Elem. – Standing on Her Shoulders: A Celebration of Women

Clark-Robinson, Monica. Standing on Her Shoulders: A Celebration of Women. Illustrated by Laura Freeman. Orchard Press, 2021. 978-1-338-35800-1. Unpaged. $18.99. Grades 2-5.

“Standing on the shoulders of giants” is an oft used term for referencing those who came before us in a given area. In this nod to female path-makers, Monica Clark-Robinson guides a young black girl and shows her some of the great leaders and trailblazers through history who helped bridge her current opportunities. As she walks through a portrait gallery, she sees some expected women figures such as Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, and Sacajawea, as well as modern heroes like Megan Rapinoe and Serena Williams, and less familiar names including Harriet Chalmers Adams and Nellie Bly. Through the poetic couplets, the young learner hears how important it is to recognize those giants before us in many fields and fighting for equal rights, but also to leave our mark for the next generation. Featuring mostly black and people of color through the illustrations by Laura Freeman, there are a few short notes about each historical figure at the endnotes. The message is clear to walk among the heroines and lead the way for others to stand on your shoulders next.

THOUGHTS: An inspirational, though not always obvious, celebration of female trailblazers. Those readers most familiar with the illustrated people will appreciate the themes for each path, but those wanting to know more about the heroines will need to research further. Nevertheless, the picture book is a beautiful touchpoint introduction or kick-off for Women’s History Month.

Picture Book        Dustin Brackbill, State College Area SD

Elem. – Ordinary People Change the World (Series NF)

Meltzer, Brad. Ordinary People Change the World. Dial Books for Young Readers, 2021. $14.27 ea. $385.29 set of 27. Unpaged. K-3.

I am Frida Kahlo. 978-0-525-55598-8.
I am I. M. Pei. 978-0-525-55601-5.
I am Oprah Winfrey. 978-0-593-40582-6.

In this remarkable biography series, Brad Meltzer presents American icons in an extremely conversational, unintimidating manner. Beginning with their childhood, he tells each person’s story from his/her own point of view, focusing on personality traits that made each of them unique. Cartoon-like drawings and speech bubbles are interspersed with realistic images (like actual works of art) to make each story more intriguing. A timeline and photographs are included at the end of each book. I personally reviewed I am Frida Kahlo, and I absolutely loved the message being sent to the intended audience. Despite all of Frida’s difficulties in life – a bout with polio, a terrible bus accident, being ostracized because of her dress and actions – she remained true to herself and became a legend because of it. Not only does this encourage children to overcome curveballs in life, but it also sends them the message that they should be unafraid of being different. The format of these biographies definitely is unique and deserves to be considered for inclusion in all elementary biography collections.

THOUGHTS: This series would be extremely useful for biographical research as well as for character building activities. I also would recommend it to fans of Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum on PBS Kids, as the television series was actually inspired by this book series. In addition, it is worth noting that there are 24 other books in the series with publication years before and after 2021.

921 Biography          Julie Ritter, PSLA Member

MG – Build It Yourself Science Biographies (Series NF)

Build It Yourself Science Biographies. Nomad Press, 2021. 128 p. $22.95 (HC) $17.95 (paper). Grades 5-8.

Klepeis, Alicia Z. The Science & Technology of Ben Franklin. 978-1-647-41018-6.
Knutson, Julie.The Science & Technology of Marie Curie. 978-1-647-41022-3.
Pagel-Hogan, Elizabeth. The Science & Technology of Leonardo da Vinci. 978-1-647-41014-8.

Knutson’s book on Marie Curie showcases Curie’s intelligence and scientific contributions, while encouraging readers to try their own scientific experiments. Despite social and economic restrictions on women, Curie persevered in her scientific endeavors, working with her husband Pierre, and continuing their work after his death. Her work earned her a Nobel Prize.  When World War I began soon thereafter, Curie easily could have worked to build better weapons to win the war, but instead she decided to use her knowledge to promote health and peace. When she learned that doctors at the front were often amputating injured soldiers’ limbs simply because they could not pinpoint the location of shrapnel, she used all her clout and contacts to get small X-ray machines to the front. These ‘petit Curies’ were small vehicles staffed by three medical persons, and their x-rays saved untold lives. A later affair with a married man brought disgrace upon Curie (but not the man), but she continued throughout her life to work for greater scientific knowledge for peace. This book includes black and white photos, humorous comic style sidebars, and frequent experiments for readers to try.

THOUGHTS: This is an engaging look at Marie Curie’s life and scientific work. This book is part of the many popular “Build It Yourself” biographies by Nomad Press, and the most recent three focus on Marie Curie, Ben Franklin, and Leonardo da Vinci.      

540 Chemistry          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD
Biography

Elem./MG – Code Breaker, Spy Hunter: How Elizebeth Friedman Changed the Course of Two World Wars

Wallmark, Laurie. Code Breaker, Spy Hunter: How Elizebeth Friedman Changed the Course of Two World Wars. Illustrated by Brooke Smart. Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2021. Unpaged. 978-1-419-73963-7 $18.99 Grades 3-6. 

“A cryptoanalyst is a person who analyzes and reads secret communications without the knowledge of the system used.” Elizebeth Smith Friedman, born in 1982 in Indiana, became a relied-upon, yet secret, cryptography expert who helped the U.S. government to intercept coded messages during two world wars, and helped to identify and send thirty-three German spies to prison in “the greatest spy roundup in American history.” She never spoke of her work, classified as “Top Secret Ultra,” and most was not known until declassified in 2015. Wallmark, with Smart’s well-matched illustrations, follows Friedman’s story from childhood, to education to first job, to marriage, to secret work. Friedman was repeatedly requested for the most difficult code-breaking, and often testified in criminal cases, demonstrating her code-breaking when needed. In one case, she decoded two years of backlogged messages in her first three months of work. Friedman created the first code-breaking unit for the OSS–Office of Strategic Services, now known as the CIA–Central Intelligence Agency. In at least one major case, another person earned the honor for her work. But Friedman’s work helped the U.S. in two world wars and can be well-recognized today.

THOUGHTS: This book is an excellent addition to World War II units and will inspire readers to learn more about code-making and code-breaking.

Biography          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

Elem. – She Heard the Birds: The Story of Florence Merriam Bailey Pioneering Nature Activist

D’Aquino, Andrea. She Heard the Birds: The Story of Florence Merriam Bailey Pioneering Nature Activist. Princeton, Architectural Press, 2021. Unpaged. 978-1-648-96050-5. $18.95. Grades 1-3.

This picture book biography is the story of a woman who made a difference. Florence Merriam Bailey grew up in the late 19th century with her family who loved nature. Her mother was an astronomer and her father took the family on a summer long camping trip where she loved to observe the forest animals. Florence’s favorite creatures were birds and she studied their behavior and songs. She strongly disliked the latest fashion in hats, which were adorned with feathers and even the actual carcasses of birds. Bailey and her classmates at Smith College initiated a successful boycott of these hats. Florence became an avid ornithologist and promoted watching birds in a natural setting with binoculars in contrast to scientists who studied them in laboratories. She was the author of a field guide and other books on birds and their methods of communication. The author’s full bleed illustrations are done using hand-painted collage, oil pastel and pencil. Readers will enjoy examining the many colorful birds that are depicted.

THOUGHTS: This book is a great choice for elementary collections. It could be used during Women’s History Month, Earth Day or in science units. Children will learn about the wonder and beauty of our feathered friends and may be inspired to do some birdwatching on their own.

921 Biography          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member
598.2 Birds     

Elem. – Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer

Sorell, Traci. Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer. Millbrook Press, 2021. 978-1-541-57914-9. 32p. $19.99. Grades K-3. 

Mary Golda Ross’s work as an aerospace engineer on several classified projects broke barriers not only for women but also for Native Americans. Many of the projects she worked on at Lockheed Aircraft Corporation remain a secret even today. Mary’s love of math, her motivation to pursue a well-rounded education, and her courage to secure a career in a male-dominated field earned her the respect of people around the world. During World War II, she worked on a team that improved the safety of the P-38 Lightning fighter plane. As Lockheed’s first female engineer, she recruited other women to the field. In the 1950s, while the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union raged, Mary was one of 40 engineers recruited to work on top-secret aerospace projects. Additionally, her research about satellites and space travel ultimately contributed to the Apollo mission to the moon. Although her work drew national and worldwide attention, Mary never sought the spotlight. Her humble nature and quiet leadership blazed a trail, and throughout her lifetime, she never stopped encouraging young women and Native Americans to study math, science, and engineering. A note at the beginning of the book outlines several Cherokee values Mary’s family instilled in her, including gaining skills in all areas of life, cooperating and working well with others, humility, and helping ensure equal education and opportunities for everyone. Backmatter includes a timeline of major events in Mary’s life, an author’s note, and more information about the Cherokee values highlighted in the text.

THOUGHTS: This title is well-suited to STEM units as well as to units about female trailblazers. The backmatter spotlighting Cherokee values mirrors many of the soft skills schools emphasize today, so there are opportunities for discussion and connections. Pair with Margot Lee Shettterly’s Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race.

Picture Book Biography          Anne Bozievich, Southern York County SD

Elem. – Kate’s Light: Kate Walker at Robbins Reef Lighthouse

Spires, Elizabeth. Kate’s Light: Kate Walker at Robbins Reef Lighthouse. Margaret Ferguson Books, 2021. 978-0-8234-4348-2. 40pp. $18.99. Gr 3-5. 

This picture book biography features Kate Walker, a German immigrant who was one of the first women on the Eastern Seaboard to be put in charge of an offshore lighthouse. Kate took responsibility for the Robbins Reef lighthouse in New York Bay when her husband, John, passed away. For more than 30 years, she carried out the grueling daily tasks of caring for and cleaning the light and siren, performing water rescues, and tending the light ‘round the clock. Although life wasn’t always easy, and was at times very lonely, Kate discovered life in the lighthouse also had its rhythms and its advantages, such as being able to watch the Statue of Liberty’s dedication through binoculars from the catwalk. Emily Arnold McCully’s watercolor and pen and ink illustrations, featuring mostly blues, greens, and grays, beautifully capture the constantly changing weather and water around the lighthouse. Two pages at the end of the book provide additional factual information about Kate and the challenges and obstacles she overcame during her 33 years at Robbins Reef. Primary source photographs also allow readers to glimpse real images of Kate going about her work in the lighthouse.

THOUGHTS: Pair with Sophie Blackall’s Hello Lighthouse for a nautical-themed storytime. Or, use both texts together for a fiction and nonfiction compare-and-contrast discussion. This would also be an excellent addition to women’s history units.

Picture Book Biography          Anne Bozievich, Southern York County SD

YA – The Life I’m In

Flake, Sharon G. The Life I’m In. Scholastic Press, 2021. $18.99. 978-1-338-57317-6. Grades 9-12.

In Sharon G. Flake’s best selling novel, The Skin I’m In, Charlese–Char–Jones is the confident bully wreaking havoc on the life of the diffident and vulnerable Maleeka. In The Life I’m In, African-American Char appears as the main character, still inwardly grieving for the loss of her beloved parents, and continuing to make bad decisions. Her older sister and guardian, Juju, has begun to get her life together–stopping the house parties and securing a job in a bank–and needs Char–sixteen and a seventh-grade drop out–to live with their grandparents in Alabama. At the start of this reluctant bus trip, Char is flippant and rude, comical and outspoken. The passengers are alternately annoyed and amused by her unself- conscious antics. When young, white mother, April gets on the bus with her three-month old biracial baby, Char’s maternal instincts urge her to assist April. Bound for a job, April shows the distressed signs of living rough on the streets. To provide for her child, she sells narcotics and sexual favors to truck drivers; she suppresses suspicion about this new employment that requires she pay for the position. When April disembarks the bus with baby Cricket in tow, naive Char decides she will go out on her own and not continue to Alabama. Thinking it is temporary, she volunteers to take care of Cricket when April’s aunt never shows up at the bus station and well-dressed and smooth talking Anthony arrives as April’s ride to Florida. Char enlists all her resources to persuade a hotel proprietor to rent her a suite; she figures out and procures the necessary baby supplies with the money from Juju; she contacts Juju and even the newly reconciled Maleeka to tell them of her actions if not her whereabouts. Char may talk a good game, but she is young, inexperienced, and a virgin. When Char’s funds dwindle and her efforts to find work are hindered by her motherly duties, she runs into Anthony again and, in an attempt to save Cricket, finds herself a victim of sex trafficking. Author Flake describes the depravity of Char’s existence during this time delicately, but does not stint on the truth. Char receives some solace in the community of other girls in Anthony’s pack, who seem to be of different races and backgrounds. When she eventually escapes and is reunited with Juju, Char needs the help of not only her sister, but also Maleeka, her former teacher, Ms. Saunders, and professionals to survive the trauma and feel truly free. The fluid text reflects Char’s actual voice, and her first-person narration gives an intense look into her complex feelings and her maturity as she tries to survive under egregious conditions. Although the stress and suffering Char conveys is painful to read about, readers will find this a compelling book.

THOUGHTS: This is a harsh story to tell, and Sharon Flake tells it well. The book serves as a mirror for those who have suffered sexual abuse or trauma of any kind as well as a window into the lives of people who have experienced homelessness and poverty. The reader leaves feeling not pity but understanding and an admiration for the resilience and effort exerted by trauma victims. It acts as a call for all to refrain from rash judgements and to be kind. Char’s second escape from Anthony seems contrived (would the driver wait for Char as she says good-bye to Maleeka?); however, readers will be rooting for the happy ending.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

MG/YA – Sylvie

Kantorovitz, Sylvie. Sylvie. Walker Books, 2021. 346 p. $24.99 978-1-536-20762-0. Grades 7-12.

In this graphic novel, Artist Sylvie Kantoritz shares her life growing up in France, living in an envied apartment that was part of the small teaching college her father directed. She shows the personalities of her father (easy-going), her mother (never satisfied), and her younger brothers and sister. She strives to make everything work: to be the perfect student, daughter, sister, and friend, while feeling uncertain of where she is headed. As the years pass, she changes friends, finds a boyfriend, and always tries to find her own place. Her fascination with art continues to grow throughout her life, and her father encourages her to seek a future in teaching and art. Finally, Sylvie feels that she’s found her own way to a life of her choosing. She ends the memoir with this thought: “Finding out who we are, and not who others think we are or want us to be, is the most important search in life.” The characters’ expressions are endearing and revealing, through anger and surprise to dismay and joy.

THOUGHTS: Readers will enjoy following Sylvie’s life and growth in this quiet homage to the ups and downs of family life.

Graphic Novel          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

Elem. – R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Weatherford, Carole Boston. R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Atheneum, 2020. 978-1-534-45228-2. Unpaged. $18.99. Grades K-3. 

Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, is introduced to a new generation in this vibrant picture book. While this biography is brief, it succeeds in conveying the essence of Franklin’s life. The oil paint illustrations by Frank Morrison draw readers into the story, their richness implying the importance of her family, faith, community and music. The rhyming couplets on each two-page spread succinctly summarize aspects of Franklin’s history, the rhyme scheme unifying the book. Understandably, the abbreviated format does not allow for deeper exploration of her life, and no mention is made of darker events such as her parents’ separation, her mother’s death before Aretha was 10 years old, or the children she bore at age 12 and 14. (The information about her parents is mentioned in the Author’s Note following the story text.) The book accomplishes its intended purpose beautifully, celebrating the life of a revered talent. Hopefully a nearby adult will pair a reading of the book with an introduction to Franklin’s glorious music.

THOUGHTS: A lush, inspiring introduction to a musical icon and activist. With a motion picture biography slated for release in August 2021, this could be a timely purchase.

Picture Book          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD