Misty Copeland’s Firebird: Another book for little dancers

A few months back, I shared a few books that the little dancer at my house has loved. Recently, we’ve added one more to that list, so I thought I’d share it today.

Unless you’ve avoided nearly all media outlets, you’ve probably heard of Misty Copeland, who I’d argue is the most famous classical dancer in the world right now. {I think it’s beyond great that a classical dancer is a household name, but that might be a bit of personal bias.} Recently, Copeland was named the first African-American principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, and she’s made it her personal mission to involve more children of color in classical dance.

Firebird

What I didn’t know was that last fall, Copeland published a children’s book called Firebird (IndieBound/Amazon). Illustrated by the amazing Christopher Myers, Firebird is a sort of free-verse poem written from Copeland to an imagined young dancer. Full of encouragement, the text uses the Stravinsky ballet Firebird as a frame for the advice Copeland would give a young girl whose life hasn’t always followed the easiest path.

darling child, don’t you know
you’re just where I started
let the sun shine on your face
your beginning’s just begun

To be honest, I wasn’t sure that my children (ages 3.5 and 5.5) would really like this book. Its intended audience is clearly older, and the style is far from narrative. Something clicked, though, and they’ve asked to have it read repeatedly. Myers’ bold illustrations help move the story’s idea along in a somewhat narrative way, and that may have made the difference for my little readers. As I’m writing this with the book on my lap, the 5.5 year old is singing “Firebird! Firebird!” and dancing around the house, so there’s a ringing endorsement.

The book ends with a letter from Copeland to the reader, where she shares that she wanted to give young dancers a book in which they could see themselves. With Firebird, she has achieved that goal, and probably set in motion more dancing dreams than she realizes.

This four-minute news story contains both an interview with Misty Copeland, and some footage of her dancing. The dancing portion includes some scenes from Firebird, including pictures nearly identical to those Myers used in the book.

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Navigating Early – I love it.

Like most girls of my generation, I grew up slightly in love with the all-boys’ prep school movies of the late 20th century. “Dead Poets’ Society” was obviously our favorite, and I like to think I recognized the genius of Robert Sean Leonard long before he appeared on “House.” Thus, when I found out that Clare Vanderpool’s latest novel, Navigating Early (IndieBound/Amazon), was set in an all-boys’ prep school in New England, I figured I would like it.

books for middle school, navigating early review

Several years ago, my mother’s cousin sent her home with a copy of Vanderpool’s Moon Over Manifest (IndieBound/Amazon), which all three of us loved. Navigating Early is similar in that there are some fantastical elements within a more realistic narrative. Loosely framed within the style of an epic journey, Navigating Early follows two main characters – Jack and Early – whose lives have collided at a boarding school where neither particularly fits in. World War Two looms in the background, but seems quite remote from the rural Maine coasts and woods where the action of the novel occurs.

Today, we would consider Early autistic, but within the historical framework of the novel, he is just thought eccentric and difficult. Early’s particular fixation is on the number pi, and the elaborate storyline he has created to explain each of its digits. Jack falls into friendship with Early, and the two boys set out on a quest through the woods that eventually leads to some very unique characters and dangerous situations.

I think one of Vanderpool’s greatest strengths as a writer is creating characters that are relatable despite having some very singular qualities. Both main characters have lost their mothers, but they come to terms with that loss in very different ways. Both are struggling to understand the young men they are becoming, but their self-awareness comes at varying costs. Best of all, unlike those found in so many novels that middle schoolers read, these characters resonate with boys and girls, because Vanderpool’s coming-of-age stories transcend the tropes that many middle-grades writers seem to favor.

Increasingly, I am convinced that we kill a lot of novels – or at least the enjoyment that can be found in reading them – by teaching them to death. This is a book with enough going on that it could be ‘taught’ to a classroom, loved by a book group, or devoured by an eager solo reader. Vanderpool’s craft bears studying, and there’s plenty to unpack within the content, especially its convergence with epic verse. For once, I don’t think giving it a closer look would ruin it; rather, I think it would draw out the reader’s thinking and allow for a little more introspection.

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Angelo: An Unsung David Macaulay Classic

architecture books, books about loss and grief for children, children's grief books

Today, I want to share a little about this fantastic book that appeared on our library’s shelves a few weeks ago. Initially, I picked it up because of the author/illustrator. Like many people, I’ve long loved David Macalay’s magnificent architecture/engineering non-fiction works, including Castle (IndieBound/Amazon) and Mosque (IndieBound/Amazon). These large-format masterpieces have stayed in print for decades, and encouraged more than a few reluctant readers to read those pesky words sitting beside the intricate illustrations.

Angelo, by David Macaulay

Like Macaulay’s other work, Angelo (IndieBound/Amazon) is illustrated in almost a technical style, as you can see in the inset above. Unlike those other books, though, there is a definite human touch in the illustrations and story that makes this book really memorable. The story is straightforward: Angelo is a plasterer, working to restore a church in Florence. He befriends an injured pigeon, who becomes his constant companion. As Angelo ages and his health fades, the pigeon (now named Sylvia) provides as much help and comfort as she can. Angelo’s final masterwork is a permanent home for Sylvia, and Angelo passes away knowing that Sylvia will always have a safe place to rest.

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I was genuinely surprised to reach the end of the story and feel so strongly about the way that Angelo and Sylvia had helped each other. The discussion of death is done so deftly that young children might not even realize exactly what has happened to Angelo. My three year old loves this story, and explains matter-of-factly that Angelo has died at the end, but focuses more on the final nest he created for Sylvia. My very sensitive four year old also enjoys rereading this book, and will take the time to carefully study the illustrations, looking for little secrets in the pictures.

While this may not be The Book to use if your child or student is facing a particularly difficult loss, I think it is amazing as a simple introduction to the concept that all living things will eventually die. There are no meaningless platitudes, and no particular religious references, other than the funeral scene taking place at the church that Angelo re-plastered. There is a calmness to the story, which comes from the reader knowing that Angelo led a beautiful life and that he and Sylvia would live on in each others’ hearts.

Basically, it’s just plain lovely.

 

Hildegard von Bingen: Two Children’s Books

As we slowly ease ourselves into a Charlotte Mason-inspired education, I’ve been making a real effort to incorporate weekly composer and artist study into our homeschool time. For the sake of sanity, I decided we would begin by following the Ambleside Online artist and composer rotations, and then deviate from that plan as needed. Thus, our first composer this year has been Hildegard von Bingen, a cloistered nun from medieval Germany.

If you’re not familiar with her work – and I certainly wasn’t prior to this year – go ahead and click on the video below to listen while you read.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fRrjFUGeNCE

Otherworldly, right? Hildegard had religious visions from a young age, and eventually was inspired to record these visions and write music that shared the spirit of God with others. While remaining within the musical forms of her time, Hildegard also created a distinctive style. Listen to her compositions alongside other plainsong and medieval chants, and you’ll notice that you can identify her work fairly easily.

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While Charlotte Mason emphasized the music over the minutiae of its composer’s life, I became so fascinated with Hildegard that I did want to share a bit of her story with the girls. I found an excellent copy of Jonah & Jeanette Winter’s The Secret World of Hildegard (IndieBound/Amazon), and it does a magnificent job of explaining her life, the world in which she lived, and the reasons for her work.

books about hildegard von bingen, children's books for hildegard von bingen

The illustrations are done in a manner reminiscent of illuminations, and the more mystic and spiritual aspects of her life and work are explained in ways that young children can begin to grasp. Here is just one example, of the Holy Spirit descending upon Hildegard as she dictates to her scribes. The book beautifully describes her achievements, placing them in the context of a time when women were not expected to read, write, or assert much authority. For a fascinating in-depth study of her life and work, visit this website, which is clearly a labor of love.

medieval music children's book, hildegard von bingen children's book

Megan Hoyt and David Hill have also written and illustrated a newer book about Hildegard’s life. Hildegard’s Gift (IndieBound/Amazon) places its main focus on her musical accomplishments, and the role of her faith in making that work possible. The illustrations are in a more modern style, and this book might be preferable to some families. Also, it includes several quotes from Hildegard’s body of work in a way that allows them to strengthen the telling of the story.

My almost-three year old has been particularly taken with Hildegard, and asks to read the book frequently. We’ve also started a Hildegard Pandora channel, which makes for good background music throughout our day. I’m thrilled to have discovered this composer, and we are beginning to feel like she is an old friend.

Books for Little Dancers

My family has had a bit of a “Sunrise, Sunset” moment here lately, because Bethany and I are taking dance lessons from the same teacher this year. It’s actually Bethany’s second year in the program, and she’s loved it. When the school announced an adult class was forming, I convinced a dear friend to join me, and we jumped in.

I hadn’t danced since college, so the learning curve is pretty steep, but it’s also exactly what I needed. The class is only an hour, once a week, but it’s a chance to reconnect with something that was a huge part of my life for a long time. I’m a lot older and a little wiser, though, so I no longer care about whether or not I look silly or whether or not I’ll be ready for a recital. Heck, it’s an awful lot of work just to remember a combination.

Nonetheless, it’s an amazing space for me each week, and I’m grateful for the opportunity. Bethany is jealous that she doesn’t get to join me, and I am relieved that I am still working slightly beyond her in terms of technique. 😉 To celebrate our family’s little bit of dance togetherness, I thought I’d share two dance books that I love.

book about martha graham, kids dance book

Last spring, I was looking for a book about an American cultural icon, and my dancing friend suggested I look for something about Martha Graham. I discovered Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring, and bought it on a whim. (IndieBound/Amazon) It turned out even better than I could have anticipated, because it focuses on the three people who came together to create Appalachian Spring: Martha Graham (choreographer); Aaron Copland (composer); and Isamu Noguchi (designer).

The book details a tiny bit of each person’s biography, and then weaves their stories together within the context of the story of the ballet – not just its plot, but the nuances of its creation. Even if you’re not a dance fiend, you can still find some inspiration in this story of camaraderie and artistry.  Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan’s text deftly explains the plot of this piece, and also helps the reader understand the way that dance choreography changes in interpretation over time.

dance books for kids, martha graham book, appalachian spring book

While I wouldn’t necessarily expect a young reader to grasp that concept initially, the book’s overall flow makes it an interesting read for even the youngest dance lover. There is a bit of additional historical information in the final pages that provides a glimpse into each artist’s life and larger work. For my fellow history lovers, there are even extensive footnotes providing additional sources for further reading. (That’s right – footnotes in a picture book. Delicious.)

For me, Brian Floca’s illustrations do capture the spirit of the piece, and include plenty of white space in a minimalist style very reminiscent of Noguchi’s designs for the ballet’s set. To channel Levar Burton, though, don’t take my word for it. Let your little reader watch at least a portion of the ballet itself. An early film of the ballet is readily available on YouTube, with Graham herself dancing the lead. Watch the first part below:

dance books for kids

When I saw To Dance: A Ballerina’s Graphic Novel (IndieBound/Amazon) at the library, I grabbed it, because I thought it might be a graphic novel I could like. (Sorry to the aficionados out there, but I just can’t get into the genre.) Fortunately, my instincts were correct and it was actually a graphic novel I could enjoy. It’s an autobiographical story, with illustrations by the author’s husband, so you definitely feel the pull of dance in the narrator’s life.

What struck me initially was that the book that inspired author Siena Cherson Siegel to dance and keep dancing was also a book I poured over as a child. That book – A Very Young Dancer, by Jill Krementz (IndieBound/Amazon) – might seem outdated now, but I have no doubt that it encouraged an entire generation of twinkle toes. Siegel’s evident joy in movement is also something I remember, though my talent and aspirations climbed nowhere near the heights that hers did.

Siegel doesn’t beat around the bush. She leaves her family behind in Puerto Rico to move to the U.S. and advance her dance education. As she does, you read about the exhaustion, the stress, and eventually the injuries that led her to leave dance as a profession. She returns, however, knowing that she needs that source of expression in her life. I particularly appreciated the honesty that runs throughout the novel: Siegel’s life isn’t perfect, and her story as a dancer doesn’t culminate in a breathtaking career as a prima ballerina.

Rather, she works through her childhood ambition, reaches some audacious goals, and then makes a wise, though heartbreaking, decision. For this reason, I think that this is the sort of book that would resonate with many kids, even those whose “thing” isn’t dance. The illustrations, by Mark Siegel, are more varied than those found in many graphic novels, and they accompany the text without overwhelming it.

Please note that due to some difficult situations described in this book, I would not consider it appropriate for the youngest readers. There is nothing that would prevent me giving it to a mature fourth or fifth grader, but you will want to pre-read it to develop your own opinion.

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Sophie’s Squash: I’m not the only fan of the butternut.

Last week, I told you about my little error in the book storage arena. As a result, we’ve been discovering some excellent new fall books, because we’ve had to actually pay attention to those at the library. Up today: Sophie’s Squash, by Pat Zietlow Miller, with illustrations by Anne Wilsdorf. (IndieBound/Amazon)

fall books, preschool fall book, elementary fall book

This one is only tangentially related to fall, but I snatched it up because I’d just bought my first butternut squash of the year from our friendly farmer, Mr. Chad. In the story, Sophie also selects a butternut squash from her local farmer’s market. Unlike me, though, Sophie considers the squash a friend, rather than an ingredient.

best books for fall, books for anxious kids

As the story progresses, Sophie becomes increasingly attached to Bernice the Squash, while Bernice begins to deteriorate. Eventually, Sophie’s parents convince her to visit the farmer again, who tells her what squash need to thrive: “fresh air, good clean dirt, and a little love.” Sophie knows she has all of those things, so she buries Bernice in a little dirt bed in her yard.

children's books for fall, vegetable book

Winter arrives immediately thereafter, and Sophie frets about what will become of her beloved friend. It turns out that there is no need to fear, because Spring comes with a surprise better than she could have ever anticipated. The picture above gives you a little clue about that, but I’m not going to give away the entire ending.

My older daughter is a bit anxious by nature, and this was a good book for us to read and use to discuss ways that things that seem initially difficult can have surprisingly great endings. It’s also a book worth considering if you have a child or student who needs to give up a treasured object for one reason or another. Sophie’s caring nature is definitely one to emulate, and I think the overall message is one that would be useful for most children.

Butternut Squash

I feel like I should tell you that we did not create a doll out of our squash, since I have definite plans to eat it in the near future. Maybe I’ll figure out how to make one out of felt? There’s a chance I get that done before Sophie’s next book is published…

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Hello there, Fall.

We made a terrible decision this summer. We are doing the miserable work of getting our house ready to sell, and in a fit of decisiveness, I put all of our holiday and seasonal books in storage. I don’t know why I did it, but I do know I regret it, because now those books are at the very back and very bottom of a storage unit, and it’s fall.

I WANT MY FALL BOOKS BACK!

But, since we have to live with the consequences of our actions, I trotted the girls down to our local library to see if they had anything new and exciting that would make me less sad. There were not terribly many choices, so we might have to try another branch.

best books for fall, toddler fall book, preschool fall book, nonfiction fall book

However, one book they did have was pretty amazing, and I’m thrilled to have found it. It’s called Awesome Autumn, but don’t let the title fool you – it’s not cheesy or ridiculous. (IndieBound/Amazon) It’s actually a neat little compendium of non-fiction spreads about topics ranging from why leaves change color to different textures found on traditional fall objects. There’s a little history of Thanksgiving that is about as non-offensive as you can get in three paragraphs, and also a detailed guide of sorts to leaves and nuts from various trees.

My girls (almost three and almost five) love it. It’s varied enough that they can read the whole thing in one sitting, and it’s surprisingly multi-level. While Bethany is beyond the “find the round things” page, Clara loves it, and they both have enjoyed the photographs of things that they actually see in their everyday lives.

fall books for nature studyTrue story: We were at the park earlier this week, and Clara picked up a nut and told me that she had seen it in the “Autumn Book,” as she calls it. We brought it home, opened up the book, and sure enough, it was a sycamore nut (labeled as a plane tree nut, actually)! Then, we were able to go back to the park and find the sycamore tree that produced the nut.

Our found sycamore nut and the page that helped us identify it.

Our sycamore nut and the page that helped us identify it.

I am definitely moving this book to the top of my ‘best books for fall’ list, especially since it’s great for home or classroom. It has special appeal for non-fiction readers, and it’s so relate-able that you could use it as a springboard for nature study for almost any preschool or elementary age child, class, or group. This is the book that your child or student will carry to you over and over to read, and you won’t mind. It’s that good!

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Women’s History Month: Books About Science and Conservation

books about science

In putting together a few books about women in science, I noticed that a conservation theme was emerging. That makes today’s post all about conservation – and the conservation scientists whose contributions we remember today.

Miss Lady Bird's Wildflowers

You might be a little surprised to see this book on a science list, since Lady Bird Johnson is obviously best known for her role as First Lady during her husband’s presidency. Nonethless, Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers: How a First Lady Changed America (IndieBound/Amazon) is as much about science as it is beauty and the impact of a determined woman.

Kathi Appelt and Joy Fisher Hein’s depiction of Lady Bird Johnson’s life is a mixture of sadness and discovery. Because of the comfort she found in the woods and ponds of her east Texas home, she ultimately became a naturalist. When she felt an obligation to help the nation through its grief following President Kennedy’s assassination, she turned to the natural environment that helped her overcome the sadness she felt at her own mother’s premature death.

Johnson dedicated herself to preserving natural spaces, increasing the diversity of plant life, and guaranteeing that all children – even those growing up in the concrete expanses of urban centers – would experience the out-of-doors. She was truly ahead of her time in her opinion that native plants should be preserved and propagated, insuring that future generations would know the wildflowers that she had loved as a young girl.

Hein’s paintings have a bit of a folk-art quality, which perfectly suits the down-home personality that made Johnson beloved by many Americans. Appelt’s text provides ample opportunities for students to make connections between Johnson’s life and their own. She also breaks down the need for highway beautification, conservation, and plant preservation into terminology and description that even young readers can grasp.

Planting the Trees of Kenya

Keeping with the theme of conservation and restoration is one of my very favorite books, Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai. (IndieBound/Amazon) Based on the work of Nobel Laureate Maathai, Claire Nivola’s book richly describes the way in which one determined individual can impact the life of an entire nation.

Maathai grew up in Kenya, but left to attend college in the United States. The landscape she found when she returned was very different than the one she’d left behind. In 1977, she founded the Green Belt movement, which encouraged ordinary people to engage in conservation-minded behavior that helped provided economic benefits to local communities.

Planting the Trees of Kenya describes re-forestation efforts and their impact on local communities and individuals. Written with a voice respectful of the Kenyan people, it’s a very inspirational book. It also provides a gentle introduction to the democratic ideal that governments are responsible to protect the interests of the governed. You can sneak in a little civics lesson to go along with the discussion of conservation and the essential role of green plants in healthy ecosystems.

Rachel Carson and Her Book That Changed the World

Rachel Carson and Her Book That Changed the World (IndieBound/Amazon) tells the story of conservation activist Rachel Carson, whose 1962 book Silent Spring ushered in the modern environmental movement. The book begins with the natural adventures Carson enjoyed as a child, and shows how those early memories impacted Carson’s later work to preserve the environment she so loved.

With young readers, this book serves as a great way to show the reasons that scientists must consider all the ramifications of a discovery. Silent Spring helped the general public understand the hidden, but deadly, consequences of DDT. In Rachel Carson, Laurie Lawlor and Laura Beingessner explain these consequences while also explaining why many people had thought DDT both harmless and necessary.

women's history children's books

While students will certainly notice that all three scientists were deeply impacted by their childhood experiences in nature, parents and teachers will also want to note the value of these experiences for today’s children. For that reason, these are not just books about science, but hopefully they are also books that inspire children to get outside, dig in the dirt, and pay attention to the creatures they see around them.

Passion is lifted from the earth itself by the muddy hands of the young; it travels along grass-stained sleeves to the heart. If we are going to save environmentalism and the environment, we must also save an endangered indicator species: the child in nature.

-Richard Louv, The Last Child in the Woods (IndieBound/Amazon)

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More books for Women’s History Month.

women's history children's books

I’ve read more than once recently that the “golden age of picture books” has passed. While that’s certainly a dreadful thing to contemplate, I don’t think I entirely agree with it. Surely, there are some stylistic choices that are becoming more common that I don’t love, but there’s also an increasing emphasis on telling really great stories about non-fiction topics, which I do love.

Most of these books fit in that category, in my personal estimation. Their subjects are either women who have been ignored in previous children’s literature, or they take Very Important Historical Figures and make those women’s lives and contributions relevant and meaningful to modern children. You know those mind-numbing biographies that live on library shelves? These are not those books. (I assume you know where to find those if you need them – but I’m going to have to ask you why you think you need them.)

books for women's history month, eleanor roosevelt children's book

I’ll go ahead and state my bias outright: I really love Eleanor Roosevelt. Her dedication to children’s issues and peaceful conflict resolution were amazing, and her tenacity remains unmatched. Barbara Cooney’s Eleanor, however, doesn’t address any of those adult accomplishments that we all admire. (IndieBound/Amazon)

Instead, Eleanor focuses on the eventual First Lady’s rather sad and lonely childhood. Without delving too deeply into the soap opera that formed Eleanor Roosevelt’s early life, Cooney manages to convey the idea that Eleanor Roosevelt’s life was not a charmed one, despite her outrageous wealth and family connections. In using this book with students, I’ve found that they all too often find a connection with some portion of the story: an absent father, a time when they felt that no one would listen to them, or a desire for a life different than the one they’re living.

Additionally, you see the seeds of Eleanor Roosevelt’s later interest in the lives of “ordinary” people. She does the sort of charity work expected of someone in her social position, but even as a child, she starts to question the systems that have put other people in the precarious situations that eventually necessitate her charitable aid. If you read this, and then have students read the letters Eleanor wrote to children during the Great Depression, you’ll have made a powerful connection between childhood observations and adult activism and action.

marian anderson children's book, women's history month children's books

Eleanor Roosevelt also features briefly in Pam Muñoz Ryan and Brian Selznick’s When Marian Sang. (IndieBound/Amazon) Far more encyclopedic in scope than many books I recommend, When Marian Sang takes readers through the life of singer Marian Anderson. From her first music lessons to her triumphant performance at the Lincoln Memorial and beyond, the text conveys both Marian Anderson’s passion for music and her desire to fight for her rights as an American.

This book – one I read to almost every student I ever taught – has some sort of transcendent magic that lets students fall in love with it. It’s longer than the average picture book, and might be best read in more than one sitting, but Anderson’s life is explained in a way that students feel like they know her. Read it, share some footage, make the clear-cut connection between her 1939 concert and Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech almost 25 years later, and you’ve got one heck of a history lesson.

elizabeth blackwell children's book, women's history month books

I almost passed Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? (IndieBound/Amazon) without a second glance, because the font on the cover nearly obscured the essential (to me) subtitle: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell. Blackwell, whom I knew mostly as the answer to a Quiz Bowl question (“Name this woman, the first woman awarded an M.D. in the United States…”), was even more amazing than her medical degree might make her seem.

She not only became a doctor in an era when that achievement was forbidden for women, but she actually opened her own clinic to serve poor women. She was also a strident abolitionist (her parents had immigrated to the United States in order to aid the abolitionist cause), and helped establish a medical college for women in her native England.

I’ll just go ahead and say it: in the era of STEM emphasis, it is unbelievable that we are not teaching children about this woman and her work. Fortunately – very fortunately – there is an amazing children’s book to rectify this situation. Who Says Women Can’t be Doctors? is feisty in just the right way. Rather than identifying facts and reciting them, author Tonya Lee Stone’s tone is almost poetic. Marjorie Priceman’s illustrations are fresh and modern and draw readers into the story.

My girls are at a stage where they love the idea of doctors and hospitals, so they love this book. While it’s obviously perfect for a women’s history month sort of use, it’s also great with younger readers, as it gives them a real person to admire while they’re taking a stuffed animal’s temperature and blood pressure.

books about women's rights, books about african-american history

I recommend Catherine Clinton and Shane W. Evans’  When Harriet Met Sojourner (IndieBound/Amazon) with one enormous caveat – there’s a likely historical error. However, it’s the sort of error that makes for great teaching, so I think you’re well served to add this book to your library.

First, the good stuff: the illustrations in this book are a great amalgamation of modern art and classic rendering. While there’s some Cubist inspiration in the shapes and angles of the quilt-like pictures, you can also tell what you’re seeing, which is fairly essential in sharing new historical knowledge with young readers. The text tells the story of how Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth met one another in 1864, because while we tend to lump them together as Abolitionists, they were actually not from the same generation. It describes each of their lives as individuals, as well as their encounter with each other.

More good stuff: I love to show the lives of people from the past intersecting. I love to help students see that Dr. King and Jimmy Carter were born only two years apart. It’s sort of mind-boggling to kids who are only seven and eight years old, but it’s so important in helping them build a real chronology for their growing brains. Thus, even though this one meeting might not have been earth-shattering, it’s still incredible to think that these two women came together and had a conversation.

Now, the problem: the book cites Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech. While Sojourner Truth most certainly did give a speech in Akron, Ohio, in 1851, modern historian and Truth biographer Nell Painter asserts that the text we associate with Truth today was probably actually written and published by a White activist. I think this is a great teaching moment: historians are always uncovering new information that forces us to reconsider the past! And sometimes this new information is from the recent past, or a time period when we think there’s no way that something ‘new’ could appear.

After all, 1851 is hardly the era of cuneiform tablets! How could we not be sure of the content of a speech delivered to a crowded hall? Nonetheless, a great deal of accuracy is now lost to history, and it’s important to teach our children that these sorts of misperceptions do happen. It’s also a moment where we can show older readers that the veracity of primary source documents is not always to be inherently trusted!

Now, if you’ve made your way through all these reviews, and you’re thinking something along the lines of, “Heavens to Betsy, how in the world would I actually get all that done?” let me encourage you to start small. Pick one book. Read it aloud. Answer your readers’ questions, or better yet, help them find the answers to their questions. Remember the book, and the woman in it, and make connections as they appear. It’s worth the effort. I promise.

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Books for Women’s History Month

women's history children's books

March is Women’s History Month, by official government proclamation, but it’s worth identifying great books about women’s history to use all year long. Today and tomorrow, I’m sharing some more recent favorites, as well as some books that I’ve loved for years and I want everyone to know about. You’ll see that these books are about all sorts of women – famous women whose names you’d recognize instantly, but also the sorts of women that sometimes get ignored when we’re studying History-with-a-capital-H.

By no means is this list all-inclusive; the minute I hit ‘publish’ on this post, I’ll think of eight more books I wish I’d shared. The list is already so long that I’m splitting it up over the next several days. If, however, you’re looking for something about a particular woman, event, etc., feel free to leave a comment or use that cute little ‘contact me’ button, and I’ll be happy to help you find the perfect book.

Clara with Clara

Here is our Clara on her second birthday last fall. Do you see what she’s clutching? It’s a book about another Clara – one you probably don’t know – named Clara Lemlich. The book is Brave Girl (IndieBound/Amazon) by Michelle Markel, with illustrations by Melissa Sweet, and it tells the story of Clara Lemlich’s work as an organizer for garment workers at the turn of the 20th century.

books for women's history month

In text appropriate for elementary-aged children, Brave Girl describes how garment workers worked long hours in unhealthy conditions for low pay. The illustrations support the text when necessary, and also help move the story along. One page shows an overhead view of girls sewing at long tables, and it particularly impressed the children with whom I shared it. One boy remarked, “I can’t imagine having to sit and sew all day in a crowded room.”

When Clara gets fed up with her situation, she galvanizes (in Yiddish!) other immigrant workers into joining strikes and picket lines. Despite physical injuries, financial consequences, and constant intimidation, she calls for the strikes to get bigger. In fact, she leads the call for a 1909 general strike that eventually did lead to significant improvement in conditions for garment workers.

With older children, there are obvious parallels to draw with working conditions for folks in other countries who sew so many of the clothes we buy today. In addition, older students might be interested in learning about the Triangle Factory Fire, and other events of the 1910s that led to radical improvements in workplace safety regulations in this country.

women's history children's books

Moving forward a little bit in history, One Thousand Tracings (IndieBound/Amazon), by Lita Judge, describes a grassroots relief project undertaken in the months following World War II. The author’s grandparents learned from their scientist colleagues in Germany that many ordinary Germans were going without basic food and clothing in the aftermath of the war. In a time when anti-Germany sentiment was (understandably) prevalent, these brave souls – along with their daughter, the author’s mother – set out to provide their former enemies’ most essential needs.

The book’s title comes from the foot tracings sent by the Germans so that appropriately-sized donated American shoes and boots could be found. America’s wartime rationing was ending, so there were not necessarily abundant supplies of things like shoes in America, either. Nonetheless, the scientific community (ornithologists in particular) pulled together to pack boxes full of food, clothing, and shoes to send to families who were worried about how they would survive through winter.

This particular book is notable not only for its unique subject, but also for the gentle way it depicts one small group of ordinary citizens’ decision to follow their own moral compass. Rather than writing off the needs of former friends and colleagues due to their national identity, they instead chose to take the path of love and compassion. I think it’s an amazing story to use in our current era, when we have a tendency to feel helpless, and thus relieved of any responsibility, when we hear of people who are lacking in things that we take for granted.

For history teachers and lovers, there are numerous primary source documents included in the book and its illustrations. The author found both the tracings and letters sent from Germany, with their translations, in her grandparents’ attic. Some of these are heart-rending, others matter-of-fact. Taken altogether, they help paint a beautiful picture of what it means to live as part of a community, even when that community is fractured by warfare and distance.

My Great-Aunt Arizona

My Great-Aunt Arizona, by Gloria Houston and Susan Condie Lamb, is the sort of book that makes teachers cry when they try to read it. (IndieBound/Amazon) It tells the story of Arizona, a girl who loved to read and learn, and who grew up to become a teacher.

This is an excellent story to show young children how life changes over time. Arizona starts teaching in a one-room schoolhouse, and ends her career in a very modern building. It also shows the impact of her life’s work – though she never travels the world to all the places she’s discovered in her books, she sees them through the eyes of her students who do travel.

The text is lovely, the illustrations are beautiful and filled with detail, and you can’t help but fall in love with a book about falling in love with books and learning. Arizona was a real person, but she’s also an archetype that we tend to honor in private far more than we do in public: the devoted and loving teacher. In the era before any sort of “teacher of the year” nonsense, people like Arizona were the real deal, and the value of their gifts lives on in the lives they touched.

While I absolutely believe we should be encouraging our girls to consider careers in science and technology, and I am equally grateful that we live in a time when very few doors are closed to girls because of their gender, I don’t want us to disparage the work done by women in a time when choices were fewer. Reading books like this one helps us keep a healthy historical perspective.

Coming tomorrow: books about some American women whose names you’ve probably heard before.

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