March is women’s history month, so this month I’m sharing women’s history books that focus on something I love: STEM. Check out these real stories of amazing women all of whom pursued their passions and became experts in science, technology, engineering, or math despite all the odds.
Science: The Girl Who Thought In Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin by Julia Finley Mosca and Daniel Rieley
When young Temple was diagnosed with autism, doctors told her mother she would never speak or be able to fit in. They told her to send Temple away. But her mother did not give up. Neither did Temple. As she grew older, Temple found that her visual thinking and attention to detail were strengths. She revolutionized farming and found her voice as a speaker who travels the world.
Math: Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson saved Apollo 13 by Helaine Becker and Tiemdow Phumiruk
Katherine Johnson loved to learn and loved math. But growing up in the segregated South – she had to fight to continue pursuing her passion. Her perseverance not only let her reach her dreams, but also made spaceflight possible.
This is the same Katherine Johnson who was featured in the book-turned-movie Hidden Figures, which I have recommended before. While there is a middle grade edition of Hidden Figures, I was delighted to this important story told in a picture book format for younger kids.
Technology and Engineering: Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine by Laurie Wallmark and April Chu
Long before there were computers, Ada Byron Lovelace had too much imagination and love of learning to listen when people told her a woman could not be a scientist. She meets a man named Babbage with a similarly impossible dream: a thinking machine. But how to give it commands? Ada goes to work developing a code to talk to this mechanical computer. She ends up inventing computer programming before computers even existed.
Science: Joan Proctor Dragon Doctor: The Woman Who Loved Reptiles by Patricia Valdez and Felicita Sala
Joan always loved reptiles – while other girls carried around dolls, she had a pet crocodile. When all the men were called away to war, she got her chance: she got a job working with the reptiles she loved. Eventually, she became a leading expert in reptiles sharing her knowledge so the world would understand just how loveable reptiles could be.
For this month’s Kidlit book roundup, I’m happy to welcome my friend, Deb Aronson. Deb was one of my first writer friends; she welcomed me into our local writer community way back when I was just beginning to learn the ropes. Somehow she stayed my friend despite seeing those early draft. *Shudder*
We’re still friends all these years later and maybe one day I’ll even let her convince me to get on her sailboat. (Maybe…)
Many classic horse stories celebrate the magical connection between humans and horses, of course. Some of my favorites include My Friend Flicka, Misty of Chincoteague, and War Horse. But with racehorse stories, there is an added layer of human and horse joined in an effort to realize their full potential. To me, these stories have a special energy.
Do You Love Sports Stories? Then give these books a try.
Racehorse stories are, at their heart, sports stories. Those that excel are just as Olympian in their achievements as swimmer Michael Phelps or gymnast Simone Biles. There is the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. There is the love and care the horse’s human handlers feel for their special horses. They communicate deeply, even if they do it without words. Granted there are also tragic tales at the racetrack, such as when a horse breaks down from a bad step, or when a jockey falls and is permanently injured. There is risk. But for every story of risk there is also the possibility of redemption.
If you hesitate to read about racehorses because of the stories you hear about them being mistreated, I would say to you that those stories are aberrations. True horsemen and horsewomen do not do that to their charges. They care deeply about their horses, even more deeply in some cases than for their human connections. Not surprisingly, you will not read children’s books about those kinds of people.
The Big Red Horse: The Story of Secretariat and the Loyal Groom Who Loved Him by Lawrence Scanlan
So, let me tell you about some of my favorite racehorse stories. One is The Big Red Horse: The Story of Secretariat and the Loyal Groom Who Loved Him, by Lawrence Scanlan (Harper Collins). Secretariat won the Triple Crown in 1973. He won the last race in the series, the Belmont, by a shattering 31 lengths and his time remains the American record for 1.5 miles on dirt more than four decades later. Scanlan does a great job showing Secretariat’s laid-back personality and his love of racing. It comes as no surprise that any true story about a horse will also tell the story of that horse’s handlers. In Scanlan’s book, we enjoy learning about Secretariat’s devoted groom, Eddie Sweat, and the special bond the two of them had.
Come on Seabiscuit! by Ralph Moody
Another inspiring story is Come on Seabiscuit! by Ralph Moody (University of Nebraska Press). There have been many books written about Seabiscuit, including the highly acclaimed adult book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend, by Laura Hillenbrand, not to mention a movie. Moody’s book is targeted for upper middle grade readers and has several pencil sketches, though no photographs. One reason Seabiscuit’s story is so grand is because it is truly one of redemption. Set in the 1930s, it is a story of how the love, expertise and careful attention of trainer Tom Smith and jockey Red Pollard created a bond so wonderful that Seabiscuit changed from an ornery, nervous, injured and slow racehorse to a gentle, calm, strong champion who beat War Admiral, winner of the Triple Crown and the acknowledged champion horse of the country.
Seabiscuit the Wonder Horse by Meghan McCarthy
Picture Book Nonfiction
Although Come on Seabiscuit is for older readers, a more recent picture book by Meghan McCarthy, Seabiscuit the Wonder Horse (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers) would be a great read-aloud for younger readers. McCarthy’s illustrations are delightful and she does a great job of telling the story of Seabiscuit’s match race with War Admiral.
American Pharoah: Triple Crown Champion by Shelley Fraser Mickle
In American Pharoah: Triple Crown Champion (Aladdin), by Shelley Fraser Mickle, we learn the backstory of the 2015 Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah. Mickle tells American Pharoah’s story in such detail you can imagine being there in the stall with the even-tempered stallion. I also came away from the story with a better understanding of many of the humans connected with American Pharoah, from famous trainer, Bob Baffert, and jockey Victor Espinoza, to owner Ahmed Zayat, who I especially came to appreciate.
Northern Dancer: King of the Racetrack by Gare Joyce
And finally, I recently enjoyed a book about a less well-known racehorse, Northern Dancer. In 1964 he was, as the book says, “the biggest newsmaker in the country’s sporting scene.” Northern Dancer is another story of an unlikely hero. He was not a regal-looking racehorse, but more in the model of Seabiscuit: chunky, short and plain looking. Having been bred in Canada, U.S. racing fans tended to underestimate him. Gare Joyce, the author of Northern Dancer: King of the Racetrack, describes him as “a horse with a competitive spirit and a lot of heart, so he was able to outrun a great number of better bred and more imposing horses.” Who doesn’t love an underdog story?!
Alexandra the Great: The True Story of the Record-Breaking Filly Who Ruled the Racetrack by Deb Aronson
Although all these books are about male horses, I wouldn’t want you to think there are not accomplished fillies in the racing world too. However, the surprising thing is how few children’s books there are about them. One of the few is Alexandra the Great: The True Story of the Record-Breaking Filly Who Ruled the Racetrack (Chicago Review Press), written by yours truly. Because she raced against, and beat, male horses in three major races, hers is truly a girl power story. This book is the only one of those reviewed that has full-color photographs throughout the text.
See Racehorses in action!
If you enjoy these stories I would also recommend you watch some videos of their most famous races; these thoroughbreds are running machines!
At the end of 2017, I made a pledge. I challenged myself to review good books every month in 2018, particularly books that haven’t gotten as much love as I feel they deserve. I call it Kidlit Karma because I’m aiming to spread the love for books that I love.
March is Women’s history month and many of us are banding behind the banner of #kidlitwomen to support fellow women writers. So today’s post features all picture books written by women about pioneering women and girls.
Picture Book: KATE WARNE, PINKERTON DETECTIVE by Marissa Moss and April Chu
I love both mystery and history when they’re well told and this is both! Kate Warne was the first female detective in the United States. But in the 1800’s, not many people believed that a woman could be a detective. Kate didn’t just want to be a detective, she wanted to be a detective for the foremost detective agency: the Pinkerton detective agency. This picture book tells how she foiled a major robbery plot and convinced the critics that she was a worthy detective.
I had already fallen in love with Kate Warne after reading the fictionalized account in THE DETECTIVE’S ASSISTANT. KATE WARNE, PINKERTON DETECTIVE is a biography and I really enjoyed learning more about Kate Warne and her real exploits.
ONE PLASTIC BAG: ISATOU CEESAY AND THE RECYCLING WOMEN OF THE GAMBIA by Miranda Paul and Elizabeth Zunon
This is the inspiring story of Isatou Ceesay who saw a problem in her community and turned it into an opportunity. Mounds of trash, especially discarded plastic bags, were everywhere. They were an eyesore and a health hazard. When the families pet goat ate a bag and died, she knew she had to do something. She transformed the discarded bags into a way to make money, not just for herself but for other women.
Picture Book: THE YOUNGEST MARCHER: THE STORY OF AUDREY FAYE HENDRICKS, A YOUNG CIVIL RIGHT ACTIVIST by Cynthia Levinson and Vanessa Brantley-Newton
I had heard of the children’s march before reading this book but not Audrey Faye Hendricks. Reading this with my kids, I felt like they finally connected with the civil rights movement. We’ve read a lot of excellent books about the civil rights, but it feels distant. It was a long time ago for them and mostly involved adults. But seeing kids taking action and participating – now they get it. By the end of the book, I was sniffling, too. I hope this book encourages them to stand up for things they believe in, even if they feel small.
It’s a start. But if we’re going to reshape the kidlit community, we need more people acting to make that happen.
I’ve considered how I can contribute to #kidlitwomen and support my fellow female writers. My other great passion (besides writing) is science. In a former life, I was a PhD-track academic studying language and the human brain. So looking for answers naturally led to science and what it can tell us about this moment and this movement.
COGNITIVE DISSONANCE: Now what?
The recent revelations of sexual harassment in kidlit were jarring. (I wish I could say that’s it’s equally jarring to see how men have consistently been supported to the detriment of women, but many of us saw that one coming.)
It’s jarring partly because the view from the outside is a very loving and supportive community. And from the inside, that is the predominant experience. It’s one of the best communities I’ve ever been privileged to participate in.
But predominant experiences aren’t the only experience within our community. Some have experienced harassment, assault, and manipulation. Professional organizations have allowed this to continue for years.
Realizing that the mostly warm fuzzy community you love was also hiding predators is unsettling. Cognitive dissonance is the scientific term for this feeling. It’s the jarring sensation you get when you have two contradictory ideas. It’s like realizing your sweet uncle Bob, that always brought you the just-right book to shepherd you through the turbulent teen years, was also a hit man for the mob. It’s upsetting. It makes you question EVERYTHING.
You have two options:
Deny or downplay the new information that caused the cognitive dissonance. (“Uncle Bob would never do that!” or “But he’s a really nice guy.” or “He’s just been having a really hard time in his marriage.”)
Accept the new information and change your worldview. Taking apart your broken set of beliefs and putting them back together is a truer, better way. It’s uncomfortable, but in the end, it’s better. And it’s the only way to move forward.
Cognitive dissonance doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Reassessing is a necessary part of life. You might still care about uncle Bob, but given what you now know it would be plain stupid not to change how you interact with him.
So in this moment, when our view of the kidlit community has been flipped inside out, take a breath. Don’t resist the discomfort with a “no they didn’t” or “nothing is wrong” or “it’s not a big deal.” Resist the urge to defned or rationalize away what you now know.
Pause. Listen. Process.
Then let your worldview shift. Accepting and acting on this newly discovered reality is how we move on.
BYSTANDER EFFECT: How do I stop sexual harassment?
Ready to take action? Great! You’re determined to be a part of the solution and put a stop to sexual harassment. How do you do that? Let’s start somewhere a little easier.
Imagine you’re in a crowded grocery store – everyone is rushing to get food for the next big holiday. And in the middle of a crowded aisle, an older woman trips and falls. She’s sitting there, leaning against cans of corn beef.
You’re just as harried as everyone else – you’ve got food to buy, preparations to make, kids whining. Do you stop and ask if she’s ok? If she’s fine, you lose time, look a bit foolish, and maybe embarrass her. Lots of other people are there and none of them seem to be rushing to the woman’s aid.
Research says you’ll most likely keep going. It’s called the bystander effect – the more bystanders that see the little woman in the canned-meat aisle, the less each one feels responsible for her.
If you saw that same older woman trip on a remote mountaintop it would be obvious that you should act – no one else is around, and she has no other way to get help. But when you’re surrounded by other people, you don’t feel quite as responsible.
It’s often unclear if help is needed. The woman may just need a minute to regain her composure. Or she could have had a stroke. She might not be able to call out for help because of her physical condition in the moment. But if everyone is looking and waiting for someone else to act, then no one ever gets around to it.
There’s a really simple cure for the bystander effect.
Know that it exists and realize that people are unlikely to act.
Act on that realization.
It’s the same concept that underlies the phrase “if you see something, say something.”
Smile and say hi to the women. Maybe make a joke or tell an anecdote to put her at ease and relieve her embarrassment. “Sometimes I think they put ice on these floors.”
Then offer her a hand up. She may turn it down. She may gratefully smile back, take the hand up then finish her shopping. Or she may be unable to get up or unable to respond. No more ambiguity, call an ambulance. If you need help, single out a specific person in the crowd. Make it obvious that that person, yes, you in the red shirt are now responsible for calling the ambulance. Now you’ve broken through another person’s bystander effect, too.
Now imagine that instead of a feeble woman at the grocery, you’re in a crowded post-conference get-together. Lots of those lovely kidlit folk are chatting about their favorite topic – books! – while sipping wine. You notice a man putting an arm around a woman. She looks a bit uncomfortable but doesn’t pull away. Everyone else keeps chatting, unconcerned. She hasn’t pulled away or asked for help; does that mean she’s fine? Or is it like the lady in the grocery store where everyone is assuming someone else will act. Is she trapped by the social situation in the same way the grocery lady might be trapped by her physical situation? Anyone who has given in to middle school peer pressure knows that you can be manipulated by a situation or a powerful person, be they the popular girl, a schoolyard bully, or a sexual predator hiding among the kidlit sheep. Anne Ursu’s survey results were full of examples of situations where women did not feel they could speak out on their own behalf.
What to do? Like the lady in the grocery, if you see something, do something. Approach with compassion. Try to ease awkwardness and embarrassment. And if you sense a dangerous situation, get help.
If it were me, I would walk up and say “Excuse me, do you know where the ladies room is? Could you show me?” I’ve now engaged, I can better judge the situation. And I’ve given her a valid excuse to leave the situation on good social terms. She can choose to take the hand I extend or not. But if I sensed she was in real danger – like a man separating her from me, trying to pull her away, or preventing her from grabbing that metaphorical hand, I would be more direct. “You look uncomfortable. Do you need help? Would you like me to call someone?”
Would I be embarrassed? VERY. I would probably be beet red and feel like an intruder, but it’s important. If I misread the situation, they can laugh at me later. But if I didn’t….. I don’t want to be complicit through my lack of action.
So you reading this, yes you with the good intentions feeling uncertain how to proceed, step out of the crowd and act. Act when you see someone in need. Act even if you’re not sure help is needed. Act even though you feel embarrassed. Just ACT.
TEND AND BEFRIEND: How do I prevent sexual harassment?
Long ago, researchers found that people have one of two reactions to threat: fight or flight. So when you stumble into a bear in your backyard, you can either fight it or run away.
That research was based on men. New research found a wider variety of responses. They found that women, in particular, are more likely to protect their children and band together for group protection. Since scientists like rhyme as much as writers, they coined the phrase “tend and befriend.”
A single person may seem to have little power, but when those small actions are put together for a common purpose, they can effect enormous change.
So how can tend and befriend work for creating change in the kidlit community?
TEND: First, we need to protect the most vulnerable. That means protecting those that have already suffered sexual harassment. It also means creating protections for those who are more vulnerable such as women who may be harassed by a more powerful abuser. Or women of color who are doubly vulnerable. Acting in the moment is powerful and necessary. Tend to the woman at cocktail hour with the unwelcome arm around her shoulders.
BEFRIEND: If we want to effect large change and create a community where sexual harassment is not tolerated, we need to join together as a band of brave women and their allies. We are stronger together, so let’s use that power.
As a band of women and allies, we can push the gatekeepers of our industry to guard the gates and keep the harassers out. Agents, editors, conference organizers – we as a group should demand that all these people have clear policies and practices that protect us all. SCBWI has begun that process as have some agents. Perhaps others are doing it behind closed doors. But I won’t assume others will act, it’s too important. I will say something.
Throughout the month of March, many women and allies will be sharing their #kidlitwomen stories. Including many ways that we can work together to create a better community for everyone. I will be supporting those people by sharing their ideas and taking action. Be engaged on social media. One voice alone is quiet, many together is a roar that can’t be ignored.
YOUR MANUAL FOR MOVING FORWARD:
Listen and accept that something is broken within the kidlit community.
Shift your view to a healthier, truer one.
Decide to act.
If you see something, say something. Even if you’re unsure if help is needed. (Especially if you’re unsure.)
Support one another but especially tend to the most vulnerable in our community.
Band together and put all out small efforts together to create a big change in kidlit. A change that makes our whole community a safer place.
The #metoo and #kidlitwomen movements are much larger than I can address in a single post. I limited myself to only discussing sexual harassment and how to prevent it. But I could easily have talked about the culture that allowed the harassment to occur. Or about how the system promotes male authors at the expense of female authors. Or how the double-whammy of sexism and racism makes it especially difficult for women of color. Or the role that men need to take to help us reshape this industry into something safer and more equitable for all. I’m leaving those topics to others who are better equipped to speak to that experience. We’re a band of brave women, after all. We don’t need to deliver every message, sometimes it’s enough to pass the microphone.