exuberantly or quietly, they’re blazing trails…women’s history

Today’s batch of books celebrates women in America who have blazed their own trails.
Some did it with booming voices or attention-grabbing athleticism.
Some accomplished mighty things in much quieter, more unobtrusive ways.
All of these stories sing out with the joy of women following their dreams, cultivating their talents, and overcoming obstacles.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul
written by Carole Boston Weatherford, art by Frank Morrison
published in 2020 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Meet the winner of the Coretta Scott King Illustration award this past year — and just the cover alone tells you why that was the obvious right call! It’s big. It’s bold. The gold foil letters gleam. It fairly shouts royalty. And that’s the feeling of this entire, larger-than-life biography.

Poet-author Weatherford spells out one key word on each double-spread, followed by a couplet. Taken together these lines trace the story of Franklin’s life from her childhood where the foundations of her life were laid — church, gospel music, civil rights conversations — to her debut, rise to stardom, and lifelong stance for racial equality.

Morrison’s artwork wows us at every turn of the page. Extravagantly sprawling across the oversized pages, muscularly rising up in powerful lines, dramatically wooing us with rich color and powerful composition, his art echoes Aretha’s soaring voice and regal presence.  An Author’s Note fills in more of the details of Franklin’s life and a list of her biggest hits provides us with a chart-topping play list. Fabulous, for ages 5 and up!

On Wings of Words: The Extraordinary Life of Emily Dickinson
written by Jennifer Berne, illustrated by Becca Stadtlander
published in 2020 by Chronicle Books

Elegant language, fragments of poetry, and exquisite artwork combine to create this lovely portrait of Dickinson, a prime example of someone who pursued her passion much more quietly and obscurely.

In hushed, graceful phrases, Berne focuses her lens on Dickinson’s sensitive nature and of how she drew strength, insight, and poetic inspiration from the nature around her and from the depths of her inner self. Though her account spans Dickinson’s entire, short life, Dickinson’s intense privacy means that our avenues to understanding her are largely through her often opaque poetry and Berne uses the opportunity to call readers to sit with the imaginative power of the poet’s words.

Stadtlander’s gorgeous, delicate paintings flood the pages with beauty. Even the handwritten script used for poetry excerpts enhances the gossamer wings referenced in the book’s title. Additions include Author and Illustrator Notes and recommendations for exploring poetry further. Ages 5 or 6 and up.

She Was the First!: The Trailblazing Life of Shirley Chisholm
written by Katheryn Russell-Brown, illustrated by Eric Velasquez
published in 2020 by Lee & Low Books

With the rise of Kamala Harris to the vice-presidency, the name of Shirley Chisholm, a true trailblazer, has popped up frequently over the past year. I have only vague memories of Ms. Chisholm from my childhood, so I was eager to educate myself via this excellent biography.

Born in Brooklyn, Chisholm spent 7 years of her early childhood with extended family in the Barbados. There she was raised by a firm, loving grandmother and received a good education in British-style schools. At age 10 she returned to New York where her keen intelligence, thirst for reading, and daily exposure to conversations about world events and politics, all propelled her to college, to success in debating, and to a career in teaching.

Chisholm also worked to organize communities, to advocate for those in need and without power, eventually entering politics where in 1968 she became the first Black woman elected to Congress and in 1972 the first Black person to run for president. Facing a backlash from nearly every corner, Chisholm persevered, fitting herself to be an apt mentor for other Black politicians to come. What a courageous, kindhearted woman! Share this important slice of American history with kids ages 6 and up. A lengthy Afterword provides a fuller picture of Chisholm’s accomplishments.

Cubs in the Tub: The True Story of the Bronx Zoo’s First Woman Zookeeper
written by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Julie Downing
published in 2020 by Neal Porter Books, Holiday House

Lion cubs in the kitchen? Tigers in the bathtub? Who doesn’t want to meet the woman who opened up her house to these furballs?!

When Helen Martini’s hubby, who worked at the Bronx Zoo, came home one day with a newborn lion abandoned by its mother, Helen scooped it up, smooched its nose, sang it a lullaby, and rescued it with copious tender loving care. Eventually it grew a tad large for their place and was moved to another zoo, but Helen’s nursery wasn’t empty for long. Next up were three tiny tiger cubs.

This time when the tigers went back to the zoo, dreadfully missing their Mama Helen, Helen figured out a longer-term solution, creating an animal nursery on the zoo grounds. From there she proceeded to nurture hundreds of baby animals, pioneering orphaned animal care as one of the first female zookeepers in the country. What a happy story! Enjoy it with kids ages 3 and up!

Flying High: The Story of Gymnastics Champion Simone Biles
written by Michelle Meadows, illustrated by Ebony Glenn
published in 2020 by Henry Holt and Company

Simone Biles, considered by many to be one of the greatest athletes of all time, is almost assuredly the person on today’s list most likely to be recognized by young readers. Her breathtaking athleticism, energetic personality, positivity, and stack of gold medals have made her one of America’s favorites.

This biography, written in short, rhythmic quatrains, begins by breezing through her childhood, one marked by difficulty until she is adopted by her grandparents into a secure, loving home. One unlikely day little Simone is introduced to gymnastics and spotted by an observant instructor as a girl with potential. A tremendous amount of hard work and resilience follow as we watch her practice, perform, and succeed beyond compare at the Olympics.

The brief text is a bit opaque as we roll through, but young children will be mostly focused on the illustrations of Biles leaping, twisting, and somersaulting through the air. For older children, the Afterword provides a much clearer understanding of Biles’ pathway through life and sport. That makes it a fun, current read for a wide age range, ages 3 or 4 and up.

Ocean Speaks: How Maria Tharp Revealed the Ocean’s Biggest Secret
written by Jess Keating, illustrated by Katie Hickey
published in 2020 by Tundra Books

Maria Tharp’s life is a testimony to unbounded curiosity, dogged persistence, and the possibilities of those deemed lesser actually contributing more.

Enamored with the world of nature and science from childhood, Maria was hindered by sexist obstacles governing what women could study and where women could work, yet nothing could thwart her from an eventual career as a geologist and oceanographic cartographer. She was prevented from conducting shipboard research, so she dove into her role as a cartographer with such excellence and intelligence she ended up making one of the major geological discoveries in her field, opening the way for serious study of plate tectonics. This is a wonderful, can-do story!

Katie Hickey’s illustrations pop with rich colors and earthy textures, sparkle with wonder, beam and burble with optimism and liveliness. The main text is accessible to ages 5 and up, while an Author’s Note adds extensive information for those aged 8 or 9 and older.

Althea Gibson: The Story of Tennis’ Fleet-of-Foot Girl
written by Megan Reid, illustrated by Laura Freeman
published in 2020 by Bazler + Bray

Althea Gibson, who in 1957 became the first Black person to win a Wimbledon championship, was definitely not a shrinking violet, and that’s a good thing because she never could have played on those grassy courts let alone dominate them if she hadn’t been brimming with toughness, energy, and fierce determination.

She was a kid from Harlem who cut her teeth playing ball on the hot asphalt streets of her neighborhood. When she discovered a tennis club that catered to Black players, she joined and quickly became known for her speed, agility, and winning! Yet Gibson was barred from competing against white women in some of the premier international meets because of the color of her skin, until finally in 1950 the rules were revised.

Gibson’s experience breaking the color-bar in tennis was lonely and difficult, but she persevered until she had won a Grand Slam and the biggest trophy of them all at Wimbledon. As with all the Black women in American history, Gibson had to overcome an intersection of barriers to achieve her great success. These women displayed needed tenacity and then were often criticized for that very quality. Draw inspiration and perspective from her life via this spirited account for ages 6 and up.

Unbeatable Betty: Betty Robinson, the First Female Olympic Track & Field Gold Medalist
written by Allison Crotzer Kimmel, illustrated by Joanie Stone
published in 2020 by Harper

Jesse Owens’ famous medal-winning runs at the 1936 Berlin Games were not the only spectacular feats there. His friend Betty Robinson also made history though her story is much-less well-known. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting her and discovering her heroic journey in this book.

Robinson was an exceptionally fast runner as a kid, even without any training, even without track shoes, even though girls weren’t actually supposed to be competitive runners back in 1928. Her school track coach spotted her incredible speed and invited her to join the boys’ team where she soon was running with the best of the best. Only 4 months later she went to the 1928 Olympics, the first Olympic Games to allow women to run, and nabbed gold in the 100 meter race, the first Olympic gold ever awarded to women in the sport of Track and Field.

But that’s not all! Because several years later Robinson was involved in a plane crash that so severely injured her legs, her doctors advised her to forget about walking, let alone running, again. Betty, however, did not forget about running. Read her amazing story and find out just what she was able to accomplish five years later at the 1936 Olympic Games. It’s another profile in steadfast courage, a zesty read for ages 5 and up.

Next week I’ll have another great selection of books focusing on women outside of the U.S.  From Canada to Australia, and popping all over Europe, these women’s stories shine out inspiration!
Meanwhile, my Women’s History page features more than 200 outstanding titles for young and old. Help yourself to a banquet of Women’s History reads this month!