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Let It Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters

by Andrea Davis Pinkney; ill. by Stephen Alcorn

Harcourt, 2000

Where I sit writing, in one of my city’s newest public library branches, I can see people picking out magazines and books to read, checking out their materials, lounging in chairs with laptops propped on their knees.

I’ve been sitting here for about two and a half hours, and I’ve seen people of every age and color pass by. Right now, a very elderly black woman is reading a magazine at a nearby table. Earlier, a middle-aged white man stopped to skim a newspaper. Still earlier, a Latina woman with two small children walked by on her way to the circulation desk.

I live in the South, so library clientele weren’t always so diverse. The elderly woman across the room is the same age as one of my former library co-workers, a black woman who graduated from high school before segregation ended. When she first began her career with the library, she couldn’t enter most of the buildings in the library system.

I don’t for a minute believe that complete equality or reconciliation is reality, either in policy or in people’s hearts. You don’t erase more than 400 years of institutionalized racism, oppression, and brutality in a single generation.

But what progress has been made! My coworker, who held a master’s degree, was a third-generation descendant of slaves, whom it was illegal to educate. Our central library now has a renowned collection and education program celebrating the Civil Rights movement. I work and attend church with people of all races, and my daughter attends a racially diverse public school where teachers talk openly about the legacy of slavery.

That progress is the result of centuries of unrelenting work by many courageous people–many of them barrier-breaking women. And that’s the subject of Andrea Davis Pinkney and Stephen Alcorn’s book Let It Shine.

Written in Pinkney’s lilting language and illustrated with Alcorn’s dynamic, intensely colored paintings, this anthology is a collection of stories about black women who have fought for freedom of every kind. As Pinkney points out in her introduction, the focus is not just on freedom from slavery, but on freedom from misogyny, freedom to travel, freedom of expression, and more.

Pinkney includes the stories of several household names–Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Josephine Baker–along with mini-biographies of some who are lesser-known but no less deserving of fame–Biddy Mason, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and Shirley Chisholm, to name a few.

I love the diversity of focus, the way Pinkney provides a glimpse of the many fronts on which wars for equality are fought. Freedom isn’t just about an end to slavery; it’s also about equal access to housing, the arts, education, and politics.

In a way that’s galvanizing, not discouraging, Pinkney shows that oppression is a bit like a Hydra. You can destroy one barrier, but it may spring up again in a new location or new form, and there are others to tackle as well. The idea gives readers a better appreciation for the depths of courage and stamina required to fight such a daunting monster.

I also love that Pinkney shows how various types of equality are intertwined. Many of the women in Let It Shine were dual activists: advocates for blacks and women, or blacks and the poor. She encourages young readers to look behind the reductionist facade, to realize that there are often points of commonality between supposedly disparate people, and to think in more complex, realistic ways about how we can help one another.

She also draws out each woman’s particular strengths and clearly connects them to that woman’s work. She shows, for example, how Sojourner Truth’s famous size and strength made her a more imposing speaker, sustained her during grueling travel, and helped her stand up to audience members who tried to intimidate her. The message: whatever your interests or skills, they have a purpose. There is a special way you can use them to make the world better.

And inspiration to make the world better is one of the best inspirations of all.

Special Delivery

Special Delivery

by Philip C. Stead; ill. by Matthew Cordell

Roaring Brook Press, 2015

40 pages

I’ve written before about how much I love books about girls who do. And if any book is about a girl who does, it’s Philip C. Stead and Matthew Cordell’s quirky little volume Special Delivery.

This picture book stars a heroine named Sadie who wants to send an elephant to her great-aunt Josephine. When the postmaster informs Sadie that she’ll need an entire wheelbarrow-full of stamps to mail the pachyderm, the revelation touches off a series of adventures as Sadie attempts to complete the delivery on her own.

Sadie and her elephant pal complete their journey by way of biplane, alligator, train, and ice cream wagon. Along the way, they crash-land in the jungle, fall in with monkey bandits, and eat a few too many beans. When they finally reach Josephine, we discover that this is not by any means the first time Sadie has taken such a trip.

The book reads like the kind of story your imaginative, confident four-year-old would tell you. It has a kind of hilarious internal logic that you simply can’t argue with, but at the same time it’s complete nonsense. Cordell’s squiggly illustrations, always skirting the edge of the disorderly, only add to the effect.

What I really love about this book is the nonchalance with which most of the grownups interact with Sadie. As though mailing an elephant, commandeering a biplane and an alligator, and paying for ice cream with peanuts (literal peanuts, not small change) are things that little girls do every day. Even the biplane owner, who gets dramatic, is only upset about fuel–the fact that Sadie’s flying the plan is itself no big deal.

And Sadie, naturally, sees nothing strange about what she’s doing. Josephine lives alone and likes animal companions, so of course Sadie must get her one. The fact that she has to do so by somewhat unorthodox means is irrelevant. After all, she’s just taking advantage of whatever solution presents itself.

These two elements–everyone’s casual acquiescence to Sadie’s plans, plus Sadie’s confident and creative problem-solving–are what make this book inspiring.

I think that, in our culture, the deck is still stacked against active girls. It’s a shorter deck than the one our mothers or grandmothers faced, but it’s still there. And girls who grow up to be active women continue to face pushback. Sometimes it’s overt, in the form of increased scrutiny, lower pay, and hostile remarks. Sometimes it’s more subtle, in the form of public comments about what female politicians and executives are wearing or how balanced their family lives are (issues that are almost never raised with men in the same roles).

Sadie gives little girls an early model for facing those kinds of obstacles: keep your eyes focused on your goal, and be firm that what you’re doing makes perfect sense for you to do. It doesn’t really matter if nobody or everybody has done it before. And if someone throws up an obstacle in your path, look over or around it for another way to get where you want to go.

With that kind of mindset, in the end, you’ll reach your destination–and you might just find a warm welcome waiting for you when you do.

Women in Clothes

Women in Clothes

by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, Leanne Shapton et al.

Blue Rider Press, 2014

528 pages

I have an ambivalent relationship to fashion.

I love clothes. I love expressing myself through what I wear. I love the idea that, by picking out an outfit, I can give people a piece of the code to who I really am (provided they care enough to pay attention). I love seeing how other people express themselves through what they wear. And I love parsing the interplay of color, line, fabric, flow, and drape in beautiful garments.

What I don’t love is what the fashion industry sells to women (and I don’t mean clothes). The sweatshops and wage-slave labor used to make the clothes we wear. The stale, sexualized commodification of the female body. The relentless onslaught of images of skinny, pale teenagers presented as an ideal of beauty for all ages, races, and body types.

So I love to read fashion magazines, but I don’t leave them lying around where my daughter can see them. She’s only nine; I want her love of body and self to be more fully formed before she experiences regular exposure to waifish models and slit-to-here-or-there dresses.

Fashion, in short, so often feels like my guilty pleasure–the mild vice I have to pretend not to participate in or care too much about because otherwise I might have to turn in my feminist card. Kind of like the way I feel about James Bond movies.

This is why I was drawn to Women in Clothes, which the summary I read described as a book about “a philosophy of fashion.” The blurb promised personal stories, photographs of the authors’ mothers, wry commentary on how women feel about their clothes, their personal style, and their bodies.

I think the person who wrote the blurb might actually have read the book, because she was spot-on. Heti, Julavits, and Shapton deliberately developed the book as a way to express and explore the side of fashion that so often gets short shrift in magazines and books: the why of choosing clothes, the way Everywoman feels about her body and what she wears, and the ways fashion and style are passed down or over to us from mothers, grandmothers, aunts, lovers, cousins, siblings, and friends.

The foundation of Women in Clothes is a survey, one full of both expected and unexpected questions that have to be answered in long form. Questions like “Do you notice women on the street? If so, what sort of women do you tend to notice or admire?,” “What are some rules about dressing you follow, but you wouldn’t necessarily recommend to others?,” and “What is the most transformative conversation you have ever had on the subject of fashion or style?”

The authors shared this survey with hundreds of women they know, and they posted it on the Web for strangers to complete. Excerpts from responses form the core of the book, which also includes photographs of women’s fashion-related collections (e.g., one woman’s collection of vintage skirt suits, another’s collection of black cotton underwear, and still another’s collection of clogs), snippets of overheard fashion-related conversations, interviews, parodies, and more.

Unlike my fashion magazines, Women in Clothes is full of women of every race, shape, age, and size. And they are all brutally, disarmingly, engagingly honest about fashion and their relationship to it.

There is the long-time fashion editor who praises her assistant’s habit of buying everything at Goodwill–not for frugality’s sake, but for the sake of Pakistani teenagers in sweatshops and overflowing landfills. There are the women who talk about their own jiggly thighs and sagging breasts–not ruefully, but affectionately. The women who remember certain items of clothing not because of how they looked in them, but because of precious memories associated with the days they wore them.

Reading Women in Clothes inspired me to love myself and my personal style a little more, to be more confident in wearing what fits my body, and to just enjoy the beauty of clothes. It was a much-needed reminder that there are other women out there trying to be thoughtful about what they wear and why.

Will I still read fashion magazines? Yes, though probably a little less often. Will I still think that it would be nice to lose the 5 pounds I seem to have suddenly gained now that I sit at a desk all day? Sometimes. But will I be more focused on what’s going on below the surface when I choose an outfit? Definitely.

In short, this book has inspired me to be more thoughtful about what I wear and why, and to be less heedful of what magazines and designers and culture tell me I should look like or wear. In short, it’s inspired me to be more me. And that’s always a good thing.

Rosie Revere, Engineer

by Andrea Beaty; ill. by David Roberts

Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2013

32 pages

Over on the Read Like a Girl Facebook page, I’ve been sharing a lot of posts related to the relative dearth of women in STEM fields.

It’s a subject that’s top-of-mind for me because my daughter, who has always had a science-y bent, is now showing a pronounced interest in STEM-related activities. She’s become an avid scratch Lego builder, and she’s fascinated by computer coding, electrical wiring, and just generally seeing what will happen if you put A and B together and stir. (Her current impromptu experiment is a glass jar filled with a slurry of water and dissolving candy, which I think may be starting to ferment.)

These interests are making me painfully aware of the way STEM-oriented toys are marketed. In short, usually to boys. And when they’re marketed to girls, they’re often turned pink and purple and themed around domesticity, fashion, or shopping–a la Lego Friends, for example.

So lately, I’ve been on the hunt for great STEM toys, activities, and books that will help my daughter feel that she has the same options boys do. I bought her a pink-free Lego set designed around mini-figures of women scientists. When my sister asked about buying her an engineering-themed kit for Christmas, I emphatically said “Yes.” And when I saw a mention of Andrea Beaty and David Roberts’ Rosie Revere, Engineer, I picked it up at the library and left it on the couch where she would see it. (She won’t usually read books if I recommend them directly–it feels too much like following orders. Hm, wonder where she gets that independent streak?)

Rosie Revere is an energetic story about a smart, creative girl who loves to build. But when an uncle laughs down one of her creations, she gives up her favorite hobby out of insecurity.

Years later, her elderly Aunt Rosie, “who’d worked building airplanes a long time ago,” comes for a visit and mentions wistfully that her only regret is never learning to fly. Young Rosie struggles all night with her fear of failure before finally breaking out the building kit and constructing a “cheese-copter” so her aunt can take to the skies.

The copter flies briefly, but crashes, and Rosie is about to give up again when her aunt comes to the rescue. Together, they build a functioning machine–and young Rosie goes on to inspire her school classmates to start building, too.

I love this book not just because it celebrates female engineers, but also because it’s very honest about the frustrations and failures that come with experimentation. Sometimes, people really do mock creative ideas–and prototypes sometimes crash and burn, either literally or figuratively.

Rosie’s response to these challenges is relatable–but so is her recovery. And that’s what makes this book inspiring. It shows girls that they can bounce back from naysaying and failure, and that they should focus on connecting with the people who will help them do so. Ignore the person who’s mocking you, stick with the one who picks up the tools and helps.

In other words, this is a story that doesn’t just encourage girls to think of themselves as potential engineers, but also as persistent, strong overcomers. So it’s valuable for girls like my daughter, who might be interested in STEM careers, as well as for girls who simply need to hear, “You can do it!” And in fact, those are both messages I want my daughter to hear.

Under the Egg

Under the Egg

by Laura Marx Fitzgerald

Dial, 2014

247 pages

I love literary serendipity.

A couple of years ago, while my husband was out of town one week, I watched a documentary called The Rape of Europa. It was my first encounter with the story of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) military section, and I was riveted. Later, wanting to learn more, I read Robert M. Edsel’s very long but also very interesting book on the topic.

Last summer’s mediocre–and not entirely historically accurate–George Clooney movie somewhat popularized the story, but here are the basics, in case you haven’t heard.

The MFAA consisted of British and American arts experts (both men and women) who embedded with Allied troops in Europe during World War II. The group’s initial mandate was to identify and protect significant cultural sites from being destroyed by war operations and combat. Over time, the mandate expanded to include the identification, recovery, and return of millions of artworks the Nazis had looted from exiled or murdered Jewish families, museums, and churches. My favorite part of the story concerned Rose Valland, a Paris museum volunteer who risked her life to hide and rescue tends of thousands of artworks from the Nazis.

I finished reading Edsel’s book in July. Three months later, I picked up Laura Marx Fitzgerald’s Under the Egg–and serendipity happened.

I chose Under the Egg after reading that it was a brainy mystery with a strong female lead. The book satisfied on both those counts, but (even better) it also turned out to be historical fiction about the MFAA.

In Under the Egg, 13-year-old Theodora Tenpenny must figure out how to support herself and her mentally ill mother when her grandfather dies unexpectedly, leaving behind only $463 and instructions to look “under the egg.”

Theodora eventually connects these cryptic last words with a large painting of an egg that sits over the mantel in her grandfather’s art studio. After accidentally spilling rubbing alcohol on the painting, Theodora discovers that it hides an Old Masters-style Madonna and Child.

She suspects that this hidden painting is a lost Raphael and sets out to determine why and how it came to be in her grandfather’s possession. In the process, she discovers that, like the painting, her grandfather was not what he seemed.

He had not, as he told her, sat out World War II because of poor health. Instead, he had served at D-Day, suffered in a German POW camp, and then served in the MFAA. And Theodora is only able to solve the mystery of the painting (and what her grandfather’s last words really meant) once she solves the mystery of what happened to her grandfather during his stay in the POW camp and his term as a Monuments Man.

I’ll be honest: this book is a little more uneven than those I usually review here. I was a bit bothered by some of the liberties Fitzgerald took with MFAA history. Characterization fell flat in some places, and the plot took a few deus-ex-machina-style turns, particularly at the end.

But the overall story was so engaging, the premise so unique, and Theodora such an inspiring heroine, that I couldn’t let it go.

Theodora’s situation is staggeringly difficult. Her grandfather’s death leaves her as caretaker for a mother and a house that are both falling part. Theodora’s clothes are likewise disintegrating, and all she and her mother have to eat are a few eggs and a handful of beans and vegetables harvested from their backyard each day.

Really, Theodora needs to ask for help, but she’s held back by the near-pathological self-reliance her grandfather taught her. The way she slowly opens up to the world, while building her courage and using her intelligence to solve the mystery, is what inspired me.

She’s one of those heroines who speaks to me not because she has it all together, but precisely because she doesn’t. She feels exasperating and real in her flaws. I can see myself in her failings.

But she grows. She recognizes her need to connect and pushes herself, however slowly and gradually, out of her own comfort zone. And in the midst of horrible circumstances, she remains positive and confident that she will, eventually, work it all out.

In short, she’s courageous, in a real-life maybe-I-could-do-that kind of way. When the book is over, her story continues in my head–she stays with me, reminding me to let others love and help me as I go about the challenges of my own life. It’s a lesson I’ve sorely needed to learn over the last several years, and I’m thankful Under the Egg reinforced it for me.

Every year around Thanksgiving, I share a post about an inspiring woman I’m grateful to have known.

This year, as Thanksgiving approaches, I’m particularly grateful to have known “Nan.” She was my husband’s grandmother, and she died earlier this year at the age of 90, leaving behind her a remarkable and influential legacy.

I first met her when I was just 19, almost 20 years ago. My husband and I were recently engaged, and she and “Gramps” were in the U.S. on one of their many extended visits from England.

She was a bit fearsome, to be honest.

I was very young, still very unsure of myself, and she seemed stern and somewhat stand-offish. I wanted very much for her to like me, but I came away not at all certain whether she did.

Over time, she seemed to warm up to me–or maybe I just became less insecure. She was always polite, always remembered where I was in my college studies, who my family were and what they were doing. Her memory, in fact, was incredible. She seemed to know everyone and everything about them. And she was full of stories.

The stories were what helped me feel less intimidated by her. She was an amazing storyteller, always animated and engaging. Some of her stories were funny, others dramatic, others very sad. But she told each one in a way that made everyone around her want to drop whatever they were doing and just listen.

Through her stories (sometimes directly, sometimes reading between the lines) I learned something about her life.

She was an only child but close to her cousins, one of whom I knew quite well. He was a generation younger than her and remembered that she took very good care of him when he was small.

She met her husband when both were in their early teens, and they became engaged while he was away in Burma during WWII. Through her stories, I first became really aware of the fact that Britain’s war had been very different from America’s. She talked about air raids, the extreme rationing, and the sheer length and loss and intensity of the war.

After the war, she married her beloved Gramps, then cared alone for their two young children while he served on the Berlin Airlift. Later, she went to work at a local school for special needs children. She was a tireless supporter of those children, advocating for new facilities, classes, and anything else they might need. As their swimming teacher, she co-developed a curriculum that is still used around the world in water-therapy classes for disabled individuals.

When I met her, she was semi-retired: still teaching her swimming classes occasionally but also volunteering with the local cathedral and traveling extensively with Gramps. They went to Thailand, India, Burma, France, Italy, and more.

Gramps died about 8 1/2 years ago, when my daughter was just four months old. After that, Nan slowed down a little, but she continued to visit the U.S., volunteer at her beloved cathedral, attend adult-education classes at the local university, and travel around England to attend plays with her best friend.

She was never, ever not busy, and you simply could not tell her that a thing couldn’t or shouldn’t be done.

In short, she was a remarkable woman.

People who live to the age of 90 often have small funerals, usually because they’ve outlived most of their friends and become increasingly inactive and isolated in the last years of their lives. Not Nan. Her funeral service and reception were packed with friends and family of all ages, and so many people were eager to find some way they could help to honor her.

Truth be told, I always felt a bit on the outside with Nan. Part of it had to do with being an in-law rather than a blood relative, part of it had to do with her temperament, part of it had to do with my own baggage.

But I know she cared about me. And I feel deeply honored to have been part of her family, to have heard her stories, to have been inspired by her energy and courage and strength.

When I think of her, I think of someone who was full of life to the very end. If my own grandchildren say the same about me after I’m gone, it will have been a life well-lived.

 

 

 

The Secret Lives of Codebreakers: The Men and Women Who Cracked the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park

by Sinclair McKay

Plume, 2012

352 pages

 

Bletchley Park, where the Enigma code was cracked

Bletchley Park, where the Enigma code was cracked

Near the beginning of our marriage, my husband and I read the book A Man Called Intrepid. It’s the story of Sir William Stephenson, a Canadian airman who became the UK’s primary intelligence operative and liaison with the U.S. government during World War II.

Reading the book was the first time I encountered information about Enigma, the name for both a machine and the supposedly unbreakable German military code it produced. Even before the war was officially underway, certain members of Britain’s government became convinced of the importance of breaking the Enigma code. Eventually, the government formed an operation called Top Secret Ultra to achieve that goal.

The men and women of Ultra were headquartered at a country estate called Bletchley Park. There, they struggled round the clock to crack the Enigma code. The operation gave rise to a number of innovations in mathematics, code-breaking, and computational science, including the development and use of the world’s first computers.

Eventually, Ultra succeeded. According to Dwight Eisenhower, the work done at Bletchley Park shortened the war by at least two years, saving tens (possibly hundreds) of thousands of lives.

When I first read about Ultra, I was struck by how many women were involved in the operation. It was a time, after all, when women’s roles were highly circumscribed. Though more doors opened to women during the war, they were still generally limited to working in factories, on farms, and as nurses.

Despite the fact that women were so heavily involved in Ultra, however, many of the articles and books I’d seen on the subject didn’t say much about female code-breakers. Women were generally mentioned as an aside or a statistic, with the focus kept squarely on the operation’s (male) leaders.

But in Sinclair McKay’s book The Secret Lives of Codebreakers, the women get their due. McKay makes it a point to tell the stories of the women of Ultra, who (despite being largely relegated to subordinate positions) played a crucial role in the success of the operation.

According to McKay, Ultra’s male leaders realized from the start that women could be a major asset to Bletchley Park. They began by recruiting young debutantes from titled and wealthy families, primarily because these young women had been raised with a strong sense of noblesse oblige that made them willing to do even the most tiresome war work uncomplainingly (and, more importantly, confidentially). Later, Ultra recruited from universities throughout Britain, choosing young women who knew German or had a particular talent for math.

These women did a variety of tasks. The debutantes mostly maintained Bletchley Park’s meticulous card index, which enabled code-breakers to find “ins” to Enigma by cross-referencing possible code keys with certain words or phrases. The university students worked primarily as transcribers, translators, and code-breakers. When the first computers (called bombes) arrived, conscripts from the Royal Navy’s women’s corps were given the exclusive job of operating the machines.

It was all grueling work. The debutantes’ and students’ work was mentally grueling; the Navy Wrens’ job was physically so. Yet, according to McKay, there were few complaints and almost no breaches of secrecy. These young women worked tirelessly for years, never knowing the full significance of what they were doing, and receiving no recognition for it until decades later, when Ultra’s Top Secret status was finally lifted.

Beyond that, they found a way to make Bletchley life engaging and colorful. McKay writes of musical, dramatic, and sports societies, founded and participated in equally by the women and men. The resilience of the Ultra code-breakers was nothing short of incredible.

What inspires me about the story of these young women is their tenacity. Not just in the way they worked so hard, for so long, with so little recognition, but also in the way they seized the opportunities presented to them. The times being what they were, leadership positions at Ultra simply weren’t open to them. But they still had the chance to contribute, and they stepped outside social norms to do it.

Many of them were ahead of their time, anyway–after all, it wasn’t common in the 1930s and ’40s for a young woman to go to university. Their work at Bletchley was a natural extension of their willingness to break boundaries. And some of them, thanks to that willingness, went on to blaze trails in an even more dramatic way. One Wren worked her way up from machine operation to leadership in a code-breaking office in Singapore. Another Ultra alumna went on to have a long career as one of the UK’s few female politicians. Still others broke ground in quieter fashion, by finding fulfillment in the workplace at a time when homemaking was virtually the only acceptable feminine occupation.

It’s an inspiring picture of women who, at a very young age, made significant sacrifices to fill unconventional roles. Their courage, perseverance, and creativity are an example of how to seize opportunity, push it beyond its original boundaries, and generally make the most of it.

Note: As part of his efforts to cover not just code-breaking activities, but overall life at Bletchley Park, McKay includes a fairly chaste chapter that touches on the issue of sex at the Park. Some might consider it inappropriate for young teens.

 

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