Combining careful research with thoughtful imagination, these well-written works of historical fiction provide inviting introductions to real-life individuals. These engaging books offer readers overviews of the lives of fascinating women, presenting their careers and accomplishments against the broader backdrop of historical events and contemporary societal conventions. More intimate and involving than traditional biographies, they also bring these women to life as three-dimensional individuals, each with her own emotions, desires, dreams, challenges, and triumphs. Share these fictional biographies with students to inspire interest in these women and their times.
These offerings also provide opportunity for a discussion of the difference between fact and fiction and the evaluation of information sources. How does a fictionalized biography differ from a traditional biography? Take a look at the appended notes and resource lists and discuss how the authors conducted their research. What types of source materials were utilized? How did the authors interpret factual information to tell compelling and instructive stories? Can students identify an author’s perspective? Have students create their own criteria for evaluating informational books and historical fiction.
Science Meets Wonder
Jeannine Atkins’s Finding Wonders (Atheneum, 2016; Gr 4-8) presents fictionalized vignettes of three women whose achievements greatly impacted modern science. Written in accessible and lyrical free verse, the portraits focus on their subject’s younger years, effectively drawing readers into the storytelling. Born in Frankfurt, Germany, Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), age 13, is mesmerized by the mystery of how caterpillars become spectacular winged creatures. Ignoring the superstitious stories she’s heard about magical shape-shifters and butterflies born spontaneously from mud, she places silkworms on leaves inside hand-folded paper houses and hides them away in her family’s attic. Over time, her careful observations result in startling discoveries about how insects change form through metamorphosis and rely upon plants. Utilizing the skills learned from her artist stepfather, she would go on to record her entomological findings in beautiful, detailed, stunningly realistic paintings (click here for a sampling from the Getty Center) and travel the world in quest of scientific discovery.
More than a century later, Mary Anning (1799-1847), 10, walks along the sea coast of Lyme Regis, England, with her father, learning how to spy out and pry out “curiosities” (“stones/with pictures of creatures or plants that seem/scratched by impossibly sharp needles or nails”) from the steep cliffs. She shares his inquisitiveness about the mysterious marvels found in the earth. Though devastated when he is injured in a fall, she helps her family through hard times by collecting and selling rarities found “sung between layers of shale,/like a plant pressed within the pages of a book.” Her fate as fossil finder is secured when she spots and unwearyingly chisels out an enormous “sea dragon” (“the first ichthyosaur ever discovered”), and though she was never educated in biology or geology, scholars would later seek out her help in searching for fossils, and benefit from her experience and wisdom.
“The sky dims, its blue thickens./The pale moon grows bold.” Growing up in a large and loving Quaker family, Maria Mitchell (1818-1889), 12, enjoys climbing up to the flat, fenced platform on the rooftop of her home in Nantucket, MA, with her teacher/map-maker father and watching the stars through a telescope. The family is thrown into disarray when her older brother runs off to sea, but Maria, who possesses a natural aptitude for mathematics and plenty of patient persistence, finds comfort in observing the sky. She’s thrilled the first time a sea captain entrusts her with the important task of recalibrating a chronometer, and her intelligence and fine-honed abilities would later allow her to chart a life course that leads her to the discovery of a comet and a position as professor of astronomy.
These biographical tales delightfully convey a combination of boundless curiosity and marvels revealed as each girl follows her particular passion and embraces every opportunity to observe, discover, explore, and explain the natural world. The stories also provide glimpses at each individual’s unique personality, and how she is shaped by complex interactions with family and friends. The different time periods and locations are strikingly depicted through vibrant descriptions and details of day-to-day life. Throughout, the text touches upon the limitations placed upon these girls by societal conventions restricting the role of women, as well as contemporary views of science and scientific discovery. The book’s format and intimate approach encourages readers to compare and contrast the childhoods, lives, and accomplishments of these three innovative individuals, perhaps identifying parallels and traits that can also be applied to other famous women. Soaring and imaginative, this novel in verse not only informs youngsters but might also inspire girls to follow their own scientific passions.
Through the Lens
Carolyn Meyer’s Girl with a Camera (Calkins Creek, 2017; Gr 6 Up) introduces trailblazing photographer Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971). Written in a lively first-person narrative, the book opens with a gripping prologue in which Margaret offers a snapshot-style glimpse of her work in the field—on assignment for the U.S. Army Air Forces to photograph an Allied attack on German troops in North Africa in December 1942, she escapes a sinking ship that has just been torpedoed by a U-boat (longing for better light to take photos all the while). The story then tacks back to 1916 and Margaret’s youth in New Jersey, introducing a practically dressed 12-year-old with a passion for snakes, a stern mother who teaches her children to strive for perfection, and a father with an interest in both science and photography. Later on, as most of her female high school classmates are dreaming of getting married, Margaret has her sights set on a much more “glorious future,” heading to Barnard College to study herpetology, where a photography class would change the course of her life. In this well-researched novel, Meyer does an excellent job of describing the transformation of her subject from a socially awkward girl to a strong and independent woman who has the determination, talent, and resourcefulness to not only become a pioneer in the field of photography, but to also “find success in a man’s world.” The narrative is packed with daring escapades and breathless adventures, as Margaret, the first female photojournalist for Life magazine, goes the extra mile to get the perfect shot—working day and night and mastering cutting-edge techniques to capture the beauty of Cleveland’s steel mills, perching 800 feet above ground to chronicle the erection of New York City’s Chrysler Building, or photographing the bombing of Moscow by German forces in 1941 from her hotel room balcony. Students can research Bourke-White’s life and career, see how the facts play out in the text, and dig more deeply into the photographer’s later years. Included are several photographs of Bourke-White that provide readers with a glimpse at the real woman behind the text, as well as two of her most famous images. Readers can seek out more examples of her work, and make comparisons and contrasts to other contemporary groundbreaking photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks.
Mirror to the Soul
Not much is known about Edmonia Lewis (c. 1844-1907), a sculptor of African-Haitian and Ojibwe descent. According to Jeannine Atkins, this lack of historical record makes her subject’s life story well-suited to a novel in verse, a form that incorporates facts “but is also comfortable with mysteries and leaps through time.” Atkins’s Stone Mirrors (Atheneum, 2017; Gr 9 Up) begins in 1862 with Edmonia’s time at Oberlin in Ohio, the first school to admit women and people of color, where she is accused of poisoning by two classmates, and also endures a violent attack and rape that haunts her throughout her life. Though her name is cleared of the crime, she is asked to leave and travels to Boston, where she learns to sculpt from a local artist, and eventually finds her way to an artist’s community in Rome. Working in the neo-classical style in the region’s fine white marble, Lewis achieved a level of fame in Europe and the United States in her day (in fact, her colossal sculpture, The Death of Cleopatra, was exhibited in the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia), before the artist and many of her works disappeared into the mists of history. The Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., currently owns Cleopatra and several other of her sculptures (click here for a biography and images).
Atkins’s flowing free verse, filled with sensory imagery and lyrical phrases, creates a vivid tale of what Edmonia’s life may have been like, anchored against a solidly drawn historical backdrop that reflects settings and events along with contemporary attitudes about women and African Americans. Fact is expertly woven into could-have-been; fictionalized characters, including Ruth, a hardworking classmate once enslaved in Virginia, play greatly into Edmonia’s motivations and inspirations. Also skillfully plaited into the third-person narrative are classic stories of tragedy and betrayal (Cleopatra, Hagar, etc.) and memories of her earlier life with the Ojibwe aunts who raised her after her mother’s death that would later form some of her subject matter. Emotional nuances and themes of social ostracism and the power of self-expression are skillfully incorporated, but perhaps most compelling is Atkins’s depiction of the connection between the artist’s hands, heart, and spirit as she carves “Stone Mirrors:” “Edmonia raises her arms to sculpt the body of a girl/she can’t see but must find through her hands./She aims a chisel, taps a mallet,/cuts a narrow path until she feels breath/on her wrists: Imagination and stone collide.”
Evocative, informative, and unforgettable, this book makes an excellent launch pad for a discussion of the intersections between fact and imagination, comprehension and empathy, and art and its creator.
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