Book Beat

Women’s Stories, from Heroines to Worker Bees

by Frank Lipsius

Women’s History Month seems to be undergoing a subtle shift. Though kids’ books are still being published on traditional heroines such as Joan of Arc, Anne Frank and Helen Keller, new offerings also focus on women’s careers, past and present.

So even if, unlike Argentina, the U.S. hasn’t yet had a female president, the rising role of women in society is encouraging close looks at the lineage and inspiration of working women. Their lifelong endeavors might not create fame but do provide thought-provoking stories.

Examples exist even among the heroic literature, such as Sarah Miller’s Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller (Atheneum, $16.99, grades 5 & up). In this, her first novel, the author imagines the life of Helen Keller, not through the perspective of the woman transcending her devastating physical limitations but through the impaired but sighted eyes of her teacher, Annie Sullivan, whose career made Helen world famous for overcoming her lack of sight, hearing and speech. Helen Keller herself did not stint in her praise of Annie Sullivan, but the novel goes further in imagining the poor, frightened Northerner making her way out of Massachusetts for the first time to teach her unruly young pupil in rural Alabama.

George Sullivan’s Helen Keller: Her Life in Pictures (Scholastic, $17.99, ages 9-12) adds a useful perspective from photos of Helen Keller throughout her life and the offer from Keller’s great grandniece, who wrote the book’s preface, to answer students’ questions about Helen Keller on the website www.afb/org/braillebug/askkeller.asp

More Famous Figures
National Geographic’s beautiful series on historical figures includes Philip Wilkinson’s Joan of Arc: The Teenager Who Saved Her Nation ($17.95, grades 5-8) with illustrations from medieval illuminated manuscripts and a simple account of her exploits, trial and death.

The torture of children has a modern counterpart in the same series’ life of Anne Frank. Ann Kramer’s Anne Frank: The Young Writer Who Told the World Her Story ($17.95, grades 5-8) shows photos of the Franks’ comfortable middle-class life before having to hide in central Amsterdam, along with historic photos of marching Nazis and concentration-camp victims.

In Anne Frank and the Children of the Holocaust (Puffin, $7.99, grades 7 & up), Carol Ann Lee traces the Frank family from the time the family lived comfortably in Frankfurt and Otto Frank worked at Macy’s in New York through their ordeal in Amsterdam. Focusing on children is particularly painful, but she shows how resilient they were in a matter-of-fact and informative narrative of life on the run and the consequences of being in the clutches of the Nazis.

Epic Pathfinders
Even if careers are not heroic, it was heroic for women to fight for the right to a career, as explained in Anne Kamma’s If You Lived When Women Won Their Rights (Scholastic, $5.99, grades 5 & up), with illustrations by Pamela Johnson.

Tracing women’s roles in American society back to the hard lives of Pilgrim immigrants and the American Revolution, the book uses a question-and-answer format to show women pitching in as necessary in the hard-scrabble life on the American frontier or taking up the battle cry of the American Revolution alongside their soldier relatives.

Kamma sees the fight for women’s rights arising out of the anti-slavery movement, which excluded women because “they should stay home where they belong,” a position that shocked women’s-rights pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton when she went to the World Anti-Slavery Convention with her husband. Teaming up with Susan B. Anthony, Stanton pursued the long fight that finally got women the right to vote half a century after the Civil War.

Factory Girl (Kids Can Press, $22.95, grades 6 & up) is Barbara Greenwood’s fictionalized account of life in a garment factory where teenagers worked 11-hour days.
With the accompanying photos, the book paints a picture of the horrible life of the urban poor a century ago when young workers were so desperate to keep their jobs that they were afraid to help journalists trying to expose their plight.

In War Women and the News: How Female Journalists Won the Battle to Cover World War II (Atheneum, $21.99, grades 5 & up), Catherine Gourley focuses on female war correspondents who not only filled in for the fighting men but showed their ability to join the ranks of journalists on an equal footing after the war.

With a solid grasp of the war, the author shows where the women played a particularly prominent role and highlights the exploits of still-remembered correspondents such as Marguerite Higgins and Margaret Bourke-White.

Julie Cummins’s Women Daredevils, with amusing illustrations by Cheryl Harness (Dutton, $17.99, grades 3-6), is not meant to provide role models, considering her subjects include Rosa Richter, the girl who, as Zazi, got shot out of a cannon in the circus, and Mabel Stark who survived decades as a tiger trainer, though one tiger attack cost her 378 stitches and two years of recovery.

But the author has found the quirky outlets for many daring and ambitious young women seeking to excel, and even an elderly one: Annie Edson Taylor who at 63 (claiming she was “only” 43) was the first person in 1901 to survive hurtling over Niagara Falls in a
barrel.

A new series from Puffin Books, Close Up, does focus on careers. Two of the first volumes, one on Rachel Carson (grades 6-9) by Ellen Levine and one on Oprah Winfrey (grades 7 & up) by Ilene Cooper ($6.99 each) provide the inspiring stories of women who managed to change the world because of their talents, their determination and the ambition to tackle the challenges that became their stepping stones.

Frank Lipsius is a contributing writer to MetroKids.