintings depict the southwestern landscape, detail specific events, and convey a wide range of feelings. A lengthy endnote with additional information, maps, and photos rounds out this compelling account of a devoted leader.

Red Bird SingsIn Red Bird Sings (Carolrhoda, 2011; Gr 3-6), Gina Capaldi and Q. L. Pearce paint a vivid portrait of Zitkala-Ša (1876-1938) by adapting three semiautobiographical stories that this Native American author, musician, and activist wrote for the Atlantic Monthly in the early 1900s. The original language has been paraphrased and updated for clarity, while secondary sources have also been incorporated into the text. Born Gertrude Simmons on the Yankton Sioux reservation in South Dakota, Zitkala-Ša lived during a time of great westward expansion and coercement for native peoples to assimilate into Anglo culture. The poetic first-person narrative is broken into two-page spreads that are individually titled and dated, like serialized magazine installments. At age eight, Zitkala-Ša decided to attend an Indian boarding school in Indiana, missing her home and way of life but discovering a passion for writing, books, and the study of music. Pursuing new opportunities yet always “keeping her culture in [her] heart,” she became an accomplished musician and composer, author, and orator, eventually taking up residence in Washington, D.C. to advocate for Native American rights. Incorporating photos, newspaper articles, maps, and dramatic backdrops, Capaldi’s expressive paintings depict Zitkala-Ša in both of her worlds as she strived to use her talents “to enlighten Anglo society to the story of [her] people.” An afterword offers photos, additional biographical information, and a note on the source materials.

Share both these books with students and have them compare the lives of these two ground-breaking women. How did each individual utilize her skills and education to help her people? Like Sarah, Zitkala-Ša could also be described as “a child of two worlds.” Have students examine the texts for evidence to support this statement, and discuss what it means to strike a balance between two cultures and overcome prejudice. Paiute Princess is an example of a more traditional biography while Red Bird Sings utilizes a first-person text. Have youngsters think about the narrative voice employed in each title and the different methods used to convey information. How does each book use quotes and primary sources? What do visual resources such as contemporary photos, maps, and reproductions add to each account?

Her StoryThe Big Picture
Beginning in 1587 with Virginia Dare and continuing to 2011, Charlotte S. Waisman and Jill S. Tietjen’s Her Story: A Timeline of Women Who Changed America (HarperCollins/William Morrow, 2013; Gr 3 Up) introduces more than 900 fascinating females representative of diverse cultural backgrounds and wide-ranging accomplishments. The brief snapshot-style entries provide just enough detail to introduce each individual, place her achievements in perspective, and perhaps prompt students to find out more (buff-colored boxes highlight societal and political events for historical context). A kaleidoscope of well-chosen visuals (paintings, photos, magazine and newspaper reproductions, book covers, patents, and more) deliver a feast for the eye, and attractive spreads packed with educators, entrepreneurs, artists, athletes, scientists, performers, politicians, and pioneers showcase an astounding variety of role models. Complete with indices by name and profession, this gem can be used as part of historical overviews, surveys of cultural images through the decades, and selection of report topics, as well as to inspire the next generation of world-changing women.

The Common Core State Standards below are a sampling of those referenced in the above books and classroom activities:

RL. 1.1. Ask and answer questions about key details in a text.
RL 3.7. Explain how specific aspects of a text’s illustrations contribute to what is conveyed by the words in a story.
RL 5.6. Describe how a narrator’s or speaker’s point of view influences how events are described.
R.I. 1.9 Identify basic similarities and differences between two texts on the same topic (e.g., in illustrations, descriptions, or procedures).
RI 2.6. Identify the main purpose of a text, including what the author wants to answer, explain, or describe.
RI 2.7. Explain how specific images…contribute to and clarify a text.
RI 4.7. Interpret information presented visually…and explain how the information contributes to an understanding of the text in which it appears.
RI 3.9 Compare and contrast the most important points and key details presented in two texts on the same topic.
RI 4.2 Determine the main idea of a text and explain how it is supported by key details.  Ask and answer such questions as who, what, where, when, why, and how to demonstrate understanding of key details in a text.
RI 5.5 Compare and contrast the overall structure…of events, ideas, concepts, or information in two or more texts.

Looking for more biographies? Read Joy Fleishhacker’s “Picture Book Biographies: Portals to the Past.”

Curriculum Connections

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Joy Fleishhacker About Joy Fleishhacker

Joy Fleishhacker is a librarian, former SLJ staffer, and freelance editor and writer who works at the Pikes Peak Library District in southern Colorado.

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