Women's History Month 2020 picture-book biographies

During Women’s History Month, and every month, we celebrate the accomplishments of women and female-identifying people in the arts, sciences, athletics, literacy, and more. Here are a few examples of picture-book biographies that do just that. For more follow #HBWomensHistoryMonth.

Rise!: From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Maya Angelou
by Bethany Hegedus; illus. by Tonya Engel
Primary, Intermediate    Lee & Low    48 pp.
8/19    978-1-62014-587-6    $20.95

In propulsive free verse and vibrant illustrations, Hegedus and Engel present the life and legacy of Maya Angelou (1928–2014). The book opens with three-year-old Maya and her brother traveling alone by train from St. Louis to live with their paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. There they find stability and love, yet also injustice: “Hate and love, / love and hate: / the seesaw of the South.” When Maya is six they return to St. Louis, where she is “hurt” by her mother’s boyfriend (the appended timeline specifies sexual abuse). She returns to Stamps, mute, and eventually finds solace, first in books, then in “the power of the spoken word.” Angelou survived childhood anguish to thrive and to triumph, becoming a performer, dancer, journalist, activist, poet, mother, and humanitarian. Engel’s warm, swirling acrylic and oil paintings illustrate the various moods of the story, from the anticipation of journey and discovery to the looming shadow of young Maya’s abuser to the passionate work of the civil rights movement — and the metaphorical cage Angelou finds herself in after tragedy. The thoughtful back matter includes a detailed biographical timeline, photographs, an author’s note, websites of sexual assault organizations, selected bibliography, and quotation sources about this “phenomenal woman.” CLAUDETTE S. MCLINN

A Life Made by Hand: The Story of Ruth Asawa
by Andrea D’Aquino; illus. by the author
Primary    Princeton    40 pp.
9/19    978-1-61689-836-6    $17.95

D’Aquino offers young readers “the story of an artist you may have never heard of”: Ruth Asawa (1926–2013), a Japanese American creator of nature-inspired wire sculptures. A third-person text effectively uses occasional imagined quotations from young Ruth (“Hello Spider. How did you figure out how to make your web?”) to convey the sense of curiosity and wonder at the natural world that would later define this artist. Throughout the narrative, there’s also an emphasis on the handmade — from a childhood spent on a farm (where “working with her hands was an ordinary thing to do”) to her studies at Black Mountain College (where instructor Josef Albers “taught students to make art out of everything around them”) to learning basket-weaving from a local craftsperson in Mexico, which would inspire her woven-wire sculptures. The book’s illustrations, too, evoke the handmade; charcoal and colored-pencil drawings are combined with hand-painted and monoprinted paper in distinctive, naive-style collages. Back matter notes tell more about Asawa’s life, including the fact that she and her family were interned during WWII, which is left out of the main text; a list of resources and a fitting “Make Your Own Paper Dragonfly” activity are also appended. KATRINA HEDEEN

Her Fearless Run: Kathrine Switzer’s Historic Boston Marathon
by Kim Chaffee; illus. by Ellen Rooney
Primary    Page Street    40 pp.
4/19    978-1-62414-654-1    $17.99

This stirring picture-book biography introduces Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon with an official race number. “Running was magic” to twelve-year-old Kathrine, but her backyard laps, tallied with chalk marks on a tree, drew attention: “The mailman stared. The milkman asked if she was okay. Because in 1959, it was strange to see a girl running.” As a student, first at Lynchburg College and then at Syracuse University, Switzer ran with the men’s team because there wasn’t one for women. In 1967, as she competed in the Boston Marathon (having registered as “K. V. Switzer”), officials tried to block her path and rip her race number from her shirt. But she evaded the men and dashed away, determined to show that “women deserve to run too.” Chaffee deftly provides historical context for her audience. She also repeats the sound of running feet (“Pat, Pat, Pat”) throughout the text — cleverly setting the pace and building momentum. Rooney’s mixed-media collage illustrations add emotional depth and use perspective to good effect, focusing closely, for example, on Switzer’s hand as she cuts open her sneakers to make room for her swollen toes. An author’s note with further biographical details, a brief “Women and the Boston Marathon” section, and a bibliography are appended. Pair this story of determination and persistence with Pimentel’s Girl Running: Bobbi Gibb and the Boston Marathon (rev. 3/18). TANYA D. AUGER

The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read
by Rita Lorraine Hubbard; illus. by Oge Mora
Primary    Schwartz & Wade/Random    40 pp.    g
1/20    978-1-5247-6828-7    $17.99
Library ed.  978-1-5247-6829-4    $20.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5247-6830-0    $10.99

As an enslaved child on an Alabama plantation, Mary Walker would look up at the birds soaring overhead and think: “That must be what it’s like to be free.” As a teen she was emancipated from slavery but still had to work hard all her life just to get by. At age 114, having outlived two husbands and three children, she decided to learn to read. The appended author’s note says that very little is known about Walker’s life during the intervening years (“I chose to imagine…details to fill in the blanks”); the generally straightforward (and unsourced) text includes invented thoughts and dialogue (“‘I’m going to learn to read those words,’ she vowed”). Pronounced “the nation’s oldest student,” Walker met presidents, flew in an airplane, and at long last “felt complete.” She died in 1969 at age 121. Mora’s vibrant mixed-media collages work in swirls of deep blues and greens. As Mary’s life unfurls, bird motifs appear, reiterating the freedom that she discovered when she learned to read. Words are embedded throughout, enriching each scene, and on the final page we see Walker’s quote: “You’re never too old to learn.” Photos of this inspirational woman appear on the endpapers. MAIJA MEADOWS HASEGAWA

What Miss Mitchell Saw
by Hayley Barrett; illus. by Diana Sudyka
Primary    Beach Lane/Simon    40 pp.
9/19    918-1-4814-8759-7    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-4814-8760-3    $10.99

Born in the early part of the nineteenth century “on the fog-wrapped island of Nantucket,” Maria Mitchell was a learner, expanding her educational horizons from her family (“Father taught Maria to use a telescope”), to her neighbors, her town, and eventually encompassing the heavens. Her passion was always the night sky, and in 1847, at age twenty-nine, she became the first person to sight a comet through a telescope, garnering international recognition from the scientific community and a medal from the King of Denmark inscribed with her name and (printed in Latin): “Not in vain do we watch the setting and the rising of the stars.” Sudyka’s gouache illustrations, filled with swirls of motion, help convey a sense of wonder about the heavens. An ink-black sky shining with stars, planets, and other celestial phenomena creates a vast, unexplored space, just waiting to be understood. The pictures also occasionally nod at Mitchell’s religious upbringing, splashing across a spread, for example, words of wisdom from her Quaker father: “Thee must wonder. Thee must watch closely. Then will thee see and know for thyself.” “A Bit More About Maria Mitchell — Astronomer, Educator, Activist” and an author’s note are appended. BETTY CARTER

From the March 2020 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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