Today I’ve got my second batch of books in honor of Women’s History Month.
These selections survey a globe-ful of capable women
who are simply a tremendous pleasure to meet!
A Thousand Glass Flowers: Marietta Barovier and the Invention of the Rosetta Bead, written and illustrated by Evan Turk
published in 2020 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Oh, I love discovering people I’ve never even heard of such as the Venetian glassblower introduced in this sumptuous book.
Marietta Barovier’s family was one of “the oldest and most prominent glassmaking families” in the history of Murano, an island in Venice famous for its glassworks. During the early Renaissance Marietta’s father was a renowned master at his craft and an innovator who created much sought-after varieties of glass — colorless, milky white, gemlike. Her brothers entered the glassmakers’ guilds as well, but Marietta, however much she longed to practice this art, was excluded. It was men’s work.
Until her dear father took her under his wing and taught her the art. Marietta loved glassblowing and grew in skill until one day she came up with a technique to produce what we now call millefiori but was then called a rosetta bead. Turk’s illustration work glows with the opulent golds and resplendent, shimmering colors of stained glass and mosaics found in Venice, a splendor of the Renaissance era. Meet Marietta, learn about glass beadmaking, travel vicariously to old Venice — all courtesy of this gem of a book. Ages 5 and up.
written by Maria Isabel Sánchez Vegara, illustrated by Lisa Koesterke
published in 2020 by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books
I’m old enough to remember Evonne Goolagong’s heyday as tennis champion and am pleased as punch that the Little People Big Dreams series has chosen to feature her story.
Growing up as an Indigenous child in Australia in the 1950s meant Goolagong was barred from tennis facilities, but luckily for her — and all of us! — one tennis club owner spotted her talent, slipped her a key, and allowed her to practice on the court after hours. Goolagong was a player full of gumption and joy, and before long she’d been taken under the wing of a tennis coach, going on to win a place in tennis history.
A great introduction to a classy person and star athlete for ages 5 and up.
Madame Saqui: Revolutionary Rope Dancer
written by Lisa Robinson, illustrated by Rebecca Green
published in 2020 by Schwartz & Wade Books
Marguerite-Antoinette Lalanne, tightrope walker extraordinaire, was born in France just as its Revolution was dawning. The child of a wire-walking family, she was wildly successful in an art form that was dominated by men, even as she shocked and delighted her audience with dazzling, outrageous costumes. She persisted in rope-walking well into her seventies!
All that verve and passion as well as the hardships she had to overcome course through the pages of this dynamic story of her life. The book’s tall, thin shape echoes the heights at which she worked, and the charming illustration work in a revolutionary color palette echoes French impressionism.
It’s a thrilling look at a woman you’re unlikely to have previously met. Ages 5 and up.
Mary Seacole: Bound for the Battlefield, written by Susan Goldman Rubin, illustrated by Richie Pope
published in 2020 by Candlewick Press
While Florence Nightingale’s name is well-known, many of us I am sure are unacquainted with that of Mary Seacole, yet her battlefield nursing skills, tremendous courage, and humanitarian kindness earned her renown and commendation during the same era. It is clear that racism dampened both her opportunities to work and her deserved place in history. This biography, which was all news to me, shines a light on this somewhat-forgotten woman.
Seacole was born in Jamaica and learned traditional healing methods from her Creole mother. Over the years she nursed many British soldiers and Jamaicans through terrible yellow fever and cholera epidemics. She also learned cooking and hospitality skills by aiding in boarding houses and hotels run by family members.
When the Crimean War broke out and the British government cried out for nurses to help on the battlefield, Seacole determined to go. She did eventually arrive in Crimea, but her way was strewn with obstacles and insults due to her racial heritage. Her relationship with Florence Nightingale was fraught with prejudice as well. Seacole succeeded by always finding another way to bring aid to the suffering when the obvious ways were barred. Her work there was brave, holistic, and carried out at great personal cost.
This eye-opening read is longer than typical picture-book biographies. It could be read aloud in several sittings to children as young as 6 but would make a thought-provoking read for middle-grade and older readers as well.
June Almeida, Virus Detective: The Woman Who Discovered the First Human Coronavirus
written by Suzanne Slade, illustrated by Elisa Paganelli
published in 2021 by Sleeping Bear Press
Here’s a timely title if there ever was one! COVID-19 is caused by one virus from a large family of “coronaviruses,” named after the unusual, spikey, crownlike structures that encircle them. Most coronaviruses don’t cause us much problem; it’s the rare few that have crossed the boundary between animal and human hosts in the past few decades that have caused so much suffering — SARS, MERS, and now SARS-CoV-2.
The woman who first revealed the existence of coronaviruses in humans grew up in a blue-collar family in Glasgow, a family so economically-challenged that despite her love of school and her passion to study science, she had to quit school at age 16 and go to work to help support her family.
That didn’t stop June from pursuing what she loved, however. She found a job in a hospital lab and learned microscopy there, eventually graduating to handling a powerful electron microscope. Her photographer’s eye, attention to detail, and keen work ethic soon made her the researcher of choice for scientists desperate to get a good look at cancer cells and viruses. As she solved increasingly vexing problems by inventing new methodologies, June became the first — in 1964 — to recognize a strange new crown-like virus, solving a medical mystery that would have repercussions beyond what she would have imagined.
This highly-informative biography is augmented by a lengthy afterword telling more about Ms. Almeida’s scientific research. It’s an inspirational look at a woman who persisted and pursued her love of science, to everyone’s great benefit. Ages 7 and up.
Ida and the World Beyond Mount Kaiserzipf: The Life of Ida Pfeiffer, Globe-Trotter
written and illustrated by Linda Schwalbe; translated by David Henry Wilson
originally published in Switzerland; English edition 2020 by NorthSouth Books
I have never given much thought to travel writers, but this story of “one of the most famous travel writers of the nineteenth century,” an early solo-female traveler, highlights a fascinating woman with trunkloads of spunk and curiosity and does so with electrifying glory!
As a young girl in Vienna in the early 1800s, Ida’s heart beat with a thirst for adventure, a penchant for recklessness, a hunger for knowledge. This, however, was not proper conduct for young ladies, and Ida’s mother resolutely reigned her daughter in until she’d seen her safely married off to a respectable fellow. When children came along to distract her from her foolishness, her mother was immensely relieved.
Children grow up, though, and when Ida’s kids were off on their own, she packed her bags and set off to fulfill her lifelong wanderlust. Join Ida in her fabulous escapades in this splendid, eye-popping book. Schwalbe employs the wild, exotic colors and forms of Matisse and the Fauves, amplifying Ida’s avante-garde spirit and explorations into the unknown. Share it with kids ages 4-5 and up.
Numbers in Motion: Sophie Kowalevski, Queen of Mathematics
written by Laurie Wallmark, illustrated by Yevgenia Mayberg
published in 2020 by Creston Books
The first female professional mathematician since 5th century Egypt, the first woman to obtain a doctorate in mathematics, the first woman appointed to full professorship in northern Europe — meet Sophie, a brilliant Russian woman who had to struggle every inch of the way to overcome the men-only world of math in 1800s Europe.
Sophie was fascinated by numbers and patterns from her childhood. As she grew older she taught herself complex math and physics for the sheer wonder of it. Outdistancing her tutors in mathematical prowess, she finagled her way by extraordinary means to Germany and into the men’s-only Heidelberg University. Every step of the way, Sophie had to work harder, find back doors, prove herself doubly and triply, but press on she did.
Even if you do not have a noodle for numbers, Sophie’s determination is fabulously inspiring. And though the particular mathematical problems she was working on are well beyond me, an Author’s Note does a dynamite job of explaining what the applications of her work are for us today. Check this one out for ages 9 and up.
Joni: The Lyrical Life of Joni Mitchell, written and illustrated by Selina Alko
published in 2020 by Harper
I grew up listening to Joni Mitchell and still have her music on my Spotify playlists so I was tickled to see this fond look back at her life.
An artistic soul from the time of her childhood in small-town Canada, Joni experienced life deeply and expressed herself according to her unique inner drumbeat. As she grew older she was able to lean into the painting, poetry, and music that always burbled inside her. Her penchant for taking the deeply personal and turning it into honest, plainspoken lyrics and heartfelt sound reached audiences in the groovy 60s atmosphere and still does.
Selina Alko’s affection for Mitchell is evident in both text and rainbow-colored collages that swirl and bloom across the pages. Included is an Author’s Note and Discography. It’s a lovely book for young children, but equally as well-suited to anyone with an artistic bent or adults who, like me, grew up on her music in the 60s and 70s.
Where Are You, Agnes?, written by Tessa McWatt, illustrated by Zuzanna Celej
published in 2020 by Groundwood Books
Here’s the second Canadian woman in today’s round-up, abstract painter Agnes Martin, born on the prairies of Saskatchewan in 1912.
This unusual, contemplative account probes the way Martin experienced the beauty of the world, the way beauty is etched in our minds so we can “see” it even when the solid original object is not immediately there, the feeling that beauty evokes within us and the way an artist might translate that feeling into images on paper. As such it does not follow standard biography protocol, outlining an artist’s life in a tidy, start-to-finish march. Instead, McWatt delivers almost an abstract image of this abstract artist.
Celej’s evocative illustration work perfectly complements the text with her subdued palette whispering to us, her diaphanous images and homely lines echoing the intangible perceptions that captivated Martin. Lines and patterns of prairie wheat and snow fences, tree trunks and insect trails play amongst the pages imitating those in Martin’s body of work. It’s a quiet, gorgeous, thought-provoking biography for ages 6 and older.
Miep and the Most Famous Diary: The Woman who Rescued Anne Frank’s Diary
written by Meeg Pincus, illustrated by Jordi Solano
published in 2019 by Sleeping Bear Press
The courage of those who provided safe harbor to their Jewish neighbors in WWII-era Europe is tremendously important to remember and take to heart. Most of these heroes’ names are lost to history, but Miep Gies is known because of the diary kept by one young girl.
Miep sheltered eight Jewish friends for two years, hiding them in a secret annex until in August of 1944, Nazi officers discovered them and sent them to prison camps. All but one — Anne Frank’s father — perished over the next nine months. Before their belongings could be pilfered by the Nazis, Miep rescued one precious item, a diary that young Anne had kept and hoped to publish after the war. When the war ended, Mr. Frank found his way back to Miep and was given the tremendous gift of his daughter’s writing. It was published seven years later.
This account highlights Miep’s experience of the war and her trauma over losing those she had tried to save. The information given in an afterword and timeline fill in more details that demonstrate her astonishing bravery and humanity in the face of desperation and danger. An inspiring, illuminating read for ages 7 and up.
Beatrix Potter, Scientist, written by Lindsay H. Metcalf, illustrated by Junyi Wu
published in 2020 by Albert Whitman and Co.
Beatrix Potter is understandably most famous for her many Tales about an assortment of small creatures including Mrs. Tiggywinkle, Squirrel Nutkin, and of course Peter Rabbit. I’ve appreciated, though, that a couple of recent children’s biographies have brought out the amazing range of her accomplishments including her scientific endeavors, business acumen, and land conservation. Beatrix was no diminutive personage, despite the wee dimensions of her books!
Metcalf portrays Potter as someone enamored with scientific inquiry from her childhood onward, her inquisitiveness extending even to boiling the bodies of any deceased creature from her small household menagerie — bunnies, newts, frogs, mice — in order to study and sketch their skeletons. With sketchbook in hand, she tromps through the countryside where she becomes fascinated by mushrooms — drawing, slicing, peering at them under a microscope, then drawing more of what she sees. She’s helped with this burgeoning interest in mycology, most surprisingly, by a Scottish mailman and goes on to make some fascinating discoveries. Sadly she is hindered greatly by limitations she faced as a woman seeking to make her way in the sciences.
Junyi Wu’s bright, colored-pencil artwork uplifts the energy in this book with vibrant, growing-green sprouting up across the pages. An Afterword provides quite a bit more detail about Beatrix’s life. It’s a fascinating read for ages 6 and up.
More superb reads are always on the way.
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