Women Weaving Their own Stories

Perhaps, like me, you recall the days of sitting in a history class bored beyond reach by all the facts figures and battles presented as “history.” Today, as more and more stories emerge from different perspectives, socio-economic backgrounds, ages, genders, races and ethnicities, I find myself at times entranced by the past and what it can teach us.

For the fifth year, librarians and bloggers Margo Tanenbaum, of The Fourth Musketeer, and Lisa Taylor, of Shelf-employed, have compiled a fascinating web resource celebrating women’s history. This year’s theme for Women’s History Month is “Weaving the Stories of Women’s Lives.” A different writer each day contributes a post featuring a woman who’s made history. The Kidlit site features articles on acclaimed women such as Louisa May Alcott and Mahalia Jackson, as well as interesting, less-heralded women, including the American Revolutionary heroes Betsy Zane and Prudence Wright.

And don’t miss previous posts on opera singer Leontyne Price,  human rights activist Malala Yousafzai, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai. SeedsofChange


Voice of a Century

Thanks to the latest picture book by acclaimed author Carole Boston Weatherford, you can bring in the sublime opera singer Leontyne Price to celebrate Black History Month. With poetic prose and vibrant illustrations, Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century delivers a lyrical, uplifting story Leontyne Price Voice of a Century by Carole Boston Weatherfordchildren should hear, whatever the time of year.

With elegantly crafted poetic prose, Weatherford places the singer’s story in the context of the oppressive world in which she was born, in 1927. “All a black girl from the Cotton Belt could expect was a heap of hard work–as a maid, mill worker, or sharecropper. Her song, most surely the blues.”

Despite the miseries of rural Mississippi, Leontyne thrived, growing up with a loving family that encouraged her interest in music. One of the highlights of Raul Colon’s illustrations for me is the full-page portrait done in Prismacolor pencils of a dreamy young Leontyne, eyes closed as she revels in the Saturday-afternoon radio broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera. Leontyne’s parents sold their treasured phonograph to pay for a piano and lessons for their daughter.

The girl’s world expanded even more when, as a church choir member, she got to see the famous Marian Anderson sing at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. Soon, Leontyne was off, too, heading for college in Ohio, where she could become qualified to teach music, “the concert stage out of reach for a black singer then.”

Here, another of my favorite illustrations shows Leontyne with her white gloves and her be-ribboned hat, waiting to catch the bus to take her far from home. The double-spread, done in Colon’s characteristic swirls, evokes the energy and hope it must have taken to propel Leontyne toward a richer life.

Then Leontyne learned she, too, could hope to sing on stage; the college president heard her sing a solo and convinced her to focus on developing her voice. And so she made her way to Juilliard and found her true calling.

This daughter of a sawmill worker and a midwife became the first black opera singer to garner leading roles at the Met and at Italy’s famous opera house La Scala. She was the first black opera singer to perform on television in the U.S., as Weatherford relates in her concluding author’s note. Can you imagine how inspiring it must have been for so many to sit in their living rooms and watch the regal singer perform?

Pair this engaging story with one of Price’s recordings — or, better yet, use a YouTube video showing her astounding 1963 televised performance of “O patria mia” from Verdi’s Aida. Then teach children this simple Italian word: Bravissima!

See also …

my previous post on Carole Boston Weatherford, featuring Freedom on the Menu.

Rosie Can Do It!

What are the chances that a picture book told in rhyme would succeed in revealing the seldom-featured value of apparent failure and the need for perseverance? Not only that, the author and illustrator would show how females can overcome inner doubts and cultural biases by pursuing their own ideas. The unlikely and totally likable Rosie Revere, Engineer celebrates girl power in a big way.Rosie Revere Engineer by Andrea Beaty and ill by David Roberts

The can-do spirit of this story, which echoes Peggy Seeger’s acerbic “I’m Gonna Be An Engineer” (1970), in which Seeger advocated for pay parity, respect, and equal opportunities for women, employs humor, rhyme, and bright, detailed watercolor, pencil, and pen-and-ink illustrations to reach impressionable children in need of positive themes.

Wide-eyed Rosie, shown with hair tucked into a red polka-dot kerchief, is a tinkerer at heart. She routinely scrounges in waste baskets for treasures she can use to build things in her room at night. David Roberts provides delightful two-page spreads highlighting the child’s various designs, tools, and original gadgets. These illustrations alone will have children poring over this picture book again and again.

While Rosie beams when her inventions such as helium pants (!) are a hit, she becomes discouraged after her zookeeper uncle laughs at the snake-repelling hat she created for him. “She stuck the cheese hat on the back of her shelf/ and after that day kept her designs to herself.”

What Rosie needs is a mentor, and fortunately, her great-great-aunt Rose, “who’d worked building airplanes a long time ago,” is a dynamo. When again Rosie’s inventions don’t work according to plan, her relative urges her on, stressing that “failed” attempts provide opportunities for learning and, in time, for succeeding.

Rosie regains her groove and goes on to inspire her classmates, who ultimately join in working, learning, and creating the gizmos of their dreams.

Adding value to the exuberant plot are Beaty’s notes about the women who entered the workforce during World War II and facts about women’s contributions to aeronautics. Don’t miss reading this book aloud to a group, or revelling in its encouraging message with your young ones, especially girls. Required reading for ages 5 to 9.

And check out these related posts, on Mordecai Gerstein’s The First Drawing, and on architects and builders.

From Scraps to Treasure

Summertime, and creativity is easy. Are you and your children looking for inspiration for art projects? Just dip into acclaimed author/illustrator Lois Ehlert’s latest, The Scraps Book: Notes fromScraps Book Notes from a Colorful Life by Lois Ehlert a Colorful Life, and you might not even finish the book until you’ll be itching to go for a nature walk to scavenge materials for little masterpieces.

Known for her bright collages, Ehlert has written and, of course, illustrated a brief, lively memoir that touches upon her early influences, her artistic process, and her many children’s books. She shows photographs of herself and her parents, whom she credits as being people “who made things with their hands.” She includes images of old scissors, paintbrushes, pumpkin seeds and crab apples, even the folding table her dad set up for her as a child and which she took with her to art school years later. We get to feast on colorful images from her popular titles such as Planting a Rainbow, Nuts to You! and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. In the process of revealing all this, she provides engaging and accessible ideas for young artists’ own work: a paper aquarium … a cat mask … a flower necklace.

Because of Ehlert’s vivid illustrations and her exuberant focus on the creative process, The Scraps Book promises to appeal to a wide range of children, from 5 to 10. I join the artist in wishing you a colorful life.

Ehlert’s other picture books are aimed at ages 5 to 8; recommended titles include …

Waiting for Wings by Lois EhlertPie in the Sky by Lois EhlertCuckoo Cucu A Mexican Folktale retold and illus by Lois Ehlert




Planting Seeds of Peace

After celebrating two strong fictional females in recent posts, I’d like to focus on a visually striking biography by Jen Cullerton Johnson today. Seeds of Change: Planting a Path to Peace  quivers with sensual details and a sense of hope and respect for all living things. We see young Wangari Maathai and her mother eating sweet figs, just as the monkeys and an eleSeedsofChangephant are doing. The Kikuyu people of Kenya, we learn, believe their ancestors rest in the tree’s shade, so Wangari promises never to cut down the tree.

While few girls in her village learn to read, Wangari’s parents respond to their daughter’s desire to learn, and arrange for her to go to the local school. At age 11, however, she can advance no more. To continue, she must move to the big city of Nairobi. From there, she goes the U.S. to major in biology.

When Wangari returns to her beloved home, she finds a world out of balance. Because the government has sold much land to big foreign companies, the forest habitat has dwindled, and native cedar and acacia trees have vanished. The people of her village have abandoned their custom of not cutting down the mugumo (spreading fig trees). Erosion has caused soil to stream into the rivers. Crops are drying out, and people are hungry. Wangari’s seed of an idea will bring the community together and restore the ecology of the land. Lush oil and scratchboard illustrations by Sonia Lynn Sadler show the belts of green saplings planted by the women.

After being arrested by corrupt police officers, Wangari gets out and takes her case to the world. The woman called Mama Miti, mother of trees, helped get 30 million trees planted, making for cleaner rivers, abundant fruit, and healthy crops. She won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, the first African to do so. Seeds of Change, aimed at upper-elementary students, is a vibrant story to include in units on ecology, peacemakers, Kenya, or outstanding women. A brief biographical note and sources are included.

And don’t miss the fabulous 2014 KidLit celebration of Women’s History Month!

Josephine Sizzles

Just in time for Black History Month, Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker is a vibrant biography of a woman who defied society’s stereotypes and restrictions as she danced around the world.

Josephine by Patricia Hruby PowellWith lively free verse that evokes the Roaring Twenties ragtime that Josephine Baker reveled in, the author crafts a story worthy of such a unique artist. Ms. Powell’s use of  quotes gives young readers a feeling for Josephine’s energy, drive, and creativity. This, for instance, is how the bio begins: “I shall dance all my life. … I would like to die, breathless, spent, at the end of a dance.”

She also varies the typeface, font, and size of some of the words: “She flung her arms,/she flung her legs./Like she flung her heart and her soul./’Cause DANCIN’ makes you HAPPY/when nothing’ else will.”

We follow Josephine as she leaves the slums of Saint Louis to join the Dixie Steppers in performing for audiences as far south as New Orleans, “where signs for one latrine read WHITE ladies/and another, COLORED women, where a white person wouldn’t sell you/a cup of coffee./Because you were/NEGRO.”

From there, Josephine Baker made her way to New York and finally to the City of Light, Paris, where, she recounted, “For the first time in my life, I felt beautiful.” She was all the rage, and, unlike in segregated America, people tried to dress like her, arrange their hair like her, and tanned to look like Josephine. She would stride down the Champs-Elysees with her pet leopard, Chiquita, “each wearing a diamond choker–/as REGAL as a queen by day/as WILD as a leopard by night.”

Later, when France entered World War II, Josephine Baker joined the Red Cross and spied for the country that had given her so much. She also showed her brave, generous spirit by adopting 12 children of various races from nations around the world. She “felt the whole world was represented in her family. She called them her RAINBOW TRIBE.”

Divided into six acts, or chapters, this biography vibrates with Christian Robinson’s spirited illustrations done in acrylic paints. The abundance of bright two-page spreads will keep many a reader engaged and longing for more.

This is one DAZZLING tribute to one sassy woman. Highly recommended for upper-elementary and middle-school students.

And don’t miss:

My post on Carole Boston Weatherford’s Freedom on the Menu
and my post of the Coretta Scott King winner, Bryan Collier.

Leading the Way to the Library

How did the public library evolve from a hushed book repository for adults to the vibrant heart of communities? And when did children get to join the party? Jan Pinborough’s picture-book debut highlights a woman who defied customs and expectations and wrought a transformation that continues to this day.Miss Moore Thought Otherwise

Brightly illustrated with Debby Atwell’s playful acrylic paintings, Miss Moore Thought Otherwise: How Anne Carroll Moore Created Libraries for Children sprinkles colorful little details that reveal a likable, somewhat lively heroine. The child from Limerick, ME, who loved heart-thumping toboggan rides as well as the stories her father read aloud would one day pack her bags to attend the Pratt Institute library school in Brooklyn. She chose one of the few professions open to women in the early 20th century: library studies.

She first worked at the local Pratt Free Library, which had, to her mind, a delightful new feature: a library space just for children. In an era in which other librarians cultivated the reading interests of only adults, “Miss Moore thought otherwise”—a refrain Ms. Pinborough uses to delineate how her approach differed from that of the majority.

Word spread about Anne Carroll Moore’s abilities, and in time she was hired to oversee the children’s departments in all 36 branches of the New York Public Library. Finally she was in a position to make changes that would have an impact on thousands of families.

To her dismay, she found many librarians still did not allow children even to touch books, let alone take them home. She set about changing that. Unlike her contemporaries, Miss Moore did not believe the library was meant to be as quiet as a tomb. One cheerful, full-page painting shows Miss Moore in her floor-length skirt helping to take down a huge black sign with the word “silence.” She urged librarians to talk to children, to tell them stories. And what about those dull books no one wanted to read? Out with them! Instead, she brought in the likes of Tom Sawyer and The Swiss Family Robinson to satisfy children’s taste for adventure.

Then came a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. A grand new library would be built at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Annie Moore had the chance to create the very best children’s library for New York City’s youth.

The innovations she introduced at the New York Public Library have now been adopted around the world. Such logical features include child-size furniture, bright, attractive artwork and displays; the inclusion of cozy seating; and kid-pleasing book collections. Reading clubs and visits by talented performers, artists, and authors enlivened the children’s room, then and now.

In her interesting afterward, Ms. Pinborough notes that in reality, Anne Carroll Moore was one of a number of strong, independent women librarians who revolutionized children’s library services. For that, we can all be grateful.

Reprinted, in slightly altered form, with permission from The New York Journal of Books.

Librarian of Basra by Jeanette WinterJeanette Winter’s important picture-book biography, The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq, should be read and discussed in every upper-elementary school library. Here’s a unique opportunity to meet a real hero, Alia Muhammad Baker, chief librarian of Basra’s Central Library. As war approached, she set about protecting her community’s precious books. When the government refused to help, she found a nearby restaurant owner who helped her store the books — just nine days before the library burned. Then she moved the 30,000 volumes to her own home and to those of her friends, hoping that peace would soon come. Winter based this picture book on the July 27, 2003 New York Times article by Shaila K. Dewan. She deftly describes and illustrates the events without overwhelming children with the horrors of war. This book can lead to thoughtful discussions of the vital role the library plays in a community and to an analysis of the characteristics of a hero. Storyteller's Candle

The Storyteller’s Candle/La velita de los cuentos by Lucia Gonzalez is a tender tribute to Pura Belpré, New York City’s first Puerto Rican librarian, whose name was given to the American Library Association’s annual award that honors Latino authors and illustrators.

Readers encounter Hildamar and her cousin, Santiago, as they enter the library in Manhattan’s El Barrio. Recently arrived from Puerto Rico, they are struggling to navigate new customs in a bewildering big city. Fortunately, the children find a creative and caring librarian, who lights her storyteller’s candle, speaks in both English and Spanish, and sparks imagination in her listeners. Soon, the children lead their family, friends, and neighbors to the public library, where they create a holiday play and, in the process, create a stronger community. Lulu Delacre’s oil and collage illustrations add warmth to this inspiring story, just right for ages 8-10.

Also see …

My previous post on librarians and

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