Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Women Make History

Among the newest biographies being published are amazing stories of women who lived their lives in ways that changed the world. Sometimes the changes alter the way the entire world acts, in other cases, the changes are profound for a few people nearby or occasionally, just one person's life shifts, but it can become a transformation that signals a larger reshaping of a community, a discipline or a culture. Imagine the change you can be!

Mama Miti by Donna Jo Napoli, illustrated by Kadir Nelson. Simon & Schuster, $15.99, Ages 4-8.

Now famous as the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Kenyan Wangari Maathai is also the first African woman to win this award. The founder of the Green Belt Movement to reclaim the damaged land by planting trees to curb erosion, among many other things, Wangari, currently known as Mama Miti – Mother of Trees – grew up in the shadow of Mount Kenya, hearing stories of how the people held ceremonies for peace under sacred trees. As an adult, city dweller, she plants trees to refresh her spirit and remember her family’s roots.
Award-winning author Napoli shares Wangari’s story in a folklore style, showing women and children coming to ask for help, and Wangari offering assistance in the form of giving the women trees to plant, for food, for firewood, for shelter, for medicine, etc. Using the Kikuyu names for the trees and a repeated refrain, Thayu nyumba (translated as “peace, my people”) Napoli’s lyrical text is accompanied by celebrated artist Nelson’s oil paints combined with textiles in vibrant collage illustrations honoring the spirit of the country, people and an amazing woman of many firsts.
This vigorous book with its dynamic faces, strong bodies, energetic colors, and spirited story, introduces a good woman who demonstrates “something we can all do, ‘Plant a tree.’” An Afterword, Glossary and notes from both author and illustrator are included.
The Daring Miss Quimby by Suzanne George Whitaker, illustrated by Catherine Stock. Holiday House, $16.95, Ages 7-9.

Pioneer pilot, Harriet Quimby was first a journalist who often followed her magazine stories into daring exploits. This led her to flying lessons, when planes looked like bicycles with wings. Flying was dangerous in the early years of the twentieth century, but ultimately Harriet’s practice helped her succeed in becoming the first woman in the US “to earn a pilot’s license.”
Loving the wild clamor of attention, Harriet designed a purple satin flight suit, which “made her stand out” even more. When she decided she was ready to fly alone across the cold and foggy English Channel with only a compass, she wore the famous purple hooded suit. She was still wearing it when she landed later that morning on a French beach near a fishing village, once again making history for women. Shortly after, she began performing in air shows all over the US until her untimely death.
In this, her first picture book, author Whitaker shares her curiosity and love of flying with readers, writing with deep affection for her subject, adding to the spirit of adventure surrounding Quimby’s life. Well-known illustrator Stock’s pencil and watercolor paintings deliver a sense of Harriet’s vitality and eager audacity in the movement generated by cars, planes, crowds, and even birds as one reads this page-turner biography. A Timeline of Women in Aviation, Suggested Websites, a Selected Bibliography, and an Author’s Note are helpful additions.
Louisa: The Life of Louisa May Alcott by Yona Zeldis McDonough, illustrated by Bethanne Andersen. Henry Holt, $17.99, Ages 8-12.

A fascinating but simple biography of well-known author, Louisa May Alcott, McDonough’s book is easy to read, and includes elements of Alcott’s life to tempt young readers. When young Louisa falls into a “frog pond, a kind black boy” jumps in and pulls her out, running away before she can thank him. Louisa always remembers him and believes it contributes to her becoming “an Abolitionist at a very early age.”
From an unconventional family who at one time lived on an experimental vegetarian farm, Louisa learns to keep a journal and later moves easily and naturally into teaching and writing. Illustrator Andersen uses exuberant gouache and pastels to show Louisa’s development, and to contrast dark and light with the losses Louisa experiences. With intense bright colors, Andersen also demonstrates singularities characteristic of Louisa’s personality.
Life in the mid-1800’s is difficult and the family is never wealthy until after the publication and success of her most famous novel, Little Women, in 1868. In her smoothly flowing text, author McDonough introduces readers to Louisa’s kindness, evident throughout the book, as Louisa cares for family members who are ill, goes to Washington, DC as a nurse for Civil War soldiers and spends time helping in hospitals, orphanages, and asylums. Later Louisa becomes the guardian for her niece, Lulu, when Lulu’s mother May, Louisa’s sister dies, shortly after Lulu’s birth.
Louisa was a traveler, with an intrepid spirit, whose relatively short life (she died at age 55) offers readers insight into her success as a writer. Quotes, poems, interesting facts about her writing and her family, important dates, a bibliography and especially a recipe for New England Apple Slump, one of her favorite desserts, are included at the end and add to the interest and appeal of this fresh and delightful picture book biography.