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Enlighten and inspire readers with recent biographies of women who changed the world.
Teachers often search for books that appeal to students’ sense of wonder and fascination with firsts and superlatives. Recognizing the accomplishments of women through good books can dramatically impact girls’ and young women’s self-esteem, expand their worldviews, and enhance their belief in their own potential. They can also change boys’ and young men’s perspectives on what women are capable of. Biographies of women depict role models who, dissatisfied with the inequities around them and the expectations placed on them, were not content to endure the status quo of their times. Instead, they sat down, stood up, spoke out, took to the skies, and ran for public office, making their gender more visible and forever changing what the world regarded as “women’s work.”
This list of recently published biographies of women will satisfy young readers’ natural curiosity and may prompt some girls—and boys—to break new ground themselves.
Books for Younger Readers
Amelia Earhart: The Legend of the Lost Aviator. By Shelley Tanaka. Illus. by David Craig. 2008. 48p. Abrams, $18.95 (9780810970953). 629.130. Gr. 3–5.
Filled with evocative illustrations of the popular aviator whose mysterious disappearance still intrigues young readers, this picture book incorporates Earhart’s own words. Older readers will enjoy the longer version of Earhart’s story in Tanya Lee Stone’s Amelia Earhart (2007).
Ballots for Belva: The True Story of a Woman’s Race for the Presidency. By Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen. Illus. by Courtney A. Martin. 2008. 32p. Abrams, $16.95 (9780810971103). 305.42092. Gr. 1–3.
Though she was legally barred from voting, Belva Lockwood ran for president in 1884 and 1888. This picture book covers her candidacy as well as her life, which was dedicated to promoting equal rights for all. Older readers can learn more about Lockwood in Jill Norgren’s Belva Lockwood: Equal Rights Pioneer (2008). For more about other female presidential candidates, see Lynn Plourde’s Margaret Chase Smith: A Woman for President (2008) and Kathleen Krull’s Hillary Rodham Clinton: Dreams Taking Flight (2008).
Coretta Scott. By Ntozake Shange. Illus. by Kadir Nelson. 2009. 32p. HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen, $17.99 (9780061253645). 323.092. K–Gr. 3.
The early days of the civil rights leader and wife of Martin Luther King Jr. are described in this simple, poetic picture book. As she walks miles to school, young Coretta dreams of a better, different world. The text’s eloquent prose is accompanied by luminous and reverent illustrations in Nelson’s distinct style.
Different like Coco. By Elizabeth Matthews. Illus. by the author. 2007. 40p. Candlewick, $16.99 (9780763625481). 746.9. Gr. 1–4.
A poor orphan, Chanel brightened her childhood by sewing dresses for her dolls. As an adult, the talented seamstress used her skills and unique style to design practical, uncorseted clothes that set new fashion standards for women. Wry ink-and-watercolor illustrations heighten the appeal of Matthews’ breezy biography.
Eleanor, Quiet No More. By Doreen Rappaport. Illus. by Gary Kelley. 2009. 48p. Hyperion, $16.99 (9780786851416). 973.917. Gr. 2–5.
A once-quiet girl, Eleanor Roosevelt grew up to be an influential woman who raised her voice on behalf of the poor and oppressed. Complemented by softly colored illustrations, this lovely tribute to the First Lady weaves the narrative around Roosevelt’s actual words.
Elizabeth Leads the Way: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Right to Vote. By Tanya Lee Stone. Illus. by Rebecca Gibbon. 2008. 32p. Holt, $16.95 (9780805079036). 305.42092. Gr. 1–3.
This picture-book biography with child-pleasing artwork covers some of the high points of Stanton’s life, beginning with her realization about how unfairly the law treated women, which translated into her lifelong work for women’s suffrage.
Helen Keller: The World in Her Heart. By Lesa Cline-Ransome. Illus. by James Ransome. 2008. 32p. Collins, $16.99 (9780060570743). 362.4. Gr. 1–3.
Unable to hear or see, Keller learned to rely on her other senses to experience the world around her—a world that grew much larger when teacher Annie Sullivan gave her the words for those experiences. Cline-Ransome’s narrative focuses on Keller and Sullivan’s remarkable relationship and is accompanied by bright paintings. Books for older readers about Keller include George Sullivan’s Helen Keller: Her Life in Pictures (2007) and Marfe Ferguson Delano’s Helen’s Eyes: A Photobiography of Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller’s Teacher (2008).
Independent Dames: What You Never Knew about the Women and Girls of the American Revolution. By Laurie Halse Anderson. Illus. by Matt Faulkner. 2008. 40p. Simon & Schuster, $16.99 (9780689858086). 973.3. Gr. 2–5.
If today’s history textbooks were as engaging as this title, students would never consider the subject boring. Filled with the faces, names, and deeds of women and girls during the American Revolution, this picture book reminds readers that women played an active role in that crucial period in our nation’s history. A time line, sidebars, and ink-and-watercolor illustrations round out this informative text.
Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya. By Donna Jo Napoli. Illus. by Kadir Nelson. 2010. 40p. Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman, $16.99 (9781416935056). 333.72092. K–Gr. 3.
In this picture-book biography of Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmental activist who received the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, brief, poetic lines describe how “wise Wangari” helped Kenyan village women solve problems from hunger to dirty water with the same solution: “Plant a tree.” Nelson’s vibrant collage artwork features soaring portraits and lush landscapes.
Mermaid Queen: The Spectacular True Story of Annette Kellerman, Who Swam Her Way to Fame, Fortune, and Swimsuit History. By Shana Corey. Illus. by Edwin Fotheringham. 2009. 48p. Scholastic, $17.99 (9780439698351). 797.2. Gr. 2–4.
Required to wear leg braces as a child, Australian Annette Kellerman swam to strengthen her leg muscles. As she got stronger, she traveled to London and Boston to show off her diving and swimming abilities but did not always have a welcoming audience. The story’s snappy text and vibrant art capture Kellerman’s indomitable spirit.
Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai. By Claire A. Nivola. 2008. 32p. Farrar/Frances Foster, $16.95 (9780374399184). 333.72092. Gr. 2–5.
Nivola’s rich writing complements her glorious watercolors in this introduction to the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, as well as the Green Belt Movement that Maathai founded, an organization that has reforested regions of Kenya. Younger readers will enjoy Jeanette Winter’s Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa (2008).
Playing to Win: The Story of Althea Gibson. By Karen Deans. Illus. by Elbrite Brown. 2007. 32p. Holiday, $16.95 (9780823419265). 796.432. Gr. 1–4.
Growing up tough and rebellious in 1930s Harlem, Gibson learned to channel her energy into tennis, eventually becoming a world-famous star and the first African American to win Wimbledon. Illustrated with cut-paper collage, Deans’ dynamic biography concludes with a chronology and a list of related books and Web sites. Another version of Gibson’s rise to fame can be found in Sue Stauffacher’s Nothing but Trouble: The Story of Althea Gibson (2007).
The Secret World of Hildegard. By Jonah Winter. Illus. by Jeanette Winter. 2007. 64p. Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine, $16.99 (9780439507394). 282.092. K–Gr. 3.
Inspired by visions and a deep connection to God, Hildegard von Bingen composed songs of praise, painted beautiful pictures, and wrote influential texts during the Dark Ages. Narrated and illustrated with elegant simplicity, this biography makes use of Hildegard’s own words and brings a complicated story to a child’s level without compromising on language.
Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story. By Paula Yoo. Illus. by Lin Wang. 2009. 32p. Lee & Low, $17.95 (9781600602597). 791.4302. Gr. 4–6.
Born in 1905 in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, Anna May Wong worked at her parents’ laundry but dreamed of becoming a film star. She eventually got a few leading roles, but prejudice against Asians limited her career. This picture book for older readers is a fascinating snapshot of what life was like for actresses of color.
Sky High: The True Story of Maggie Gee. By Marissa Moss. Illus. by Carl Angel. 2009. 32p. Tricycle, $16.99 (9781582462806). 940.54. Gr. 2–5.
San Franciscan Maggie Gee spent her childhood watching planes soar through the air and dreaming of being a pilot. When World War II led to a pilot shortage, Gee became one of only two Chinese Americans in the Women Airforce Service Pilots. Based on interviews with Gee, Moss’ story has a personal feel, and the accompanying acrylic and colored-pencil illustrations are bright and lively.
What to Do about Alice? How Alice Roosevelt Broke the Rules, Charmed the World, and Drove Her Father Teddy Crazy! By Barbara Kerley. Illus. by Edwin Fotheringham. 2008. 48p. Scholastic, $16.99 (9780439922319). 973.9092. Gr. 1–4.
Kerley humanizes Teddy Roosevelt’s oldest daughter by describing Alice’s love of life, desire for attention, and surprising antics in the White House and around Washington, D.C. Fotheringham’s exuberant illustrations are a perfect match for Kerley’s text.
Yours for Justice, Ida B. Wells: The Daring Life of a Crusading Journalist. By Philip Dray. Illus. by Stephen Alcorn. 2008. 48p. Peachtree, $18.95 (9781561454174). 323.092. Gr. 2–4.
Wells’ devotion to her orphaned siblings is highlighted in this handsomely illustrated biography, telling of her life as a journalist who campaigned tirelessly to end the practice of lynching. Appended with a time line and a bibliography, Dray’s title is a good choice for readers studying the early civil rights movement. Also see Walter Dean Myers’ Ida B. Wells: Let the Truth Be Told (2008).
Books for Older Readers
Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream
. By Tanya Lee Stone. 2009. 144p. illus. Candlewick, $24.99 (9780763636111). 629.450092. Gr. 6–10.
Twenty years before women were officially admitted into the space program, an elite group of women were tested and trained to determine their fitness for space travel. Often outperforming male astronauts, these women, called the Mercury 13, became mere footnotes in history when they were barred from the space program. This dramatic, large-size photo-essay covers their stories, along with the politics of the 1950s and 1960s, in a chatty, immediate style.
Bylines: A Photobiography of Nellie Bly. By Sue Macy. 2009. 64p. illus. National Geographic, $19.95 (9781426305139). 070.92. Gr. 4–8.
With more than 50 archival photographs and illustrations, this Photobiography series title describes how the crusading journalist launched her career in 1885 with a letter to the editor arguing that women needed something other than marriage to be fulfilled. Bly was one of the very first women to write about social issues, and her writing career took her to factories, a women’s asylum, and around the world in 72 days.
Claudette Colvin: Twice toward Justice. By Phillip Hoose. 2009. 144p. illus. Farrar/Melanie Kroupa, $19.95 (9780374313227). 323.092. Gr. 5–8.
Inspired by lessons on justice and intolerant of the laws that enforced segregation in her southern hometown, teenager Colvin refused to give up her bus seat to a white rider in 1955, before Rosa Parks committed the same act of rebellion. Colvin’s story of courage and conviction and the political complexity of the times give another dimension to the civil rights movement.
Genius of Common Sense: Jane Jacobs and the Story of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. By Glenna Lang and Marjory Wunsch. Illus. by the authors. 2009. 128p. David R. Godine, $17.95 (9781567923841). 711. Gr. 7–12.
Author Jane Jacobs proved that you can fight city hall when she rallied her New York City neighbors against the encroaching expressways and misguided urban renewal plans that threatened their neighborhoods. Accompanied by illustrations and black-and-white vintage photos, this celebration of a conservationist rebel concludes with extensive notes and a bibliography.
Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America. By Charlotte S. Waisman and Jill S. Tietjen. 2008. 272p. illus. Collins, $29.95 (9780061246517). 973.082. Gr. 6–12.
Ranging from 1587 to 2007, this adult reference title is a historical time line, illustrated with reproductions and photographs, that describes the accomplishments of famous and lesser-known American women, including artists, athletes, activists, scientists, businesswomen, and inventors.
I Am Scout: The Biography of Harper Lee. By Charles J. Shields. 2008. 256p. Holt, $18.95 (9780805083347). 813. Gr. 7–12.
This insightful examination of the author who used her Monroeville, Alabama, town as inspiration for the classic To Kill a Mockingbird relies on interviews with Lee’s neighbors and friends. Readers will particularly enjoy Lee’s struggles as a budding writer and her adventures with childhood friend Truman Capote. For more on Lee, see the Series Connection section below.
Jeannette Rankin: Political Pioneer. By Gretchen Woelfle. 2007. 104p. illus. Boyds Mills/Calkins Creek, $18.95 (9781590784372). 328.73. Gr. 6–8.
As a congressional representative for the state of Montana, Rankin, born in 1880, voted against the World Wars I and II declarations of war. Woelfle’s high standard of writing is matched by the book’s format, which includes informative sidebars and well-chosen photos. Younger readers will enjoy the simpler story of Rankin’s fight for suffrage in Trish Marx’s Jeannette Rankin: First Lady of Congress (2006).
Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker: The Unlikely Friendship of Elizabeth Keckley and Mary Todd Lincoln. By Lynda Jones. 2008. 80p. illus. National Geographic, $18.95 (9781426303777). 973.7092. Gr. 5–7.
Born a slave in 1818 in Virginia, Elizabeth used her sewing skills to purchase her freedom. Both she and Mary Lincoln, the nation’s First Lady, were strong-willed, determined women, and their lives intersected when Elizabeth began creating the gowns Mary wore for important occasions. In alternating chapters, Jones introduces both women and contrasts their very different lives. A short bibliography and source notes are appended.
She Touched the World: Laura Bridgman, Deaf-Blind Pioneer. By Sally Hobart Alexander and Robert Alexander. 2008. 112p. illus. Clarion, $18 (9780618852994). 362.4. Gr. 5–8.
In the 1840s, Bridgman was well-known for her accomplishments despite her inability to see, hear, smell, or even taste. Illustrated with black-and-white photos, this well-written, thoroughly researched biography is sure to intrigue readers, who will be surprised by how much the world has changed since Bridgman first attended Samuel Gridley Howe’s School for the Blind.
Take-Off: American All-Girl Bands during World War II. By Tonya Bolden. 2007. 96p. illus. Knopf, $18.99 (9780375827976). 784.4. Gr. 5–8.
Readers will snap their fingers, tap their toes, and bob their heads as they listen to the accompanying CD and read the story of female jazz bands. Bolden brings the period to life with her vivid prose and interesting personal stories about the women who took America’s rhythms on a musical tour.
War, Women, and the News: How Female Journalists Won the Battle to Cover World War II. By Catherine Gourley. 2007. 208p. Atheneum, $19.99 (9780689877520). 070. Gr. 6–8.
Filled with photographs and accounts of women reporting from the frontlines during World War II, this page-turner will remind readers of how the face of journalism has changed. Following a brief introduction, Gourley backtracks to provide historical context. Subsequent chapters describe the events and personalities that made it possible for women to become war correspondents.
Up Close: A Twentieth-Century Life series. Viking. Individual books, 208–224p., $15.99–16.99. Gr. 7–12.
This series describes the lives of women and men who have made an impact on the world around them. Titles in this series are well-documented and accessible and include Up Close: Ella Fitzgerald by Tanya Lee Stone (2008), Up Close: Harper Lee by Kerry Madden (2009), Up Close: Jane Goodall by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen (2008), Up Close: Oprah Winfrey by Ilene Cooper (2007), and Up Close: Rachel Carson by Ellen Levine (2007).
Barbara A. Ward is an English/language arts teacher at Madison Middle School in Madison Parish, Louisiana, and Terrell A. Young is on the faculty at Washington State University.
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