My favorite reading challenge in 2014 is Kid Lit Frenzy’s Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge. Visit Alyson’s blog to find out what nonfiction picture books others are sharing this week.
This week, my son and I read several picture book biographies of women innovators and pioneers.
Mermaid Queen, written in a lively style by Shana Corey and vibrantly illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham, is the story of Annette Kellerman, who became a professional swimmer and pioneered one-piece streamlined bathing suits for women. She had some kind of leg disability as a child, and her parents enrolled her in swimming lessons, hoping that would help strengthen her legs and perhaps allow her to walk without leg braces. They surely didn’t expect her to become a competitive swimmer, but that’s just what Annette did. She began training seriously in 1902, went on to win many races, and traveled the world to compete, attempt to break records (such as swimming the English Channel–she didn’t succeed, but it’s still a grand story), and perform water ballet and diving in exhibitions. Part of Mermaid Queen focuses on Kellerman’s trial in Massachusetts for indecency. Of course women couldn’t swim seriously–or really at all–wearing the costumes that were considered appropriate at the time (basically a heavy dress, complete with pantaloons and cap). Her pioneering bathing suits shocked many but allowed women to become swimmers for the first time. Corey includes extensive back matter, including a wonderful photograph of Kellerman looking quite mermaidish in one of her bathing suits.
Alice Ramsay’s Grand Adventure, written and illustrated by Don Brown, tells the story of Alice Ramsey’s drive across America in 1909. Ramsey became the first woman to drive across the country–and apparently she enjoyed it, because she made the cross-country trip more than thirty times in her life. Ramsey was accompanied by a female friend and two of her sisters-in-law, none of whom knew anything about cars. It was up to Ramsey to do the driving, maintain the automobile, and navigate their way across thousands of miles of unpaved and unmarked roads. I found that aspect of the story especially fascinating. At times, they navigated by following telephone wires, hoping the wires would lead them to the next town. There were plenty of adventures and misadventures, of course. Unfortunately, there is no back matter.
Another book by Brown was also a winner this week: Far Beyond the Garden Gate: Alexandra David-Neel’s Journey to Lhasa. After reading this book, I am eager to pick up David-Neel’s own autobiographies and travel writings and learn more. In her mid-forties, David-Neel, a self-taught Buddhist scholar, set off for Asia, determined to learn Tibetan and visit the Tibetan capital, which had never before been visited by a foreign woman. Brown’s illustrations are always good, but I thought they were exquisite in this story. I wouldn’t have minded a little more information about Buddhism and David-Neel’s scholarship, but perhaps that would have detracted from Brown’s main focus, which is David-Neel’s adventure.
Emily Arnold McCully’s Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor is the inspiring story of a young girl who loves machines and uses technology to solve the problems she sees in her world. Mattie is an inventor from a young age, designing kites and sleds for her brothers and their friends and addressing small household inconveniences with her inventions. The family’s straitened circumstances after her father’s death compels them to move to the mill town of Manchester, New Hampshire, where her mother and siblings work in the mills and where Mattie herself starts working when she’s twelve. A shuttle accident inspires her first major invention–a metal guard to protect loom workers. The story then focuses on Mattie’s first patented invention, a machine to make square-bottomed grocery bags. McCully makes it clear that much trial and error goes into invention: Mattie worked nights for two years in her basement workshop before she nailed the design. That would have been quite enough drama for me, but Mattie’s invention was stolen and a patent filed by a man who did not create the machine. Mattie took him to court and won. She went on to create her own business and to work tirelessly throughout her life on various inventions. This book made a surprisingly engaging read-aloud.
Laurie Halse Anderson’s Thank You Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving, illustrated by Matt Faulkner, was most interesting to me when it focused on Sarah Hale’s amazing energy, activity, and persistence. Hale, a writer, editor, and mother, was determined that America would be a better place if one day were set aside for gathering together and giving thanks, and she did not let the many rejections her proposal received deter her. She spent 38 years petitioning administration after administration to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. Finally, President Lincoln was persuaded. I loved Matt Faulkner’s lively, funny illustrations (lots of visual humor in this book), but I will say, the narrator’s voice was a bit over the top for me. As someone who loves history and nonfiction writing, I don’t need to be persuaded that history is engaging and interesting, and I felt like the writing in this story was trying just a little too hard. The peppy voice would make this book a good choice for readers who think that history is dull or that history writing should lack voice, and it does read aloud beautifully.