When I read biographies of women, I am often flabbergasted by the variety of activities once considered off-limits to females. Such perverse undertakings as riding a bicycle, voting, being a nurse, were scandalous not so very long ago.
1967 — Women were not allowed to run the Boston Marathon.
What a concerted effort there has been to convince us that women are simply not apt to be strong, athletic, brave, scientific, reliable, level-headed, smart, capable.
I am grateful for the determined courage of so many women who buck the constraints of gender and racial restrictions to pursue their dreams, gifts, and callings, opening the door for all of us who follow.
Mary Jane Patterson, the first African American woman to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree!
Thankful for women and men who choose to expand opportunity rather than hinder, honor rather than degrade, spotlight rather than ignore, listen rather than silence, empower rather than oppress.
Today I’ve got a dozen+ biographies of women whose stories inspire us. There are lots more in my Subjects index under Biography which I encourage you to seek out. Plus, I’ve put links to last year’s Women’s History posts at the end of today’s blog.
Around America to Win the Vote: Two Suffragists, a Kitten, and 10,000 Miles, written by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Hadley Hooper
published in 2016 by Candlewick Press
Roaring with lemon-yellow verve, this is the account of Nell Richardson and Alice Burke, who in 1916 set out in their jaunty yellow car to drive around America. That was a skyscraper-tall order in those days of “bumpy, muddy, unmapped miles” when automobiles were still newfangled contraptions.
Their purpose was to campaign for the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment giving the vote to women. This creative, lively telling is plum full of optimism and joy in both text and Hadley’s retro prints. Afterwords tell more about early automobiles and the women’s suffrage movement. Fantastic for ages 5 and up.
Miss Paul and the President: The Creative Campaign for Women’s Right to Vote, written by Dean Robbins, illustrated by Nancy Zhang
published in 2016 by Alfred A. Knopf
Convincing Woodrow Wilson and the U.S. Congress to support women’s suffrage required dogged determination and out-of-the-box creativity so good thing Alice Paul owned copious amounts of both qualities.
Planning lavish parades, plunking herself down across the president’s grand desk for a chat, unfurling scrolls down the marble steps of the Capitol with banner-large lettering, organizing massive letter-writing campaigns. Check, check, check, and check. This spirited account of a spirited woman will bolster a can-do attitude in all its readers, ages 5 and up!
I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark, written by Debbie Levy, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley
published in 2016 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
This fabulous biography of Justice Ginsburg pulses with strength and determination. Text, typography, and illustrations work together masterfully to present a portrait of one who faced down stinging discrimination based on both her gender and her Jewish heritage.
I loved learning more about how Ruth’s early resistance to narrowly-drawn boundaries prepared her for a career of profound objecting and dissenting.
And, at this moment in our culture, I am especially glad Debbie Levy includes Ginsburg’s dear friendship with one whose ideas were so often adamantly opposed to her’s, Justice Scalia. Oh, for more friendships across the divides. Excellent, lengthy Author’s Note. This is a strong choice for ages 7 and up.
Ada Lovelace, Poet of Science: The First Computer Programmer, written by Diane Stanley, illustrated by Jessie Hartland
published in 2016; a Paula Wiseman Book from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
The daughter of Lord Byron, Ada was an irrepressibly curious tinkerer, an imaginative, out-of-the-box thinker, from childhood on. Her friendship with Charles Babbage, the designer of what was essentially the first computer, led to her brilliant collaboration with him and her writing of the first computer program in 1843.
Ada’s story has recently been told in two wonderful books. This one, written by Diane Stanley, reads beautifully, effortlessly, and is illustrated in Jessie Hartland’s delightful, colorful, sunny, style, full of quirk and bustle. Largely accessible to ages 6 and up.
Another equally great choice is:
Ada’s Ideas: The Story of Ada Lovelace, the World’s First Computer Programmer, written and illustrated by Fiona Robinson
published in 2016 by Abrams Books for Young Readers
The text in this book delves a bit more into the mathematics of what Ada worked out and has just a slightly more elevated feel — more technical, more sophisticated language. It’s better suited to slightly older children, I’d say.
Robinson’s artwork is fantastic, mirroring the creativity and inventiveness of Ada with its cut-paper designs, mechanical and mathematical references; even the end-papers launch us into the story with their spread of hole-punched programming cards. Ages 8 and up.
Caroline’s Comets: A True Story, written and illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully
published in 2017 by Holiday House
Caroline Herschel was another early female scientist. In fact, she was “the first professional woman scientist,” who teamed up with her brother William in the 1700s to make groundbreaking discoveries in the field of astronomy.
Such obstacles she overcame as a woman in that society to pursue science! Such perseverance, attention to detail, wonder over the skies, and love of learning were hers to enjoy and employ, making her mark on the world. McCully is one of the best of the best in children’s nonfiction. Her beautiful account of Herschel’s life and legacy is a joy to read, easily accessible to ages 6 and up.
Florence Nightingale: The Courageous Life of the Legendary Nurse, by Catherine Reef
published in 2017 by Clarion Books
This lengthy biography of the groundbreaking nurse, Florence Nightingale, might put you off with its serious look and bulk, but for girls ages 12 and up who are interested in her life or in a medical career, it’s a fabulous, absorbing read. Excellent choice for adults as well.
For me, the images of The Lady with the Lamp somehow reduced Florence Nightingale to a kindly little helper in the soldiers’ wards when in reality she was an incredibly stalwart person who agonized in her struggle against her family’s and society’s small-minded ideas of what was suitable for a woman to do. Nursing the sick certainly wasn’t one of the proper occupations of a lady, but Nightingale felt called to it and would not relent.
“Why, oh my God, cannot I be satisfied with the life which satisfies so many people?” she asks. The journey was lonely and difficult. Her courage, fearlessness, iron strength and will turned the field of nursing upside down. I loved bumping into others in this account whose stories I’ve included in my blog previously, including Elizabeth Blackwell, Alexis Soyer, and John Snow.
Joan of Arc, written and illustrated by Demi
published in 2011 by Marshall Cavendish Children
Demi’s regal, detailed, gold-leaf illustration work is perfectly suited to this story of the unlikely medieval French warrior.
From her childhood in France with her sensitive heart and early devotion to God, we watch stunned as Joan’s teen-age visions propel her to undertake dangerous journeys, deliver messages that appeared crazy, and lead the French army to dumbfounding victories. Her tragic downfall, burning at the stake, and canonization complete this thought-provoking biography. Ages 7 and up.
Malala: Activist for Girls’ Education, written by Raphaële Frier, illustrated by Aurélia Fronty, translated by Julie Cormier
first published in France, 2015; first US edition 2017 by Charlesbridge
Aurélia Fronty’s stunning artwork zooms this account of Malala straight past previous children’s biographies about her. Wow. Gorgeous pages, exploding with brilliant color and gorgeous textile patterns make it irresistible!
Frier unreels a lucid, strong narration of Malala’s life, her relentless pursuit of education for girls. Journey from her childhood, past her attack, through the Nobel Prize, before dipping briefly into her current activism. 8 pages of back matter provide lots more information about Pakistan, the Pashtun people, worldwide education for girls, Islam, other historical peacemakers, and Malala’s ideas. Inspirational and eye-opening for ages 7 and up.
Tallchief: America’s Prima Ballerina, written by Maria Tallchief with Rosemary Wells, illustrated by Gary Kelley
published in 1999 by Viking
Maria Tallchief was born on an Osage Indian Reservation in 1925 and went on to become one of the greatest American-born ballerinas.
Music and dance coursed through her from the time she was a little girl. Maria was fortunate enough to have parents who supported her dreams. Against all odds, with a fierce work ethic, years of relentless practice, and a love of the dance-music language of ballet, Maria rose to the top.
Rosemary Wells sat down with Tallchief before her death and helped record her life experiences through her joining the Ballets Russe at age 17. It’s a lovely, fascinating narrative, handsomely illustrated. Ages 7 and up.
Night Flight: Amelia Earhart Crosses the Atlantic, written by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Wendell Minor
published in 2011; a Paula Wiseman Book by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
When I was a little girl, Amelia Earhart was one of my great heroines. I loved reading about her.
This poetic account of her solo night flight across the Atlantic in May, 1932, illustrates the grit and marvel that mark Earhart’s life. Terrible storms. Broken instruments. Iced-over wings. Seemingly certain disaster. Freezing cold. Toxic fumes.
With skill and tenacity, Earhart manages to pull through this tremendously difficult adventure. Taut, gripping text from an award-winning author and images from Wendell Minor that strap us right in the cockpit make this a winner for ages 7 and up.
Nothing by Trouble: The Story of Althea Gibson, written by Sue Stauffacher, illustrated by Greg Couch
published in 2007 by Alfred A. Knopf
Althea Gibson broke the color line in international tennis, winning the Grand Slam in 1956 and the Wimbledon in 1957-58.
All that strength and energy had to be channeled in the right direction, however. As a child, she was “the tallest, wildest tomboy in the history of Harlem,” so they say, who ran right into trouble every way she turned. Sport was just what Althea needed, yet even there, learning to reign in her high emotions and carry herself like a true champion — those were tough lessons.
Stauffacher spins a vivid account and Couch’s meaningful, vibrant illustrations swirl with the mad energy and spirit of Gibson. Great read about an athlete I knew nothing about. Ages 6 and up.
America’s Champion Swimmer: Gertrude Ederle, written by David A. Adler, illustrated by Terry Widener
published in 2000 by Gulliver Books, Harcourt Inc.
Gertrude “Trudy” Ederle didn’t learn to swim until she was seven years old. At that time, immediately following her near-drowning in a pond, her father tied a rope around her waist, plunked her in the river and told her to “paddle like a dog.”
Turned out Trudy was a masterful swimmer who loved competition! She began long-distance swimming when she was just 16 years old, swam on the 1924 Olympic team, and then began work on the ultimate challenge — the English Channel. When a newspaper chided her, saying that she and other women ought to forget such things and admit they would “remain forever the weaker sex” it spurred Ederle on all the more.
But what a formidable challenge! Read her harrowing experiences and triumphs in this riveting biography. Handsome illustrations capture the tumultuous swim and the 20’s era. Ages 6 and up.
Here are links to last year’s Women’s History posts. There are many more bios in the Subject listing as well so don’t miss out!