We may be nearing the end of March, but before it’s over, let’s honor one of the best things about it – that it’s Women’s History Month. If you work in any way in an educational setting with children’s literature, I hope you show your students books about strong women all throughout the year and not just during March. If you don’t, please lie and tell me you do. Or, better yet, you could always change your ways and consistently bring students books about multi-faceted, groundbreaking, innovative, and/or otherwise complex women of all stripes – and not just relegate them to one month out of the year. These books are great for girls and boys alike to see.
If you’re looking for some new picture books that do this, I’ve got some suggestions today – and not just nonfiction titles. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but fictional characters can also teach us a lot about what it means to be a female today.
Even the furry, non-human vixen types can. In Victoria Turnbull’s Pandora, on shelves in early April, we meet a dress-wearing fox, who lives alone “in a land of broken things.” She lives near what is essentially a landfill, replete with the discarded objects of the human world. Her lovely home is even built from all the things people left behind, but she never has any visitors – that is, until a blue bird (broken too) quite literally falls into her life. She takes care of and befriends him, but then he leaves. The space Turnbull leaves here for Pandora’s grief is quite moving. But the bird may have left a little gift behind, which I’ll leave you for as the reader to discover.
I love this gentle story, beautifully illustrated and perfectly paced. Pandora may live alone and do just fine for herself—she’s independent, knows how to get things done, and is clearly of strong constitution, not to mention she actively makes the world a better place through her handiwork—but everyone needs a companion or two. Though there are a whole heapin’ ton of children’s books involving a visiting bird friend who then flies away, thereby deserting someone, this one is special. The starred Kirkus review calls it no less than “incandescent.” (And does the bird really desert her? I’ll leave that for you to discover too.)
For a wholly original take on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Princess and the Pea,” turn to debut author-illustrator Rachel Himes. In Princess and the Peas (also coming to shelves in April), which Himes dedicates to “black families everywhere,” readers get a Southern spin on the classic tale, set here in the mid-1950s in Charleston County, South Carolina. It’s the story of an African American family and community, united by food – and one Ma Sally. John, her grown son, “the kindest, most thoughtful man you could hope to meet” (good job with the child-rearin’, Ma Sally), decides he wants to marry. Ma Sally can’t stand the thought of him sitting down to an “ill-cooked meal.” (How funny is that? As a Southerner, this makes all the sense in the world to me.) Instead of stacking mattresses on top of a pea to determine the perfect match for her son, she hosts potential mates at her home for what amounts to a cook-off. How does she set this up, logistically? She just gets the gossip mill going, spreading the word that “anybody who wants to marry my John will have to cook as well as me.” That Sunday evening, interested single ladies show up at Ma Sally’s home.
The woman who ends up winning cooks “like she was born to do it,” much to Ma Sally’s liking. And in a refreshing modern twist, the winner (Princess, who cooked black-eyed peas, no less) tells Ma Sally, “I’ve got my own plans.” But she does agree to some dancing with John at the juke joint at a later date. To boot, Princess asks John if he’ll clean up after all that cooking. Attagirl. It’s only fair.
Readers see on the final spread that the two eventually marry, and there’s a delicious feast planned. As there should be. Come to see the twist on the classic literary fairy tale, but stay for the strong-minded women who populate this story, as well as Himes’ rich palette.
For a real-life woman who bucked the social conventions of her time, meet Sophie Blanchard (also known as “the bird woman”) in November 1783. Blanchard was an aeronaut and the first female professional balloonist. Her story is told in Matthew Clark Smith’s Lighter than Air: Sophie Blanchard, the First Woman Pilot, illustrated by Matt Tavares.
If you read Matthew Olshan’s A Voyage in the Clouds: The (Mostly) True Story of the First International Flight by Balloon in 1785, illustrated by Sophie Blackall and published last year, you know about Dr. John Jeffries, Jean-Pierre Blanchard, and the first international flight via hot air balloon (fraught as it was with these two bickering, older men). Well, turn your attention now to Sophie, the subject of this book, who married Blanchard and went up in a hot air balloon alone in 1805 after flying a couple of times with her husband. She was the first woman to attempt this. This is the story Smith tells – all about her rise to fame (both literally and metaphorically), her successes and struggles, and the moment she was summoned by Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte in Paris to be named Aeronaut of the Official Festivals, as well as Chief Air Minister of Ballooning.
Tavares’ illustrations here are stirring, particularly the ways in which he paints the young Sophie – with a dreamy, determined look in her eyes. If you pick up a copy of this one, note the spread with the dramatic rays of sunlight beaming through dark clouds just after the death of Sophie’s husband, right when she decides to fly solo as the first woman pilot. Beautiful.
Finally, from a French author and illustrator duo, Raphaëlle Frier and AuréliaFronty, comes Malala: Activist for Girls’ Education. The book tells the life story (thus far) of Malala Yousafzai, Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest ever Nobel Prize laureate, including the attempt on her life and her rise to fame as an advocate for women’s rights. The book does an excellent job of explaining the Taliban in a way the child readers at whom the book is aimed will understand, as well as the ways the group uses religion to threaten freedom (as Frier puts it). Emphasis is placed on the role of Malala’s family in shaping her views, particularly her father, who hates that “the Taliban wants students to study strict, very conservative interpretations of the Qur’an.”
Fronty’s folk-art style, rich in color and dimensionally flat (à la Giselle Potter), resonates here, bringing Malala’s world to vivid life. Extensive closing notes provide more information about Pakistan, the Muslim faith, women’s educational rights (or the lack thereof) in Pakistan, humanitarian figures who inspire Malala, and more.
Here’s to the ladies – the menders, the cooks, the aeronauts, the activists, and everyone in between.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.