Wednesday, April 22, is the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day which will be celebrated around the globe. Read below about some new picture books, both fiction and nonfiction, that Christine Van Zandt recommends to help your children understand the significance of this holiday.
One of my favorite things about Henry Cole’s gorgeous, wordless picture book, One Little Bag: An Amazing Journey, is the prologue. I was hooked from the first image: a forest where one tree—colored brown—stands out. Cole’s amazingly detailed black-ink drawings are juxtaposed by brown-colored items: the tree, first made into paper, becomes an unassuming lunch bag.
In the Author’s Note, Cole shares how, in 1970 for the first Earth Day, he decided to not throw out has lunch bag that day. Or the next one. Eventually, he used that bag about 700 times! Then, when he went to college, he passed the velvet-soft bag to his younger friend who used it for another year. Wow! This really hit home with me. I’m conscientious about noncompostables, but will now consider the possibilities of paper products.
Using a humble brown bag as its central element, the story follows the bag’s journey from creation to conclusion. We are emotionally engaged with the little boy as he grows to adulthood and the family members we meet along the way. This story drives home the messages that even seemingly insignificant choices matter and that kids have the power to change things. These workhorse lunch bags are relatively inexpensive and typically don’t garner a second thought. Cole’s true-life story brings this simple item to the front page of his book and the forefront of our attention. Bravo! ★Starred Review – Kirkus Reviews
When I think of the mischievously adorable Peter Rabbit, of course his creator, Beatrix Potter, comes to mind. But, who was the woman behind this famous character? Linda Elovitz Marshall’s picture book, Saving the Countryside: The Story of Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbitfills in the blanks.
Potter was a bright artistic girl who lived in the city but cherished the family’s summers in the country. Too soon, it was back to the constraints of being a Victorian-era girl. Focusing on her drawings, Potter, later, was able to land a job—but only because the publisher thought she was a man. Throughout the story, we see Potter pushing against and past the bonds of what a woman was “supposed to do.” While these actions were commendable, Potter also took on the role of conservationist, buying up more than 4,000 acres of beloved land to keep it peacefully undeveloped; her donation to the UK’s National Trust allowed the area’s preservation.
The illustrator, Ilaria Urbinati, enlivens Potter’s story in a muted old-fashioned style complementary to the text. Be sure to check beneath the cover for a clever second image: a before-and-after of Potter in her cherished landscape.
This behind-the-scenes look at Potter’s life will engage kids because it’s relatable and inspirational—showing you can make a career doing what you love, break through societal limits, and care for our planet. What Potter managed in her 77 years was exceptional. ★Starred Review– Foreward Reviews
Land Wilson’s rhyming picture book, The Girl Who Spoke to the Moon: A Story About Friendship and Loving Our Planet, is a gentle story packing a powerful message. Little Sofia befriends the Moon and, one night when he’s blue, she imagines herself up there, seeing the Earth from a new perspective. The Moon sadly tells her, “With dirty waters, land, and air, it looks as though she’s in despair. Her people seem so unaware that what Earth needs is better care.”
Sue Cornelison’s soothing images are in the muted tones of a bedtime book, yet, the swoops of sparkles throughout give the story movement and feeling. Once Sofia realizes she must share her findings, we’re shown glimpses of children from around the world doing their part to help our planet.
The end matter provides explanations of how the Earth’s air, land, and water are polluted, followed by simple suggestions such as creating less trash and eating less meat. In the Author’s Note, Wilson shares how astronauts love looking back at our planet, but how that distance also brings an understanding of Earth’s vulnerability and precious importance. Wilson urges us to make the Earth’s well-being a priority: “When people work together, our power grows. But we need to work faster, harder, and smarter”—a message that should be taken to heart as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. I like how Wilson’s commentary is both realistic and optimistic, hopefully inciting readers to action.
The wonderful thing about nonfiction biographies is that, when done well, they will take us on a journey full of facts, stories, and struggles that will not only enlighten us but also keep us glued to the page, even when we know the outcome. The following books we’ve selected to share for Women’s History Month are excellent examples of recent biographies about extraordinary, trailblazing women whose legacies are enduring and whose contributions remain invaluable serving as powerful role models for generations to come. Find out more about Hedy Lamarr, Susan B. Anthony and Ada Byron Lovelace below.
Wallmark’s chosen a fascinating woman to profile in her illuminating picture book biography of Hedy Lamarr. The Hollywood legend was more than dazzlingly beautiful actress, she was a secret inventor whose “greatest invention was the technology known as frequency-hopping spread spectrum” which has played a crucial role in keeping “our cell phone messages private” and keeping our computers hack-free. Although she knew she was more than just her looks, Lamarr chose to hide this talent from public and didn’t sell her inventions.
Born in Austria in 1920 (100 years after Susan B. Anthony), Hedy was a curious child who, when other kids would likely be out playing, was pre-occupied with how things worked. Her father encouraged her interest in science and technology which no doubt had a positive impact on the young girl. She also had a love of cinema and pretending so it was no surprise she gravitated towards a career in the movies. “I acted all the time … I was a little living copybook. I wrote people down on me.” Eventually doors opened for Hedy when a famous film producer offered her a seven-year film contract. She left her homeland for the bright lights of Hollywood, had her name changed to Hedy Lamarr from Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler and went on to star in films with some of the industry’s most popular leading men including Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable.
With her wondering mind at work all the time, even after a day of filming, Lamarr always was thinking about a way to improve on things already in existence or to create something new. That was especially true during WWII. So when she met composer George Antheil, a former weapons inspector, she learned from him that the U.S. Navy, like the European ones, had trouble with the enemy jamming their weapons’ radio signals. Hedy wondered if there was a way to counter this. With the piano as the impetus for a new idea, Hedy thought there might be a way to change frequencies like playing the same keys on a piano in different octaves, and by doing so build a secure torpedo guidance system. And so, after a lot of hard work, they did. Together with Antheil they shared their invention and were told it was “red-hot” but it still needed more work to operate effectively. While the pair eventually received their patent, the Navy “refused to develop” this ground-breaking technology and even classified it as secret so no one else could use the idea. Ultimately they never earned a penny from this breakthrough.
Undeterred by her thwarted efforts to help her adopted homeland, Hedy found success by getting behind the war bond effort, selling millions. Lamarr also took time to meet with servicemen at the Hollywood Canteen and pitched in any way she could. She retired From the movie business in the late 50s and only in the last twenty years has been earning the recognition long overdue. Wu’s artwork is just the right amount of subject and space, and pulls us into every illustration, my favorite being the one where Lamarr and Antheil first meet at a dinner party. Her simple depictions of Lamarr’s big green eyes, sculpted nose and brown hair are terrific. Wallmark’s added a “Timeline” and “Secrets of the Secret Communications System” in the back matter for young readers to learn more about “jam-proofing” technology. I love how even the endpapers are filled with artwork and details about Lamarr. Plus readers will find a “Selected Bibliography,” “Additional Reading About Other Women in Stem” and a list of “Hedy Lamarr’s Films.” Award-winning author Wallmark’s also written picture book biographies about Ada Byron Lovelace and Grace Hopper. Add Hedy Lamarr’s Double Life to the list of must-read biographies.
Prepare to be impressed by the tireless commitment and inroads Susan B. Anthony made for women’s suffrage as detailed by Teri Kanefield in Susan B. Anthony: The Making of America, book #4 in this inspiring series in which each volume “tells the story of an American leader who helped shaped the United States” that we know today. My review copy is so dog-eared to mark the countless passages I wanted to return to. What Kanefield successfully does from the Prologue forward is thoughtfully convey the most important aspects of Anthony’s life so kids will see the evolution of her beliefs beginning with her Quaker upbringing, her teaching years and all the way through to her time lecturing across America as an abolitionist and women’s rights activist.
What comes across to the reader is that Anthony, born in 1820, prior to the Victorian era, from an early age held strong convictions that everyone should be treated as equals. At that time in our country’s history women were supposed to raise families and keep their noses out of politics and practically everything else unless it concerned homemaking. They were only allowed to work in a limited amount of jobs: teacher, seamstress or nanny. They were prohibited from owning property and, in the case of estrangement in a marriage, the man gained custody of the children. In fact, it was not uncommon for a man to have his wife committed to an insane asylum if he wanted out of the marriage.
The immoral slave trade was the most divisive issue, even among Quakers at that time. To Anthony, people of color as well as women were not second class citizens, destined to remain subservient to white men. This was considered a radical idea in the early 19th century and she did not have an easy path as she tried, along with her friend and fellow activist, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to bring about change and a new amendment to the Constitution giving women the vote. Frederick Douglass was a friend with whom she worked to help first abolish slavery and then gain constitutional protection for free slaves. However, before slavery was abolished and even after, prominent politicians and leaders cautioned her to put her agenda for women’s rights on hold. This was unacceptable. Anthony, along with her friend and staunchest ally, Stanton, challenged the notion that women had to forgo their wants and needs and remained determined “to ride roughshod over obstacles, ignore critics, and take help wherever they could get it.” The support of Anthony’s large family was a constant throughout her life and I wonder how she’d have managed without them during the numerous times she was broke or in debt. Her intelligence and quick wit made her the ideal person to speak on behalf of the suffrage movement but it’s worth noting that she also gravitated towards defending anyone whose rights were being abused.
This well-researched biography is filled with maps, photos, flyers, posters and advertisements that help paint a picture of American society during Anthony’s life. Even something like a lady’s corset could be symbolic of the self-imposed restrictions 19th century women placed upon themselves due to societal norms that a woman should have an hourglass figure. “Girls as young as seven were laced into overly tight corsets.” Also included are Notes, a Time Line, Selected Writings of Susan B. Anthony, a Bibliography, Acknowledgments and an Index.
By the time she died at age 86, four states allowed women to vote but it wasn’t until President Woodrow Wilson and the start of WWI that an amendment to give women the vote would gain traction, ultimately becoming the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, also called the Susan B. Anthony amendment, in 1920, fourteen years after her death. Kanefield’s invaluable biography paints a portrait of an American hero whose convictions changed the course of American history
I told everyone about Ada Byron Lovelace after finishing Dreaming in Code. I had heard her name in regards to code but it ended there. I knew nothing of the back story that led to this brilliant woman’s presaging today’s computer era almost two centuries ago!
Ada Byron Lovelace was born in England at the end of 1815, just five years before Susan B. Anthony. Augusta Ada Byron, was the daughter of the celebrated poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, and his “prim, religious” wife, Anne Isabella Noel, called Annabella, a woman of wealth and intelligence. The couple did not remain together due to his philandering and squandering of money among other things so Ada, as she became known, was raised by a single mother. Annabella was a self-centered hypochondriac yet quite philanthropic at the same time and left it to nannies, governesses and tutors to raise her child while she spent time away visiting her newly inherited holdings and helping the coal miners under her employ. McCully engagingly details how Ada flourished from her education although she remained removed from society until her mother deemed it necessary to find her a husband.
Around this time Ada met Charles Babbage, “famous inventor, philosopher (as scientists were then called) and mathematician” who held Isaac Newton’s chair at Cambridge University. Theirs was to be a long and intense, though completely platonic, relationship as they discussed big ideas since both were passionate about math and science. Their friendship provided Ada with the outlet she needed for stimulation. However things grew complicated when she married William, Lord King who became the Earl of Lovelace and soon became a mother. Though not as cold as her own mother, Ada, too, found it difficult to parent when her loyalties lay elsewhere. These chapters were some of the most fascinating ones yet sad at the same time. She often felt ill and, as was common in the early 19th century, was prescribed Laudanum, a tincture of opium viewed as a cure-all. That addiction had to have contributed to her early death at age 37.
As Countess of Lovelace, Ada mixed with a cross-section of society and attended talks on science given by brilliant minds of the era such as Michael Faraday. Ada also wanted to help Babbage and his Analytical Engine and at the same time make her own mark in the science and math fields. Here’s where her genius shone through. While Babbage saw his invention as “arithmetical and numerical, rather than algebraical and analytical,” Ada believed the machine could do more than compute … “that numbers were symbols and could represent other concepts, is what makes Babbage’s engine a prototype-computer.” Sadly, Lovelace lived in era when women were overshadowed by men and women’s freedoms were limited. We can only begin to imagine what miraculous achievements she’d have made had she only lived longer.
With the very readable Dreaming in Code highlighting her meticulous research, McCully has shed light on Ada Byron Lovelace, an important historical figure whose contributions to the field of STEM are finally getting the recognition they deserve. I recommend this young adult nonfiction book for anyone seeking to get a better understanding of the era in which Lovelace lived and how she was inspired to think outside the box.
Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Read about the friendship of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass here. Read another book, Dare The Wind, illustrated Emily Arnold McCully here.
“Each time a girl opens a book and reads a womanless history, she learns she is worth less.”
~ Dr. Myra Pollack Sadker, researcher, educator, and author of Failing at Fairness: How America’s Schools Cheat Girls (Scribners)
Knowing our history helps us discover who we are, and where we want to go. But when we don’t know our own history, or ‘herstory,’ this is a difficult task. Not knowing our past can limit our power today, and hinder our dreams for tomorrow. The National Women’s History Project initiated Women’s History Month 35 years ago to address this issue, and their mission remains to ‘write women back into history.’ In honor of Women’s History Month, I’d like to re-visit an author interview focused on a heroic woman whom I am very glad to have discovered and why I HAD to record her story for young readers.
When my picture book, Molly, by Golly! The Legend of Molly Williams, America’s First Female Firefighter, was released, I did several interviews for bloggers. One of the nicest was this one with Debbi Michiko Florence for her blog DEBtastic Reads. It was a pleasure ‘talking’ with her about this book of mine, which went on to win the bronze medal in the 2013 Florida Book Awards, was named to the 2012 ALA Amelia Bloomer Book List for Feminist Literature, and more recently, was included as a 2016 Selection on the Top 100 Recommended African-American Children’s Books by AALBC.com (African-American Literature Book Club).
Q: Congratulations on the release of your newest picture book, MOLLY, BY GOLLY!The Legend of Molly Williams, America’s First Female Firefighter (Calkins Creek), fabulously illustrated by Kathleen Kemly. You first became interested in Molly when you came across her legend while researching another book. What inspired you to turn this into a picture book?
A: First, it was the great spirit of volunteerism that is at the heart of Molly’s legendary tale. What Molly lacked in experience she more than compensated for with her courage and strength. It was a great opportunity to inspire future firefighters and other community helpers. Second, it was a chance to show kids how fires were actually fought in early American times. I was meticulous in my research of these details, and so was illustrator Kathleen Kemly—the firefighting history experts who double-checked our efforts were equally meticulous—because we all wanted to present as accurate a picture as possible. Kids will certainly get an appreciation for the modern equipment we have today. Third, Molly’s legend was filled with the type of action and emotion sure to inspire fabulous illustrations…which is just what happened!
Q: I was fascinated to learn how intensive and exhausting firefighting was in the 1800s! What part of your research for this book surprised you the most?
A: The biggest surprise was learning that the earliest pumper engines were not transported to the scene of a fire by a team of horses as I’d always assumed—PEOPLE did. The cobblestone streets were very narrow and bumpy, and it was often easier and safer for humans to maneuver the heavy pumper in tight spots. Also, since there were no paid fire companies at the time, there were no funds for buying, feeding and housing horses to help fight fires. There were no firehouses as we know them today, either. The volunteer companies only had equipment sheds for their very basic tools. No “sliding-down-a-fire-pole” fun for these early firefighters!
Q: Molly was a cook for firefighters. You share some delicious-sounding dishes in the book! What are some of your favorite comfort foods?
A: My favorite comfort foods: Pad Thai Noodles, Salted Caramel Ice Cream and Carolina Pulled Pork—but not all in the same meal! I had a wonderful time researching early American cookery, and just loved the quaint-and-quirky names of dishes that Molly might have fixed for her ‘fire laddies’.
Molly, by Golly! The Legend of Molly Williams, America’s First Female Firefighter
TWO FRIENDS: SUSAN B. ANTHONY AND FREDERICK DOUGLASS Written by Dean Robbins, Illustrated by Sean Qualls & Selina Alko (Orchard Books/Scholastic; $17.99, Ages 4-8)
Two Friends is an excellent and inspiring new picture book about the friendship between Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. It’s told in such an immediate way that the reader is drawn right into the lives of these two legendary figures as they have tea together. Susan’s life is summed up best by the sentence, “And Susan had many things to do.” She really did. Author Dean Robbins looks back on Susan’s childhood noting that she did not get the education she wanted or deserved. This enables illustrators Quallsand Alko to portray Susan B. Anthony’s life in gorgeous and yet deceptively simple illustrations that show childhood pictures of Susan’s life at home that they’ve imagined her drawing. Susan’s journey to get the vote and to fight for equality got some mixed reactions by her peers, but it never stopped her.
Having taken us into Susan’s life, the illustrations return the reader back to these two friends talking over tea. Frederick Douglass tells Susan B. Anthony his exciting news about his newspaper. These magical words float across the page, “We are all brethren. Right is of no gender… of no color… Truth is of no color…” Frederick’s life is told as simply and as truthfully as Susan’s. Born a slave, he dreamed of learning to read and write. Qualls and Alko portray Frederick Douglass with a look of determination on his face as he reads a book. Like Susan, he wonders why some people have rights and others don’t. The illustrations clearly tell us that he has beautiful dreams of having something more. “The right to live free. The right to vote,” is what he is aiming for, something both Douglass and Anthony have in common. He was met with the same fate as Susan. Some of his peers liked what he had to say, but others didn’t. Frederick is shown standing proud while delivering a speech.
The two friends have promised to assist each other in gaining the rights they deserve. One illustration that just may be my favorite depicts Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony in a circle of support, surrounded by so many loving friends of all colors. In another, as seen above, a charming blue and white tea set remains visible on the table between them as they discuss their plans. Two candles on the table glow, symbolizing each of their luminary presences to readers. So many things they both have to do, but friendship and tea comes first! My mother loves children’s books and as I showed her this one she said, “That’s the most beautiful children’s book I have ever seen. It’s my favorite one now.” High praise from someone who is a writer herself, and has very high standards! It is stunningly perfect in text and illustrations. I love the bit of peach that shines though Frederick’s hair and suit. Equally pleasing is the same peach in Susan’s cheeks and dress. Even both their skin tones have a bit of that lovely color that seems to join them together visually as united in their causes. Two Friends is simple enough for a small child to understand, and a wonderful conversation prompter about the important contributions of both these great people. I can think of no better picture book published recently that would be more important to add to your child’s library. Highly recommended!