Book Reviews, Bookishness, Mamaishness, Teacherishness, Women's History Month

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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