Posts Tagged ‘U. S. history’

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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Little House in the Big Woods and others

by Laura Ingalls Wilder; ill. by Helen Sewell (first editions) and Garth Williams

HarperCollins, orig. pub. 1932

I was trying to decide what to post today–something I’ve stockpiled? or a freshly written review? what age group or genre?–when I realized that I would be posting right before my birthday. And that immediately pulled my mind to memories of inspiring books I’ve been given, some for my birthday, some for other occasions (and some just because).

So instead of posting a review today, I decided to write about one of those gifts, the one that is probably most closely connected to my passion for stories, reading, and writing.

When I was about a year old, my mom took me to visit my great-grandmother in Texas. I was already in love with words by that point: I had talked early and was now babbling away in long, complete sentences. Mom says my favorite thing to do was talk. And so talk I did, keeping up a steady stream of questions, stories, and observations as I followed Great-Grandma from room to room in her tiny house.

I don’t remember Great-Grandma at all, but Mom often describes her as a heavy-hearted person. She had lived through two world wars as the sister and mother of soldiers, buried an infant daughter, and been left a widow with three children just as the Depression began. I’ve never seen a photo of her smiling.

My flood of words, however, made her laugh.

And so before we left Texas, she handed my mom a boxed set of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. “These are for Kathryn,” she said. “That girl is going to be a reader someday.”

When we got home, Mom set the books aside for a few years. I don’t remember exactly when she brought them out, but I do remember reading them with my dad when I was just six. Every night before bed, my younger sister and I would climb into his lap, and he would read us a chapter. We went through the entire series, and Dad says that I would sometimes read short passages aloud.

Later, I read the books on my own. In fact, by the time I reached junior high, I had read them so many times that I was afraid they would fall apart; I covered them in clear contact paper to hold them together. They had pride of place in my bookcase until just last year, when I took them to my parents’ house so all the grandchildren could enjoy them.

Obviously, I loved those books. I identified with Laura from the start. Like her, I sometimes got into trouble for expressing my mind (there was, for instance, the time I blew a raspberry and gave a thumbs-down to my first-grade teacher because I didn’t want to go to P.E.). I was stubborn and curious like Laura, bookish, and pretty uninterested in domesticity. Young as I was, something resonated in me when she refused to include obedience in her marriage vows. And the fact that these amazing books were written by a woman planted a seed in my mind: maybe I could be a writer, too, one day.

But I didn’t just love the Little House books for what was in them. I also loved them for what they represented in my life.

In handing my mom those books, my great-grandmother performed a very important act of validation. She left me with a constant reminder that she had loved me because, not in spite, of my thirst for stories. That my intelligence had made her proud. It was a good reminder to have, especially on the many days when I felt like a misfit because I liked to learn and read. That thick blue box said to me, “It’s not just OK to be yourself–it’s good.”

So the next time you’re trying to decide what to give a young girl for her birthday or some other occasion (or just because), give her a book. Not just any book–a good one. Because you never know where it will lead her.

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Queen of the Falls

by Chris Van Allsburg

Houghton Mifflin, 2010

40 pages

Did you ever wonder who first had the crazy idea to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel? That honor belongs to a 62 (yes, 62)-year-old woman named Annie Edson Taylor, who dreamed up the stunt as a get-rick-quick scheme in 1901. Chris Van Allsburg’s Queen of the Falls tells her story.

Taylor was a widow and charm-school teacher who found herself retiring earlier than expected (and on very limited savings) due to a lack of students. Desperate to avoid the poorhouse, Annie remembered a girlhood trip to Niagara Falls and figured that going over the falls in a barrel would be a sure ticket to fame and fortune.

And the stunt seemed to be a success, at least at first. Annie suffered only minor injuries and  garnered tremendous publicity. She was sure that lucrative lecture and fair tours would follow.

Unfortunately, however, people who came to her appearances weren’t expecting a 62-year-old grandma. Underwhelmed, her audiences sat mutely, applauded weakly, even walked out on her. Two managers in succession tried to steal Annie’s famous barrel; the second one also tried to pass off a younger, prettier woman as “Queen of the Falls.”

Her tours a failure, Annie ended up supporting herself by selling postcards and pamphlets commemorating her stunt. She managed to avoid the poorhouse, but barely.

So you might be asking yourself: How in the world is this book inspiring? Sure, Annie was spunky and brave, but her grand plans fell flat. Ultimately, people pretty much forgot about her.

True–but about 10 years after Annie’s trip over the falls, when a reporter asked how she felt about the outcome of her project, she proudly pointed out that no one had ever had the courage to get closer to the falls than she had.*  People would agree, she told him, that going over the falls in a barrel was a great feat.

And she added, “I am content when I say, ‘I am the one who did it.’ “

That is why this book is inspiring. Not because Annie succeeded–at least, not in the conventional sense–but because she found a way to be at peace.

Life is not full of successes. Your daughter or granddaughter, student or niece or friend, will encounter failure. She’ll offer friendship to another child, only to be rejected. She’ll stay up until the wee hours, doing her best work on a term paper, only to get a C. She’ll log hours upon hours in the batting cage, only to strike out. She’ll pour her heart and soul into her dream job, only to get laid off.

Your task is to equip her to process those failures without giving up on life (or friendships, school, sports, or career). Inspired girls don’t just go out into the world and make successes; they also face failure head-on and find a way to work around or through it.

Male managers and the lecture circuit were flop for Annie. So she decided to look after herself and sell postcards. She didn’t get rich as she had hoped, but she didn’t let that make her bitter and unhappy. Instead, she chose to be satisfied with her accomplishment and content with her life.

Van Allsburg’s story beautifully communicates that state of mind, and his trademark black-and-white drawings capture all the adventure, humor, and determination of Annie’s story. Sit down and read Queen of the Falls with a little girl you know. You’ll be equipping her for later in life so that, when failure comes her way, she won’t feel defeated. She’ll feel inspired.

*Other people have since successfully surfed Niagara Falls, but Annie remains the only woman to have done it alone.

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