March is Women’s History Month here in the United States, so today’s column is a collection of books about women!
Counting the Stars: The Story of Katherine Johnson, NASA Mathematician written by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by Raúl Colón
Thanks to the book and film Hidden Figures, a lot more people know about Katherine Johnson, one of NASA’s human “computers” responsible for calculating trajectories for launches, and it’s no surprise that there are also a number of picture books about her as well. This one has a little more text in it than a traditional picture book, so it’s great for a parent to read to a child, or for younger kids who are advanced readers. This one focuses on Johnson’s love of counting and numbers, and her educational and career path that eventually led to NASA. The illustrations are lovely, with an almost iridescent quality to them where Colón adds some rainbow colors here and there. Johnson passed away last month at 101 years old, but her story will not be hidden anymore.
Katherine Johnson’s work as a NASA computer was eventually followed by more women—this time going to space!—but the challenges they faced entering a male-dominated organization were echoed again. This comic book tells the story of how women joined the ranks of astronauts, and is really excellent. Jim Ottaviani has written many books about the history of science, and Maris Wicks has illustrated several science-based comics (including Human Body Theater, which she also wrote). The two make a great team, and the story they tell is engaging, with lots of facts presented in an easy-to-digest format. The book talks about the types of tests and training required to become an astronaut, what it’s like to go into space, the sorts of food they ate in space, and more.
The story is narrated by Mary Cleave, who was in the second class of astronauts that included women (the first included Sally Ride), thanks to interviews and other research. As she talks about the long, winding road that women took to become Astronauts at NASA, she also shows the parallel story about Russia’s space program, which began training women sooner—though Russia’s program had its own problems with sexism.
Overall, an excellent book that I highly recommend for anyone with an interest in space exploration.
Ruth Objects: The Life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg written by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Eric Velasquez
This picture book about Ruth Bader Ginsburg is like a quick highlights reel of her life. While it doesn’t spend a lot of time on any single point in her life, it touches on all of them: her childhood, college, marriage, law school, and her career path from professor to judge to Supreme Court Justice. It shows her relationship with her husband, Marty, including their battles with cancer and the ways they didn’t always fall into traditional gender roles.
A little more time is spent on some of the important cases that Ginsburg was involved in, both as a lawyer and on the Court, the cases that pertain to inequality and, as she called it,” women’s and men’s liberation.” Throughout the book, there are block quotes from Ginsburg herself.
The book doesn’t have as much of a narrative, but it’s still a nice profile of a woman who has had a huge personal impact on women’s history.
Becoming RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Journey to Justice written by Debbie Levy, illustrated by Whitney Gardner
And while we’re talking about Ginsburg, here’s another one, this time a comic book. (Debbie Levy is also the author of a picture book about RGB, I Dissent, which I covered a few years ago.)
It’s still targeted at young readers, with footnotes that explain terms like “tenure-track.” It covers a lot of the same ground as the picture book above, but has room to go into a lot more detail.
Reading this shortly after reading Astronauts (above), I couldn’t help but notice the parallels between the stories, the barriers that women faced in their career paths whether they were trying to become lawyers or astronauts. From attitudes about what women are capable of, to the amount that they should be paid, to meetings or buildings where they aren’t allowed to enter, it definitely required a lot of determination and sacrifice to get around these obstacles. Ginsburg was able to make powerful changes that removed some of these obstacles—not just for herself, but for everyone.
This is a story I had never heard before: it’s about Anna Atkins, a botanist who published the first book of photographs. Since there isn’t much information about Atkins’ childhood, Robertson gives a fictionalized account, knowing that her father worked to give her a scientific education during a time when that was uncommon for women and girls. Atkins was an artist and made scientific illustrations, but her collection of plant specimens was much too large to catalogue in that way. When Atkins was introduced to cyanotype photography—what we now call sun prints—she had the idea to use it to make prints, eventually publishing several books of plants, from ferns to seaweed to flowers.
The book’s illustrations are mostly in blue, reflecting the color of the cyanotypes, with some spots of vivid red, and Robertson also incorporates some reproductions of Atkins’ cyanotypes and illustrations as well.
Dancing Through Fields of Color: The Story of Helen Frankenthaler written by Elizabeth Brown, illustrated by Aimée Sicuro
Helen Frankenthaler was an abstract painter who started a new style of art known as Color Field painting: enormous paintings with the oil paint soaking through the canvas and pushed around with mops and large brushes. This picture book tells her story starting from early childhood, portraying Frankenthaler as somebody who always wanted to push beyond the boundaries and let the colors escape their lines and cages. It also shows the way that Frankenthaler was expected to draw and paint, and the way that her earlier artwork was received by critics. The illustrations themselves reflect the story, closing the story with a picture based on her Mountains and Sea painting. The notes in the back of the book even provide some instructions for a “Poured Paint/Soak-Stain Activity” so that kids can try it out for themselves!
There’s a photograph from the Great Depression that I’m sure you’ve seen: the “Migrant Mother,” a woman looking off into the distance while two young kids bury their faces in her shoulders. It’s perhaps the most famous photo of the Great Depression, and this picture book is a fictionalized account of how the picture came to be, with most of its focus on Ruby, the seven-year-old daughter. The book shows the bleakness of the Dust Bowl and the desperation of the family to find a better life in California, only to wind up in a makeshift camp with thousands of other starving workers.
The book also tells a little more about the photographer, Dorothea Lange: she only appears near the end of the story, but the notes in the back of the book give a little more details about her life as well. It also includes two more of the photographs taken of the mother, Florence Owens Thompson. I’d only ever seen the one photo, so these were particularly astonishing to me, especially the wider shot that shows the tiny tent the family was living in.
This comics anthology was born from the #MeToo movement, a powerful reminder that the history of women has often been inseparable from abuse and violence. Over sixty artists shared their own stories, from constant small harassments to their experiences of rape or other abuse. Like the wave of #MeToo messages shared on social media, these stories are almost overwhelming because of the sheer number, and sickening in how common they are. Noomin notes in the preface that of all the women she talked to while putting together this collection, only one had never had an experience of assault, harassment, or rape.
Due to the content, it’s not intended for kids, so I would recommend parents preview it before showing it to younger readers. Drawing Power is not a comfortable book to read, but it’s not meant to be: instead, it allows these artists “to call upon the power of storytelling and comics art to directly confront sexual trauma.”
I’ll close out today’s column with this one, which I’m about halfway through so far—I started reading it because it looked like it would be another great title for Women’s History Month. The book is about the Wrens, the Women’s Royal Navy Service, and a giant game that was used by the British to develop strategies against the German U-boats during World War II. However, despite the fact that the subtitle is The Ingenious Young Women Whose Secret Board Game Helped Win World War II, I’ve been a little frustrated that the book spends so much time talking about the men and so little about the women. I think I was about 60 pages in before we even met one of the women, and it was only to get a little snapshot of her life.
Though it’s non-fiction, the book is structured more like a novel, jumping around in time and location, zooming in on different people (including some of the German U-boat crews), and often cutting away after cliffhanger moments. I’m still interested in the story itself—as a gamer, I’d love to know more about this game mentioned in the subtitle, and how the Wrens were involved, and all of that—but I wish it were easier to get to that point. It’s also a book that I think would have benefited from some more photos, and I imagine once I get to descriptions of the game itself, I’ll wish I could see more than just the image on the cover. So the jury’s still out on this one: I always find it a little harder to read non-fiction than fiction, but the narrative structure of this one didn’t hook me either.
The one thing that really struck me was the enormous impact the German U-boats had on the British economy, and how poorly the British were able to defend their convoys against them.
Disclosure: I received review copies of these books.
My Current Stack
I’ll be honest: aside from A Game of Birds and Wolves (above), this week has been largely reading about COVID-19 and staring at social media, and keeping up with a string of closures here in Oregon—from gatherings over 250 people to public schools and so on. We’ve got our kids home for an extra week before spring break, so I’ll be trying to keep us all healthy and happy while various restrictions are in effect.
Those restrictions, though, mean that a lot of places are making it easier to get things to read digitally (particularly important as some libraries are closing as well). If you’re interested in reading Mind MGMT, the comic series I mentioned last week, that’s available on Hoopla now.
On Friday, a new site was launched: Avatars Inc. It calls itself the “Archive of Future Memories,” and is a sci-fi anthology edited by Ann VanderMeer, set in a world where robotic avatars have been used for decades to allow for remote presence. The archive is a collection of memories downloaded from these avatars. I’ve just started poking around on the site, but it looks like a cool collection of stories.
Stay safe, and happy reading!