February 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Tough Cookies: Brave women who broke the mold | Nonfiction Booktalker

Through the centuries, American women have stared at their familiar surroundings to see unfamiliar possibilities. Here’s a bevy of new books about these adventurous lives to share with your young readers.

Marissa Moss calls Ida Lewis The Bravest Woman in America (Tricycle, 2011) for a good reason. As a child, she fell in love with living in a lighthouse and eventually became a lighthouse keeper, making her first ocean rescue in 1858 at the tender age of 16. In all, she saved 18 lives—and both Congress and the American Red Cross have recognized her achievements.

One of Lewis’s contemporaries stars in two books: Carrie Jones’s Sarah Emma Edmonds Was a Great Pretender (Carolrhoda, 2011) and Moss’s Nurse, Soldier, Spy (Abrams, 2011). Edmonds felt hemmed in by the opportunities for women in the 1860s and decided she’d be better off living as a man. She enlisted in the Union Army under the name Frank Thompson and served as a male nurse. Her obvious talent at disguise helped her succeed as a spy, and she gathered info for the North while masquerading as a slave, an Irish peddler, and an African-American laundress. It was a situation worthy of a Shakespearean play: a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. Edmonds kept her secret throughout most of the Civil War and ended her career as a (female) nurse in an army hospital.

For much of America’s history, single women had no financial resources to fall back on. But 62-year-old Annie Edson Taylor came up with a unique retirement plan. In Chris Van Allsburg’s Queen of the Falls (Houghton Harcourt, 2011), Taylor surmised that people would pay good money to meet the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. It was 1901, and after much preparation and help from friends, the retired charm-school teacher tumbled into the falls and survived to tell the tale. But what happened to the famous barrel? Did she make her fortune? Did she ever take the plunge again? Van Allsburg’s wonderful pictures will snare your booktalk listeners into her sad, amazing story.

Jane Goodall’s favorite toy was Jubilee, her stuffed chimpanzee, and she dreamed of making friends with real ones. Two stunning new picture books share this historic passion. Jeanette Winter’s The Watcher (Random/ Schwartz & Wade, 2011) relates how a child’s love and close observation of nature resulted in the grown-up Goodall’s travels to Africa to study primates. PatrickMcDonnell’s Me…Jane (Little, Brown, 2011) gave me cold chills. The final spread, as the book changes from fairy tale pastels to blazing reality, will leave you speechless. What an ending!

And here’s a great finale to your booktalk: ask your listeners what a sewing needle has in common with a bicycle. The answer: a clever woman named Tillie Anderson. Sue Stauffacher tells the story of how a young 1890s immigrant fell in love with bicycles. In Tillie the Terrible Swede (Knopf, 2011), we learn that Anderson loved riding, but unfortunately she and the other women of her day wore elaborate, bulky skirts while pedaling. Not the best sports outfit in the world. Anderson decided to do something about it and made an early version of what we now call racing gear. It was shocking! It was provocative! Women didn’t dress like that. Show your audience Sarah McMenemy’s illustrations and see if they think the “new look” was a good idea. Could someone win a race dressed like that? Tillie did.

A needle, a barrel, a lighthouse, a stuffed monkey, and a wig. Imaginations, as fertile as children’s, focused on these simple items and helped make history. These similarly imaginative books will work like seeds in your listeners’ minds and transform them into eager readers.

About Kathleen Baxter

Kathleen Baxter is the former head of children’s services at the Anoka County Library in suburban Minneapolis and a speaker at school and library conferences all over the USA. She never goes anywhere without a book.