March is Women’s History Month and this year, four new and forthcoming illustrated books are among the new releases for young readers that shine a spotlight on a variety of women and girls around the world—some leading ordinary lives, others more unconventional lives—but all of them doing extraordinary things that have inspired their contemporaries. Their stories also resonate with readers born long after them, who benefited from their trailblazing efforts to make society more gender-inclusive and equitable for all. Here we look at those projects and speak with their authors.
Revolutionary Prudence Wright: Leading the Minute Women in the Fight for Independence by Beth Anderson, illustrated by Susan Reagan (Astra/Calkins Creek, Feb.) is not a typical biography, its author explained, but rather a dramatic “events story.” In April 1775, Prudence Wright, a 35-year-old mother of six children, recruited a group of 30–40 women in Pepperell, Mass., to defend their community against the British by standing guard at a bridge into the town. While doing so, the group intercepted a Tory spy and confiscated documents that were being transported to the British.
Anderson said that she wrote Revolutionary Prudence Wright to fill a gap in the history books concerning the female colonists who foiled the British on the home front during the American Revolution while their husbands were away, fighting battles.
“Children learn about the Boston Tea Party and Paul Revere and the Battle of Concord in school,” Anderson said, “but they never see what’s going on behind the scenes, and that there are other ways to fight in a revolution than just war.”
In addition to telling the story of “a mighty woman” who rallied other women to protect their community, Anderson also shares snippets of information about Wright’s daily life, beginning with scenes from her childhood. “By the second spread,” Anderson said, “she’s an adult, but you see that spark of independence from the beginning. It shows what family life was like during that era and lets children see that we are all a part of history.”
Anderson said that she discovered Wright’s story by chance, while browsing through historical accounts about women during the American Revolution. “I am fascinated by that time period and how revolution takes many forms,” she said. “A little blurb on Wright caught my eye.” Anderson was intrigued and “dug in,” researching Wright’s life through genealogical records, as well as primary and secondary sources.
Noting the scarcity of information on Wright, Anderson confessed that she initially was hesitant to write a book, “because there are missing pieces,” such as the identity of the captured spy. “There are different versions in the dispatches, and we don’t know which version is true,” she said. “I chose the most verifiable version. If you don’t tell a story because you don’t have a complete historical record, then those stories will never be told. For me it’s better to go with historical fiction, technically, than to leave the story completely [untold].”
When asked what she wanted young readers to take away from Revolutionary Prudence Wright, Anderson responded that she wants children to understand the power of telling one’s story. “We’re all regular people participating in history all the time, and our actions matter,” she said.
Feminist podcaster Kate Kelly’s debut book, Ordinary Equality: The Fearless Women and Queer People Who Shaped the U.S. Constitution and the Equal Rights Amendment (Gibbs Smith, Apr.), focuses not just on a single woman, but a group of women whose contributions have been overlooked by historians and others. Kelly said that she wrote Ordinary Equality because she wants “a new generation to embrace” the history of the struggle to add an Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and “all of the incredible people involved with it for the past 100 years.” There is also a personal reason, she added. “I want younger people to engage with the ERA because at the ERA meetings I go to, I am the youngest person in the room—and I’m 41 years old.”
Noting that she is a lawyer as well as a podcaster, Kelly explained that there already are a number of “law review articles and heavy tomes” about Constitutional law, but not many books on the subject for the average reader. “Dense legal treatises don’t appeal to very many people,” she said, describing Ordinary Equality as a crossover read meant to appeal to adults as well as to its target audience. “I wanted something that was accessible, as I want people not just to know about the history of the ERA but that it’s pending; it’s still possible that we can have a guarantee of gender equality in the Constitution.”
Kelly is also committed to dispelling stereotypes about the Americans who have fought over the years to get the ERA passed. Describing the “visual culture” of the ERA as “very dated,” Kelly noted that when most people think of the ERA, they think of “white ladies in the 1970s, or Gloria Steinem.” Thus, Ordinary Equality is illustrated with historical photographs of the male and female activists on the frontlines of the struggle. “There were so many of them,” she said. “Black people, queer people, women of color, Latinas, Asian American women. All kinds of people have been at the forefront of the fight for the ERA since the very beginning. This has never been just a white lady movement.”
Kelly said that she selected the subjects of her profile according to her “personal fascination” and out of a wish to “excavate history that is seldom told,” adding, “I wanted to tell stories about the lives of people that many people have never heard of before, starting from before the Constitution was even written or conceived.” The first profile is of Molly Brant, an Iroquois leader in British New York during the American Revolution. According to Kelly, the Founding Fathers modeled the Constitution on the tenets of the Iroquois Confederacy, a system of government under which women participated equally. “The Founding Fathers basically copied and pasted an idea and then stripped out the women,” Kelly explained.
“I’m not a trained historian,” Kelly pointed out. “But what I am is a storyteller.” Her goal is that the ERA should seem “so ordinary, so quotidian, that it doesn’t make sense not to have it. I want people to understand that these ordinary people accomplished extraordinary things. These are not complete biographies of each person. What I wanted is for readers to access them as real people.”
Bucking the Status Quo
Moving beyond ordinary people stepping up and doing extraordinary things, Sara Albee’s Troublemakers in Trousers: Women and What They Wore to Get Things Done, illustrated by Kaja Kajfez (Charlesbridge, July), profiles 21 women whose unconventional attitudes towards traditional gender roles resulted in their leading their lives on their own terms.
Albee’s interest in women who defied social expectations by dressing in men’s clothing was sparked when she wrote a book for National Geographic, Why’d They Wear That?: Fashion as the Mirror of History (2015). “I was really interested in, not the fancy clothes that people wore,” she said, “but who picked the cotton and sewed the lace and dyed the wool. My new book starts at the fashion end of it.”
Albee’s profiles, which are organized chronologically, begin in ancient Egypt with a profile of Hatshepsut, who declared herself pharaoh and ruled solo between 1473–1458 B.C. It ends in World War II-era San Francisco with Marguerite Annie Johnson (1928–2014), who at age 16 became the first Black female streetcar conductor in the U.S. “And then she grew up to be Maya Angelou,” Albee said. “I let out a whoop in the library when I read her story.”
In between Hatshepsut and Johnson/Angelou are, Albee said, “Hypsicratea, an Amazonian princess; Khutulun, a Mongol warrior princess who nobody could defeat in wrestling; Joan of Arc; a couple of pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read; and artist Frida Kahlo.”
“A really cool one is Jeanne Baret, who was an illiterate healer and an herbalist in the 18th century,” Albee said. After Louis Antoine de Bougainville was tapped in 1766 by the King of France to lead a three-year expedition around the world, a naturalist who was hired to join the expedition brought Baret along with him to collect plant specimens. She was disguised as a male servant and ended up being the first woman to circumnavigate the globe.
“Women dressed as men for a variety of reasons, whether to fight for their country, or to travel safely, or to declare herself a pharaoh,” Albee noted. “It’s important that these women are known to this generation of children. I don’t think even many grownups realize what life was like in pre-modern times. Not only could women be arrested for dressing in men’s clothing, they could be executed, as Joan of Arc was in 1431. I think it’s important for kids to understand that.”
Albee said that she selected her 21 subjects with an eye towards diversity, explaining that she wanted to focus on women of color. “I could have stuck with Europe and America and filled the book with fascinating women,” she said. “But I really wanted to have geographic, racial, and religious distribution. I wanted to represent as much as possible.”
Noting that some of the women profiled already were familiar to Albee, she disclosed that she found others by happenstance, after wondering, for instance, who would have been the first Black female streetcar conductor. “If you target a subject, you can find them,” she said. “You just have to know where to look.” Doing the research was great fun, Albee said. “It was everything I am fascinated by: fashion, women’s history, cool stories.”
Like Albee, Catherine Thimmesh was inspired to write a book about women who fascinate her on a personal level: social entrepreneurs. Her book, Girls Solve Everything: Stories of Women Entrepreneurs Building a Better World, illustrated by Melissa Sweet (HarperCollins/Clarion, Mar.), a companion volume to Thimmesh and Sweet’s Girls Think of Everything (2000), profiles female social entrepreneurs.
“I’ve been interested in social entrepreneurship and creative problem solving for some time,” Thimmesh says. “Being women, being girls, and doing all different kinds of things out in the world really is crucial, in terms of moving towards the goal of gender equity. We should celebrate women’s accomplishments and learn from their failures.”
Thimmesh noted that the 16 profiles, plus [three or short entries]?, in Girls Solve Everything are “the teeniest, tiniest sampling of all the social entrepreneurs out there, busy in the world today.” She added, “I wanted a diverse range of women. I don’t want everybody to be in the micro-lending business. I want each story to have a different topic.”
In selecting which entrepreneurs to include, Thimmesh said, it did not matter whether or not that person is already well-known; most of the entrepreneurs she profiled, in fact, are not household names. What mattered to her, Thimmesh said, was that the woman’s story “actually matters,” that it appealed to Thimmesh on a personal level, and that it would also resonate with children.
If there’s one point from Girls Solve Everything that Thimmesh hopes readers take away with them, it’s this: “The idea of perceiving and then solving a problem is very do-able. You think of big problems, like hunger. How are you going to solve world hunger? Many people, myself included, say, ‘Well, there’s nothing I can do to solve world hunger.’ But then you read the story of Komal Ahmad who took steps to make a difference in people’s lives.”
Ahmad, 32, founded Copia in 2015, a technology company that uses both algorithms and logistics to reduce food waste by donating to food banks and other organizations serving people in need the excess food generated by restaurants, hotels, hospitals, and other entities.
“One person can step up,” Timmesh said, “and by doing some creative problem solving, affect lives and the livelihoods of a number of people and really empower them.”
For more new children’s and YA books shining the light on female empowerment, click here.
Revolutionary Prudence Wright: Leading the Minute Women in the Fight for Independence by Beth Anderson, illus. by Susan Reagan (Astra/Calkins Creek, Feb., $18.99, ISBN 978-1-64472-057-8)
Ordinary Equality: The Fearless Women and Queer People Who Shaped the U.S. Constitution and the Equal Rights Amendment by Kate Kelly, illus. by Nicole LaRue (Gibbs Smith, Mar. 29, $27.99 ISBN 978-1-4236-5872-6)
Troublemakers in Trousers: Women and What They Wore to Get Things Done by Sarah Albee, illus. by Kaja Kajfez (Charlesbridge, July 26, $18.99, ISBN 978-1-62354-095-1)
Girls Solve Everything: Stories of Women Entrepreneurs Building a Better World by Catherine Thimmesh, illus. by Melissa Sweet (HarperCollins/Clarion, Feb., $17.99, ISBN 978-0-358-10634-0)