Posts Tagged ‘U. S. history’

Dare the Wind: The Record-Breaking Voyage of Eleanor Prentiss and the Flying Cloud

by Tracey Fern; ill. by Emily Arnold McCully

Farrar Straus Giroux, 2014

40 pages

I was prowling around the Internet today, searching for content to share on the Read Like a Girl Facebook page, when I came across an interview with Merline Saintil. Saintil is a programmer who currently serves as Yahoo’s head of global engineering for mobile and emerging products.

Both as a woman and an African-American, she’s a minority in her field, and she believes that mentors and a strong support network have been crucial to helping her overcome traditional barriers. In particular, she mentions a male CEO who helped connect her with significant educational and professional opportunities.

I think it’s easy for us to assume that women will be a girl’s best or most important mentors, but that’s not necessarily the case. First of all, as the de facto leaders in virtually every sector of society and the economy, men are simply more likely to be in a position to serve as mentors. Second, there are plenty of men who–out of idealism, pragmatism, or a mixture of both–are happy to help talented girls and women fulfill their potential.

Tracey Fern’s picture book Dare the Wind is about one woman who benefited from the lifelong support of men who recognized and fostered her potential. Born to a sailing captain in early 1800s Massachusetts, Eleanor Prentiss (nicknamed “Ellen”) fell in love with the sea at a young age. Her father, probably motivated by pragmatism rather than feminism (he had no sons to succeed him), taught her everything he knew about sailing. He also taught her the complicated art of mathematical navigation, a skill beyond the reach of most sailors or even boat captains of the day.

As a young woman, Ellen became known for racing–and winning–against other boats in Massachusetts Bay. She later married a trading captain, who promptly took her on as his navigator at a time when it was still considered bad luck to have a woman aboard ship, let alone helping to sail the vessel.

Eventually, the couple took charge of the Flying Cloud, a new type of fast-sailing boat called a clipper. Ellen’s navigational skill–and her husband’s trust in her–spurred them on to multiple world records for the fastest voyage between Boston and San Francisco.

The reality is that, without the help and support of her father and husband, Ellen probably would not have been able to achieve her dream of becoming a champion sailor and navigator. At minimum, the process would have been far more difficult.

But that doesn’t make Ellen’s story any less inspiring for me. She knew what she wanted to do, and she seized every opportunity to do it. Even with a supportive father and husband on her side, there were significant obstacles in her way. Ellen lived at a time when married women had no personhood under the law, and when the weight of social (and naval) convention was very heavy indeed. And then there were the grueling physical and mental demands of repeated sea voyages around the Horn.

Ellen broke all those barriers–and the men in her life were deeply proud of her for doing so. Her story is an excellent example to young girls whose dreams are unconventional. It shows them that they don’t have to assume opposition from half the human race, that in fact they can keep their eyes open for men as well as women to support them along the way. And it’s a reminder to seize the opportunities that come through those channels, to be strong and courageous like Ellen and have confidence in themselves to find a way forward.

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Dead End in Norvelt

by Jack Gantos

Farrar Straus Giroux, 2011

341 pages

I have a thing for dark humor. I’m also a fan of period fiction (sometimes truly historical, sometimes not) and stories with a strong regional flavor. Give me a book, TV show, or movie that combines the two, and I’m in heaven.

So I’ve been itching to read Jack Gantos’ Dead End in Norvelt ever since I read the ALA Newbery committee’s description of the book. I finally got my hands on a copy, and it did not disappoint. Even better, I discovered that (although the main character is male), the book has a handful of terrific female characters that make this story a perfect fit for my Super Secondaries series.

Here’s the story: young Norvelt, PA, resident Jack Gantos is in deep trouble. He got caught playing with his father’s WWII souvenirs, and he cut down his mother’s prized corn. So instead of spending his summer playing baseball, watching movies at the drive-in, and hanging out with his friends, he’s grounded until further notice.

His only escape is Miss Volker, an elderly neighbor who does double duty as the town nurse and obituary writer. Jack’s mother has loaned him out to the old lady, whose severe arthritis is getting in the way of her work.

As Jack works for Miss Volker, he learns something about the fascinating history of his hometown and its residents, how grown-ups cope with harsh economic realities, and what it means to live – and die – well. As more and more of the town’s elderly residents do the latter, he also begins to ask some questions. Is Norvelt’s soaring death rate just a coincidence, or is someone bumping off the old ladies a bit before their time?

As you’ve probably guessed from the main character’s name, Dead End in Norvelt is semi-autobiographical. Norvelt, PA, is the author’s true hometown, one of dozens of New Deal settlements founded during the Depression for the relief of unemployed coal miners and their families. Most of the town history related in the book is real, and Gantos communicates it in an entertaining way.

But it’s not just the history that makes this story a winner (though it won the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction as well as the Newbery). Gantos’ wry style and strong voice are deeply engaging, and the macabre humor is side-splitting. And then, of course, there are the ladies: Dead End in Norvelt has three strong female characters to inspire girl readers.

First there’s Jack’s best friend Bunny, who is very small of stature but huge of personality. Her father is the town undertaker, and exposure to his profession has made Bunny the exact opposite of a shrinking violet. While Jack swoons in the autopsy room, Bunny goes in for a closer look. When arsonists plague Norvelt, she organizes a nighttime fire patrol. In short, she is one of the spunkiest, sassiest girls I’ve ever encountered in fiction. For girls who are athletic, fascinated by the weird side of life, dealing with physical limitations, or just loud and proud, she’s an excellent point of contact with the story.

Next there’s Jack’s mom, a big-hearted and capable woman. With Jack’s father frequently out of town on construction jobs, she often holds down the fort alone. And when insufficient income and other setbacks arise, her resourcefulness keeps the family afloat and provides for Norvelt’s elderly residents. She’s not perfect: her desire to protect Jack can make her fearful, but she always summons courage when it’s needed, as when she faces down an armed stranger in the family’s backyard. In a time when girls are still bombarded with messages to fit a mold for the sake of winning love and approval, she shows how to operate as part of a loving family and caring community without sacrificing identity or principles.

And finally there’s Miss Volker, a fiery, sharp-witted old lady who teaches Jack to think both for and outside himself. She is one of Norvelt’s original residents, a deep admirer of Eleanor Roosevelt (for whom the town is named), and dedicated to educating and caring for Norvelt’s citizens. In addition to the town obituaries, which she pens as wider historical lessons, she writes a “This Day in History” column where she encourages readers to question and look beyond the victors’ narratives that make up most textbook versions of history. Politically progressive, outspoken, and tenacious, she teaches Jack and readers that women’s voices are an essential part of the social conversation. She is also a healthy model of single womanhood – encouragement that women needn’t marry or have children to find fulfillment in life, career, and relationships.

Dead End in Norvelt is an excellent read any way you slice it, a hilarious and touching coming-of-age story with plenty to engage both boys and girls. But with these three ladies as part of the story, it becomes inspirational as well.

Read about the further adventures of Jack and Miss Volker in From Norvelt to Nowhere, published in 2013.

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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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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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Here Come the Girl Scouts!: The Amazing All-True Story of Juliette “Daisy” Gordon Low and Her Great Adventure

by Shana Corey; ill. Hadley Hooper

Scholastic, 2012

40 pages

I know it sounds curmudgeonly, but kids don’t get outside enough these days.

We parents are too scared of catastrophe; kids are too enmeshed in devices (also a parental failing, since we’re the ones who are supposed to set limits on the things). And don’t get me started on the lack of recess and P.E. at school.

Being constantly indoors is simply not good–for the immune system, for overall health. And it means that kids miss out on simple pleasures like birdsong and swinging, not to mention myriad opportunities for creativity, initiative, and (where children move in herds) cooperation.

The late 19th- and early 20th-century girls of Juliette “Daisy” Gordon Low’s day faced similar problems, but for very different reasons.

They spent their days sitting–occasionally outside, but mostly inside–because that was all that was considered appropriate for girls of “good breeding.” Physical activity, it was said, would make them coarse, forward, and a host of other heinous things.

Not to mention that they were considered “too delicate” for play and sports, a stereotype probably reinforced by the actual physical limitations of corsets, bustles, and other body-distorting garments. Glowing, outdoorsy skin was the mark of lower-class women and girls who had either too much freedom or too much responsibility, depending on your perspective.

Daisy, however, wasn’t buying it. And as Shana Corey and Hadley Hooper show in Here Come the Girl Scouts!: The Amazing All-True Story of Juliette “Daisy” Gordon Low and Her Great Adventure, her refusal to accept cultural norms gave birth to one of the most enduring and empowering girls’ movements in history.

Daisy grew up in Savannah, Georgia, part of a family whose wealth enabled her to travel extensively and indulge in expensive hobbies. With a chronic itch for adventure, she gained a reputation for stunts like ditching a dinner party to go fishing in full evening dress.

Eventually, she married a wealthy Englishman and settled in the UK, where she met Sir Robert Baden-Powell and his sister Agnes. Robert, a former war hero, had founded the Boy Scouts; Agnes led its offshoot, the Girl Guides.

Daisy was already looking for some way to turn her thirst for adventure into something that would benefit society. Her friendship with the Baden-Powells gave her a concrete idea. Returning to the United States, she founded the Girl Scouts with just a handful of girls from Savannah’s upper crust.

From the start, Daisy emphasized physical activity, practical skills, and charity. She also insisted on inclusion, both racial and socioeconomic. It was controversial from the start, but Daisy simply didn’t care–she knew it was good for girls and for society.

There’s so much to love about this book. Corey tells the story in clear, cheery prose while still communicating important concepts like individuality and courage. She makes energy, activity, and initiative seem appealing and fun–much more so than sitting on the couch all day (or accepting limitations on one’s personhood).

Hooper’s punchy, graphic illustrations add to the book’s energy, and their sly humor augments Corey’s sense of fun. There’s also a more detailed, but accessible, biography of Daisy and her organization, along with a great bibliography for girls (and grown-ups) who want to know more.

But my favorite part of the book are the quotes. Curving around the text, incorporated into the illustrations, they inspire readers in Daisy’s own words.

“Every time you show your courage, it grows.”

“The work of to-day is the history of to-morrow, and we are its makers.”

“To make yourself strong and healthy it is necessary to begin with your inside.”

They made both me and my daughter want to–made us feel like we could–run out the door and do something to improve ourselves and the world. And that, my friends, is what empowerment feels like.

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Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers: How a First Lady Changed America

by Kathi Appelt; ill. Joy Fisher Hein

HarperCollins, 2005

40 pages

Have you ever noticed the wildflowers that grow along the highways in the U.S.? If you’re like me, you’ve probably assumed they’re “volunteer” plants, sprouted from seeds dropped there by animals or the wind.

Some of them probably are, but I learned this month that many aren’t. Rather, they (and the general cleanliness of our roadsides) are the result of the 1965 Highway Beautification Act, spearheaded by then-First Lady Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson.

Kathi Appelt and Joy Fisher Hein’s picture book Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers: How a First Lady Changed America is the story of how Johnson came to care so much about flowers and beautification–and of how that love prompted her to leave our nation better than she found it.

Lady Bird was born Claudia Alta Taylor in 1912. When she was just shy of six years old, her pregnant mother died of sepsis, and Lady Bird spent the rest of her childhood in the care of her Aunt Effie. Inspired by Effie’s gardening and her own mother’s love of wildflowers, Lady Bird developed an early passion for the beauty of the outdoors.

She met Lyndon Johnson while in college in Austin, and he was elected to Congress soon after they married. Her subsequent years in the barren, polluted landscape of Washington, D.C., were consciousness-raising. She became concerned about citizens (especially children) growing up surrounded by concrete and trash. When she unexpectedly became First Lady after Kennedy’s assassination, she decided that beautification would be a way to give the country hope and help it heal–just as the beauty of nature had helped her heal after her mother’s death.

The result was the Highway Beautification Act, called “Lady Bird’s Bill” by much of the country. Later in life, Lady Bird helped establish the National Wildflower Research Center, which provides a place for scientists and the public to study and preserve native plants.

I think the story Appelt has chosen to tell is inspiring for today’s girls for three main reasons. First, it highlights the way Lady Bird took a devastating experience and found something positive–her mother and aunt’s love of nature–in it. Then she took that love and made it her own: she honored her mother’s memory by strengthening herself and finding something new and uplifting in life.

Second, it emphasizes Lady Bird’s genuine kindness and humility, the way she used her own childhood trauma as a springboard to compassion, and her own considerable wealth and influence for the common good. Appelt’s Lady Bird seems to have had very little sense of entitlement–instead, as she once told a reporter, she was invested in “paying rent for the space I have taken up in this highly interesting world.”

Third, as best as I can determine, Appelt’s characterization of Lady Bird is right on the money. If any girl wants to dig deeper, in other words, she’s just going to find more inspiration. Not only was Lady Bird a compassionate activist and dedicated conservationist, but she was a savvy businesswoman and capable leader.

She was the wealth-builder in her marriage; aside from inheriting a considerable sum, she made millions as a radio- and TV-station owner. She bankrolled LBJ’s political campaigns and managed his Congressional office while he served in the Navy during WWII.

Later, she essentially created the role of the modern First Lady: she was the first to have her own office and dedicated employees, and the first to advocate for legislation. She is also the only First Lady to have received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.

All this at a time when women were rarely college-educated, had virtually no protection against workplace discrimination, and didn’t have legal standing to participate independently in certain property or business transactions. She went against the grain in a big way, but also in a compassionate and gracious way, and our nation is the better for it.

In other words, she proved that nice girls–and the people they lead–really can finish first.

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