The series of biographies I read as a child had more heroes than heroines.
Still I most relished the ones that featured women. They were some of few strong females I found in children’s books. My granddaughter is growing up differently. Her choices are rich with role models.
Last year, my daughter-in-law turned me onto Francesca Cavallo and Elena Favilli’s “Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls,” a collection of biographies celebrating 100 women. Funded by a Kickstarter, it sold more than a million copies, and now there’s “Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls 2" (both from Timbuktu Books).
It has 100 additional illustrated short accounts of women, including writer Agatha Christie and North Korean activist Yeonmi Park. To me, these depictions seem more suited for children 8 and up, but it’s wonderful to snuggle and speak with my granddaughter about strong women.
Of late there have been a plethora of collections. My favorite, “Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World,” is a graphic novel by French cartoonist Penelope Bagieu (First Second, ages 13 and up). These 29 biographies have a cumulative power that transcends boundaries of time, race, region and race.
They are randomly sequenced, creating surprising juxtapositions and engaging reading. The short bio of Nzinga, a fierce 16th century warrior queen from Nodongo and Matmba, is followed by 20th Century American actress Margaret Hamilton, the green-faced witch in “The Wizard of Oz.”
Many women are less familiar like Sonita Alizadeh, an Afghan rapper. Others are unusual in their telling. For example, actress Hedy Lamarr’s gift for invention is stressed more than her beauty.
There is originality in each text. The first heroine, Clémentine Delait, a bearded lady from 20th-century France, uses speech that is lively and relatable to present-day young women. As teen friends stare at Clémentine‘s whiskery face, she issues an anachronistic one-liner, “What? What? Do I have lipstick on my teeth?”
There is a poignancy and wit in each profile, colors carefully chosen to establish mood. After each portrait, a full-page color spread strongly expresses the women’s essences, giving a visual pause before the next bio begins.
As Bagieu brings out the power, pathos, verve and innovation of each woman, the reader is so immersed, it never feels as if Bagieu is trying to prove a point. She doesn’t shy away from the women’s sensuality, and their personal struggles are represented as well as the political.
This collection is far too old for my granddaughter and frankly, I’m rather a fan of individual picture book biographies for her age. There’s nothing like a woman portrayed in a picture book to begin discussions.
Consider books like Roda Ahmed’s “Mae Among the Stars” (Harper). Most of the book focuses on African-American astronaut Mae Jamison’s childhood. Raised by parents who teach her anything is possible, she’s decided to be an astronaut, but she faces gender stereotyping with her teacher.
The book provides a natural segue to how teachers and times have changed, Mae’s supportive family and her determination to achieve the life she imagined. Many of individual biographies are geared to older children and are also wonderful discussion starters.
Here are some recommendations for both collections and single titles for different ages of books with empowering women characters.
Biography collections of women for 5-8-year-olds
▪ “Amelia to Zora: 26 Women who Changed the World” by Cynthia Chin-Lee (Charlesbridge)
▪ "Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History" by Vashti Harrison (Little Brown)
▪ “Shaking Things Up: 14 Young Women Who Changed the World” by Susan Hood (Harper)
Biography collections of women for ages 8 and up
▪ “Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World” and “Women in Sports: 50 Fearless Athletes who Played to Win” by Rachel Ignotofsky (both from Ten Speed Press; ages 7 and up)
▪ “More Girls who Rocked the World: Heroines from Ada Lovelace to Misty Copeland” by Michelle Roehm McCann (Aladdin; ages 7 and up)
▪ “Women who dared: 52 Stories of Fearless Daredevils, Adventurers & Rebels," by Linda Skeers
▪ “Bad Princess: True Tales from Behind the Tiara," by Kris Waldherr (Scholastic; ages 7 and up)
Individual Picture Book Biographies for Biography for 5-8 year-olds
▪ “Marie Curie” by Demi (Holt)
▪ “The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist" by Cynthia Levinson (Atheneum)
▪ “Libba: the Magnificent Musical life of Elizabeth Cotten” by Laura Veirs (Chronicle)
▪ “Margaret and the Moon: How Margaret Hamilton Saved the First Lunar Landing" by Dean Robbins (Knopf)
▪ “The World is Not a Rectangle: A Portrait of Architect Zaha Hadid" by Jeanette Winter (Beach Lane)
▪ “Malala's magic pencil” by Malala Yousafzai (Little Brown)
Individual Picture Book Biographies for Biography for 8 and up:
▪ “Mama Africa! How Miriam Makeba Spread Hope Wither Song” by Kathryn Erskine (FSG)
▪ “Strange fruit: Billy Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song" by Gary Golio (Millbrook)
▪ “No Truth Without Ruth: The Life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg" by Kathleen Krull (Harper)