History Has Its Eyes on Her: Biographies of women are a hot trend in children's publishing

Betsy Bird on the state of women in kids' books, with stellar titles on girls who run the world.

Illustration by Caitlin Kuhwald

It had rained on and off throughout the American Library Association Midwinter Conference in Atlanta. Yet on the afternoon of January 21, 2017, the morning’s pounding rainstorm lifted and thousands of people (many of them librarians attending the conference) joined a Women’s March that would go down in history. The thrill of making a statement in response to the election of Donald J. Trump as president was palpable, but afterward many were left wondering: What could be done to continue this work? The celebration of women has continued, and beyond the streets. If recent best-seller lists are any indication, biographies of women written for children are a very hot commodity.

It’s also worth noting the sheer number of them being published by large and small publishers and the subjects they are opting to highlight. Gone are the days when kids would learn about the same six female historical figures over and over again. Those women haven’t disappeared from our books or history, nor should they. But at the same time, it’s marvelous to consider which women have become the standard bearers for the next generation of young readers.

As recently as the 1980s, if you wanted to read an easily accessible children’s biography of a famous woman, your best bet (outside of textbooks) was to grab one of the titles in the “Childhood of Famous Americans” series. Though designating the books as “nonfiction” today might be considered quite a stretch given their reliance on fake dialogue and imagined scenes, there’s no denying that they offered stirring glimpses of female heroes. The series began in 1932 and occasionally highlighted some surprising STEM inclusions like Maria Mitchell: Girl Astronomer (Bobbs-Merrill, 1954). For many children, it codified who the “heroes” were supposed to be. Publishers were reluctant—and many remain so—to take a chance on a biography of a woman not already familiar to the gatekeepers of the world. Fortunately, there is a way of celebrating the lesser-known names without eschewing the famous ones: collected biographies.

Who Run the World

Awesome Women Who Changed History: Paper Dolls (Adams Media), illustrated by Carol Del Angel

Bravo! Poems About Amazing Hispanics (Holt) by Margarita Engle, ill. Rafael Lopez

Fight Like a Girl: 50 Feminists Who Changed the World (Zest Books) by Laura Barcella

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Tales of Extraordinary Women (Timbuktu Labs) by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo

More Girls Who Rocked the World: Heroines From Ada Lovelace to Misty Copeland (Aladdin) by Michelle Roehm McCann, ill. David Hahn

Pathfinders: The Journeys of 16 Extraordinary Black Souls (Abrams) by Tonya Bolden

Rad American Women A-Z (City Lights) by Kate Schatz, ill. Miriam Klein Stahl

She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World (Philomel) by Chelsea Clinton, ill. Alexandra Boiger

This Little Trailblazer: A Girl Power Primer (Little Simon) by Joan Holub, ill. Daniel Roode

What Is Hip-Hop? (Black Sheep) by Eric Morse, art by Anny Yi, produced by Nelson George

Women Who Dared: 52 Stories of Fearless Daredevils, Adventurers, & Rebels (Sourcebooks) by Linda Skeers, ill. Livi Gosling

Collected biographies of women

It is interesting to see the rise and surprising popularity anthologized biographies of women have enjoyed in the last three years. In 2015, City Lights Books in San Francisco found themselves with a runaway hit when they published Rad American Women A–Z by Kate Schatz and Miriam Klein Stahl. In its first week of publication, the title debuted at #8 on the New York Times best-seller list for Children’s Middle Grade Hardcover books. Most of the women in the collection had never appeared in a book for children before. People like Wilma Mankiller, Yuri Kochiyama, and Jovita Idar were now being introduced, not just to child readers but to parents, teachers, and librarians who encountered them for the first time between the pages. The book was followed by Rad Women Worldwide (Ten Speed Pr., 2016), but it wasn’t the only game in town.

Timbuktu Labs premiered the collection Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo the same year via a Kickstarter campaign. Favilli and Cavallo had begun the project hoping to raise $40,000. In the end, they garnered $675,614, and Volume Two of the series was released in 2017. On the younger end of the scale, Chelsea Clinton’s picture book collected biography She Persisted (Philomel) became an instant best seller. The book covers a mere 13 American women, but such limitations haven’t mattered to the hordes of hungry fans, gobbling the book up like there’s no tomorrow.

Who is getting featured in these works? Generally speaking, each collected biography takes pains to be as inclusive as possible, citing a wide range of religions, ethnicities, backgrounds, and occupations, though oddly very few books include transgender women, with exceptions like Jazz Jennings in More Girls Who Rocked the World (Aladdin). Now, there’s no surefire, systematic way to determine the most popular female subjects in these collected biographies. However, after gathering as many of these titles published between 2015 and 2017 as I could get my hands on, I decided to keep track of the women who were appearing in these group biographies repeatedly. Who are our kids reading about the most frequently? Examining some of the best anthologies of famous folks available to the reading public, here’s a quick list of the most popular women found in the biographies for kids today:

Hillary Clinton (five biographies) Nellie Bly (five biographies) Harriet Tubman (four biographies) Malala Yousafzai (four biographies) Frida Kahlo (four biographies)

It was little surprise to find Clinton appearing in at least five of the collections, particularly since some of these coincided with her presidential run. More surprising was the fact that she was matched in this number by Nellie Bly. Perhaps in this era of fake news, there’s a particular value in celebrating a female journalist. Malala has been a favorite biographical subject since her rise to fame, and in addition to these four collected biographies, she was featured in two 2017 picture books (Malala: Activist for Girls’ Education [Charlesbridge] by Raphaele Frier and Malala’s Magic Pencil [Little, Brown] by Malala Yousafzai). Both Tubman and Kahlo also got individual picture book biography treatments in 2017, in addition to their many mentions. One wonders how this list will change in the coming decade.

Collected biographies of men and women

Collected biographies of both men and women offer a very different roster of women than those found in most children’s biographies. Too often the number of men can overwhelm female contributions to the field. One could argue such was the case with What Is Hip-Hop? (Black Sheep). Creators Eric Morse, Anny Yi, and Nelson George did what they could to fill the book with female names, although the effort is a bit spotty. The text mentions only Queen Latifah, Salt n’ Pepa, Missy Elliott, and Niki Minaj with a glancing reference to Lil’ Kim, while the endpapers feature Da Brat, Eve, Lauryn Hill, and MC Lyte. Yet in all fairness, of these women, only one appeared in a different collected biography (Queen Latifah in Fight Like a Girl [Zest Books]), and none of them have appeared in any picture book biographies from traditional publishers.

A patron recently complained in my library that if biographies are made of black women, those women are either from the civil rights or slavery era, or they’re musicians. Tonya Bolden’s Pathfinders: The Journeys of 16 Extraordinary Black Souls (Abrams) isn’t limited to women alone, but the women Bolden does highlight come from a range of occupations. Bank founder (Maggie Lena Walker), spy (Mary Bowser), mathematician (Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson), and even cartoonist (Jackie Ormes) are included. Teachers, librarians, and students hoping to write biographies of African American women above and beyond Rosa Parks will have much to work with here.

Bravo! Poems About Amazing Hispanics (Holt) by Margarita Engle says right from the start that “This is not a book about the most famous Hispanics” but that they are “people who have faced life’s challenges in creative ways.” Juana Briones, Paulina Pedroso, Ynés Mexía, Aída de Acosta, Fabiola Cabeza de Baca, Pura Belpré, and Julia de Burgos all warrant inclusion.

Picture book biographies of women

Like collected biographies, individual picture book biographies of women have seen an uptick in featuring women that aren’t already overly familiar names. Some of this may be best attributed to the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and their focus on nonfiction in the classroom. Of these, the greatest number of late have featured women who excelled in STEM fields, including astronomy (Caroline’s Comets: A True Story by Emily Arnold McCully), computer programming (Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code by Laurie Walmark and Margaret and the Moon: How Margaret Hamilton Saved the First Lunar Landing by Dean Robbins), architecture (Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines, Designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial by Jeanne Walker Harvey), and conservation (Out of School and Into Nature: The Anna Comstock Story by Suzanne Slade). None of this is to say that there haven’t been other magnificent biographies of well-known women or other professions. However, if we examine the books being released, the STEM focus was particularly present in 2017.

Work to be done

Secure in the knowledge that publishers are beginning to take a chance on lesser-known heroes, there is still room for improvement. For example, we could use more funny females. Mindy Kaling appears in More Girls Who Rocked the World, Carol Burnett got a shout-out in Rad America Women A–Z, and Lucille Ball pops up in This Little Trailblazer (Little Simon), to say nothing of the strangely inspiring Awesome Women Who Changed History (Adams Media) paper doll collection, but it is far more common for funny women to be forgotten. For example, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls features “100 heroic women,” but not a single one could be called comedic. Likewise, with the exception of a single Lucille Ball picture book biography (I Am Lucille Ball [Dial] by Brad Meltzer) and the occasional profile of Josephine Baker, women come off as a fairly humorless bunch.

Other gaps include heroic women who aren’t white, black, or Latinx. Aside from Sacagawea, Pocahontas, and Maria Tallchief, there are few materials on famous American Indian women. The same could be said of Asian Americans other than Maya Lin (who has so far appeared in two children’s biographies and two collected works).

In a time when Harriet Tubman is poised to appear on our $20 bills in 2020 and our best-seller lists are full to brimming with female biographies, it is tempting to slap one’s hands together and declare it done. We did it! Women are getting credit at long last. But, of course, it would probably be more accurate to say that these small inroads are just the first steps in the right direction. In many ways, I think what’s most interesting about how well these books about women sell is that clearly there has been a vast, gaping need for these books for a number of years. Parents want to inform their children (not just girls, mind you) about the contributions strong women have made to the world.

Biographies of women for kids are selling better than ever. And all it took was a grassroots movement, a curricular focus on STEM subjects, the appearance of the Common Core State Standards, a couple of major motion pictures, and the rise of independent publishers and Kickstarter campaigns to make it happen. Now let’s see what we can do to keep this momentum going. What’s the next step? Reading about our female heroes, famous, infamous, and too little lauded.

Getting Their Due

Magnificent picture books about women outside "the canon"

Caroline’s Comets: A True Story (Holiday House) by Emily Arnold McCully

Danza! Amalia Hernández and El Ballet Folklórico de México (Abrams) by Duncan Tonatiuh

The Girl Who Ran: Bobbi Gibb, the First Woman to Run the Boston Marathon (Compendium) by Frances Poletti & Kristina Yee, ill. Susanna Chapman

Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code (Sterling) by Laurie Walmark, ill. Katy Wu

Lighter Than Air: Sophie Blanchard, the First Woman Pilot (Candlewick) by Matthew Clark Smith, ill. Matt Tavares

Martina & Chrissie: The Greatest Rivalry in the History of Sports (Candlewick) by Phil Bildner, ill. Brett Helquist

Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines, Designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (Holt) by Jeanne Walker Harvey, ill. Dow Phumiruk

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The Case of R.B.G. vs. Inequality (Abrams) by Jonah Winter, ill. Stacy Innerst

Yayoi Kusama: From Here to Infinity (Museum of Modern Art) by Sarah Suzuki, ill. Ellen Weinstein

The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist (Atheneum) by Cynthia Levinson, ill. Vanessa Brantley Newton

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Suzanne Tecza

Can't wait for my kids to read these books!

Posted : Feb 24, 2018 07:38



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