Western notions of femininity have traditionally been a bit frilly and swoony, with a generous ladle of helplessness thrown in for good measure.
The title of my blog today comes from Jane Austen, who famously said, “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures. None of us wants to be in calm waters all our lives.”
The women in today’s list, my final Women’s History Month post, were anything but preening, wispy li’l thangs. Intrepid, strong, courageous, daring, determined — those aren’t words for the Boys Only Club. Read their stories, beginning with:
The Bravest Woman in America, by Marissa Moss, illustrations by Andrea U’Ren published in 2011 by Tricycle Press
Ida Lewis grew up with the ocean for a backyard. Her father was lighthouse keeper on Lime Rock off of Newport, Rhode Island. Ida hankered to share in his work from the time she was a young girl, and her keen father was good enough to hand her the oars and tell her to row for all she was worth.
Years of blisters and aching muscles later, with her father too ill to help, Ida’s stamina, courage, and lessons in ocean rescue paid off as she manned the lighthouse and rowed out into tumultuous seas time and again, dragging shipwrecked sailors out of the icy water to safety. This epic story will rivet the attention of kids ages 5 and up. U’Ren’s arresting artwork echoes the valor of Lewis, who once said, “Anyone who thinks it is un-feminine to save lives has the brains of a donkey.” Amen, Ida!
Nurse, Soldier, Spy: The Story of Sarah Edmonds, a Civil War Hero, by Marissa Moss, illustrations by John Hendrix published in 2011 by Abrams Books for Young Readers
Sarah Edmonds just might win the award for Most Audacious Female on the list today. At age 16, in order to escape an arranged marriage, Edmonds chopped off her hair, pulled on some trousers, and began living life as a man. Three years later we find her enlisting in the Union Army as private Frank Thompson.
Frank/Sarah was a sharp-shooting, good-natured soldier, a nurse with nerves of steel, and an intrepid friend, dashing into hails of bullets to rescue his/her mates. And that’s just the beginning of it! I promise you do not want to miss the story of this patriotic, kindhearted, determined woman. John Hendrix’s engaging illustrations are packed with period detail and vivid characters. Don’t miss the author and illustrator notes where you will learn more about Edmonds and about how better to appreciate the art of picture books. Ages 5 and up.
Fearless Flyer: Ruth Law and Her Flying Machine, by Heather Lang, illustrated by Raúl Colón published in 2016 by Calkins Creek
Ruth Law was an aviator who performed theatrical acrobatics in those early, flimsy-looking bi-planes, dipping and loop-de-looping and spiraling towards earth in death-defying dives. Yet her greatest accomplishment, requiring the most courage, endurance, strength, and nerve, was a flight from Chicago to New York City.
That may not sound like much to us today, but this account of her journey in which she broke the record for longest non-stop flight, brings us right into the cockpit with her, icicles dangling from her hair and all! to discover the painful hardships and narrow scrapes involved in her venture. Witness Law’s keen mechanical knowledge of her plane which paved the way to success, and her outstanding perseverance. All this in an inferior plane to what male pilots were flying, because they wouldn’t sell the newest model to her as a woman! Colón’s artwork is ravishing, as always, flooded with the golden, sunlit fields and turquoise skies Law surveyed as she flew. Ages 6 and up.
How Kate Warne Saved President Lincoln, by Elizabeth Van Steenwyk, illustrated by Valentina Belloni published in 2016 by Albert Whitman and Company
In 1856, Kate Warne showed up at the famous Pinkerton’s Detective Agency offices, told them she was looking for a job, and convinced them that she, as a woman, would make the ideal addition to their force.
Warne was right — she could slip into female company and winkle out information like nobody’s business. And she played a key role in saving President-elect Lincoln’s life from murderous conspirators. This intriguing, upbeat story of the country’s first woman detective is just right for ages 5 and up. For older readers, hand them The Detective’s Assistant, a delightful piece of historical-fiction about Warne that I reviewed here.
The Daring Nellie Bly: America’s Star Reporter, written and illustrated by Bonnie Christensen published in 2003 by Alfred A. Knopf
Nellie Bly shouldered her way into the world of journalism when women were normally assigned the tea-party beat. Nellie wanted to cover serious news. Beginning by investigating the real lives of working women, she went on to expose corruption in the Mexican government, then took perhaps her most risky assignment, going undercover in an insane asylum, a world filled with horrific abuse.
It was Bly’s venture to beat Phineas Fogg’s around-the-world travel record that made her much more than a household name — she was “the best known and most widely talked of young woman on earth” after her triumph. Bly made use of her journalistic opportunities to draw attention to critical social issues. This handsomely-illustrated account is a bit on the long-ish side; try it for kids ages 7 or 8 and up.
Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat: Ella Fitzgerald, by Roxane Orgill, illustrated by Sean Qualls published in 2010 by Candlewick Press
Ella Fitzgerald did not battle ocean storms, enemy soldiers, murderous villains, or frustrating shipping delays. Her struggles were with poverty, the early death of her mother, a father whose ill-treatment drove her from home, an abusive orphanage, and a desperate longing for love.
Fitzgerald had to be tough. This isn’t the kind of toughness we wish for anyone to need, but it’s the kind of toughness required of too many young women. Fitzgerald worked the crowds, overcame the embarrassment of her raggedy appearance, pressed on despite fear and nervousness, and rose to stardom. Share her tail of grit and glamour, illustrated in Sean Quall’s striking, cool-urban artwork, with ages 7 or 8 and up.