March 18, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Old-time Gals with Gumption | The Picture Books of Shana Corey

As Women’s History Month approaches, teachers and librarians rush to titles that will engage and inspire students, and offer discussion opportunities. This is the time to introduce them to Shana Corey—a master of the picture book read-aloud. Influenced by her childhood enchantment with “olden-day girls” she found in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie,” Maud Hart Lovelace’s “Betsy-Tacy,” and Sydney Taylor’s “All-of-a-Kind Family,” series, Corey later became interested in women’s history. Her books specialize in “…incisive biographies of women long-forgotten…focusing on small moments where they have turned the tide of history.”*

In Corey’s first book, You Forgot Your Skirt, Amelia Bloomer! (Scholastic, 2000; Gr 1-3), readers learn that, “Amelia Bloomer was NOT a proper lady.” In 1847, respectable women were not allowed to vote or work and dressed in tight, uncomfortable clothes that made it impossible to do much of anything. A visit from Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Stanton’s cousin Libby changed all that. “Instead of a dress Libby was wearing something that was NOT too heavy and NOT too long and NOT too tight and NOT too wide. It looked just right.” Amelia embraced the new attire by sewing an identical outfit and writing about it in the women’s newspaper she edited, The Lily. The controversy over women’s dress made the newspaper, and Amelia, famous—and quite improper.

While bloomers themselves eventually went out of style, women today can wear and do as they please thanks to independent thinkers like Amelia Bloomer. The book’s sparse, engaging text paired with Chesley McLaren’s vibrant, humorous gouache illustrations make this a terrific read aloud. A pattern at the back of the book can be copied and cut out to make bloomers for paper dolls with younger audiences. Older students can explore the history of women’s fashion or even sketch their own innovative clothing for babies, children, men, or women. Highlight Corey’s Amelia with Tanya Lee Stone’s Elizabeth Leads the Way: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Right to Vote (Holt, 2008; Gr 1-4) and Linda Arms White’s I Could Do That: Esther Morris Gets Women the Vote (Farrar, 2005; Gr 2-4), two great stories about other plucky women of earlier eras.

Another rebel and innovator in female fashion is the subject of Corey’s Mermaid Queen (Scholastic, 2009; Gr 2-6). Annette Kellerman was born in Sydney, Australia, in 1906. A childhood illness was responsible for the leg braces she needed growing up, but would eventually lead to the great strength and joy she found in swimming. The daughter of two music teachers, Kellerman grew up in a house filled with singing and dancing. Though she felt clumsy on the dance floor, she was graceful and “fancy-free” in the water, which led to the creation of a new sport—water ballet.

The young woman traveled the world to showcase her invention, “But everywhere they went, people just scoffed. A girl swimmer? Too plain. Too plump. Too weird. Too wet. Too bad!” A stunt in the river Thames in which she swam 13 miles amidst boats and barges earned some attention in the newspapers. One paper challenged her to swim the English Channel; while she didn’t manage to do that, “…people marveled over the young girl who had swum so far and so well…she even made it look artistic!”

When Kellerman arrived in America, she was horrified to see women on the beach donning “stockings and shoes, bloomers and bathing dresses, collars and corsets and caps…How could anyone possibly swim in that?” Although her men’s racing suit got her arrested, she soon designed a sleek new women’s suit that became all the rage. She also wrote two bestsellers on female health and fitness. The vibrant, digitally-created illustrations by Edwin Fotheringham capture the athlete’s spirit and world with humor and accuracy.

Along with Mermaid, consider introducing David A. Adler and Terry Widener’s America’s Champion Swimmer: Gertrude Ederle  (Harcourt, 2005; K-Gr 4), another great read aloud about the first woman to actually swim the English Channel—and break the men’s record doing it. Show students clips from the 1952 biopic, The Million Dollar Mermaid or any of the water ballet videos available online. Cari Best’s picture book When Catherine the Great and I Were Eight (Farrar, 2003; PreS-Gr 2) illustrated by Giselle Potter, is a fun fictional pairing. Use Corey’s biography to introduce students to woman with “gumption,” as well as in units about healthy living.

Another feisty, improper woman, Juliette “Daisy” Gordon Low, born in 1860, is the subject of Here Come the Girl Scouts! (Scholastic, 2012; Gr 2-4). “Daisy grew up in Savannah, Georgia, at a time when proper young ladies were supposed to be dainty and delicate.” She was nothing of the sort.

While her peers sipped tea, Daisy “rode elephants in India,” “flew in a monoplane,” and went fishing. She loved the outdoors and yearned to do something important. Then she met Sir Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts in Great Britain; she learned that his sister had subsequently founded the Girl Guides. “‘Why, the girls in America should have something like this!’ Daisy thought.” And so, on March 12, 1912, she hosted the first Girl Scout meeting.

The enthusiastic young girls learned to be honorable, loyal, useful, a friend to all, courteous, kind to animals, and obedient. While troops soon emerged all over the country, there were some, just like in Amelia’s day, who thought the organization “unthinkable” and “preposterous.” Still, eager girls of every class and race donned their uniforms, swam, hiked, and adventured in the great outdoors. “Daisy believed that girls could do anything. And she was right. Girl Scouts have been making a difference even since…” The last spread offers a gallery of portraits of famous Girl Scouts in all walks of life, including Hillary Clinton, Gloria Steinem, Rebecca Lobo, and Lucille Ball.

Once again, Corey makes every word count; the text is brief and lively and Hadley Hooper’s bold ink-and-paint prints are both amusing and add period detail. This title may easily inspire new local scouting chapters. Early scouts were both naturalists and conservationists–students will certainly want to experience the outdoors and possibly get involved in local “green” causes—just in time for Earth Day.

Corey is also the author of two fiction titles—meticulously researched and equally delightful and useful in classrooms and libraries. If your study of Corey’s work includes her fiction titles, be sure to have have a conversation about the distinction between historical fiction and nonfiction and the research that fiction often entails. Introduce your students to the author’s “true stories—partly,” Milly and the Macy’s Parade (Scholastic, 2002; Gr K-Gr 3), illustrated by Bret Helquist, and Players in Pigtails (Scholastic, 2003; K-Gr 4) illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon. Both titles are based on real events with fictionalized main characters that resonate with children.

Milly tells the story of how homesick immigrant employees at the landmark Manhattan department store joined together to create a new holiday tradition in America. More than one thousand costumed employees marched in the first parade in 1924 along with bands, floats, and animals from the Central Park Zoo. Milly, the fictionalized little daughter of one of these employees, brings the magic and wonder of this grand store to life for youngsters. After reading, show clips of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade today and have students design their own two-or-three dimensional balloons of favorite characters. Pair with Melissa Sweet’s Balloons Over Broadway (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Gr 1-5) to learn about the real-life person who created the first balloon puppets for the Macy’s Parade.

Katie Casey, the fictionalized protagonist in Corey’s Players in Pigtails, is not very good “…at being a girl,” but she loves baseball. Like Annette Kellerman, Casey struggles with parental and societal attitudes towards girls in sports until World War II changes everything. With most players turned to soldiers, the fields were empty. “Finally, Phillip Wrigley, the owner of the Chicago Cubs, had an idea. ‘If women can work in factories and even join the army…why can’t they play ball?” Though most people found the concept, “OUTRAGEOUS!,” hundreds of girls from all over the country, including Katie, showed up to play…and played just as good as their male counterparts, despite the silly dresses they had to wear.

Wisecracks such as “Careful, you might break a nail, girls!” and “Is this a ballpark or a ballroom?” quieted when the girls started to play. The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League lasted from 1943 to 1954, until “women were encouraged to leave the factories and the ballparks to make room for returning soldiers.” Show clips from the movie A League of their Own (1992), sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”—the words are on the endpapers—or play ball in the schoolyard to celebrate this fascinating slice of America’s national pastime. Share with Doreen Rappaport’s Dirt on Their Skirts (Dial, 2000; Gr 1-4) illustrated by E. B. Lewis and Marissa Moss’s Mighty Jackie: The Strike-Out Queen (S & S, 2004; K-Gr 3) illustrated by C.F. Payne, for nonfiction accounts of the League and star pitcher Jackie Mitchell.

All of these titles commemorate girls or women in history in entertaining, attractive packages. While the illustrators of all five books differ, Corey’s lively, spirited writing inspires each artist to create equally accomplished pictures that will appeal to elementary and middle school students. They empower girls to be the best they can be and follow their dreams. So take a swim, take a stand, wear the pants, and play ball!

Barbara Auerbach is a librarian at P.S. 217 in Brooklyn, New York.

Eds. note: Be sure to visit Shana Corey’s terrific website for more resources for educators as well as information about school visits.

*Amy Haskin’s blog of February 4, 2010

Many of the ELA reading, writing, speaking and listening standards for K-5 informational texts are incorporated into the lessons described. The titles and activities suggested above reference the following Common Core State Standards:

RI.2.1 Ask and answer such questions as who, what, where, when, why, and how to demonstrate understanding of key details in a text.
RI.2.6 Identify the main purpose of a text, including what the author wants to answer, explain, or describe.
W. 2.2 Write informative/explanatory texts in which they introduce a topic, use facts and definitions to develop points, and provide a concluding statement or section.
W. 2.7  Participate in shared research and writing projects.
SL. 2.2 Recount or describe key ideas or details from a text read aloud.
RL. 3.7. Explain how specific aspects of a text’s illustrations contribute to what is conveyed by the words in a story.
RI. 3.7 Use information gained from illustrations…and the words in a text to demonstrate understanding of the text.
W. 3.1 Write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting appoint of view with reasons.

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