Posts Tagged ‘leadership & social change’

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.

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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.

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The Librarian of Basra: A True Story From Iraq

by Jeanette Winter

Harcourt, 2005

32 pages

Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq

by Mark Alan Stamaty

Alfred A. Knopf, 2004

32 pages

When the United States, Britain, and George W. Bush’s “coalition of the willing” invaded Iraq in 2003, the human toll of the operation was the only thing more upsetting to me than the destruction and looting of museums, ancient landmarks, and cultural resources.

I knew that the loss of Iraq’s landmarks and artifacts was not just about the Iraqi people. It was about all of us, because we all trace our history back to the early civilizations represented by those irreplaceable treasures.

Since then, I’ve wondered what happened – what is happening – to Iraq’s cultural repository. How much was lost to the war, and did anyone ever manage to protect what was so important?

Not long ago, I discovered just a small part of the answer to that question when my local library held a book club event for children. The featured book was Jeanette Winter’s The Librarian of Basra.

Inspired by a New York Times article, this picture book tells the story of Alia Muhammad Baqr (sometimes spelled Baker), who was the Basra city librarian at the time of the war. After reading Winter’s book and researching Baqr further, I discovered a second book about her: Mark Alan Stamaty’s graphic novella Alia’s Mission.

Alia’s story is this. She was head of the busy public library in downtown Basra, where people came to read and discuss ideas. Following the 2003 invasion, rumors reached Basra that the British were coming to take the city. Afraid that fighting would destroy the library, Alia asked Basra’s mayor for permission to move the books. He not only said no, he turned the library into a military command post, making it an even likelier target.

That was the last straw for Alia. She secretly recruited her friend Anis, who owned a restaurant next door, and other concerned citizens to help her. They began smuggling books over the wall to Anis’s restaurant and down the street to Alia’s home. The British did take Basra, and the library did burn – but not before Alia and her friends had saved about 30,000 volumes.

Winter lays out this story in just a few sentences, accompanied by simple but richly colored illustrations. Her book is suitable for children of any age.

Stamaty goes into a bit more detail, in a version that is suitable for elementary ages. He fleshes out Alia’s motivation for saving the books, the contributions of the Ottoman Empire, the participation of Alia’s husband and Basra’s citizens. He also tells the end of the story: following a stroke caused by stress, Alia recovered and oversaw the construction of a new library.

There are so many inspirational elements to Alia’s story: her courage, her civil disobedience, her tenacity, her ability to galvanize others. But what I really loved – and what most inspired my daughter – was the fact that this is a story about books.

There’s a reason so many authoritarian regimes deny girls an education, censor or even burn certain books, or deny freedom of the press. Because books make people think. A non-reading, unthinking populace is easy to control. But readers, like the men and women who visited the Basra library, absorb ideas and talk about them. And thinking, idea-sharing people are dangerous people.

Books can also be important tools for becoming better versions of ourselves. Books and other written materials have longed help to spread ideas – whether religious, scientific, political, or artistic – that have saved lives, encouraged compassion, promoted peace, and shared beauty.

As Stamaty points out, that’s why Alia considered “her” books worth the risk of rescue. She had the vision to understand that Basra and its people are better off with their library intact. Especially for a girl living in a free, developed nation, where reading is a mundane activity, Alia’s story is an inspiring reminder of the importance of books and the lengths a courageous woman will go to preserve them.



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Call the Midwife

by Jennifer Worth

Penguin, 2012

3 volumes

I love BBC TV. Even the old shows, with their fuzzy camera work and costumes that look as if they came out of a long-neglected dress-up bin. I don’t have cable, however, and can’t get PBS over my TV antenna, so I have to make do with whatever Netflix has in its stockpile.

Thankfully, that stockpile is rather considerable, but it’s not very current. So when my English mother-in-law started raving about a new show titled Call the Midwife, I had no way of watching it right off the bat. Right about the time it finally showed up on Netflix, I learned that the show is based on true events–more specifically, a memoir of the same name.

Being me, I thought, “Why watch the TV show when I can read the books?!” and headed off to the library. I still intend to watch the show (in fact, this is the first time that a book has left me feeling more eager to see its TV/movie adaptation), but I’m glad I read the books first. Experiencing the stories as nonfiction, firsthand accounts, knowing that author Jennifer Worth and her friends lived every gritty detail, was incredibly inspiring.

Call the Midwife tells the story, in three fairly short volumes, of the time Worth spent training as a nurse-midwife in the East End of 1950s London. For those not familiar with London’s social history, the East End was the city’s poorest neighborhood, the site of centuries-old slums. It was also the site of the Docklands, Hitler’s prime target during the Blitz; bombed-out buildings (many of them inhabited by drug addicts, pimps, and gang members) dotted the neighborhood.

Worth comes to the East End looking for an adventurous escape from her mundane middle-class background. Thinking she will be training in a hospital, she is surprised to discover that she will actually be living and working out of a convent–her mentors are an order of nuns who have been providing nursing and midwifery services to the East End since Victorian times. Medical care and births take place in the East Enders’ homes, which are often at a level of squalor Worth has never before imagined, let alone encountered.

Over time, she forms fast friendships with her fellow trainees and with the nuns (who are not nearly as stuffy and rigid as she thought they would be) and comes to admire the dignity, tenacity, and sheer survivability of her patients.

Her memoir is full of incredible characters and situations, many of them seeming to come straight out of a Dickens novel. And as in Dickens, many of them are dark and unhappy. Worth tells of a mother and father who smother their newborn because they simply cannot fathom having another mouth to feed; of a pregnant teenage who is rescued from prostitution, only to suffer a nervous breakdown when her newborn is taken away for adoption; of families who turn to incest for relief from the emotional and mental trauma of extreme poverty.

But just when the darkness seems unbearable, Worth finds rays of light. Conchita Warren nurses her dangerously premature 25th (yes, 25th) baby to health, in defiance of doctors’ dire predictions. Julie fights through devastating personal loss to become the successful first mistress of her family’s 100-year-old pub. Families gather with awe and love around babies delivered in clean but ragged hovels, in the midst of raucous Christmas celebrations, in a haze of soot fallen from a dilapidated fireplace.

There’s inspiration in the convent, too. Ninety-year-old Sister Monica Joan, furious at Victorian society’s treatment of poor women, defied her aristocratic family’s wishes to work in the East End. Big, brassy Sister Evangelina clawed her way out of poverty, working dangerous jobs in munitions factories, to become the order’s most expert general nurse. And trainee Chummy, vilified by her upper-class family for her complete lack of social graces and her desire to be a missionary, finds fulfillment as an intuitive and gifted midwife.

Worth tells how these women, and the ones who came before them, brought some relief from suffering to the East End. They worked through cholera and typhoid epidemics, the Blitz, and the AIDS crisis. On their watch, the area’s maternal and infant mortality rates plummeted. Terminally ill residents died with dignity at home, instead of neglected in workhouse infirmaries. Traumatized and outcast people found love, acceptance, and purpose in the convent.

Though these women could not eliminate the dire circumstances that oppressed their patients, they could make a very real difference in individual lives. And the East Enders loved them for it–Worth points out that, while police officers had to travel the streets in pairs for safety, the nuns and nurses could roam alone without fear. Her memoir is an inspiring reminder of the very real impact of perseverance, of continuing to do good works in even apparently hopeless conditions. So long as one life is touched, she shows, no cause is truly lost.

Content note: Call the Midwife contains graphic accounts of childbirth, squalid living conditions, violence, sexual exploitation and assault, and other situations that might offend or upset some readers.

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Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya

by Donna Jo Napoli; ill. by Kadir Nelson

Simon & Schuster, 2010

40 pages

I’ve written before about my desire to raise my daughter with a nuanced view of Africa, one that’s more multi-dimensional than the depressing and patronizing portrayal in popular media.

Part of what I want her to understand is that we (meaning white Westerners) do not need to “save” Africa. It is not a monolith peopled and governed entirely by helpless, ignorant victims and violent, power-mad warlords. Rather, it is a place of varied cultures, histories, and people, many of whom are acting with courage, intelligence, and great effectiveness to improve their nations.

In other words, I want her to know that we do not need to step in, like arrogant colonialists, to “fix” the region. Rather, we need to be humble and helpful, partnering with suffering people in a way that supports dignity, their unique communities, and the good works of native leaders.

So when I found Mama Miti at our local library, it had to come home with us. I love Kadir Nelson’s work anyway, and I could see at a glance that this picture book carries an inspiring message about the power of one woman to help others, both on a personal and national level.

Mama Miti is the nickname of Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan woman who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. Born in rural Kenya in 1940, Maathai became the first woman in central or east Africa to earn a Ph.D., and the first woman to head a Kenyan university department (the department of veterinary medicine at the University of Nairobi).

Through her work as a veterinarian, she became a pioneer in the fields of sustainable development and ecological preservation. She was arrested numerous times over the years for her activism, but her work so inspired the Kenyan people that she was elected to Kenya’s Parliament in 2002.

Mama Miti is the story of how Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots effort to reforest Kenya and other African nations.

In elegant, straightforward text, repeating the phrase “Thaya nyumba–Peace, my people,” Donna Jo Napoli tells how women from all over Kenya came to Maathai’s home in Nairobi to seek her advice. One had no food for her family, so Maathai told her to plant the fruit-bearing mubiru muiru tree. Another lamented that her spring had become polluted, so Maathai told her to plan the mukuyu tree, which naturally filters water.

Others had starving, sick, or predator-ravished livestock; dilapidated homes; low-yielding crops; or not enough firewood. For each problem, Maathai suggested a tree that would help. Her solutions were so effective that they developed into the Green Belt Movement, which spread like wildfire. Since 1976, when the movement began, Maathai and her protegees have planted more than 30 million trees.

Nelson’s paintings, made using oil paints and fabrics on gessoed board, pay homage to East Africa’s rich heritage of textile art. Their vibrant colors and energy show the true beauty of Kenya and its people. With many of the images dominated by just one or two female figures, he captures the strength and tenacity of the Kenyan women and the personal nature of Maathai’s leadership.

This is indeed a living, breathing Africa–not the one-dimensional cutout seen in the news. Napoli and Nelson don’t downplay the women’s problems; in fact, art and text together dramatically portray the anguish and anxiety that brings the women to Nairobi. But this is ultimately a story of hope, of how encouragement from an empathetic leader can empower downtrodden women to help themselves, their families, their villages, and (ultimately) their nation.

It’s also an example of why I love picture books so much. In just 40 short pages, Napoli and Nelson present a subtle, impactful, true story that engages the reader as much as any epic novel. It has pathos, courage, and rawness. The final image, of Maathai herself, is close to monumental.

It’s a wonderful kind of inspiration: a testament to the power of kindness, peace, and determined women.

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Abigail Adams

by Alexandra Wallner

Holiday House, 2001

32 pages

Grade-school lessons about the women’s movement are pretty limited in scope. They tend to focus on the women’s suffrage campaigns of the late 1800s and early 1900s, then skip ahead to the ’60s and ’70s and the battle over the ERA.

As a result, young girls can come away with the impression that the women’s movement (or any progressive movement, really) consists of isolated, dramatic showdowns, with nothing significant happening in between.

The reality, of course, is completely different.

While those dramatic showdowns are great for wide-reaching legislative or judicial gains, they’re only the culmination of days, months, years, even decades of day-to-day choices on the part of equality-minded men and women everywhere.

A dad tells his daughter he’s proud of her good grades, and she realizes that being a girl isn’t just about being pretty. A scientist mentors a woman protegee, and a male-dominated field gains one more female. A teacher corrects a child who says something offensive, and classmates learn to think outside stereotypes.

Or, of course, a caregiver reads an inspiring book, and a child learns to think of women as strong, capable, and smart. Alexandra Wallner’s picture book biography of Abigail Adams is one of those inspiring books you can read to very young girls (or boys, for that matter).

When I was a kid, Abigail Adams didn’t get much attention: she was notable primarily as the only woman to be both the wife and mother of a president. In recent years, however, blockbuster biographies, major miniseries, and the popularity of the revived musical 1776 have brought Abigail into the public eye.

She was quite the woman, it turns out, and Wallner’s biography really highlights her intelligence, her importance, and her revolutionary ideas.

Abigail’s egalitarian consciousness developed early, we learn, when her wealthy parents allowed only her brother to go to school. Undaunted, she educated herself by reading avidly in the family’s library and eavesdropping on the grown-ups’ conversations.

She fell in love with her husband because he was intelligent and respected her intelligence. Knowing that, in Colonial society, “her future depended on her husband,” Abigail chose John because she thought he would treat her as an equal.

As their marriage progressed, Abigail proved her mettle. She managed their large estate when John traveled, led Colonial women in boycotts of British goods, and wrote John with ideas and advice that he shared with George Washington.

John supported her through it all–except when she wrote passionately that the new nation’s constitution should include equal rights for women and freedom for slaves.

Despite his rebuff, however, she held to her principles and implemented them in her daily life. She saw her daughters fully educated, taught black servants to read and write, and continued to speak out for equal rights.

Wallner’s straightforward text and simple, folk-art-style illustrations evoke Abigail’s strong and direct nature. At the same time, they capture the salient emotions of Abigail’s life–her contentment in learning, her determination in her work, her pain at John’s rebuff, and her happiness in their well-earned retirement years.

The book shows girls that progress doesn’t always come dramatically, and not all heroines grab headlines. You don’t have to be interested in the limelight to make a very real and lasting impact. Wallner also shows that, even when progress is not all we hoped it would be, we can still find some way to make a difference here and now.

More than anything, I love the way Wallner goes behind the canonized narrative to demonstrate Abigail’s importance. It’s the kind of book that leaves girls asking, “If she was so important, and I haven’t heard much about her, who else haven’t I heard about?”

Inspiration to look behind the curtain, learn more, dig deeper–is there anything better?

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The Help

by Kathryn Stockett

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2009

451 pages

Starting with today’s post, I’ve added a new age category: young women. Books under this heading are appropriate for the age group I like to think of as “grown-up girls.” They’re mature teens and college students, the oldest of the next generation of women. They’re not yet independent adults, but they’re capable of reading, understanding, and processing adult literature.

Growing up, I understood very little of the long-term impact of slavery on our nation’s racial landscape. Raised initially in an integrated community with friends and classmates of many races, I was familiar with the term Jim Crow but thought segregation (both legalized and de facto) and racism were a thing of the past.

Then, in my middle school years, my family moved to an all-white, rural Southern town–and I came face-to-face with de facto segregation and modern-day white paternalism and supremacy. Both offended and curious at the same time, I tried to dig deeper but met with little success. Our school curriculum didn’t address slavery or its legacy in any meaningful way, and neither did the adults in the community. When I asked questions of white adults who had lived through Jim Crow, they usually just stared (sometimes angrily) or gave vague non-responses.

It was a different matter when I got to college, where I loaded up on classes and books about race and the South. When I got out of college, I kept reading on the subject (in fact, it was Freedom’s Daughters, one of those post-college books, that inspired me to start this blog).

And that brings me to Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. I heard about the book soon after it came out; when I had finished it, I was so inspired that I immediately read Susan Tucker’s Telling Memories Among Southern Women, the nonfiction book that had galvanized Stockett.

Set in 1960s Mississippi, this novel is the story of three women. Aibilene is a black maid in her 60s who specializes in caring for young children. Her best friend Minny, also a black maid and the county’s best cook, is roughly a generation younger. And Skeeter is an upper-class white woman, recently returned home after graduating from college.

All three women are in transition. Aibilene, recently hired by Skeeter’s friend Elizabeth, is grieving the recent death of her 24-year-old son. Minny, unable to find normal work because of her reputation for “mouthing off” and a smear campaign conducted by Skeeter’s friend Hilly, is secretly teaching the lower-class Celia how to keep house for a wealthy husband. For her part, Skeeter is struggling to reconcile her own awkwardness and career ambitions with intense social pressure to become a typical Mississippi belle.

The three become more than just passing acquaintances when Skeeter, growing increasingly piqued by racial injustice and social constraints, invites Aibilene to help her compile a no-holds-barred collection of black maids’ stories about their white employers. Aibilene, embittered by white indifference to the accident that killed her son, agrees and pulls in Minny and several other friends.

As they work in secret to create the book, the three women find themselves learning much about themselves, each other, and the true stories–and natures–of their friends, family members, and employers.

What I love most about this book is how real it feels. The first-person narration has something to do with it, but Stockett has also managed to craft a story that transitions smoothly between deep heartbreak, the mundanities of daily life, and laugh-out-loud humor without ever seeming maudlin or melodramatic. I think it also helps that much of the book resonates with my own experiences. I’ve felt or witnessed firsthand the tight corset of Southern social mores, the dismissive stereotypes tossed out by Skeeter’s mother, and Hilly’s special brand of insidious, racist cruelty.

But what makes the book inspiring is how the three women rise above it all. Aibilene’s quiet, steely resolve is amazing, the more so for the heartbreak behind it. Minny’s courage is equally so; despite her initial (and very understandable) reluctance, she ends up not only participating in Skeeter and Aibilene’s project but also leaving her abusive husband. Skeeter, meanwhile, meets the man of her dreams–and he actually proposes. But when maintaining the relationship means hiding her role in the book, Skeeter chooses integrity, single womanhood, and a literary career in New York.

Even the novel’s most problematic aspect inspires me. As Stockett herself admits in an afterword, the book is “too little, too late,” a long-overdue atonement for her wealthy white family’s part in taking advantage of and perpetuating Mississippi’s Jim Crow sytem.

In a sense, Stockett’s right: it’s too late to help her family’s black servants, or any of the other men and women who suffered under Jim Crow. But it’s not too late to educate people like me, to help us see another brick or two in the massive wall the black community has had to surmount in this nation, and to help us understand why we must keep tearing down the wall and make sure never to rebuild it.

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