In February we celebrated 100 years of the first swathes of women gaining their hard won right to vote and last month saw the annual International Women's Day. The times they-are-a-changing, and happily publishers are gathering in their droves to produce high quality empowering picture and chapter books about brilliant women of the past and strong ladies of literature, and they are also producing new feminist picture book heroines of the future. Last year I produced the first instalment of our Essential Library for Mighty Girls. If you haven't read it pop back and start here
with some stunning titles of fact and fiction.
Between then and now there's been a couple of feet of additional corkers to add to the shelf. This is becoming quite a collection, one to pass down through the generations. These books would be a brilliant gift for any young woman, but the boys need to read them too.
1. Little People, Big Dreams Series (Frances Lincoln)
First up are the next 4 instalments of the exquisite Little People Big Dreams series from Frances Lincoln publishing. I was delighted this recent Christmas to see these little gems popping out of Christmas stockings of the daughters of friends across the country. The vision for these books, created by a selection of different authors and illustrators each with their own distinctive and scrumptious style, is that young children can easily, through these simple and engaging biographies, discover the lives of outstanding people. From designers and artists to scientists, activists and authors, every featured mighty woman went on (often despite the odds) to achieve incredible things. Each had a dream and a passion and they followed it.
On the day of the celebration of women's suffrage, the girls skipped into school sporting green, white and purple ribbons, and wielding their copy of Emmeline Pankhurst
, a particular favourite. Culturebaby's teacher reported back that she loved sharing it with the class. The beauty of these books, beyond the stunning illustrations and brilliantly rendered versions of the characters, is the simplicity with which they convey the uniqueness of what each woman achieved and some of the great wisdom they have left with us. Emmeline was brilliant. She learned to read at 3 and was supported by affluent parents, but she didn't have many choices because she was a girl. She didn't understand why her father had said it was too bad she wasn't a boy - she couldn't go to university, vote or get a job like her brothers. She began to sense the unfairness of this predicament, both for herself but for other women and she started to read about women's rights, and as soon as she left school she began to campaign. She met a man who believed the same and together they worked for equality, and after he sadly died she was left with a large family (and she had to work to support them) but she didn't stop her mission - her daughters all joined in. Emmeline founded a new group of women called the Women's Social and Political Union, who at times had to resort to extreme measures to get themselves heard. Finally during the war they supported the effort and demonstrated their own indispensability and that women truly were human beings with rights. The second title is the inspiring story of Rosa Parks, born in Alabama and subject to degrading segregation. Rosa knew what she saw wasn't right and she began to work for better rights for black people. One day on a bus on her way home from the city, Rosa was told to stand up to give her seat to a white person and she refused. She was thrown into prison, which prompted others to hear her cause. Black people boycotted buses and worked together to raise awareness of the injustice they were subject to daily. Finally the Supreme Court ruled what Rosa knew all along, that treating people differently on buses because of the colour of their skin was wrong. Things began to change. Rosa had to move from Alabama where she was no longer safe, but she continued to campaign. She said "we have to keep trying as long as we are alive".
Next, two very different women - Agatha Christie - a brilliant writer with an incredible imagination who used her experiences travelling and nursing in the war to create some of the world's best known literary characters and to become the best selling novelist of all time. Oh the mighty power of the pen! And finally Audrey Hepburn, a child who had suffered and become ill during the war who dreamed of being a dancer. Audrey was told that she had been left too weak to be a ballerina but instead she threw herself into musicals and before long, this beautiful woman became a world-famous star.
She had a simple rule for life "Dance as though no one is watching. Sing as though no one can hear you. Live as though Heaven is on Earth." And young Audrey did - she never forgot that there were children who were hungry just as she had been and she became an official charity ambassador, travelling the world to raise money for children's health and working for this cause for the rest of her life. I can't wait to see who Frances Lincoln covers next...
2. Ella Queen of Jazz by Helen Hancocks (Frances Lincoln)
A few other brilliant picture book biographies sit well beside these others. Firstly, again from Frances Lincoln, is the beautiful Ella Queen of Jazz by Helen Hancocks, the true story of the prejudice faced by the talented jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald and how an unlikely friendship with the star Marilyn Monroe not only gave Ella opportunities she needed to break into white-dominated venues, but which also helped Marilyn to find her own singing voice through Ella - she even went on to sing for the president. Its a great, and perhaps lesser-known, tale of what courage and friendship can do, even amongst the most seemingly successful of women.
3. Grace Hopper, Queen of Computer Code by Laurie Wallmark and Katy Wu (Sterling)
Did you know that it was a woman who revolutionised computer coding, who developed a programme that taught computers to recognise words and not just endless 0s and 1s? That a women coined the term 'computer bug' and that the cause of the term was, in fact, a real bug stuck in a computer? "Software tester. Workplace Jester. Order Seeker. Well-known Speaker. Gremlin finder. Software minder. Clever thinker. Lifelong tinker. Cherished mentor. Ace inventor. Avid reader. Naval leader. Rule breaker. Chance taker. Troublemaker. AMAZING GRACE!"
In a world where we often associate coding, maths and computing with men and where girls have to be encouraged into STEM, it is thoroughly encouraging to read about the brilliant Grace Hopper, who wrote computer programmes for the navy and figured out a way to store pieces of a program inside early computers and tell the machine where to find them if she needed them again. As a child Grace had always tinkered with objects to understand them. At age 7 she was discovered with the contents of 7 household clocks scattered around the house and she created an elevator for her doll's house. She was brilliant at science and maths and when she failed Latin (which meant she couldn't go to college), she knuckled down, watched her friends go off to pursue their studies, and she passed. At college Grace watched some of her classmates take classes called 'Husbands and Wives' and 'Motherhood' but she chose maths and physics, she took opportunities to fly and helped her friends with their studies. She went on to Yale, where she was one of only two women in her class and she joined the navy which needed the best mathematicians. She dedicated her life to programming until she was 80, and inspiringly said "Humans are allergic to change, they like to say, 'We've always done it this way.' I try to fight that." This is the perfect book for any scientifically minded little lady and a crucial read for anyone who thinks computers are for boys. Culturebaby has asked for this one again and again.
4. Malala's Magic Pencil, by Malala and Illustrated by Kerascoet (Puffin)
From the minute this one popped through the letter box, the girls were inspired by this picture book authored by the brave Malala Yousafzai, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and illustrated by Kerrascoet. Malala, the young educational campaigner who was shot in the head by the Taliban for speaking out about girl's education in Pakistan needs little introduction, but this picture book offers the perfect glimpse for our children to the immense bravery of this young woman. This book is particularly apt as Culturebaby sponsors a little girl in Pakistan and it has helped her to understand some of the challenges for a girl growing up in this dangerous place. We'd highly recommend sponsorship of a child as a birthday present - ours is through ActionAid (you can find out more here
). Malala's Magic Pencil
focuses on Malala's inspiration to write. As a child she dreamed of owning a magic pencil, and with it she could erase problems and draw wonderful things - such as schools where children could study for free, or a ball so her brothers no longer needed to play with a rubbish-stuffed sock. She watched children working to sort rubbish into piles and was saddened to see that some of them didn't go to school because they had to work to support their families, particularly many of the girls. She worked hard at school and dreamt of how she might change the world. One day, 'powerful and dangerous men' declared that girls were forbidden from attending school and many were too scared to attend. Malala spoke out, wrote speeches and gave news interviews. And the powerful men tried to silence her... but they failed. She survived. This amazing young woman now studying at Oxford University reminds us that "One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world."
5. Little Leaders - Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison (Puffin)
A while ago a friend asked for recommendations for 'diverse books' for children. We are starting to discover a selection, but there could be more out there. This title comes as a welcome addition. It features 40 trailblazing black women from both the past and the present time. From political pioneers such as Diane Abbott or Oprah Winfrey to musicians, singers, scientists and sprinters to a host of activists, there are many women in this book that we all ought to know rather more about. Alice Ball for instance, a chemist who only lived until she was 24 (1892-1916) but who gained two degrees (when most people from the African American population were employed in service professions) and who went on to find the leading treatment for leprosy - which her director promptly took credit for until the truth was uncovered in the 1970s. The book takes a similar format to Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls (reviewed here
) but is very different in style - it works chronologically and has the most adorable illustrations from debut author illustrator Vashti Harrison. When I showed it to a group of mums it is one of the ones that really caught their eye.
6. Fantastically Great Women who made History by Kate Pankhurst (Bloomsbury)
Hot on the heels of the successful Fantastically Great Women who Changed the World by Kate Pankhurst, comes a second in the series, focusing on a selection of women who changed history. These sweet and affordable little paperbacks have become one of our birthday gifts of choice for Culturebaby's classmates. The engaging cartoon style and sweet illustrations bring to life a variety of very well and perhaps lesser known characters from around the globe and deep into history. We meet Boudicca (Queen of the Iceni), Harriet Tubman (underground railways conductor and runaway slave), Flora Drummond (leader of the suffragette army), Qiu Jin (Chinese advocate for women's rights), Noor Inayat Khan (secret agent and World War heroine), Dr Elizabeth Blackwell (the first woman to be awarded a degree in medicine), Pocahontas (an advocate for peace and understanding between Britain and native Americans), Valentina Tereshkova (the first woman in space), Ada Lovelace (inventor and first programmer - before computers were even created), Sayyida al Hurra (pirate queen), Hatshepsut (the female Pharaoh), Josephine Baker (star and anti-segregation activist), and the mother and daughter feminist duo Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley. Its a great selection of inspiring women.
7. Her Right Foot by Dave Eggers and Shawn Harris (Chronicle Books)
This unusual picture book by Dave Eggers (of Circle fame), and illustrated by Shawn Harris looks at the Statue of Liberty and why she is such an important symbol (in these Trumpian times) of the underlying message of acceptance behind America's creation as a country. The book traces the statue's origin as a gift from France to celebrate 100 years of America, its creation in France and shipping over in 214 crates, and the 17 months it took to put her together on Bedloe's Island (now Liberty Island). The statue carries the Declaration of Independence, and the seven spikes on her crown represent both the sun and the seven continents and seas of earth. Liberty's torch is the symbol of enlightenment and freedom but what is perhaps less obvious is that her right foot is striding forth - this lady is on the move. Around her feet are broken chains. "Liberty and freedom from oppression are not things you get or grant by standing around like some kind of statue. No! These are things that require action. Courage. An unwillingness to rest." She continues to welcome immigrants and it should and cannot end. "After all, the Statue of Liberty is an immigrant too. And this is why she's moving. This is why she's striding. In welcoming the poor, the tired, the struggling to breathe free". What a message for America, and for us all.
8. Where's Jane? Fine Jane Austen Hidden in Her Novels by Rebecca Smith and Katy Dockrill (Ivy Kids)
This gorgeously designed play on Where's Wally from Ivy Kids and Rebecca Smith and Katy Dockrill, invites us to locate Jane Austen in major scenes from all of her novels. For each novel we meet the major characters and see a cartoon-like synopsis of the story, and then on the following page we are challenged to spot them alongside author Jane, hiding within each scene. The moment this one arrived in the post it immediately came out with us for the day and it is currently 4 year old Culturetot's favourite book. It's a wonderfully joyful read, full of feisty young women and Jane's wit and humour. It's also a great introduction to the novels. For the littlest of little ones you can also try the fabulous Babylit (reviewed here
) and Cozy Classics (reviewed here
) each with their own stunning takes on Austen and we also have a great set of Austen-themed activities in our post here on recreating the Georgians
9. The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Beatrix Potter (Warne)
To celebrate 150 years of the birthday of the powerful Ms Potter, Warne has brought out a little book to match the classic miniature hardback size and style of the original 23 tales. This scrumptious title shows how Beatrix transformed Peter Rabbit from a few sketches in a letter to a little boy she sought to cheer up as he was feeling poorly, into an international bestseller. The Japanese use the books of Beatrix Potter to learn English, and Potter was one of the reasons that the English Lakes is a World Heritage Site today - both through her fame and through the swathes of countryside that she saved for the nation. No list of mighty girl literature can truly be complete without her- as an author, farmer and passionate conservationist she has truly changed our world as we know it. I remember as a child being obsessed with a book of Beatrix Potter's art and it was a moment of palpable misery that before the days of internet book buying I had to return it to the library, knowing I couldn't find a copy elsewhere. This little book captures some of that magic with its reproductions of photographs, watercolours and letters. We learn about the real pets of Beatrix Potter, who inspired her writing such as Benjamin Bouncer who walked on a lead and Peter Piper, who performed tricks and came everywhere with Potter. Alongside this title you can now also indulge in a little extra Beatrix that you couldn't have known as a child. Last year Quentin Blake was invited to illustrate an unpublished story that she wrote, The Tale of Kitty in Boots,
now available to buy. Further Lakeland and Potter-themed posts can be read here
The Fiction List
Moving on to a little list of current fiction with great themes about women...
1. Poppy and The Blooms by Fiona Woodcock (Simon and Schuster)
This has been one of Culturetot's favourite books this year. With absolutely adorable illustrations showing the contrast between nature and a grey city without it, Poppy and the Blooms,
is a story about how Poppy and her friends Dandy, Bluebell and little Buttercup set out to locate and save the last park in a nearby city that is destined to be closed. Rushing across the gloomy and colourless city, little do they know that the blooms leave seeds in their wake, scattering the streets with hope and a rainbow of colour. They discover the park and set to work bringing it back to life, but after they are done when they turn to survey their footsteps, they see that their selfless magic has transformed a whole city.
2. Princess Scallywag and the Brave Brave Knight by Mark Sperring and Claire Powell (Harper Collins)
This is a delightfully different fairy tale number about an exceedingly unconventional princess.
Armour-clad, grubby and adventurous, Princess Scallywag and her mother get rid of any unwanted monsters by turning them into unwilling suitors. Terrified by the prospect of a stinky-footed, pond-bathing wife, dragons flee and trolls escape, and the concept of 'happily every after' takes on a new meaning. Not a prince in sight.
3. Hortense and the Shadow by Natalia and Lauren O'Hara (Puffin)
A lovely new title from two sisters who create work together, is inspired by classic picture books and fables and by the stories told by their Polish grandmother on snowy winter nights. The girls loved the stories of Wilde and Rackham and this mixture of influences can be felt in this title which features a strong young woman and a message that it is important to embrace all sides of ourselves. Hortense is a small girl who lived in dark and snowy 'wolfish woods'. She was kind and brave but she struggled with the fact that she hated her shadow, particularly how it followed her everywhere and warped into tall and crooked shapes when the night fell. Hortense began to hide her shadow and eventually worked out a way to cut it off. The shadow howled and ran and was lost in the dark. Then one day bandits appeared and her shadow became a hunter, a baker, a farmer, a bear, which scared the bandits and saved Hortense. She finally embraced that part of herself that made her taller in the dark, or shaded her eyes on prickly white days, and together they danced in the sun. "And if it is sometimes dark, cross, strange, silly, jagged or blue, well...sometimes Hortense is too."
4. Emmeline and the Plucky Pup bu Megan Rix (Puffin)
Culturebaby at 6, whilst still very much enjoying picture books, is really falling in love with chapter books. I've been reading a few titles ahead of her and this one will join the shelf of little gems for the future - and I've started to read it to her in the meantime. The girls are intrigued by the suffragettes and we read all the picture books on them that we find. Megan Rix is an author of a series of fiction books about animals in history - there's Churchill and his kitten, dogs in the trenches and at the Great Fire, and here is a lovely tale about a little boy Alfie who escaped from a workhouse and ended up working as an errand boy for Emmeline Pankhurst. He discovers Rascal, a puppy, scared and alone on the streets and adopts her - she is the perfect cover for Alfie's crucial role and becomes a mascot for the suffragette cause. Through the eyes of this little boy and his dog (and his sister Daisy who becomes an Amazon - one of Pankhurst's bodyguards) we are introduced to some of the real major characters and events in the journey towards the vote for women and there is even some local history for us: Faraday House near Hampton Court, a regular haunt, was the home of prominent suffragette Princess Sophia Singh and a focal point of some of the scenes from the book. We are almost halfway in our joint reading and Culturebaby is loving it. She declared it beautiful.
5. The Red Ribbon by Lucy Adlington (Hot Key Books)
For older readers, my book club has recently loved The Red Ribbon, a tale of strength and friendship and the many trials that were encountered by the girls who were captured and taken to Auschwitz and managed to survive by working in the (real) dress-making rooms of this death camp. Touching on the horror but also the small moments of kindness, and importantly the real decisions required in the fight for survival, this book featuring 14 year old Ella and her friend Rose, majors on the transformational power of friendship and how small moments of love and hope (and even the gift of a red ribbon) can lead to both jeopardy and joy. My Polish grandmother was rather like Rose, a young woman whose father, a university professor and part of the intelligentsia, was shot and his family either killed or imprisoned. Regina, a young woman, was put in a work camp and was one of the luckier ones to survive the war and be rescued by the British. It will be an important book for the girls to read, and a good introduction to their history. My friend's 10 year old loved it.
6. V&A Puffin Classics - Anne of Green Gables, Little Women and The Secret Garden (Puffin)
Whatever new books emerge, we should never forget those classics which from a different time give us great insights into the strength of young women. The V and A has brought out a stunning set of William Morris inspired Puffin classics which leap off the shelves at the unsuspecting browser. Three in particular fit so well with this theme of strong female role models - Anne with an e, the eponymous feminist heroine of Prince Edward Island who believed that it was better to be dazzlingly clever than swooning over boys with her insatiable thirst for knowledge and a quirky interest in her own projects - a girl entirely true to herself. "Isn't it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive--it's such an interesting world. It wouldn't be half so interesting if we know all about everything, would it? There'd be no scope for imagination then, would there?" Anne has been described as a proto or stealth feminist and the patron saint of outsiders. The girls and I have recently watched the 1980s drama together with its green hair, ridge-pole walking and lovely Gilbert Blythe. It's a joy from start to finish and Culturebaby sobbed for a full five minutes when it finished "happy tears" she noted "because it's so beautiful". We also love Usborne's illustrated version of Anne of Green Gables from
their completely fabulous young reading series. It's a lovely
introduction to Anne, which even 4 year old Culturetot adores. Anne is also a perfect accompaniment to Roald Dahl's Matilda (another current favourite) with its intelligent, brave and single-minded heroine. There's noone better to inspire a little person at the beginning of their
school journey than a strong woman who loves books...
The second title is Little Women by Louisa May Alcott with its story of four sisters facing the world together, and not least the strong and brave Jo who sells her hair to save a family member and is unwilling to conform to what may be expected of a woman. The joy of this book is that is shows a huge spectrum of what being a woman might be from the shy to the brave, and a strong sisterhood which above all else (whether there are boys in their lives or not) demonstrates great power. Finally we have Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden - a book I've always loved for its strong message about the transformative power of hope and optimism. Mary begins as a spoiled and difficult child who has a sense of entitlement and she encounters a troubled cousin who is even worse, but she doesn't let her newly orphaned existence ruin her life, she changes and grows, and ultimately seeks to bring joy and colour to others. Her friendship with Dicken and later Colin saves the latter and helps salvage his relationship with his father. She's a woman who leans in, takes opportunities and changes her future.
Disclaimer - some of the books described are our own but the majority were sent to us to aid our review. We are grateful to the publishers for providing them.