March is Women’s History Month, and while it’s never a bad time to read about inspiring women, I wanted to devote one of my Stack Overflow columns this month to stories about women.
Wilma Mankiller was the first woman chief of the Cherokee Nation, and her leadership helped to empower the Cherokee people. This picture book tells her story, from her childhood in Oklahoma and San Francisco to the beginnings of her activism to her work as chief. There’s also a brief explanation of the Trail of Tears, explaining how Native Americans had been forcibly removed from their lands in the past, and linking it to the forced relocation of Wilma’s family when she was young. I really didn’t know that much about Wilma Mankiller before reading this book, so I appreciated this history lesson for myself!
This picture book has a funny story behind it, because it is about Madeleine L’Engle and written by her, but it’s from the point of view of her dog, Touché. The story itself was written after L’Engle’s first daughter, Josephine, was born—and she is the “other dog” in the title. As Touché tells it, this new “Jo-dog” is very bizarre: she needs to be fed several times, doesn’t get to go out for walks, and has to sleep in a froufrou bed. But, eventually, Touché warms up to the new dog, particularly since it seems very attentive to whatever Touché has to say.
And, despite the fact that the book does focus a lot on Touché, it does tell a bit of the story of L’Engle herself. The Author’s Note at the back gives even more context, giving a glimpse of L’Engle’s life before she’d become the well-known author of the Wrinkle in Time series.
Rebel Voices: The Global Fight for Women’s Equality and the Right to Vote by Eve Lloyd Knight and Louise Kay Stewart
This boldly illustrated book traces the history of women’s voting rights, highlighting key figures who championed the cause. The book is arranged roughly chronologically, jumping from country to country in the order that women gained the right to vote; in some cases it also explains when minorities were granted voting rights as well, because many times those didn’t come at the same time.
The illustrations are spattery, poster-like artwork that often look like posters, and they’re really stunning. I learned a lot from reading this book, particularly about the wide range of tactics that suffragists used, from petitions to marches to riots. In some instances, the fact that women were already working alongside men in particular jobs—often during times of war—that helped make the case for equality. In others, it was the sheer number of determined women who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. Even so, the amount of time it often took between the initial demands and when voting rights were finally granted was sometimes extremely long.
Of course, the right to vote doesn’t immediately bring equality on other fronts, but it’s a start. This book is both an inspiration and a challenge, to continue making progress both at home and abroad.
Here’s a confession: I actually haven’t read Diary of a Young Girl—somehow it was never on a school reading list when I was growing up, and I never picked it up as an adult as non-required reading. So although I knew who Anne Frank was and have certainly heard about her story, I had never actually read it in her own words, nor gotten a lot of the details. This graphic adaptation is abridged, because the entire book would have been too much to illustrate in this form, but Folman worked to capture some of the significant moments, while also preserving some day-to-day entries that showed Anne’s humor and wit. I was struck by the juxtaposition of the stressful moments of survival and hiding with more banal moments about day-to-day life.
The illustrations are superb, and one of the reasons is the way that things are not always illustrated completely literally. When Anne imagines her fellow Jews in work camps, the illustration is styled to look a little like Egyptians working on pyramids; when she describes the residents of the Annex eating supper, the illustration shows them all as different animals. Some sections reproduce entire entries with just some background illustration, as a way to let her voice really shine through. While I don’t consider this a substitute for reading the book it’s based on, it is an excellent, thoughtfully made introduction, and I highly recommend it.
While this graphic novel is fictional, I think it’s a fitting pairing with Anne Frank’s Diary. Dounia Cohen tells her granddaughter about her childhood in France during World War II, when the French government began to collaborate with Nazi occupiers. When Dounia’s parents were arrested, they hid Dounia in an armoire, where she was discovered by neighbors and then hidden from the Nazis.
What makes this book particularly significant is that, since Dounia is telling the story to her young granddaughter, the events of the Holocaust are told in a way that is intended for young children to read. That doesn’t make it easy, and there are certainly things that are frightening and disturbing, but it also focuses on the people who helped Dounia and her family. Young kids have the capacity to be kind or cruel, and this book doesn’t hide the prejudice that some had toward the Jews, but it also shows how we are able to stand up against injustice.
How to Build a Hug: Temple Grandin and Her Amazing Squeeze Machine by Amy Guglielmo and Jacqueline Tourville, illustrated by Giselle Potter
Temple Grandin is known for her work with animal behavior and for speaking about autism, which wasn’t well understood when she was a child. She was particularly sensitive to touch, and found it very difficult to be hugged, even though she wanted to experience the comfort that others seemed to get from hugs. Eventually, she invented a “hug machine,” inspired by the squeeze chutes used to help cows stay calm during exams, and she discovered that being able to control the timing and pressure of the hug made it work—and even that it eventually allowed her to enjoy hugs from people as well. Her hug machine has inspired devices that are used for autistic people now.
This picture book tells Grandin’s story in a way that is easy for kids to understand, explaining what her autism was like, both her hypersensitivities and the way that her inventive mind looked at the world. It’s interesting that the story portion of the book doesn’t even use the word “autism”: instead of using a label, it just describes what Grandin was like. The Authors’ Note at the end gives a little more of her background and how her autism manifested, as well as more about her work with animals.
The Brooklyn Bridge was built using a new technique learned from Europe: caissons, large inverted boxes that captured air inside them so that workers could excavate at the bottom of the river. When Washington Roebling, who took on the building of the bridge from his father, got caisson sickness (now known as “the bends”), he was unable to continue work. Emily Roebling, his wife, took over as his eyes and ears, reading construction reports to Washington and writing letters and instructions that he dictated. Uncomfortable with the messages that she didn’t entirely understand, she began to study bridge engineering herself, and continued to oversee and champion the project since Washington remained ill during construction.
I hadn’t known anything at all about Emily Roebling before this book, and had only known a little bit about the Brooklyn Bridge’s construction. I like the way that the book explains the bridge construction with diagrams and illustrations, and it’s an inspiring story about a woman who wouldn’t give in to societal pressure about what she could and couldn’t do.
Little Dreamers is a follow-up to Harrison’s Little Leaders, which focused on Black women (mentioned in this Stack Overflow). This one features 40 more stories about women from around the world, from well-known names like painter Frida Kahlo to many that were new to me, like virologist Flossie Wong-Staal. Each story is just a single page long, accompanied by an illustration. The faces are all mostly the same (a few are in profile), using the same features and closed eyes, but each one is customized by the clothing and a background that includes a lot of little details taken from that woman’s story.
Leah Tinari was inspired to make these portraits after making posters of US Presidents for her son: “I had just spent months painting and researching men and only men.” When Carrie Fisher passed away shortly after that, she made a portrait of Carrie Fisher, which then kicked off this project to paint other iconic women. (The restriction to American women for this project seems to be primarily as as parallel to the presidential portraits.)
Each portrait, like Carrie Fisher’s on the cover, is in black and white with one highlight color, surrounded by stenciled text highlighting the subject’s passions, accomplishments, or quotes. The portraits are paired with a quote—usually by the woman, but sometimes from somebody else close to them. The subjects come from various fields: actors and writers, cooks and hoteliers, singers and scientists.
A section at the back has a list of the women, with their birth and death dates, along with a powerful moment for each one. I really liked the striking portraits, which would make great posters. The book is primarily the artwork, though, without as many details about each of the subjects.
When I think of Barbie dolls, I have to admit that mostly what comes to mind is debates about unrealistic body image and the “pink aisle” at the toy store. But Barbie’s origins are actually inspiring: Ruth Handler noticed her daughter playing with paper dolls of grown-ups rather than her baby dolls, and pitched the idea of a doll who looked like a teenager instead of a baby. Mattel rejected the idea, but Handler decided to push ahead anyway. When Barbie was introduced at the 1959 To Fair, she was a hit.
Handler’s goal was to create a doll that let girls see themselves as adults, in roles that they dreamed of having one day. Of course, some of those careers may seem like gender stereotypes now, but Barbie’s career aspirations advanced with the times, too. And, while my own kids have never really gotten into Barbie dolls, I did appreciate this lesson about Barbie’s history, and about her forward-thinking creator. The illustrations for the book have a 1950s vibe and are excellent.
This book was actually published back in 2017 and I’ve just missed covering it. Starting with a quick introduction that explains who the first lady is (not all of them have been the president’s wife!), the book explains what the first lady’s job is, what it’s like living in the White House, and provides lots of fun facts about the things that various first ladies have done throughout American history. Scattered throughout the book are little text boxes filled with trivia, some funny and some serious. The book explains how being the first lady is an important job, one that many people may not really think about that much compared to the presidency, and shows how first ladies have made a big difference.
Speaking of first ladies, this photo book by former Official White House Photographer Amanda Lucidon captures Michelle Obama in the many roles that she played during Barack Obama’s presidency, from planting a kitchen garden at the White House to her “Let’s Move” fitness campaign to advocating for education for girls around the world. Like Pete Souza’s photo book of Barack Obama (mentioned in this Stack Overflow), this collection is adapted for kids from Lucidon’s larger photo book, Chasing Light. There are short passages of text explaining Michelle Obama’s role as first lady, along with occasional quotes.
That’s all I have time for today, but I probably have enough books left for another column next week, so stay tuned. In the meantime, if you want some more stories about amazing women, here are two more Stack Overflow columns on the subject!
My Current Stack
I just finished reading an advance reading copy of Queen of the Sea by Dylan Meconis—it’s an upcoming graphic novel “loosely based on the youth of Queen Elizabeth I.” I hadn’t noticed the “loosely based on” when I started reading it, thinking it’d be a good fit for today’s column, but then I was just drawn into the story and went ahead and finished it anyway—even though the advance copy is in black and white (and half of it isn’t even shaded—it’s just outlines). You’ll definitely hear more about this one closer to its release date in June.
I also bought a really fun comic book called Invincible by Jousselin. The English translation is only available digitally for now, but it’s about a superhero who can interact with past and future frames of the comic strip, which effectively works a bit like a form of time travel. Along the way, there are some other characters who can manipulate perspective or cross through pages, and other really fascinating ways to use the comic strip medium. I really enjoyed it, and hope that the next volume gets translated soon as well.
Disclosure: Except where otherwise noted, I received review samples of the books covered in this column.