For the past couple of years, I’ve written year-end children’s literature Ghost Files, an idea I lifted from an NPR critic, who writes every December about the terrific books, television shows, and movies he didn’t review during the year. Last year I wrote about six books that, had I not told you about them before year’s end, would have left me feeling like a slacker. This year, things are decidedly simpler: I have a ghost file of one. There’s one book I’ve yet to write about here or elsewhere that I want to ensure you don’t miss—Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World by French illustrator and comic designer Pénélope Bagieu, a collection of 29 short comics-style biographies (but 30, if you include Bagieu’s own bio at the book’s close). It was named one of Kirkus’s Best Books of 2018.
I can only now write about this book, because it took all this time (it was released in March) to pry it from the hands of my own teen daughters, who read it approximately 50 skerjllion times each. That is only minor hyperbole. It was an oft-read, lovingly battered version of the book that ended up in my hands. Let me be clear, though: this is a book for boys, too. Let us not do That Thing where we restrict to women readers only a book that profiles women, because boys would also learn a lot from these gutsy humans.
In total, because two profiles are of three sisters, 33 women are the subjects here, and delightfully, many are of lesser-known women. Bagieu could have easily filled this with profiles of women who are the center of countless biographies already sitting comfortably on shelves (say, Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Clinton, Malala Yousafzai, etc.), but instead she gives space to women who have done incredible work but have not received their share of the limelight. Equally delightful is the fact that she shines a spotlight across varying professions and disciplines across the globe (and the timeline)—social work (Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee); gynecology (Agnodice of ancient Athens); law (U.S. human rights attorney Jesselyn Radack); music (The Shaggs, unwilling rock-and-roll stars); women’s rights (French activist Thérèse Clerc and Afghan rapper Sonita Alizadeh, to name two), and many more, including the work of a lighthouse keeper (Giorgina Reid), a crime miniaturist (Frances Glessner Lee), and a volcanologist (Katia Krafft).
Bagieu writes in a chummy style, sometimes giving modern-day phrasing to these women. When Lozen, 19th-centuryChihenne Chiricahua Apache warrior and shaman, announces she will never marry, she says that she’d rather devote herself to her people and adds, “if that’s cool with you.” In the closing spread of Agnodice’s profile — Bagieu ends each one with a wordless spread that captures the female subject in her element — we see images of classic Greek vases, and in one a mother high-fives Agnodice dressed as a man. (The only way she could do her work was to dress as a male doctor.) Lozen would not have muttered such a phrase, and extant Greek pottery is certainly absent any high-fives, but it all works, these occasional and subtle contemporary spins on the women’s lives. As a reader, you immediately run with this approach, and it infuses the book with a sassy, refreshing, and spunky vibe.
The profiles vary in length, but most of the biographies have four full spreads devoted to them, and they begin in birth and end in death, though some of the women profiled are still with us. In the final tiny panel of most of the profiles, Bagieu economically sums up the woman’s contributions: Annette Kellerman, drawn in a swimsuit and goggles, looks right at the reader to say, “I helped to free women’s bodies.” (If not for Kellerman, we’d still be dressing like this at the beach.) An elderly Christine Jorgensen, the first woman in the U.S. known for having had sex reassignment surgery (Bagieu gives her the title “Reluctant Celebrity”), looks at the reader to say: “I may not have initiated the sexual revolution, but I certainly gave it a good, swift kick in the pants.”
Bagieu does an impressive job of providing context, succinctly captured, in these small panels. (In one profile, she writes merely “context,” followed by a colon.) In the final four panels of the profile of Wu Zetian, the only female emperor in China’s history, Bagieu writes that historians focus on her “secret police and her fondness for bumping off enemies,” adding that this is surely an interesting angle but that, “on the other hand, what’s always pointed out … is that she was ‘fearsome,’ ‘ambitious,’ ‘ruthless,’” which are “common (and valued) character traits in just about every emperor in history.” The final panel shows Wu Zetian herself, remarking that this is “clearly not as easy to digest in an empress.” In another profile, Bagieu talks directly to the reader with her own commentary: when Sonita Alizadeh’s mother shows up in Tehran on the pretense of visiting her but then makes it clear she wants to take her home to sell her off to marriage to earn her brother some money, Sonita asks, “What?? So ... so I’m not as important?” Bagieu tells it like it is at the bottom of this panel: “Answer: That is correct. She’s not as important.”
There is no backmatter here that provides more information on the women; that would have made this book categorically unwieldy. In a short closing note, Bagieu writes that this is “by no means a thorough scholarly work” and that it’s more of her homage to the “full, daring lives” these women lived (and that some continue to live), calling her diminutive biographies “broad-stroke portraits.” She adds that she hopes readers will be inspired to further explore the details of the remarkable lives presented in the book.
Many book collections were published in 2017 that showcased the lives of daring women. This one is my favorite. In the New York Times earlier this year, cartoonist and author Lynda Barry wrote that this book transcends what she calls a “rah-rah young adult girl-power sort of read.” She writes: “These drawings can act. They are alive with gestural attitude. They move, dance, struggle, fight back, fall in love, resist and wonder at the world.” And she adds that, “to her credit, Bagieu doesn’t back away from drawing the marks of violence on their faces and their bodies.” (You can read this great review in full here.)
There is one small panel in the portrait of Nelly Bly that I think best captures the entire book. A frustrated Nelly looks at the reader to rage: “Well how the heck are you supposed to manage when you’re a girl?!!” Then again, we can look to Thérèse Clerc for the answer: in the last panel of her portrait, Bagieu writes that her activism changed the course of her own life and that she went from being passive to an “irrepressible bearer of collective hopes and dreams.” And Clerc looks right at us to say: “And what a beautiful journey it’s been.”
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.