Disrupters, Daredevils, and Artists: Women Who Changed the World

Celebrate Women’s History Month by sharing a picture book biography about a boundary-breaking, world-transforming, awe-inspiring individual.
Celebrate Women’s History Month by sharing a picture book biography about a boundary-breaking, world-transforming, awe-inspiring individual. Pairing eye-grabbing artwork with elucidating texts, the titles featured here make excellent choices for reading aloud to students. Use these offerings to introduce further studies of these amazing individuals and their accomplishments, launch broader explorations of women throughout history, and initiate discussion of the challenges still faced by women today. Groundbreaking Scientists: From the Seas to the Stars solving the puzzleA pioneer of modern oceanography, Marie Tharp (1920-2006) was the first individual to map the ocean floor on a global scale and her work was fundamental in confirming then revolutionary theories about plate tectonics and continental drift. Writing in an engaging first-person voice, Robert Burleigh allows Tharp to explain how she went about Solving the Puzzle Under the Sea (Paula Wiseman/S&S, 2016; Gr 2-5), describing a childhood spent with her mapmaker father, the persistence and patience needed to excel as a woman in a male-dominated field, and the excitement and satisfaction of scientific discovery. The narrative highlights important milestones while clearly conveying the scientist’s embrace-adventure attitude, ability to dream big, and no-nonsense willingness to roll up her sleeves and get the hard work done. Filled with warm marine hues and swirling textures, Raúl Colón’s lovely paintings depict the action and expand upon the concepts (for example, undersea views explain how a ship takes soundings). Back matter including a glossary, oceanographic websites, and expansion activities finish off this outstanding biography. ada bryonAda Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine (Creston, 2015; Gr 2-5), by Laurie Wallmark and April Chu, introduces a computer science visionary. A fluid narrative articulates Ada’s (1815-1852) lifelong fascination with numbers, while sumptuous illustrations evoke the period and accentuate her vibrant imagination. A lonely child, Ada found comfort and company in the journals she crammed full of inventions and equations, tenaciously calculating wing power for a flying machine, or braving a howling storm to quantify wind effect on a model sailboat. When measles left her temporarily blind and paralyzed, tackling number problems kept her mind sharp, and her enduring passion resulted in her continued study of mathematics (then unheard of for girls). After striking up a friendship with inventor Charles Babbage, Ada utilized her “sharp reasoning skills” and creativity to devise an algorithm that would enable his proposed Analytical Engine (mechanical computer) to solve complex problems, thus fashioning the first computer program a century before modern computers were invented. She also envisioned myriad possibilities for usage beyond calculations—“computers would someday design powerful flying machines and majestic sailing ships…draw pictures and compose music…play games and help with schoolwork.” This enchanting biography unfurls with clearly presented content and compelling excitement. Van Vleet, Carmella. To the StarsWriting with Carmella Van Vleet, Dr. Kathy Sullivan (1951- ), the first American woman to walk in space, describes her lifelong journey To the Stars! (Charlesbridge, 2016; Gr 1-5). Nicole Wong’s warmly illustrated spreads alternate between Sullivan’s younger years and her adult career, drawing a solid—and reader-inspiring—connection between childhood aspirations and plotting a life course that will bring dreams to fruition. A young Kathy daydreams “about having a pocketful of airplane tickets” and “see[ing] the whole world;” the next scene, depicting an open suitcase, “Astronaut Candidate Schedule,” and plane ticket to Houston, reveals just how she accomplishes this goal. A gleeful journey aboard an open-cockpit aircraft as a teen (riding in the Breezy “was like being on a magical kitchen chair that could fly”) is paired with images of her historic 1984 mission aboard the Challenger. Appended are additional biographical notes and an interesting summary of NASA female firsts (did you know that in addition being the first African American woman to travel to space, Mae C. Jemison “is the only astronaut to appear in a Star Trek series”?). This upbeat read-aloud will encourage kids to reach for the stars, no matter their interests. For the Love of the Game: Sports Standouts Vernick, Audrey. The Kid from Diamond StreetThe youngest of 10 siblings in a Philadelphia family, Edith Houghton (1912-2013) was practically born with a baseball in her hand and grew up playing the game with her older brothers and neighbors. In fact, The Kid from Diamond Street (Clarion, 2016; Gr 1-5) was capable of working such magic on the field that at age 10 she tried out for the Philadelphia Bobbies, an all-female professional baseball team, and was named starting shortstop. With hair newly bobbed (hence the team name) and an adult-size uniform safety-pinned, rolled, and notched tight to fit, she immediately proved “there was nothing puny about her skills.” At age 13, she travelled with the Bobbies to Japan, where they took on male tems in front of cheering crowds and enjoyed plenty of new experiences. Audrey Vernick’s vivacious text and Steven Salerno’s personality-packed artwork hit it out of the park, gleefully celebrating Edith’s incredible talent and zeal for the game. Additional biographical information and photos are appended. miss mary reportingSue Macy and C. F. Payne’s Miss Mary Reporting (Paula Wiseman/S&S, 2016; Gr 2-5) offers an entertaining and inspiring look at trailblazing sportswriter Mary Garber (1916-2008). Growing up with a passion for athletic pursuits (playing, watching, and reading about them) and a pronounced independent streak, she began covering sports for Winston-Salem’s Twin City Sentinel in 1944, a time when women were banned from the press box at college football games and forbidden locker rooms access. Despite obstacles, she kept in mind the quiet dignity of her role model, Jackie Robinson (she watched him play in 1947), did her job with graciousness and “steady determination,” and made a name for herself by reporting fairly about local young athletes whom she thought deserving of attention. She wrote about everything from tennis and track and field to marbles and the Soap Box Derby, and covered games at all-black schools, a departure from the norm in the segregated South. Humor-warmed artwork and a text that sparkles with well-integrated anecdotes and primary quotes bring this boundary-breaking individual—and her much-lauded, 50-plus-year career—to vivid life. Activists and World Changers Rappaport, Doreen. Elizabeth Started All the TroubleDoreen Rappaport’s Elizabeth Started All the Trouble (Disney/Hyperion, 2016; Gr 2-5) offers a lively look at the women’s suffrage movement, beginning with Abigail Adams’s 1776 letter to husband John to “remember the ladies” as he and the Continental Congress penned laws for the just-forged nation and culminating with the 1920 ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment granting women the right to vote. The eponymous Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) and her courageous cohorts (including Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Sojourner Truth) are presented with both imaginative flair and factual precision as they gather at the first Women’s Rights Convention in 1848 and work diligently and selflessly through the decades to bring about change. Matt Faulkner’s illustrations clearly depict the individuals and historical milieu while also injecting humor (a young rapscallion launches a tomato as suffragists proudly march by in a 1913 parade in Washington, D.C.). Quick mentions in both text and artwork of groundbreaking women including individuals who participated in the Civil War (as spies, nurses, and soldiers on both sides) and more-modern-day advocates (Mother Jones, Shirley Chisolm, Sonia Sotomayor, etc.) provide impetus for further investigation. Prevot, Franck. Wangari MaathaiWangari Maathai (Charlesbridge, 2015; Gr 2-6) commemorates a renowned Kenyan environmentalist, grassroots activist, and Nobel Peace Prize honoree (1940-2011). Franck Prévot’s lyrical text and Aurélia Fronty’s stunning folk-style paintings emphasize Wangari’s close connection to nature during her childhood in the small village of Ihithe, where her mother taught her that “a tree is worth more than its wood.” Receiving a high school diploma at a time when very few African women even learned to read, she studied abroad before returning to a Kenya liberated from British colonial rule but devastated by deforestation and development. Vowing to bring about change, she spoke to villagers and politicians alike to spread understanding that forests are “the most precious treasures of humanity,” founded the Green Belt Movement to replant trees and empower women politically and economically, and stood strong against a corrupt president to sow the seeds of democracy. Back matter, including photos and a timeline, support this discussion-starting biography. For a selection of other recently featured books about human rights advocates including Nikki Grimes’s Chasing Freedom (Scholastic/Orchard, 2015), which envisions a meeting between Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony; Ann Turner’s My Name Is Truth (Harper, 2015); and, for older readers, Carole Boston Weatherford’s Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer: Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement (Candlewick, 2015), see "Celebrating African American History," published in the February 2016 issue of Curriculum Connections. The Arts Rosenstock, Barb. Dorthea's EyesBarb Rosenstock’s lyrically written biography of Dorothea Lange (1895-1965), illustrated by Gérard DuBois, zooms in on the elements that made the photojournalist’s work unique, insightful, and timeless—the ability to use both her eyes and her heart to “see what others miss.” Dorothea’s Eyes (Calkins Creek/Boyds Mills Pr., 2016; Gr 2-5) outlines the elements that contributed to the artist’s point of view: a childhood bout with polio that left her with a “forever-withered leg” and the desire to be invisible; time spent wandering New York City’s tenement neighborhoods furtively observing the hardscrabble lives of their residents; her family’s shock when she announced at age 18 that she would become a photographer (“it isn’t ladylike!”). Years later, when she had built up a successful portrait studio in San Francisco and started a family, she followed her heart and traveled the country to photograph individuals impacted by the Great Depression—a man waiting in a bread line; families living in “jalopies—blown out by the dust storms wracking the land;” women nursing “sick children, lying thirsty in makeshift tents” (Lange’s iconic 1936 portrait, Migrant Mother, is appended along with several other photos). “The truth, seen with love, [became] Dorothea’s art,” and her pictures, published in newspapers and magazines, captivated the nation and helped bring relief to those suffering. For a look at Carol Boston Weatherford’s biography of Gordon Parks (Albert Whitman, 2015), another trailblazing documentary photographer, and a wonderful title for comparison, see "Celebrating African Americans in the Arts" in the January 2016 issue of Curriculum Connections. drum dream girlDrum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music (HMH, 2015; Gr 1-5) eloquently blends fact with fancy to tell the story of Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, a Chinese-African-Cuban musician who broke gender boundaries in early 20th-century Cuba. Margarita Engle’s steeped-in-rhythm narrative sets the tone as a young girl, repeatedly told that only boys play drums, continued to dream about tapping on tall congas, small bongós, and “big, round, silvery/moon-bright timbales.” Hearing music in the “whir of parrot wings,” “the clack of woodpecker beaks,” and “the comforting pat/of her own/heartbeat,” she practiced—and dreamed—secretly and incessantly, until she finally found a way to share her music with the world. Rafael López’s opulent artwork brilliantly depicts concrete details of a setting lush in nature and varied cultural influences, while also celebrating more abstractly the power of imagination and the magic of music. An author’s note provides additional info about Millo, who become a world-renowned musician. Oohs and Aahs fearless flyerDaredevil aviatrix Ruth Law (1887-1970) is the high-soaring star of Heather Lang’s stirringly written Fearless Flyer (Calkins Creek/Highlights, 2016; Gr 1-5). An experienced aerial acrobat, Law resolved to journey from Chicago to New York City, though few aviators in 1916—let alone a woman—“dared to fly cross-country in their flimsy flying machines.” The text highlights her mechanical know-how, can-do attitude, and unbridled courage, describing how she modified her Curtiss biplane with additional gas tanks, donned four flight suits for warmth, and set off on a blustery November day. Raúl Colón’s spectacular, sweeping illustrations depict Ruth in the open cockpit, tightly grasping her lever controls as she coasts across the stomach-droppingly distant landscape and uses a roller map strapped to her leg to navigate. Whether Ruth is gliding down for an out-of-gas landing or barely clearing a tree-topped hill at takeoff, the action-packed artwork, exhilarating text, and perfectly integrated primary quotes (“The scare is part of the thrill”) work together to place readers right in the pilot’s seat and convey Law’s astounding achievements and unbounded élan. An author’s note provides additional biographical information, contemporary photographs, and source notes. anything but ordinary addieAnything But Ordinary Addie (Candlewick, 2016; gr 2-5), a biographical tale about sensational stage magician Adelaide Herrmann (1853-1932), is as pleasingly razzle-dazzle as its subject matter. Mara Rockliff’s rollicking text introduces an individual determined to wow the world—first by sewing her own costume and joining a dance troupe (“Our Addie? On the stage?...IN TIGHTS?”), next by performing tricks on a “newfangled” boneshaker bicycle (“Shocking”), then by proposing marriage to the elegant young magician she met during an ocean voyage (“How bold!...It simply isn’t done!”). Though Alexander, aka Herrmann the Great, was no “ordinary husband”—he set her on fire, chopped off her head, and “made her vanish—(poof!) into thin air”—the two “got along splendidly,” performing together, hiring other entertainers, and traveling the globe to astonish audiences with their escapades. When Alexander died unexpectedly, Addie was heartbroken but determined that the show must go on. Iacopo Bruno’s wonderfully theatrical illustrations flawlessly depict the Victorian setting, the bedazzling individuals, and their uproarious showmanship. This kapow read-aloud ends on a breathlessly death-defying note, as Addie pulls off the very dangerous bullet-catching trick, triumphantly launching a much-celebrated career as the Queen of Magic. An author’s note provides more biographical detail along with the fascinating story of how Addie’s unpublished memoir was lost and found again, reestablishing her place in history as a pioneering performer. Whether pushing the limits of scientific knowledge and exploration, entertaining crowds with their sports finesse, fighting valiantly for the beliefs, or electrifying others with their derring-do, all of the personages featured in these appealing tales are anything but ordinary. Have your students think about the attributes that these remarkable individuals have in common, and identify and investigate other women who have accomplished the extraordinary.

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