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Products of Their Times, Shapers of the Future

By Kristi Jemtegaard

Like fingerprints, no two lives are alike. Included in the list below are stories about women who were first, women who were famous, and women who led unsung lives of quiet courage and dignity.

America’s Champion Swimmer: Gertrude EderleAmerica’s Champion Swimmer: Gertrude Ederle
Ages: 4 - 8 yrs.
By David A Adler, Illustrated by Tony Widener

Winner of three Olympic medals, holder of 29 U.S. and world records, “Trudy” Ederle was the first woman to swim the English Channel, beating the men’s record by almost two hours. Her feat won her a tickertape parade up Broadway and President Calvin Coolidge dubbed her “America’s Best Girl.” Art Deco-style illustrations evoke the flavor of the times.

Ruth Law Thrills a Nation
Ages: 4 - 8 yrs.
By Don Brown
Ticknor & Fields

On the morning of November 19, 1916, Ruth Law wore two woolen suits, two leather suits…and a skirt…as she set out on her journey to fly from Chicago to New York in a single day. Pilot’s eye views of her route chronicle her exciting attempt.

Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved ThanksgivingThank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving
Ages: 4 - 8 yrs.
By Laurie Halse Anderson, Illustrated by Matt Faulkner
Simon & Schuster

“Never underestimate dainty little ladies.” Sarah Hale, best known as the author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” spent 38 years badgering five different presidents before Thanksgiving was finally declared a national holiday. A lively text and hilarious illustrations make this an engaging read for children of all ages.

Good Queen BessCleopatra, Good Queen Bess, Joan of Arc
Ages: 4 - 8 yrs.
By Diane Stanley
Various Publishers

Known for her meticulous research as well as her sumptuous illustrations, Diane Stanley helps readers peer into the lives of three fascinating—and very different—women.

Ages: 4 - 8 yrs.
By Barbara Cooney

Delicately detailed watercolors reveal the life of a solemn, lonely little girl, orphaned at age nine, who grew up in privilege and later dedicated much of her life as First Lady (and wife of Franklin Delano Roosevelt) to human rights and the welfare of those less fortunate.

Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal VirtuosaElla Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa
Ages: 4 - 8 yrs.
By Andrea Davis Pinkney, Illustrated by Brian Pinkney
Jump at the Sun

Ella Fitzgerald, the First Lady of Song, is remembered in a text which evokes “the ping-pong rhythms that gave bebop its sound.” Scratchboard illustrations in Art Deco tints swirl from page to page like scenes on a stage.

The Pirate Queen
Ages: 4 - 8 yrs.
By Emily Arnold McCully
G.P. Putnam

Caldecott Award winner Emily McCully takes on an unusual subject in this picture book thriller. Part truth, part legend, Grania O’Malley, daughter of a sea-faring family in the time of Queen Elizabeth I, gave birth aboard a pirate ship, married her second husband to obtain a castle (her fifth), narrowly escaped hanging, and faced down the most powerful woman in England. A brief author’s note provides historical context.

Ages: 4 - 10 yrs.
By Jonah Winter, Illustrated by Ana Juan
Arthur A. Levine Books

Born Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo at the turn of the century, her paintings were like no one else’s: mysterious, symbolic, frightening, joyous, and lush with the colors of her native Mexico. This brief introduction to Kahlo’s life—as tragic as it was triumphant—will leave reader’s wanting to know more about her and her paintings (which are not included in the book). Vivid illustrations evoke but do not imitate Kahlo’s style.

Mothers to TigersMother To Tigers
Ages: 5 - 8 yrs.
George Ella Lyon, Illustrated by Peter Catalanotto
Simon & Schuster

Helen Frances Theresa Delaney Martini, the Bronx Zoo’s first woman zookeeper raised tiger cubs in her apartment until she persuaded the Zoo to build an animal nursery. During the course of her career, she also raised yapoks, marmosets, gorillas, chimpanzees, deer and ring-tailed lemurs in addition to lions, tigers, jaguars and a black leopard. Glowing illustrations and sepia-toned sketches detail a life of dedication.

Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World’s Fastest Woman
Ages: 6 - 10 yrs.
By Kathleen Krull, Illustrated by David Diaz
Harcourt Brace

Kathleen Krull's story of Wilma Rudolph's transformation, from a child stricken with polio to a sprinter at the Rome Olympics, has power and grace in direct ratio to the real woman. The reader is caught and held transfixed from Krull's first sentence ("No one expected such a tiny girl to have a first birthday") and David Diaz's first sinewy picture, of Wilma's large family (she had nineteen older brothers and sisters) crowded into the frame with her pink birthday cake. Text and pictures move together, leaving readers breathless.

When Marian Sang
Ages: 6 - 10 yrs.
By Brian Selznick
Scholastic Inc.

This handsome oversize book tells admirably the life-story of the celebrated black singer Marian Anderson (1897-1993). Author Ryan manages to cover the highlights of Anderson's long career in a spare and sober text that never lapses into kiddy talk but treats the book's heroine and its audience - children - with the respect they deserve. This is the most beautiful and worthwhile picture book to come down the pike in a long while.

Digging for Bird Dinosaurs: An Expedition to Madagascar
Ages: 9 - 12 yrs.
By Nic Bishop
Houghton Mifflin

This photo essay follows paleontologist Cathy Forester to Madagascar and into a fossil-rich quarry. Allowing young women to picture themselves not only as scientists but also as adventurers is only one aspect of this fascinating look at how the scientific method helps to unravel ancient mysteries.

Fly High! The Story of Bessie ColemanFly High! The Story of Bessie Coleman
Ages: 9 - 12 yrs.
By Louise Borden, Illustrated by Teresa Flavin
Simon & Schuster

From a one-room cabin in the cotton fields of Texas, Bessie Coleman struggled to realize her dreams. At the age of 29, she did just that by becoming the first African American woman to earn an international pilot’s license.

On the Bus with Joanna Cole: A Creative Autobiography
Ages: 9 - 12 yrs.
By Joanna Cole and Wendy Saul Heinemann

The woman behind Ms. Frizzle shares her fascination with science and her passion for writing as she traces the path of the Magic School Bus from idea to book to long-running series. Photographs of authors, editors and illustrators at work along with sketches, layouts and dummy copies enrich the visual content of this glimpse of the creative process in action.

Osceola: Memories of a Sharecroppers Daughter
Ages: 9 - 12 yrs.
Edited by Alan Govenar, Illustrated by Shane W. Evans
Jump at the Sun

In this unstudied oral history, Osceola Mays tells how she adopted her first name from an “Indian man traveling through” town and what life was like for a sharecropper’s daughter in the early 20th century: a mixture of fear and family, despair and hope, ignorance and education. Folk art style paintings, some based on photographs, mirror the text.

Lives of Extraordinary Women: Rulers, Rebels (And What the Neighbors Thought)Lives of Extraordinary Women: Rulers, Rebels (And What the Neighbors Thought)
Ages: 9 - 12 yrs.
By Kathleen Krull, Illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt
Harcourt Brace

From Cleopatra to Catherine the Great, from Joan of Arc to Wilma Mankiller, Krull picks out the juiciest tidbids from the lives of these movers and shakers. Princess Isabella fled on horseback to avoid an arranged marriage; Queen Victoria noshed on pralines and whiskey; Empress Tz’u-hsi had 3000 boxes of everyday jewels, 4000 servants, and built a marble palace for her dogs. This fascinating gem is also available in audio format from Audio Bookshelf.

Hana’s Suitcase: A True Story
Ages: 9 - 12 yrs.
By Karen Levine
Albert Whitman

There are two heroines in this true story: a little girl named Hana Brady who bravely packed her suitcase for the trip to Auschwitz in May of 1942 and a young woman in Japan who refused, more than half century later, to end her search for its owner with only Hana’s name and the word “waisenkind” (orphan) to guide her.

Bull's Eye: A Photobiography of Annie OakleyBull’s Eye: A Photobiography of Annie Oakley
Ages: 9 - 12 yrs.
By Sue Macy
National Geographic

Vintage photographs and memorabilia enrich this portrait of a young woman who broke the mold and became a Wild West superstar. From a hard-scrabble childhood in western Ohio, Phoebe Ann Moses traveled to the courts of Europe, to the stages of Broadway, and into the history of America.

Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride: Based on a True Story
Ages: 9 - 12 yrs.
By Pam Munoz Ryan, Illustrated by Brian Selznick
Scholastic Press

In this fictionalized account of a real incident, Amelia Earhart takes Eleanor Roosevelt on a moonlight flight over Washington D.C. Densely shaded pencil illustrations evoke the capital city in the era of black and white photography. An author’s note sorts fact from fiction in this fascinating account of two independent women and their friendship.

A Strong Right Arm: The Story of MamieA Strong Right Arm: The Story of Mamie
Ages: 10 & Up
By Michelle Y. Green, Mamie Johnson (Introduction)

This five-foot-two, ninety-eight pound young woman's strong right arm led her all the way to three years of professional baseball play with the Negro League's Indianapolis Clowns. Her struggles against the injustices of racism and sexism are told as matter-of-fact asides to her joy in playing baseball.

Martha Graham: A Dancer’s Life
Ages: 10 & Up
By Russell Freedman

Choreographer of 161 dances, inventor of a new and unique language of movement, relentless and demanding teacher, Martha Graham’s extraordinary, passionate and stormy life spanned nearly a century and left an enduring legacy to the world of art and to America. Newbery Award winner Russell Freedman’s graceful text is enriched with an array of period photographs.


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A collection of biographies that illustrates an individual's ability to overcome diversity, take on challenges, and accomplish remarkable things through will-power and determination.


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