A daring Victorian woman raised in England leaves ladylike behavior behind to travel the world and write.
The child of an English clergyman, Isabella Bird suffers from fragile health and depression. Thwarted by constrictive social mores, she is unable to go to school or spend time in nature. A doctor suggests she cure her aches with fresh air, and she is suddenly allowed to ride horseback in the countryside with her father. When she receives correspondence from her uncles in Colonial India, as well as letters from Christian missionaries in Africa, her adventurous spirit becomes further piqued. Still sick but responding well to the outdoors, Isabella is prescribed a long sea voyage. From all over the world, she collects stories for her publications. Mortensen describes Isabella as “like a wild vine stuck in a too-small pot,” yet Isabella seems unable to criticize Victorian society, and her Eurocentric attitude and lack of self-awareness shine through in some of her quoted observations about other cultures. She calls the land in Cheyenne territory “nameless” and celebrates how people are “free as the winds” there, exoticizes a meal in Malaysia, and depicts Chinese locals as violent. While Isabella’s imperialistic perspective is historically accurate—and fairly quiet in this picture book—it will quickly become appallingly apparent to any young reader inspired by the book to seek out Isabella’s actual writing. Caldwell’s illustrations are clean and beautiful.
Ultimately, the heroine in this story is more complicated than the text makes out. (author’s note, timeline, sources, bibliography) (Picture book/biography. 5-8)