I’ve got two new picture books about groundbreaking women on my mind this week. Here’s where I’m supposed to tell you that March (which is just around the bend) is Women’s History Month and that would be a perfect time to share these books with children. That is true, but what is also true is that we can share these books with children all throughout the year.
Keith Negley’s Mary Wears What She Wants is a book based on Mary Edwards Walker, a physician who lived from 1832 to 1919. In fact, a tiny note on the book’s copyright page states that this story was originally inspired by the episode “Mary Walker Would Wear What She Wanted” from a podcast called The Memory Palace. Walker’s life is marked by impressive achievements, to say the least, including her Congressional Medal of Honor (she was also an abolitionist, as well as the first female army surgeon in the U.S.), but Negley puts a fine-tune focus on one thing here—Walker’s rebellion during her lifetime against the idea that women couldn’t wear clothing traditionally worn by men. This means she caused quite the stir for challenging the sartorial and social norms of her time by saying that women should be able to say no to petticoats and say hello to trousers and suspenders.
Negley sets this story, though it begins with “once upon a time,” in the 19th century (in that he gives the people depicted here the traditional clothing of that time). And Walker is a girl on these pages—not the adult surgeon bucking the system, as was the case when she was alive. Speaking directly to contemporary readers on the first page, Negley notes that it wasn’t that long ago in the grand scheme of things that girls weren’t allowed to wear pants. “Can you imagine?” he writes, appealing to our modern-day sensibilities.
Mary’s bold idea was to ditch her long, “heavy-and-hot-and-hard-to-breathe-in dresses” and wear pants. “It was kind of a big deal,” one spread notes, as irate townspeople stare her down. (In another moment of understated humor, the author notes how much Mary, once again being followed by an angry mob, appreciated that pants allowed her to walk faster.) She’s pelted with eggs; she’s ridiculed; and she’s met at the schoolhouse door with angry protests. Evidently, in her lifetime the adult Walker was actually pelted with eggs by a group of boys. She was also arrested; Negley mentions this in a closing author’s note, which includes a photo of the adult Walker and a bit more information about her life. We have her to thank, he writes, for “paving the way for us so that we can all enjoy the right to wear what we want.”
Negley renders the story via watercolor pencils and cut paper. (There is also, it must be noted, beautiful hand-lettering by Aurora Parlagreco.) Many of the papers he uses are quite patterned and textured, so you see a lot of elaborate clothing (on both males and females) with plaids or dots or flowers or vertical lines. This makes Mary’s simple and comfy yellow shirt and black trousers stand out all the more. A deep rose color dominates the palette, but the secondary color is a kind of grey-blue. I like this choice in this story about how, as Mary’s father tells her on one spread, “people get scared of what they don’t understand.” Perhaps the inclusion of these blues and pinks, colors considered traditional ones for boys and girls, will prompt children to think even further about contemporary gender norms.
It is a joy to see Mary strut across the page, and the book’s endpages are also a joy: the opening ones show a shirt and trousers labelled “boy clothes” and a shirt and dress labelled “girl clothes,” but the closing endpages with the same illustrations have the words “boy” and “girl” crossed out. Enough said.
When children’s book author Michelle Meadows was a child, she took ballet at the Jones-Haywood Dance School in Washington, DC, which she explains in the closing author’s note of Brave Ballerina: The Story of Janet Collinswas founded to level the playing field for African American children and give them opportunities to study ballet. After her son went off to college many years later, she took ballet again as an adult. All of this led her to research black ballerinas and, ultimately, to the life of Janet Collins — dancer, choreographer, teacher, and the first black prima ballerina to dance at the New York’s Metropolitan Opera House.
Meadows’s tribute to Collins is spare, written in rhyming couplets that evoke such traditional rhymes as “This Is the House That Jack Built.” That is, her rhymes hint at following the same narrative technique as that classic rhyme (“This is the audience, lined up in rows, cheering her on as she danced on her toes,” she writes), but they are not cumulative and we don’t see phrases nested in one another. In this unfussy and lyrical way, she shows us how moments in Collins’s life were interlinked to make her the trailblazing dancer she became. Some spreads prompt questions in readers’ minds about events in the legendary ballerina’s life, which Meadows fleshes out a bit more in the closing note that has more information about Collins. “This is the dancer who found her way in,” we read in one spread, “but learned she would have to lighten her skin.” In the backmatter, we read that after auditioning as a teenager for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, she was told she could only join if she painted her skin white to better blend in with the other light-skinned dancers. Collins told them no.
Ebony Glenn, who most recently illustrated Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow’s Mommy’s Khimar, depicts Collins moving gracefully across these pages. When I wrote about Mommy’s Khimar last year here at Kirkus, I noted that Glenn’s artwork looks as if it could be old lost Disney stills, and that is the case again here. In these illustrations, imbued with sweet, nostalgic tones, Collins almost looks like a princess on the page; ballet-lovers are likely to flock to this one. Glenn uses the space on the page well to show us Collins in motion, often gliding through uncluttered white space, nothing extraneous on the page. In one striking spread, we see her dominate the two pages in three separate dance poses across the space, her “bare feet flying to a Spanish song.”
And this book’s endpages? They are a solid brown, perhaps intended to reflect Collins’s own skin color. It’s a beautiful choice for both launching and wrapping up this story about one of dance’s most gifted performers.
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.
BRAVE BALLERINA: THE STORY OF JANET COLLINS. Text copyright © 2019 by Michelle Meadows. Illustrations © 2019 by Ebony Glenn and reproduced by permission of the publisher, Henry Holt and Company, New York.