What History Is Made Of

We all make history every day, whether we are the fundamental elements that make up the swift-flowing stream or the droplets that leap out and sparkle in the sunlight. In reflecting on what the women below possessed in common, one answer that turned up was, Not much. Many (but not all) worked hard to develop an exceptional gift in art, science, or sports. Others pursued a consuming interest. Several campaigned for a vision they believed in. For a few, birth and family situation positioned them for leadership. Early observers of others, by contrast, may have tagged them as unlikely to succeed. At least one of the women here simply rose to meet the need of the moment.

All of these women experienced many ordinary days. Maria Toorpakai spent three years hitting a squash ball against the walls of her bedroom. Lilias Trotter rode camels across the North African desert for days at a time (and relished the quiet).

We may not all be champion athletes or talented artists. Our lives may be full of mundanity. But we can all make a difference. I hope these history makers will challenge us and our daughters and sons to take stock of our gifts and circumstances. How might we be positioned to make a difference in our current situation? And what can we work toward for the future?

Warrior Princess: The Story of Khutulun, by Sally Deng (Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2022, 44pp, ages 5–7)

This spirited tale recounts the legendary life of Mongolian a princess (1260–1306) renowned for her prowess in wrestling and war. In Deng’s version, this great-great-granddaughter of emperor Genghis Khan develops an array of leadership qualities through her study of languages and military strategies. The narrative hones in on the challenge she issues as a young adult: She will marry the man who can out-wrestle her; losers must forfeit ten horses. Nuanced illustrations capture the vibrance and energy of equestrian steppe culture. If ancient warrior women of the steppes intrigue you, Regal House Publishing will release Judith Lindbergh’s thoroughly fictional but intensely researched adult novel Akmaral in May.

Osnat and Her Dove: The True Story of the World’s First Female Rabbi, by Sigal Samuel, ill. Vali Mintzi (Levine Querido, 2021, 40pp, ages 4–8)

This fascinating account draws on fact and legend surrounding the life of Osnat (a.k.a. Asenath) Barzani (1590–1670), an Iraqi Kurdish Jew. Taught by her father to read and study the Torah, she married a man who sanctioned her studies. Her husband succeeded her father as a synagogue teacher. After both had passed, Barzani, reputed to disseminate not only knowledge but miracles, was acknowledged as the leading scholar of the community. It isn’t clear whether Barzani’s pet dove is an official tradition or the author’s innovation, but as a pigeon fancier myself, I heartily condone its contribution to the narrative. 

Lily: The Girl Who Could See, by Sally Oxley & Miriam Huffman Rockness, ill. Tim Ladwig (Oxvision, 2015, 44pp, ages 3–8)

When I was operating a secondhand bookstore a decade or so ago, a friend admonished me to keep an eye out for books by artist and missionary Lilias Trotter (1853–1928). Such titles being rare at the time, it wasn’t until a few years ago, when I was dabbling in painting, that Trotter resurfaced and became an inspiration and role model.

Despite having attracted the attention of such notables as British artist and critic John Ruskin, Trotter put aside a promising career to join the missionary endeavor in Algeria. She served there the rest of her life but, fortunately, didn’t abandon artistic pursuits altogether. The website liliastrotter.com features prints of her paintings as well as new and re-released books about and by Trotter. Lily, with its glowing illustrations, focuses on Trotter’s early life but sums up her ministry as well. A lovely and moving one-hour documentary, “Many Beautiful Things” is also available on the website.

A Vote for Susanna: The First Woman Mayor, by Karen M. Greenwald, ill. Sian James (Albert Whitman, 2021, 32pp, ages 6–10)

Framed by a clever grandmother-grandson dialogue, this book tells the surprising story of Susanna Salter (1860–1961). She became America’s first woman mayor in 1887, when a group of men opposed to female voting put her on the ballot as a farce. Diligent research underlies this engaging story, in which the smallest detail is based on historical fact.

Beatrix Potter, Scientist, by Lindsay H. Metcalf, ill. Junyi Wu (Albert Whitman, 2020, 32pp, ages 4–8)

I knew this famed and indomitable children’s book trailblazer (1866–1943) had conducted detailed anatomical studies as a self-taught artist. Unknown to me, however, was Potter’s ten-year study of mycology. Her experiments led to breakthroughs and discoveries that she put into a paper and submitted to the British Linnaean Society. At that time, women were barred from membership, and the paper was ultimately rejected. A century later the scientific society apologized for its treatment of Potter and women generally.

Metcalf describes how Potter moved on to picture books, where her knowledge of nature inspired illustrations both lifelike and whimsical. A charming side story includes postman Charles McIntosh, whose interest in the flora and fauna he collected on his rounds led to a connection with Potter, to whom he sent samples of unique Scottish mushrooms during her sojourns in London. 

Shaped by Her Hands: Potter Maria Martinez, by Anna Harber Freeman and Barbara Gonzalez, ill. Aphelandra (Albert Whitman, 2021, 32pp, ages 4–8)

This loving tribute to a gifted artisan was co-written by one of her granddaughters, a member of the Tewa people of New Mexico. Prompted by an archaeologist, Martinez (1887–1980) recreated an ancient technique for making black pottery. Though already known for her craftsmanship, she only started selling her work after the archaeologist recognized the value of her discovery. In addition to crafting and selling, Martinez felt it important to pass on her knowledge. By the end of her life she had received several honorary doctorates and been invited to the White House four times. More information is available at https://www.mariamartinezpottery.com/.

Holding Her Own: The Exceptional Life of Jackie Ormes, by Traci N. Todd, ill. Shannon Wright (Orchard, 2008, 48pp, ages 7–10)

Ormes (1911–1985) was a journalist and artist committed to using her gifts and accomplishments to improve the lives and opportunities of mid-twentieth-century African Americans. Todd describes the post-WWII economics that gave rise to the Civil Rights movement and the role Ormes played as a comic artist, doll designer, and prominent activist. Wright adapts Ormes’s signature style into spreads nearly as informative as Todd’s text. The result is an insightful glimpse into the life of a twentieth-century visionary.

Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer, by Traci Sorell, ill. Natasha Donovan (Millbrook, 2021, 32pp, ages 7–11)

This great-great-granddaughter (1908–2008) of a Cherokee chief was exceptional not primarily because of her ethnicity but because math and science were unusual pursuits for a 1920s young woman. Trained as a teacher, she taught high school until WWII increased the demand for engineers. Ross was hired by Lockheed Aircraft Corporation and eventually became the company’s first female engineer. During the Cold War era she worked on top secret assignments, some of which are still classified. Sorell emphasizes Ross’s embodiment of the Cherokee values of humility and collegiality. Her priority was not advancing her own renown but ensuring other women and indigenous peoples had opportunities for education and success.

Ice Breaker: How Mabel Fairbanks Changed Figure Skating, by Rose Viña, ill. Claire Almon (Albert Whitman, 2019, 32pp, ages 4–8).

By age nine, Fairbanks (1915–2001) was a homeless orphan in New York. Taken in by a foster family, she discovered her gifting and lifelong passion for figure skating. With the help of people who recognized and nurtured her ability, Fairbanks achieved international recognition, despite the many doors closed to African Americans at that time. Having established herself, she mentored, coached, and advocated for other African-American skaters. Her persistent intervention contributed to a number of mid-twentieth-century breakthroughs in this arena. In 1997 Fairbanks became the first African American inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame.

The Girl Who Thought in Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin, Julia Finley Mosca, ill. Daniel Rieley

(Innovation Press, 2017, 40pp, ages 4–9) If you’ve done any research into autism, you’ve likely heard of Grandin (b. 1947). A groundbreaking scientist, speaker, and advocate, she has inspired people with any form of neurodivergence who have struggled to find their place. Rhyming text and elemental illustrations suggest a younger readership. But back matter includes extensive information of interest to older children as well as adults: fun facts about Temple (like her love of Star Trek and Spock); a timeline; a bibliography of books, articles, and videos; and a two-page biography (in small print).

A Girl Called Genghis Khan: How Maria Toorpakai Wazir Pretended to be a Boy, Defied the Taliban, and Became a World Famous Squash Player, by Michelle Lord, ill. Shehzil Malik (Sterling, 2019, 48pp, ages 5+)

This book engaged me not only because of Toorpakai’s spirit and activism but because of my personal connection with its setting. When Toorpakai (b. 1990) was a four-year-old living in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas, I went to Islamabad at age twenty-one to teach English. Sixteen years later Maria, age twenty, went to Canada where she could train to become the world-famous squash player she was cut out to be. In between, she changed her name, was threatened (along with her free-thinking parents) by the Taliban, and showed exceptional athletic skill. In 2017 Toorpakai returned to Pakistan, where she now supports the building of clinics, schools, and sports centers for girls as well as boys. At the time of writing, her sister was the youngest member of Pakistan’s parliament. Toorpakai’s memoir is titled A Different Kind of Daughter: The Girl Who Hid from the Taliban in Plain Sight (Twelve, 2016).

Note: This post first appeared on the Story Warren website on March 25, 2024.

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