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Five Children’s Books for Women’s History Month

FIVE CHILDREN’S BOOKS

FOR

WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH

∼ A ROUNDUP ∼

 

 

Just Wild Enough cover of primatologist Mireya Mayor in MadagascarJUST WILD ENOUGH:
Mireya Mayor, Primatologist

Written by Marta Magellan
Illustrated by Clémentine Rocheron
(Albert Whitman & Co.; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

Picture book biographies such as Just Wild Enough are exactly why I love nonfiction and why I especially love Women’s History Month. Part of the She Made History collection, this book brings primatologist Mireya Mayor to the attention of young readers and might just plant the seed for some of them to study the fascinating and important field of primatology.

From a young age, animals were always a part of Mayor’s life. She could never have enough pets whether they were cats, dogs, rabbits, birds, a chicken, or a snapping turtle. At the same time, she felt that nothing was quite wild enough. This phrase is often repeated and is backed up by many impressive examples throughout the bio.

While she attended university, Mayor was also an NFL cheerleader for the Miami Dolphins. Yet her dream to be a primatologist persisted. People she knew couldn’t see why she’d want to visit jungles and study primates. In fact, one of my favorite lines in the book is when some researchers told her she didn’t look like a scientist. Magellan writes “But what does a scientist look like, anyway?”

Much to everyone’s surprise, Mayor eventually ended up on the island of Madagascar to study inky-black lemurs. There she was hired by National Geographic “as its very first woman wildlife TV reporter.” Still, nothing she experienced was quite wild enough. Her tenacity took her deep into one of the last virgin rainforests. Always one to look closer, Mayor discovered a new species of mouse lemur. But finding that species also meant the need to speak with the prime minister since the mouse lemur’s habitat was being devastated. Using fire, people stripped “the trees from the rain forest for fuel.” When Mayor met him she asked if he could declare the rain forest a national park thus ensuring the mouse lemurs’ survival. He agreed!

Magellan’s chosen to introduce kids to an inspirational woman in a well-balanced presentation of the life of a primatologist. I enjoyed learning about Mayor’s colorful and conscientious life. The art helps young readers see what some of Mayor’s responsibilities were and the text helps them understand her motivation. Dubbed the female Indiana Jones, she continues to this day to promote the protection of endangered species and the importance of conservation. Rocheron’s artwork takes us on the football field and into the jungles with illustrations that work well in this bio but would also look great on a TV show. Four pages of back matter include a Glossary, Author’s Note, About Mouse Lemurs, and Anjanaharibe-Sud Special Reserve.

 

Dolly!-The Story of Dolly Parton and Her Big Dream Dolly playing guitarDOLLY!:
The Story of Dolly Parton and Her Big Dream
Written  by Robyn McGrath
Illustrated by Ellen Surrey
(LBRY/Christy Ottaviano Books; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

I know very little about Dolly Parton so I couldn’t wait to dive into this picture book. What I learned is that Dolly grew up in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and is the fourth of twelve children so it’s no surprise she became a performer. What better way to make your presence known?

Dolly’s musical prowess showed up when she was five years old and “composed her first song about her handmade corncob doll, Tiny Tasseltop.” She could be found singing to her animals at home or in church and loved listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio on Saturdays along with her family. The music moved her. The Partons occasionally found time for music sessions together playing “some Appalachian porch pickin’ music.” Dolly easily moved from instrument to instrument learning as she went. And, growing up dirt poor, Dolly channeled unpleasant experiences of bullying into her music, her musical dreams motivated by her mama’s singing and stories. Dolly’s primary dream was to be onstage at the Opry but was always told the same thing – she was too young.

Did that stop Dolly? Like the other women in this roundup, Dolly didn’t take no for an answer and persevered. And though she had farmwork to take care of, she still wrote and sang songs, never losing sight of her dream. Her uncle Bill observed her talent and after Dolly got her first guitar, he not only encouraged her but helped her get her first radio and TV gigs. Despite being well received by audiences, that didn’t mean an automatic entrée for Dolly into the Grand Old Opry.

Then one day Dolly’s big dream was realized when “another singer agreed to let Dolly go onstage in his place at the Grand Ole Opry!” After three encores that night, the rest is history. Dolly went on to dazzle audiences on TV as her career took off. To this day her singing and songwriting still thrill fans and she’s added philanthropy to her playbook. Back matter details her literacy, health care, and marriage equality initiatives. I got a kick out of her Dollyisms also included. Here’s my favorite from the book: “The way I see it, if you want the rainbow, you got to put up with the rain.” The pairing of McGrath’s prose with Surrey’s art is a winning combination. It was probably not easy to narrow down what to focus on in such a storied life, but McGrath’s homed in on highlights such as her close family life and self-confidence that help readers understand Dolly’s drive. You can also feel Dolly’s energy in the bold illustrations.

 

A Life of Service Tammy Duckworth in wheelchairA LIFE OF SERVICE:
The Story of Senator Tammy Duckworth
Written by Christina Soontornvat
Illustrated by Dow Phumiruk
(Candlewick Press; 18.99, Ages 5-9)

Soontornvat shows readers how there is so much more to Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth’s life than meets the eye. Her commitment to serving our country has remained steadfast despite facing a life-changing accident in 2004.

Written using a straightforward chronological structure, this bio shares that Tammy was born in Bangkok, Thailand, and growing up she and her family moved around Southeast Asia. Because of her father’s job working for the United Nations, she saw people from all walks of life who had been displaced due to war and were living as refugees. Her caring about others was instilled at a young age and never left her.

When her father lost his job, he moved everyone to Hawaii where at times Tammy was the sole breadwinner. Her drive and caring never faltered and she worked hard at school despite the family’s tough financial situation. After high school, Tammy continued on to college and graduate school knowing she wanted to serve her country, just not how.

Tammy found fulfillment in the ROTC, then joined the Illinois Army National Guard. She also fell in love and got married. Fascinated by aviation, she mastered operating a Black Hawk helicopter eventually becoming her unit’s commander. When the US decided to invade Iraq, Tammy did not agree but chose to stay with her company in Balad, Iraq as battle captain. Near the end of a mission, on Nov. 12, 2004, her helicopter was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade. Tammy almost didn’t survive. The result – one leg lost and one partially lost from the knee down. And though the pain was debilitating, Tammy’s fellow vets provided motivation. She’d get better and return to combat. But that was not to be.

In rehab for 13 months, Tammy was the most senior ranked vet and soon found she was helping others navigate benefits and other challenges they encountered. With this experience under her belt it was no surprise she was asked to run for Congress. And though she lost the first time, she didn’t the second time! Not one to shy from breaking the glass ceiling, Tammy also won her Senate race where “she racked up a long string of firsts,” including being the first female amputee to serve in Congress, and the first senator to give birth while in office. To this day Tammy Duckworth is a force to be reckoned with as she fights for disability rights, immigration, and refugee protections, helping vets find work, and supporting family needs.

Dow Phumiruk’s art brought Tammy into my home (and heart) as I followed her childhood to her military years to her rise and influence in politics. Together with Soontornvat’s thoughtful prose, A Life of Service introduces young readers to a role model worthy of a place in Women’s History Month and Women’s History in general. I am glad to have learned her story. Backmatter includes a helpful timeline of major events in Tammy’s life, suggested reading as well as her “Ongoing Legacy of Service.”

 

Wonderful Hair cover Annie Malone with clientWONDERFUL HAIR:
The Beauty of Annie Malone
Written by Eve Nadel Catarevas
Illustrated by Felicia Marshall 
(Creston Books; $18.99, Ages 7-10)

Annie’s story is one of perseverance and success, and more impressive since it happened around the turn of the 19th century when Black women were denied the same opportunities as whites. Annie’s neighbor and friend, Lillie even said to her, “Black girls like us grow up to be maids, washerwomen, or cooks.” But from a young age, Annie found herself interested in hair care as Black women were seeking “the same fashionable hairstyles white women had.” She was determined to follow her own path.

As a girl, Annie had friends and family coming to her for she had a way with Black women’s hair. And she knew it was going to be her destiny. That vision took her from strength to strength.

Annie asked her herb doctor Aunt Mary to create a product a product to help make hair grow. Too many women she knew had bald patches from harsh hair straightening products and remedies “to tame rebellious curls and kinks.” Aunt Mary’s product launched Annie’s career. When Annie decided to make one even better, she called it “Wonderful Hair Grower” and charged 25 cents for it. With her growing beauty business, Annie moved to Brooklyn, Illinois and sold her products from a horse-drawn wagon.

Annie’s company continued to thrive and relocated to St. Louis. There, she expanded her line of self-care items to include shampoo, conditioner, soap, and lipstick. “She named her company Poro, a West African word for physical and spiritual growth.’ Because Black women’s products weren’t sold in stores, Annie went door-to-door selling. As demand increased, she trained women to ” operate their own hair salons.” She even launched Poro Beauty College! At one point she had 75,000 beauty agents worldwide and even had a store at St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904!

So now, when you hear that Sarah Breedlove was the first self-made Black female millionaire because of her hair-care company Madam C.J. Walker, you’ll know that in fact she was trained by Annie Malone who can truly claim that accomplishment. I enjoyed how Catarevas brought  Annie’s story to life buoyed by occasional quotes such as “One dime will do,” said by Aunt Mary who charged her niece that sum for her hair-growing mixture. Coupled with Marshall’s illustrations that had an oil painting quality because of the visible brushstrokes, Catarevas grounds readers in an era where change was on the horizon, and entrepreneurs like Annie who reached out and grabbed opportunities could realize her dreams.

Josephine and Her Dishwashing Machine cover inventor surrounded by dishesJOSEPHINE AND HER DISHWASHING MACHINE:
Josephine Cochrane’s  Bright Invention Makes a Big Splash

Written by Kate Hannigan
Illustrated by Sarah Green
(Calkins Creek; $18.99, Ages 7-10)

Sometimes I wonder if all our household conveniences have already been invented but there was a time when this was not the case. In the 1870s and ’80s, following the civil war, inventors were hard at work around the world developing new products and devices to make life easier in homes, on farms, in offices and factories, and at hospitals. Enter Josephine Garis Cochrane, a woman with a neat idea.

Green’s full-page illustrations depict a woman who is wealthy enough to have a maid. She also probably grew up not lacking the necessities in life being the daughter of a bridge builder and great-granddaughter of a steamship designer. It didn’t hurt that inventiveness was in her blood. So, when Cochrane noticed what bad condition her dishware was in from all the handwashing it had endured, she knew there had to be a better way. While there had been an earlier version of a dishwasher that “just splashed water around,” Josephine wanted her invention to actually clean.

After trying to fashion the dishwasher herself, Josephine enlisted the talents of a mechanic, George Butters, to help her. At first, things looked bright but when Josephine’s husband died, she was ready to throw in the towel. But we know, since there’s a book about her, she didn’t throw in the towel. Instead, with George’s assistance, she “tested and tinkered and pushed and persevered until she was satisfied.” You’ll note how Hannigan’s use of water and cleaning-related language to share her story is spot on (pun intended!).

At last, her dishwasher was ready to be patented! But without investors, Josephine’s nascent business could not succeed. Those male investors were not likely to bet on a business run by a woman in the late 19th century. Fortunately for this enterprising woman, she decided to exhibit her invention at the Columbian Exposition (aka the Chicago World’s Fair) in 1893. Not only did her dishwasher win first place for “best mechanical construction” it also won her orders from across the country. Hotels, restaurants, schools and even hospitals wanted one. “The Garis-Cochrane Dish-washing Machine Company soon outgrew the backyard shed.” Her company grew and thrived. Well into her seventies, Josephine continued to sell her dream with the ultimate goal of getting it into homes.

I chose to review this story because the topic is so relatable and also because it’s not a cradle-to-grave biography. It focuses on Cochrane as a grown woman determined to create the best possible dishwasher in order to free up people to have time to enjoy other activities. Hannigan’s included several quotes throughout the book from Josephine that attest to her spirit. When others might have given up, she never did. Green’s lively and lovely artwork added to my enjoyment. I’m glad she included pictures of the patents, too. Comprehensive back matter sheds light on what it was like for a woman inventor and business owner to try to get her product out into the world when modern appliances such as toasters and irons were not to be seen until 1913, the year Josephine died. More pages are devoted to Notable Women Inventors and a Timeline of Fascinating Inventions.

 

ADDITIONAL RECOMMENDED READS

CHEF EDNA: 
Queen of Southern Cooking, Edna Lewis
Written by Melvina Noel
Illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera
(Cameron Kids; $18.99, Ages 4-8)
Available for Pre-order now

A STORY IS TO SHARE:
How Ruth Krauss Found Another Way to Tell a Tale
Written by Carter  Higgins
Illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault
(Abrams BYR; $19.99, Ages 4-8)

I AM TEMPLE GRANDIN
(Ordinary People Change the World)
Written by Brad Meltzer
Illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos
(Rocky Pond Books; $16.99, Ages 5-9)

SPLASH!: 
Ethelda Bleibtrey Makes Waves of Change
Written by Elisa Boxer
Illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley
(Sleeping Bear Press; $17.99, Ages 6-10)

A TAKE-CHARGE GIRL BLAZES A TRAIL TO CONGRESS:
The Story of Jeannette Rankin
Written by Gretchen Woelfle
Illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon
(Calkins Creek; $18.99, Ages 7-10)

DAZZLIN’ DOLLY:
The Songwriting, Hit-Singing, Guitar-Picking Dolly Parton
Written by Suzanne Slade
Illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham
(Calkins Creek; $18.99, Ages 7-10)

CLOAKED IN COURAGE:
Uncovering Deborah Sampson Patriot Solder
Written by Beth Anderson
Illustrated  by Anne Lambelet
(Calkins Creek; $18.99, Ages 7-10)

 

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Elisa Boxer Interviews Author Kirsten W. Larson

 

AN INTERVIEW

WITH

KIRSTEN W. LARSON

AUTHOR OF

THE FIRE OF STARS

(Chronicle Books; $18.99, Ages 5-8)

 

 

The Fire of Stars cover Cecilia Payne

 

 

Starred Reviews – Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, Shelf Awareness

INTERVIEW:

Elisa Boxer: I’m so happy to be here interviewing my Soaring 20s colleague and friend Kirsten W. Larson about her newest picture book, The Fire of Stars: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars are Made Of. It’s an absolutely stellar book! Kirsten weaves together two stories in one: The creation of a star, and the evolution of astronomer Cecilia Payne, who discovered what stars are made of …

Kirsten, you make the dual narrative structure look easy. But I know it is anything but! Did you set out with the intention to write a dual narrative? If not, at what point in the process did you decide on this format?

Kirsten W. Larson: This was a last-minute decision, believe it or not. In May 2017, my agent Lara Perkins (of Andrea Brown Literary Agency) and I were preparing to sub this book as a run-of-the-mill picture book biography. Meanwhile,  I was working on a blog post featuring Hannah Holt’s query letter for THE DIAMOND AND THE BOY (Balzar + Bray, 2018). The book itself was still over a year away from release, but the query stuck with me. Hannah pitched her biography of Tracy Hall, who invented lab-produced diamonds, asa two-tale picture book—a turn and flip. … The two stories meet in the middle with a shared phrase.”

That was a total lightning bolt moment. I finally saw a way to add more hooks to my story and appeal to readers of both biography and informational books – by telling two stories at the same time. I went back and added the story of star formation alongside Cecilia’s formation as a star scientist.


EB:
That’s fascinating! The story is so seamlessly woven, I never would have guessed that it was a last-minute decision. What was the most challenging part about writing a book with this structure?

KWL: I think what sets this book apart from other parallel biographies (and made it very challenging to write) was the idea of having a shared line of text on every spread that applied to both stories – the star and Cecilia. It seemed like a good idea when I came up with it, but then it proved to be much harder to pull off. At one point I told Lara I couldn’t do it, and we should forget about it. But she kept encouraging me. She knew I could do it. But it was so, so hard.

Then, once I was working with editor Melissa Manlove of Chronicle Books, she had the additional idea of wanting to be able to read those shared lines only, without the additional text about Cecilia, and have it make sense for the youngest readers. The whole thing was a real puzzle, but I’m so happy we were able to get everything to work. It makes this book truly special.

 

EB: I’m so glad that Lara kept encouraging you, and that you stuck with it. You’ve created the perfect mentor text for aspiring authors of dual narratives. What advice would you give them?

KWL: I think this is a case where you have to be careful about the form not overtaking the writing, much like when you are writing poetry or even lyrically. For me, it helped to plot out both stories independently, step by step. I nailed down Cecilia’s major plot points, asking myself questions like “What’s the inciting incident?” “What’s the all is lost moment?” etc. Then I wrote down step-by-step how stars formed before trying to line the two stories up and brainstorming what language might connect them. I am a very visual writer, and I actually thumbnailed the stories in my journal trying to match things up and experimenting with language. You can see some of my journal pages here.

 

EB: I love the scene at the beginning, where Cecilia’s mother sets her down in the snow, and she expects a warm blanket, but instead finds her toes freezing! “It’s the first time Cecilia learns things aren’t always as they seem,” is such a powerful statement that foreshadows her discoveries to come. At what point in your research did you come across that particular anecdote, and how instrumental was it in building your scenes and threading that theme?

 

The Fire of Stars int1 young Cecilia Payne with mother in snow
Interior art from The Fire of Stars written by Kirsten W. Larson a nd illustrated by Katherine Roy, Chronicle Books ©2023.

 

KWL: The theme of this book was always the “ingredients” of a successful scientist, characteristics like being a good observer, curiosity, passion, and persistence. The book always showed how Cecilia exhibited those characteristics even as a child. For example, the scene where she watches slimy slugs in the garden was there from the start as was the scene about the bee and the bee orchid, which really set her on her quest for discovery.

But, to your question, I came across that story of Cecilia and the snow very early on in my research. Yet even though I knew about that story from the beginning, I didn’t include it until I started working on the parallel structure! I needed something that came before Cecilia in the dust and dirt of the garden, something that nodded to the star she would become.

That’s when I added this moment in the snow. I just tracked down a document on my computer when I “unwrote” Cecilia’s story, summarizing what needed to happen spread-by-spread in a line or two. That’s the last thing I wrote before I pieced the two stories together.

 

EB: Those same ingredients of curiosity, passion, and persistence clearly apply to you and your research as well! Can you tell us a bit more about your research process?

KWL: This book was a bit of a departure from my usual research process. Typically, I like to start with secondary sources for context before digging into primary sources to hear my characters’ voices in letters, diaries, and autobiographies.

At the time I started my research, there weren’t many book-length secondary sources about Cecilia at all. Dava Sobel’s GLASS UNIVERSE wasn’t out yet, nor was Donovan Moore’s biography. So I moved pretty quickly to primary sources like Cecilia’s published autobiography, her oral history from Harvard, and her research papers including her dissertation.

I did a lot of research around the edges, including the women who worked at Harvard Observatory and the field of astronomy and astrophysics to understand what was known in the field of astronomy at the time Cecilia was working. I talked to physicists and astronomers to discern the magnitude of her contributions.

EB: How much of yourself do you see in Cecilia?

KWL: What I’ve learned through this book and WOOD, WIRE, WINGS is that “STEM people” and “creative people” have so much in common. We’re all creative. We’re all problem solvers. We all take feedback. We all fail. So, yes, I feel a great affinity for Cecilia, especially that feeling of being lost and feeling hopeless, as well as that thrill of the shiny bright moment when an idea comes together and a new piece of knowledge or art comes into the world.

 

The Fire of Stars int2 astronomer Cecilia Payne studying stars
Interior art from The Fire of Stars written by Kirsten W. Larson and illustrated by Katherine Roy, Chronicle Books ©2023.

 

EB: Speaking of shiny and bright and everything coming together, Katherine Roy’s illustrations are breathtaking. What was it like seeing her preliminary sketches and watching them evolve?

KWL: Katherine’s work on this book is incredible, and it’s such a thrill to see her splattering paint and using toothbrushes to give the impression of star formation. 

The original visual idea for this book, which I put in art notes for our editor, was to split the story horizontally, with the star’s story on the top and Cecilia’s below. I saw some early sketches, and it wasn’t working the way we hoped. The star story seemed very disconnected from Cecilia’s. When Katherine shifted the two stories to a side-by-side the whole thing really started coming together. This just goes to show you the tremendous power of illustrators who know far more about visual storytelling than authors do. This book was such an adventure!

EB: I couldn’t agree more, from a reader’s perspective, that this book is an incredible adventure! One of my new all-time favorite picture books. Thank you so much for giving all of us a peek into your process.

Click here to purchase a copy of the book.

Click here for the publisher page for a good way to access activities, discussion topics, etc.

Social Media Links: @kirstenwlarson @kroystudio (Twitter) @chroniclekids

 

AUTHOR BIO:

Kirsten used to work with rocket scientists at NASA. Now she writes books for curious kids. Kirsten is the author of the picture books: WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: EMMA LILIAN TODD INVENTS AN AIRPLANE, illustrated by Tracy Subisak (Calkins Creek, 2020), A TRUE WONDER: The Comic Book Hero Who Changed Everything, illustrated by Katy Wu (Clarion, 2021), THE FIRE OF STARS: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars Are Made Of, illustrated by Katherine Roy (Chronicle, February 2023), and THIS IS HOW YOU KNOW, illustrated by Cornelia Li (Little, Brown 2024). She also is the author of the middle-grade, graphic nonfiction, THE LIGHT OF RESISTANCE, illustrated by Barbara McClintock, (Roaring Brook, 2023), along with 25 nonfiction books for the school and library market. Kirsten lives near Los Angeles with her husband, lhasa-poo, and two curious kids. Visit her website at https://kirsten-w-larson.com

 

INTERVIEWER BIO:

Elisa Boxer is an Emmy and Murrow award-winning journalist whose work has been featured in publications including The New York Times and Fast Company. She has reported for newspapers, magazines, and TV stations, and has a passion for telling stories about people finding the courage to create change. She is the author of several nonfiction picture books including The Voice That Won the VoteA Seat at the TableOne Turtle’s Last Straw, SPLASH! (a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection), Covered in Color (called “compelling from cover to cover” in a Kirkus starred review) and Hidden Hope (called “an important true account to add to all collections” in a School Library Journal starred review). Elisa lives in Maine, and has more children’s books on the way. Visit her at https://www.elisaboxer.com

 

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