By Alyssa Whitford
As a celebration of Women’s History Month, each week a Hope College professor or student will recommend their favorite books or films dealing with issues facing women today and throughout history. This week is dedicated to children’s literature and is written by Dr. Alyssa Whitford, an associate professor of Education. As a former elementary school teacher, Dr. Whitford understands the importance of literacy, and promotes reading diverse literature.
“I didn’t know before [reading books about women’s history] that girls can have such great ideas, and can stand up for themselves, and can do pretty much anything that they set their mind to, and that girls can change the way that people see.”
– Elli, Third Grade
Unfortunately, the misconception that women have failed to contribute to history isn’t uncommon. In fact, it’s one that is supported by many schools’ curriculum materials, which feature large images of (typically white, wealthy) men inventing, fighting, and leading. Yet women created many important inventions such as windshield wipers (Mary Anderson), home security systems (Marie Van Brittan Brown), fire escapes (Anna Connelly), and even the first Monopoly game (Elizabeth Magie). Ida B. Wells fought for voting rights and against racial violence, while a teenaged Clara Lemlich led one of the largest factory walkouts in the nation’s history. Don’t recognize those names? You aren’t alone. Women have been boundary-breakers, trail-blazers, and world-changers, but their history is often silenced. Using childrens’ literature, however, can provide both a stage and a microphone for women’s voices. I’m honored by the opportunity to highlight children’s books that feature incredible historical women. These women have influenced sports, arts, politics, civil rights, music, and science, and we still feel their impact today. Below, I’ve listed just a few of my favorites.
Mamie on the Mound: A Women in Baseball’s Negro Leagues by Leah Henderson
Mamie Johnson was only 5’3 when she went face-to-face with some of the biggest hitters in baseball history. In fact, she was so small she earned the nickname “Peanut.” But her size didn’t stop her from making a big impact. Despite facing systems of sexism and racism throughout her career, Johnson was the first woman to pitch on a Major League baseball team. She held a winning record and became known as an inspiration to women athletes.
Mamie on the Mound tells the story of Johnson’s life from her childhood through her post-baseball career as a nurse. The illustrations are supported by real pictures and quotes from and about Johnson. It’s sure to be a “hit” with sports enthusiasts of any age!
My Name is Celia/Me llamo Celia: The Life of Celia Cruz/la vida de Celia Cruz (English, Multilingual and Spanish Edition) by Monica Brown
Known as the Queen of Salsa, Celia Cruz is credited with popularizing salsa music in the United States through her beautiful, soulful voice and enchanting songs. Over a lifetime of music, Cruz created more than 70 albums and entertained millions of devoted fans. She would often use her trademark cry of “¡Azúcar!” during performances to honor the enslaved people who worked on sugar plantations in Cruz’s birth country of Cuba. This year Cruz will become the first Afro-Latina to appear on U.S. currency.
This bilingual book uses whimsical color and musical lyrics to tell the story of Celia Cruz’s life and her impact on music. Its rhythmic cadence makes it a joy to read!
All the Way to the Top: How One Girl’s Fight for Americans With Disabilities Changed Everything by Annette Bay Pimentel.
Jennifer Keelan has been an activist since she was only six years old. Keelan was born with cerebral palsy and has spent her life advocating for equal rights and access—in fact, when she was only eight years old she left her wheelchair to crawl to the top of the US Capitol Building steps in order to show her support for the Americans with Disabilities Act. Since, she has been known as an influential part of the disability rights movement and an inspiration to many.
Along with engaging illustrations and storytelling, this book uses the word “STOP” to show the barriers Keelan faced and how she continues to push through each challenge. This book also begins with a letter from Keelan herself reminding us all that there is still important work to be done in gaining equal rights.
Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer by Traci Sorell
Mary Golda Ross was the first known Indigenous engineer whose work on fighter planes and aerodynamic forces is still considered revolutionary. A Cherokee woman, Ross was a strong advocate for women and Native peoples in STEM, especially in engineering. She has broken boundaries and created a lasting legacy, which can still be seen in her contributions to engineering and to causes she supported such as the creation of the Smithsonean’s National Museum of the American Indian.
Classified is a bit longer and more detailed than several of the books on this list, making it ideal for upper elementary grades. Using realistic images and graphics that clarify the story and Ross’s scientific work, the book will delight science-lovers and shine a light on Ross’s incredible historical impact.
Beautiful Shades of Brown: The Art of Laura Wheeler Waring by Nancy Churnin
Laura Wheeler Waring is an artist best known for her lovely, detailed landscapes and stunning portraits of prominent African Americans during the Harlem Renaissance. Fascinated with art and color at a young age, Wheeler Waring took an early interest in painting. Wheeler Waring was passionate about uplifting and amplifying the amazing work of Black singers, activists, scholars, and otherwise notable persons and today her work can now be seen in galleries all over the world.
Told in a lyrical and descriptive way, Beautiful Shades of Brown tells of Wheeler Warings life as an artist. The text will make readers think about the beauty in the world around them while they also learn about a talented artist and her achievements.
My Name is Not Isabella AND Isabella, Girl In Charge by Jennifer Fosberry
Most of my recommendations are focused on one historical woman, but if you are looking for a fun way to learn about many women in history (My Name is Not Isabella) or politics (Isabella, Girl in Charge), the Isabella series is a great start. In each book, a little girl daydreams about being different notable women. The engaging repetition, creative illustrations, and charming main character make this an ideal book to read with early elementary grades. The books also feature backmatter with photos and brief biographies of all of the historical women featured in the story.