I’m a keen viewer of University Challenge on the BBC, a quiz show for students. Recently, I’ve noticed more and more questions creep in that refer to women in history, previously unnoticed women composers and artists, those whom the layperson in the street definitely couldn’t identify. I admit, I don’t know enough about women in history either, and my shouting ‘Beethoven’ in answer to most questions just doesn’t cut it! Luckily, on this International Women’s Day, children’s publishers are waking up to these lesser-known important historical figures too. And so today’s collection is a definite celebration of women – from famous sisters in history, to lesser-known scientists and pioneers, to modern celebrity women pushing boundaries.
The Bluest of Blues: Anna Atkins and the First Book of Photographs by Fiona Robinson
This extraordinarily exquisite picture book is a biography of British botanist and photographer, Anna Atkins, who lived 1799 to 1871, and used the newly-invented technology of cyanotype photography to record her catalogue of plant specimens.
What could be quite a dry biography is manipulated into an aesthetically intimate and touching portrayal of Anna, her enthusiasm and love for her craft – and a meshing of science and art, creativity hand-in-hand with discovery.
The book is cast in an illustrative shade of blue, mimicking the cyanotype’s blue and white tones – with Robinson cleverly incorporating the odd splash of red or yellow to emphasise inspiration – the first poppy Atkins examines, the roses in her marriage bouquet, the red ribbon round the gift of her first camera.
The book explores her life and works, and also the support from those around her, particularly her father, who educated his daughter in science, despite it being unusual at that time. This is good narrative non-fiction, delineating the scientific concepts of photography and botany, whilst remaining true to telling Atkins’ life. You can buy it here.
The Brontes by Anna Doherty
Another picture book that frames the world of important women in a single hue, this time a turquoise minty green. Of course, these sisters are well-known to many, but may be accessed for the first time by readers of this picture book, as it is squarely aimed at a young audience. Illustrations dominate the pages, as Doherty documents the girls’ life story from their childhood through to publication, illness and death.
A family tree starts the book, and individual profiles of the sisters and Branwell come near the end. The story is inflected with the author’s own perspective, clearly infused with feminist undertones as she explains how the sisters first published under male pseydonyms. The text is simplistic but clear, and the author takes the opportunity at the end of the book to articulate further social history, exploring why the Brontes were so fantastically feminist.
The book is marvellously attractive, speaking not only to the power of women, but to the power of imagination and story. An inspirational book that makes the world of the Brontes feel intimate, and fascinating. First in a series. Other titles include Ada Lovelace and Michelle Obama. You can buy it here.
Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code by Laurie Wallmark, illustrated by Katy Wu
With a rhyming poem on the endpapers introducing the scope of this lively picture book for youngsters, ‘Software tester. Workplace jester. Order seeker. Well-known speaker…’ the reader is immediately engrossed in this enthusiastic exploration of how Grace Hopper discovered computer code and became a trailblazing STEM advocate. What’s intriguing about this book is that it highlights that women’s involvement in computers and tech isn’t a recent phenomena – Hopper was engaged from the beginning – she was a pioneer.
Hopper developed a ground-breaking way of writing computer code, as much from her understanding of how things work, numbers and logic, as from her intuition and creativity. The book carries that perpetually important message of determination and perseverance, especially in the face of adversity, and ends on a high hopeful note.
The full-colour, almost cartoonish illustrations provide an insight into the zest and energy that powered Hopper, from showing her as a frustrated but determined and curious little girl, to a hardworking, brave and intrepid Navy employee. Her insatiable curiosity and her ability to step away from code to find the answers in life as well, show her as a fully rounded, identifiable human. This is an informative and aspirational picture book – you’d do very well to show this to your sons and daughters. You can buy it here.
One Shot by Tanya Landman
Ever since my parents took me to see Annie Get Your Gun in the West End as a child, I’ve had a thing about Annie Oakley. With numbers like ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’, and ‘Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better’, who wouldn’t be inspired by this trailblazing feminist? Landman’s novella on Annie Oakley’s childhood, One Shot, (which is completely fictionalised) is just as powerful and poignant, although in a very different way. Set in the later part of the 19th century, this sometimes disturbing, haunting book imagines Annie’s harsh upbringing – the death of her beloved father, her rejection by her mother, and her abusive treatment by adoptive parents (there are references to rape).
But mainly this is a compelling historical visualisation of the social normalities that Annie had to fight in order to prove her worth as a sharpshooter, to rebel against the constrictions imposed on her because of her gender. Powerfully dressing herself younger so her rebellion looked more excusable to outsiders, and her constant seeking of parental approval, are both markers of the nuance and depth of Annie’s character that Landman has imagined in her novella. Written for a reading age of nine, but with teen content, this is another example of a strong inspirational woman fighting for survival and recognition, and beautifully conjures the landscape and political reality of America at that time. Landman cleverly incorporates Annie’s bravery into her fight to do what feels natural, even though it is classed as unladylike, and also showing her courage in admitting her abuse to her future husband. The chapter in which she steps into the shooting competition with Frank Wilkes made me want to sing again. I’m hoping Landman will bring her own targeted eye to writing the next part of Annie’s life. You can buy it here.
Ultimate Superstars: Ariana Grande by Liz Gogerly
Hot on the footsteps of the wildly successful Ultimate Football Heroes, comes this new series on ‘superstars’, a loose concept, but so far comprising Beyoncé and Ariana Grande. It doesn’t matter how famous a person is for these biographies, it’s the journey to get there or the quirkier achievements that make for a decent life story.
The focus for Ariana Grande is, of course, the bombing at her Manchester Arena concert in 2017, and this is where this life story starts and ends, and is dealt with sensitively, making much of the fans, and also her shock at the time and sympathetic nature afterwards. Grande’s life story has been one of success after success from early days as part of the cast of 13, a ground-breaking all-teenage production on the Broadway stage, to Victorious on Nickelodeon, and then onward to her music career, including performing in front of President Obama at the age of 21.
Success may have heralded success, but the book documents Grande’s tough skin, her hard work and determination, her efforts and affinity with fans through social media, and her supportive family, including her much-loved grandfather. For fans, a must. For others, I’m generally of the opinion that a subject needs to be slightly older to have a truly interesting biography. Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez publications follow in May. You can buy it here.
Gloria’s Voice by Aura Lewis
A good premise to showcase the influence and achievements of feminist Gloria Steinmen needs more explanation in this picture book for a young audience. Illustrated in throw-back 1970’s oranges and pinks, the text is simplistic and yet in some places rather cryptic – simplistic in the language used that explains how Gloria dreams of being famous, yet cryptic in that it fails to explain the name or influence of her magazine ‘Ms’. However, it does explore the aims of the Women’s Liberation Movement, and it does draw attention to global inequalities that Steinmen witnessed then, and that persist now. So this is an interesting biographical text that may stimulate further curiosity. Watercolour illustrations range from the fantastical to the strange in showing Steinmen playing unhappily with a dolls’ house, representing her care-taking role in her mother’s illness, to a rather strange portrait of Steinmen flying ‘a la Wonder Woman’ above a suburban neighbourhood. Extra information at the end gives some context, but really the text needs more explanation from the beginning so that young readers understand why Gloria was so influential. You can buy it here.