31 New Picture Book Biographies to Celebrate Women’s History Month by Kate Hannigan
Like any great creation, Women’s History Month traces its roots to the tiniest seed of an idea—or in this case, a single date on the calendar: National Woman’s Day. First observed on February 28, 1909, it was organized by the Socialist Party of America to call for equal rights for women on the job and at the polls.
By 1911, National Woman’s Day went international and moved to early March. Women were demanding the right not only to vote and run for public office, but also to work, receive job training, and see an end to job discrimination. When Russian women textile workers marched for their rights on March 8, 1917, their demonstrations kicked off what would become the Russian Revolution!
Fast-forward to 1975, when the United Nations designated the annual March 8th activities International Women’s Day. Over the next few years, classroom teachers began expanding their projects from a single day to five. By 1980, President Jimmy Carter issued a proclamation declaring seven whole days around March 8th, 1980, as National Women’s History Week. As the go-go ’80s marched on, that week grew into a month. Thirty-one days to celebrate the mothers of our country and the barrier-breakers who hurtled society forward, willing or not! And since 1988, tradition has it that each president issues an annual proclamation designating March as Women’s History Month.
With women’s roles in society being examined so intensely in the past year, it’s a great time to take a look at some of the remarkable women who blazed the trails we’ve been able to follow, who upended norms and made us see a woman’s place differently, and who still inspire all of us—women and men—to try a little harder. What follows is #31Women31Books, the stories of 31 remarkable women who helped shape American society and beyond, from astronauts to artists, computer coders to shark scientists. One woman and one picture book biography to share with young readers for every day of Women’s History Month.
A Lady Has the Floor: Belva Lockwood Speaks Out for Women’s Rights by Kate Hannigan, illustrated by Alison Jay (Boyds Mills Press, 2018). I finished writing this book just before the 2016 election, and like many people I had assumed a woman was soon going to be sitting in the White House. At the time, I feared the book—the story of early suffragette Belva Lockwood and her lifelong fight to let women’s voices be heard—would seem quaint and outdated in what I thought was a coming administration that was going to do nothing less than shatter the patriarchy. How wrong I was, on so many accounts. Belva’s story is as relevant today as it was in the 1880s, when she fought for women’s rights to be heard in classrooms and courtrooms. As we see a record-setting 390 women running for Congress, we can look back to Belva, who in 1884 rallied the country to the idea that women could not only vote but also lead—as mayors, governors, senators, even president!
Before She Was Harriet by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James E. Ransome (Holiday House, 2017). Before Belva there was Harriet Tubman, perhaps the finest example of a courageous woman from history who fought for freedom and equality and to make the world better. This beautifully written and gorgeously illustrated biography, winner of a shelf full of awards including a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor, takes readers through the many roles Tubman played during her long life—from suffragist to abolitionist, Union spy to Underground Railroad conductor. “Before she was a suffragist she was General Tubman,” Cline-Ransome writes, “rising out of the fog armed with courage. . . ” Inspiring and informative, this is a must-have for classrooms and home libraries alike.
Girl Running: Bobbi Gibb and the Boston Marathon by Annette Bay Pimentel, illustrated by Micha Archer (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2018). When Bobbi Gibb wanted to run at school, she was told track was not a sport for girls. Those were the rules. But rules, as we all know, are sometimes meant to be broken. And Bobbi broke a big one, spectacularly. She loved running, and she was good at it, so she ran in the woods near her Boston home. When the male-only Boston Marathon took place in 1966, Bobbi decided to run—her entry form having already been rejected because of her gender. Even though there were no running shoes made for women, even though she had to wear a bulky sweatshirt to hide that she was female, Bobbi laced up a pair of men’s sneakers and did what she was born to do. Pimentel tells an exciting story that demonstrates how far female athletes have come since the days when sports were considered too exerting for women.
Mae Among the Stars by Roda Ahmed, illustrated by Stasia Burrington (HarperCollins, 2018) tells the story of a girl who wanted not to reach the finish line but to soar into the heavens. Astronaut Mae Jemison dreamed of becoming an astronaut and waving to her mom and dad from space. With her mother’s encouragement—”If you can dream it, if you believe it and work hard for it, anything is possible”—little Mae set her sights on the stars. But when a teacher suggested that a more appropriate career for a girl like Mae was nursing, Mae’s confidence plummeted. With the right encouragement, Mae pushed on and became the first African American woman astronaut and first African American woman in space.
Write to Me: Letters from Japanese American Children to the Librarian They Left Behind by Cynthia Grady, illustrated by Amiko Hirao (Charlesbridge Press, 2018). This beautiful story spotlights the relationship between Japanese American children imprisoned in World War II internment camps and the conscientious librarian who showed them kindness and care. Clara Breed’s young patrons were frightened when the U.S. government ordered them and their families to leave their homes for what essentially were prisons. So she reached out to them through letters, sending them cartons filled with books and supplies to keep them busy and, she hoped, distracted. Grady uses real excerpts from children’s letters, which are part of an exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum. A touching story about the power of simple acts of kindness.
Anybody’s Game: Kathryn Johnston, the First Girl to Play Little League Baseball by Heather Lang, illustrated by Cecilia Puglesi (Albert Whitman, 2018) tells the story of
Kathryn Johnston, who loved the game of baseball. Despite her talents on the diamond, Kathryn wasn’t allowed to join a Little League team. Girls, she learned, weren’t supposed to play baseball. When she couldn’t take it anymore, Kathryn asked Mom to cut her hair short and tried out for a Little League team as “Tubby” Johnston, a boy. Kathryn was good enough to make the team, and when Coach learned of her gender he let her stay. But the following year, Little League organizers announced a ban on allowing girls to play the game. An inspiring story of following your dreams and disrupting “business as usual.”
The Flying Girl: How Aida de Acosta Learned to Soar by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Sara Palacios (Atheneum, 2018). “If that man can fly, so can I,” is the lovely opening of this story of remarkable Aida, considered the first woman of powered flight. All Aida needed was “some lessons and a chance to try.” Palacios’ vibrant illustrations pair well with Engle’s playful language and intermittent rhymes, and an author’s note in the back explains more about this daring, barrier-breaking woman.
Lighter than Air: Sophie Blanchard, the First Woman Pilot by Matthew Clark Smith, illustrated by Matt Tavares (Candlewick, 2017). For more stories of winged women, you can reach back even farther into history and meet Sophie Blanchard, considered the first female pilot in history. Blanchard came of age during 18th-century France’s “balloonmania” and steered her own course, so to speak, into becoming a balloon pilot. Wonderful factoid from Smith: Emperor Napoleon was so impressed with her accomplishments, he named Blanchard “Chief Minister of Ballooning.” A fun read.
Check out these other books that feature scientists, artists, activists, athletes, and more:
Who Says Women Can’t Be Computer Programmers? The Story of Ada Lovelace by Tanya Lee Stone, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman (Henry Holt and Co., 2018). The dynamic duo of Stone and Priceman (Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors?: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell) teams up again for this lively look at Lovelace, whose creative spirit and math smarts led her to work on Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. Her love of mathematics and formal engineering training, powered by what she called “the fair white wings of imagination,” led to her ground-breaking work and to becoming the person we recognize today as the first computer programmer. A great addition to the other Lovelace stories recently published.
Marie Curie written and illustrated by Demi (Henry Holt and Co., 2018) is a detailed and eye-opening account of the life and struggles of the famous scientist, by one of children’s literature’s most talented creators. Maria Salomea Sklodowska was born in Poland in 1867 and craved an education. Since money and opportunities were limited, Marie made a deal with her sister: she’d work as a governess while her sister went to school in Paris. Once her sister graduated, it would be Marie’s turn to learn. Eventually she was able to take her time at university, graduating from the Sorbonne with math and physics degrees. Despite the demands of caring for a home and new baby, Marie’s scientific career was so promising that her husband dropped his studies to work with Marie. She discovered not just one but two new elements, and she called one of them “polonium” in honor of her homeland, Poland. Marie also coined the word “radioactive.”
Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor: The Woman Who Loved Reptiles by Patricia Valdez, illustrated by Felicita Sala (Knopf, 2018)
Shark Lady: The True Story of How Eugenie Clark Became the Ocean’s Most Fearless Scientist by Jess Keating, illustrated by Marta Alvarez Miguens
Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly, illustrated by Laura Freeman (HarperCollins, 2018)
Margaret and the Moon by Dean Robbins, illustrated by Lucy Knisley (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2017)
Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code by Laurie Wallmark, illustrated by Katy Wu (Sterling, 2017)
Dorothea Lange: The Photographer Who Found the Faces of the Depression by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Sarah Green (Albert Whitman & Company, 2017). Weatherford is a prolific author of award-winning picture book biographies, and her account of Lange is another stellar example. “Dorothea hit the road to show America to Americans,” she writes of the documentary photographer whose work brought national attention to issues like poverty and injustice. Lange was an artist who saw and recorded what others ignored: migrant workers from Oklahoma, former slaves in the South, poor and desperate men searching for work in San Francisco, even Japanese American citizens wrongly imprisoned at internment camps.
Bloom: A Story of Fashion Designer Elsa Schiaparelli by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Julie Morstad (HarperCollins, 2018). While Elsa Schiaparelli might not be a household name, her designs left a powerful mark on modern fashion. This is a gorgeously illustrated story of a girl who saw the world differently from the way her parents did, and how she wanted so much more. Inspiring and adorable—fierce young Elsa wanted to be as beautiful as the flowers she saw around her Italian neighborhood, so she planted wildflower seeds in her ears, nose, and mouth—this is a lush tale of daring to be different and a celebration of the spirited woman who went on to create the color we know as “shocking pink.”
Frida Kahlo and Her Animalitos by Monica Brown, illustrated by John Parra (NorthSouth Books, 2017)
Ordinary, Extraordinary Jane Austen by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Qin Leng (Balzer & Bray, 2018)
Born to Swing: Lil Hardin Armstrong’s Life in Jazz by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Michele Wood (Calkins Creek, Boyds Mills Press, 2018)
Danza!: Amalia Hernandez and Mexico’s Folkloric Ballet written and illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh (Harry N. Abrams, 2017)
The World is Not a Rectangle: A Portrait of Architect Zaha Hadid written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter (Beach Lane Books, 2017). Hadid didn’t fit into any traditional box. As a woman and a Muslim, she brought a whole new perspective to architectural design. But her revolutionary thinking bumped up against the usual way of doing things. Once she was able to bring her early designs to life, the world was forever changed. Winter’s words and illustrations show readers a dynamic woman who altered the way people interact with physical space, and whose spaces inspire their surroundings.
Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines by Jeanne Walker Harvey, illustrated by Dow Phumiruk (Henry Holt and Co., 2017)
The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist by Cynthia Levinson, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2017) tells the astonishing story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, who joined the 1963 Children’s March in Birmingham, Alabama. Levinson takes young readers through the decisions that led to her participation and jailing, and how young Audrey wanted to fight segregation and march alongside thousands of other young people. “Are you against America?” asks one of her interrogators. “Why did you march?” Little Audrey’s simple answer will resonate with young readers: “To go places and do things like anybody else.”
No Truth Without Ruth by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Nancy Zhang (HarperCollins, 2018) is a fantastic read and joins the ranks of other compelling new books about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. A master of this genre, Krull layers in rich detail to show the injustices Ginsburg faced in her fight for an education and to be taken seriously as a professional lawyer. “Professors who weren’t comfortable with women students sometimes called on them as a joke, to mock them if they didn’t know the right answers.” A compelling, inspiring read.
Dangerous Jane by Suzanne Slade, illustrated by Alice Ratterree (Peachtree Publishers, 2017). When Jane Addams was a girl, she witnessed the plight of the poor beside her father, riding through town on a wagon. Her social conscience taking shape—through Jane’s eyes, we see “the rundown shacks, / sad, hungry parents, / cold, barefoot children”—we come to understand the woman she grows up to be. As champion of the poor and voiceless, pioneer reformer and social worker, and advocate of women’s suffrage and global peace, Jane’s activism led her to become a controversial figure. After speaking up for peace during World War I, the FBI labeled Jane “the Most Dangerous Woman in America.” She went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Free as a Bird: The Story of Malala by Lina Maslo (Balzer & Bray, 2018)
Mama Africa!: How Miriam Makeba Spread Hope with Her Song by Kathryn Erskine, illustrated by Charly Palmer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017)
Shaking Things Up: 14 Young Women Who Changed the World by Susan Hood, illustrated by 13 Extraordinary Women (HarperCollins, 2018). Featuring 14 women who accomplished remarkable things and “shook up” the world, Susan Hood’s collection makes it hard to choose just one fantastic figure: there’s librarian Pura Belpré who celebrated Puerto Rican culture through books and activities, and sisters Jacqueline and Eileen Nearne who risked their lives as special agents during World War II. A fun and inspiring read illustrated by an outstanding list of artists!
Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History written and illustrated by Vashti Harrison (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2017)
She Persisted Around the World: 13 Women Who Changed History by Chelsea Clinton, illustrated by Alexandra Boiger (Philomel Books, 2018). This is the sequel to last year’s She Persisted.
Chicago author Kate Hannigan writes fiction and non-fiction for young readers. You can read more about her writing A Lady Has the Floor in her January 2018 Nerdy Book Club post. Her historical novel The Detective’s Assistant, based on America’s first woman detective, won the Golden Kite Award for best middle-grade. Kate is a proud recipient of a Nerdy Book Award. Visit her online at KateHannigan.com.