List-making is practically a hobby with me, and books are a passion, with children’s literature a high-ranking subcategory. Creating lists of the latter is thus a delight accompanied by the danger of disappearing into long, winding passageways papered over by picture books.
This is especially true of a topic as fascinating and fruitful as women’s history. The last few decades have seen an ever growing wealth of picture book biographies of all sorts, produced by innovative authors and gifted illustrators. Many document the lives of women notable for their gifts, passion, and commitment to a cause. In most cases these individuals didn’t set out to make a name for themselves. They had a passion and they pursued it; they perceived a need, and they addressed it. Some were exceptionally gifted; some simply refused to look the other way when confronted with injustice or hardship.
Most of the women featured below overcame adversity of some sort, whether physical, economic, or social. Generally at least one parent supported their goals, but many lost a mother or father in childhood. These women are significant not because of their gender but because they rose above their circumstances.
It’s unlikely I will make great advances in science—or the arts, for that matter. And it’s possible my own greatest adversary is various iterations of my own psyche. But women like Sarah Hale, writer of letters, books, poetry, and more, remind me that the important thing is to keep going and not lose heart. I hope the perseverance of these visionaries will inspire you and your daughters and sons as it has inspired me.
The Story Warren post linked in the previous post (as well as here), includes recommendations for twenty-one picture books that commemorate events or people relevant to African-American history month. They represent only a fraction of the vibrant, creative, informative works in print, with more appearing all the time.
But as soon as I peeked inside Schomburg I was convinced the book required its own post, foremost for the suitability of its subject matter: African history was Arthur Schomburg’s passion. Multiple award-winning author Carole Weatherford dedicates several pages to individuals who inspired Schomburg. And Velasquez’s lush paintings do justice to the African-related art Schomburg loved and collected.
Researching the collection that follows has renewed my awareness of the inescapable, tragic history of slavery in America. Conceiving of our country as it might have been apart from the scourge of slavery is enticing; possibly even redemptive, if the exercise edges us toward that vision. But deepening our knowledge of the actual past holds even more potential for understanding the present and thus moving toward a better future.
This undertaking has also reminded me that the history of African Americans is more than the history of slavery. It is replete with individuals, families, and communities that have overcome injustice and other monumental obstacles to produce beauty, exhibit love, promote knowledge, and sustain faith. Their remarkable and enduring feats of courage, scholasticism, craftsmanship, and physical prowess enrich us all.
The list of books below represents my attempt at a chronological overview of the past two hundred and fifty years through an assortment of newer and older picture book titles. Some highlight individuals of exceptional achievement, others “ordinary” citizens who demonstrated vision, compassion, and determination.
To read more, follow this link to the Story Warren web site:
I borrowed Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo from the library last spring (2022), after a neighbor introduced me to Saunders’s Story Club for writers. I was intrigued by Lincoln’s multiple narrators, speaking in first person, passing off the story from one to another at irregular intervals, sometimes even interrupting one another or finishing each another’s sentences. But at the time the death of a child—Lincoln’s, to be precise—was a subject matter too oppressive to shoulder, and I returned the book after a close skimming of its contents.
But I was sufficiently impressed by Saunders’s innovation and the spiritual vein I thought I detected to queue up for the library’s audio version of Saunders’s A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. I finally reached the front in July; thus my association between Saunders’s selected Russian short stories, along with his commentary, and staining our back deck in the mild warmth of a Pacific NW summer.
A Swim in a Pond reprints seven short stories by Chekhov, Golgol, Tolstoy, and Turgenev. The discussion that follows each highlights essential strengths—or weaknesses—of the nineteenth-century works in question.
For millennia the written word has held special significance among those whose faith is centered on holy writ. Some ancient Jewish and Islamic traditions imposed safeguards to prevent the desecration of any piece of writing—sacred or secular—that might bear God’s name.
Christian history is marked by missionaries and others who made literacy and education a priority, on the premise that everyone should have personal access to the written Word of God. Among these, Martin Luther, William Carey, and Jonathan Edwards are familiar names. A less familiar example is the Kyrias family of Albania, active supporters of language development, publishing, and education, particularly among girls.
In contemporary America it can be hard to fathom a culture where the written word is not readily accessible. We read to our children from the day they are born, fill shelves with assorted Bible editions, and ship off excess volumes to thrift stores and little free libraries. The handful of picture books below give elementary-aged children a glimpse of the lengths to which people have gone—and still go—to preserve, procure, and distribute the wealth that is literacy.
In slightly belated recognition of translation month (September) and UN Translation Day (Sept. 30), the article linked below appeared on the Story Warren website on September 28, 2022. It features reviews of translated and adapted works for young readers centered around Central Asia and the Silk Road.
I read Kadish’s work in a year that began with a pandemic and ended with wildfires that shrouded our region in smoke for two weeks. It seemed appropriate that The Weight of Ink reaches its climax in a plague and has its denouement in the Great London fire of 1666. Of course, I didn’t know about the fires forthcoming in either book or reality when I started. I read the book because it was everything I love in a novel—meticulously researched historical fiction, nuanced in its perspectives and masterful in its wordcraft.
And it included a plague—a plague long, long ago and far, far away. What could more timely? Kadish’s epic transported me to Israel, Amsterdam, and London. I traveled through time to the seventeenth century, witnessed the trials and triumphs of unacknowledged genius. It was a journey well worth the $18.99 fare.
I discovered this book shortly after its publication in 2017. My ninety-year-old mother-in-law had developed fairly advanced dementia. But her lifelong appreciation for books, cartography, history, exploration, and the art of illustration had not failed her. The fortuitous coincidence of all those elements allowed us to ramble through these pages together on multiple occasions with some semblance of former camaraderie.
Arranged alphabetically by the names of the explorers, this visually stunning book represents a wealth of information and artistry, not to mention a herculean task of compilation. As the title indicates, it represents excerpts from the sketchbooks of more than seventy explorers and documenters of the natural world. Some names are familiar—John James Audubon, Meriwether Lewis, Carl Linnaeus, David Livingstone—most much less so. Most are men; a little more than a tenth are women.
The influence of this Scottish author and minister is most famously cited in connection with C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia as well as other works of fiction and nonfiction. But George MacDonald (1824-1905) is often described as the father of modern fantasy and credited with inspiring a host of other early- and mid-twentieth century authors.
I have blogged elsewhere about the suitability of fairy stories for winter reading (click here for the post). December seemed a good time to commence my long-intended re-reading of MacDonald’s classic. When I first read Phantastes some thirty years ago, it left me, in the main, puzzled. Last fall I waded through The Faerie Queen (or rather, let all sixty hours of the audiobook wash over me). Despite my lamentable inattention to Spenser’s meandering masterpiece, familiarity with The Faerie Queen did enhance my appreciation for MacDonald’s imagery and the protagonist’s journey through faerieland.