Book Beat

Groundbreaking Women: Adventures and Perils

by Frank Lipsius

As we observe Women’s History Month, it’s clear that the rise of women has been decisive and dramatic. Women might not rule most of the executive suites in America, and have yet to reach the White House, at least as president, but how far away can that be?

A quick indication of the change is clear from Rosa, by Nikki Giovanni (Henry Holt, $16.95), a biography of Rosa Parks, who set off the civil rights movement with her refusal to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. Richly illustrated by Bryan Collier, the book is a reminder of how much the whole country has changed in half a century, with heroes like humble Rosa Parks leading the way.

The Salem Witch Trials: An Unsolved Mystery by Jane Yolen and Heidi Elisabet Yolen Stemple, with illustrations by Roger Roth (Simon & Schuster, $16.95), concerns powerful women who would hardly count as heroines for turning a mysterious spate of illness into the witch hunt of 1692. The authors focus on the hu-man drama, the hysteria, and the fear that permeated the isolated and vulnerable society.

Harrowing Challenges
With girls now the majority of college and graduate students, new books let kids look back to the harrowing adventures and challenging settings of woman pioneers.

In Harriet Tubman: Secret Agent (National Geographic, $16.95). Thomas B. Allen explains Harriet Tubman’s repeated efforts to escape slavery, first traveling with brothers who turned back, then leaving behind her freed husband while she escaped from Maryland to Pennsylvania and helped others to reach freedom.

Less heroic but also adventurous was Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose life was the backdrop for her generations-pleasing and inspiring Little House on the Prairie series. A Little House Traveler (HarperCollins, $16.99) is a composite of diary, letters and observations that cover much territory as the author records impressions through numerous settings and the changes in America from her wilderness upbringing to the car-driven society of the 1930s.

Female Firsts
Ladies First: 40 Daring American Women Who Were Second To None by Elizabeth Cody Kimmel (National Geographic, $18.95) has a decidedly contemporary bias, with short biographies of many female firsts, including well-known people such as Wilder, Helen Keller and Georgia O’Keeffe as well as unknowns such as Eve Queler, the first woman conductor of a European opera house; Rita Dove, the first African-American poet laureate of the U.S.; and Fanny Bullock Workman, the first woman to climb a Kashmiri mountain.The title is slightly misleading, but worth remembering.

Also memorable are the unknowns celebrated in Penny Coleman’s Adventurous Women (Henry Holt, $18.95) for their pioneering research, teaching and other professional work captured in the subtitle, “Eight True Stories About Women Who Made a Difference.”

Royal Travails
Contemporary history is captured in Joanne Mattern’s Princess Diana: The Photographic Story of a Life (DK, $4.99), an account for older kids of Diana’s stormy relationship with her husband, Prince Charles, the heir to the British crown. Their travails splashed across tabloid headlines and now are captured for posterity in this lively, if superficial, recreation of the drama of those heady days.

Biographies of two Eleanors recount substantial achievement. Kem Knapp Sawyer’s Eleanor Roosevelt (DK, $14.99) recreates the scary but hopeful world of the 1930s through the hard-working and inspirational First Lady. Ann Kramer’s Eleanor of Aquitaine: The Queen Who Rode Off To Battle (National Geographic, $17.95) captures the wild swings of fortune in 12th-century Europe, where the daughter of the Duke of Aquitaine was a pawn in European relations but also rode off with her husband to fight in the Crusades.

As women come into their own, looking back in history through their eyes provides a unique view of worlds they may not have created but reflects how people survived and sometimes thrived from the sheer force of their circumstances, personalities or wills.

Frank Lipsius is a contributing writer to MetroKids.