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.

{Book links in this post are compensated affiliate links. If you make purchases using them, Read It, Make It! receives a small commission. Thank you!}

Books for Women’s History Month: Finding Them

Today, I’m beginning a little series on finding, reading, and using excellent books for women’s history month. Today, we’ll focus on the finding. Later this week, I’ll share some of my favorites, and give you some ideas for how to use them at home, at school, and maybe even in more random situations.

women's history children's books

Here’s a little secret: I don’t like the non-fiction history books that you’re ‘supposed’ to like. That David Adler A Picture Book of… series? I think it’s dry, completely unengaging, and historically questionable. Of course, that series is a far sight better than the If You Were There When… series, which seems like a cartoon gone wrong. (These are just my personal opinions, of course. I’m sure there are kids out there who love these two series, and probably some kid somewhere won’t read anything else.)

My preference, particularly when it comes to books about Very Famous Historical People, is to identify one or two really great books about that person. I think it is well worth an investment of your time to find and pre-read a whole stack of books, and then select the very best to actually use. Sure, situations arise where you have to grab the book closest to your hand, but 95% of the time, you probably can use just a bit of prior planning and find some hidden gems.

What does this look like in reality? It means you can’t just google the name of a Very Important Historical Person, and then buy the first children’s listing that pops up on Amazon. It means you can’t just head over to the local big box bookstore and snatch the first thing you see. Listen to me carefully: you might luck out and grab something fantastic. You also might waste $8.95, unintentionally impart historically inaccurate information to the next generation, and make history a lot more boring or irrelevant than it needs to be.

Jefferson Meme

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The truth is that most of the time, you don’t need your children (or students) to memorize every detail of a Very Important Historical Person’s biography. There are probably some ‘big ideas’ about that person, his/her contributions to society, and his/her background that you want to stick with your children. Thus, you don’t want a book that reads more like an encyclopedia entry than quality children’s literature. As kids get older, this changes a little bit, but on the whole, I’ve found that quality children’s books can be the best introduction to a person or event.

It’s also essential to remember that perceptions of people and events change over time – as they should! Our world never stands still, and I, for one, am grateful not to be living in 1776. (If you’re wondering why, that would have me disenfranchised, probably impoverished, and close to blind – mama loves her corrected vision.) This means that the historical books you loved as a child – I’m looking at you, d’Aulaire biographies and Little House on the Prairie – might not be appropriate for modern children without a healthy dose of explanation.

Here’s my point: take the time to find the very best books for whatever or whomever you’re trying to study. Emphasize depth and great ideas over breadth and trivial knowledge. Then, if you discover you have a mini-historian in your house or classroom, you’ll know that you’ve provided a firm foundation on which s/he can build additional knowledge. There is precious little that will stand between a mini-historian and his/her acquisition of better and greater knowledge about an interesting subject, so don’t fret.

Proust Book quote

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