February 09


An Illustrious Collaboration: Sharing A TAKE-CHARGE GIRL BLAZES A TRAIL TO CONGRESS with Rebecca Gibbon by Gretchen Woelfle

In my next life, I’d like to be an author/illustrator. In this life I haven’t a clue. I’m a word person all the way down. That said, I’m in awe of what artists have done with my words. Case in point: Rebecca Gibbon, Illustrator of my latest book, A Take-Charge Girl Blazes A Trail to Congress: The Story of Jeannette Rankin.

The book tells the story of the first woman to win a seat in Congress in 1916, even before the 19th amendment was passed in 1920 that gave the vote to all American women. (Montana men voted to give Montana women that right in 1914.) My book is a slice-of-life biography (not cradle-to-grave), beginning with Jeannette’s childhood and ending thirty-seven years later as she climbed the steps of the Capitol building in April, 1917.

Rebecca Gibbon is English. She lives in a charming 18th century cottage in Somerset, England where I visited her last summer. However, years ago, she caught the attention of American editors and has illustrated an armload of biographies of Americans. I’ve been a fan of her for years, and was thrilled when my editor, Carolyn Yoder, told me Rebecca had agreed to illustrate A Take-Charge Girl.

When I saw Rebecca’s sketches, then the finished paintings, I was bowled over.  She caught the spirit of Jeannette Rankin – her single-minded determination to find her place in the world, to work for social justice – to blaze a trail through the thickets of convention and public opinion. The best illustrators enlarge the story the author has told. Rebecca did just that for Jeannette Rankin.

Let’s start with the cover. The book has a long title, as well as a subtitle. Rebecca had to add our two names as well. Then she added political signs, and a lettered sash across Jeannette’s coat. Yet all her hand-lettered words don’t muddy the page. Bright-colored clothes of the crowd grab our attention right away. Jeannette stands above them, arms raised, feathers in her hat reaching skyward. You can judge this book by its cover – it’s the story of a colorful woman who is going places!

Jeannette’s story begins in Montana in 1880, as a daughter of pioneers in Big Sky country.  Several pages show us the landscape, as expansive as Jeannette herself.  Here she stands smiling, confident, arms akimbo, looking straight at the reader. The text reads “Jeannette Rankin was a take-charge girl.”  Rebecca’s painting shows us exactly what that looks like.

Rebecca uses spot art to illustrate narrative sequences. Here she shows us Jeannette studying to be a social worker, feeding children, counseling mothers.

Full-page illustrations portray emotional moments in the story. Once again we see Jeannette standing tall, arms akimbo again, frowning about congressmen on Capitol Hill. They could pass laws to help Jeannette’s women and children, but they didn’t seem to care.

Jeannette has reached a turning point in her life. Her vision has expanded beyond social work to political action – she will challenge the power of those men. She will fight for women’s suffrage. The men on the hill are small, even comical – though the one passing a sack of money to a colleague (who pretends not to notice) suggests a more sinister mood. This is Rebecca’s sly dig at shady politicians!

In this illustration Rebecca uses spot art again, to show us the women’s suffrage movement, already going strong. One mother wears her support on her apron. A group of women – old and young, rich and poor – march together for the right to vote, better working conditions, and equality. Keeping my focus on Jeannette, I didn’t discuss these broader goals of the suffrage movement, but Rebecca showed them. She added historical context to the story.

Many men scoffed at the women. Here we see a group of those men – young and old. They stand frowning, aloof from each other. They aren’t organized or united. Crucial to the suffragists’ strategy – and Jeannette’s as well – was to organize women to act together. The text doesn’t state this, but Rebecca’s illustration shows this difference between the women and the men.

In 1914, the Montana state assembly agreed to a referendum for men to vote on women’s suffrage. Here we see the culmination of Jeannette’s suffrage campaign in her home state – a mile-long parade of women (and a few men) at the state fair. We see the scope of the women’s movement as the parade winds from the foreground, across the page far into the distance. The portraits on the right-hand page depict young girls whose future as voters promises them more influence in society. The illustration extends the impact of the movement into the future, beyond what I wrote. This is what a brilliant illustrator can give to a writer!

This may be my favorite illustration of all. A few symbolic images– hats, arms, flowers in the air – express all the exuberance and relief of a victory at last. Montana women won the vote. Well done, Rebecca!

Jeannette’s campaign to become the first Congresswoman in American history did not go smoothly. I could discuss how each illustration portrays the action as well as the emotions of the events.  But I’ll leave that to the readers.

Here again, Rebecca goes beyond what I wrote. I ended the book with Jeannette striding up the stairs into Congress. Rebecca illustrated that moment, but then brought the story forward to the present on the last page. Contemporary children gather around the statue of Jeannette Rankin that stands in the Capitol building today, a solid homage to the first woman who blazed a trail to Congress.

Picture books offer the opportunity for collaboration at its best – two people with different skills bringing their unique perspectives to the same story. I feel privileged to have shared this collaboration with Rebecca Gibbon.


Gretchen Woelfle is most curious – some would say nosy – about people who do extraordinary things. Her award-winning biographies include Answering the Cry for Freedom: African Americans and the American Revolution; Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence; and the forthcoming How Benjamin Franklin Became a Revolutionary in Seven Not-So-Easy Steps. When not traveling the world looking for new stories, Gretchen lives in Los Angeles, California. Visit gretchenwoelfle.com.