[Nonfiction Wednesday] Women Doctors and Environmentalists in Picturebook Biographies

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Myra here.

We are delighted to join the Nonfiction Picture Book meme 2016 hosted by Alyson Beecher @ Kid Lit Frenzy. We would also be linking our nonfiction choices with our reading themes throughout the year.

Poster done by Iphigene

Poster done by Iphigene

As we continue our fearless female reading theme, here are two picturebook biographies of fearless women who spoke out, took a stand, and are now considered trailblazers in their own respective fields.

IMG_9345Rachel Carson and Her Book That Changed The World

Written byLaurie Lawlor Illustrated by: Laura Beingessner
Published by: Holiday House, 2012
Bought copy of the book. Book photos taken by me. Book Awards: Amelia Bloomer Project list for 2013 non-fiction section, John Burroughs Riverby Award for 2012

This picturebook biography is about the life of Rachel Carson born in 1907 and who died in 1964. The first I heard of Rachel Carson was when I read Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. I knew how instrumental her work is in paving the way for policy changes in connection with the chemical industry and the use of insecticides.

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What struck me most about this book was how determined Rachel was even during the time when she could not find work, despite the fact that she was one of the few women with a master’s degree during The Great Depression. I also like how serendipitous the work that she eventually landed in proved to be – as it eventually paved the way for her life’s work.

“Once you are aware of the wonder and beauty of earth,” she scribbled in her journal, “you will want to learn about it.”

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I admired how fearless she was in her desire to share with the world the sound of a “silent spring” – much of it brought about by her meticulous research on insecticides and its adverse effects on the environment. She also wanted to make her writing dense enough that scientists and policy makers would sit up and take notice, but accessible as well to the general public, to convey that sense of collective responsibility required in taking care of the environment.

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I was equally fascinated by the varied response to her bestselling book Silent Spring when influential people from the chemical industry and government agencies called her a “hysterical woman” who was “probably a communist” as can be seen in the book’s detailed Epilogue. Interesting how people who continue to deny the truth of climate change often use this ‘communist’  argument to discredit environmentalists and scientists – such an old and outdated argument, really. This is an important, eye-opening book that also shows how words have the power to change the course of history.

Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? The Story of Elizabeth BlackwellIMG_9351

Written by: Tanya Lee Stone Illustrated by: Marjorie Priceman
Published byChristy Ottaviano Books: Henry Holt and Company, 2013
Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

The book opens with a playful challenge to the reader, effectively juxtaposing the context of this story from the 1800s to the reality experienced by the modern child of today:

I’ll bet you’ve met plenty of doctors in your life. And I’ll bet lots of them were women.

Well, you might find this hard to believe, but there once was a time when girls weren’t allowed to become doctors.

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Tanya Lee Stone also made Elizabeth Blackwell very relatable to a child reader as she characterized Blackwell to be a spirited young girl who felt queasy at the sight of blood and who found body parts such as eyeballs quite repulsive. It was a friend named Mary Donaldson who put the idea of women doctors in Elizabeth’s mind that made her consider a notion deemed to be unthinkable at the time (see below):

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I especially enjoyed reading how determined Blackwell was despite the repeated rejections she got from a lot of medical institutions that did not want to accept a female student, believing them to be not smart enough for medical work.

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Even after she graduated top of her class, there were angry male doctors who claimed that they hope she would be the last of her kind. That, of course, is moot and pointless in this day and age. Despite this, I believe that it bears repeating as it effectively serves to remind young girls to never take for granted the freedom that they enjoy now.

Initially, I felt that the art seemed incongruous to what I perceive to be something quite heavy-going (biography of the first female doctor). However, a second reading of the book made me realize how the bright colours, the playful fonts, all served to make this book more engaging and allow a young child to connect with someone so ancient – whose life story is so divorced from their own.

Here is a short youtube clip about Elizabeth Blackwell for Women’s History Month posted by Missouri Health. Enjoy!

  1. Both of these look fascinating! Thanks for sharing!

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  2. Both books are good additions for children to learn of groundbreakers for causes important to their lives now, too. I remember hearing about Rachel Carson from a grandfather who was always against DDT, knew that it must be harmful to the water. I’ve read that book, but still haven’t read the one about Elizabeth Blackwell. Thanks, Myra.

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  3. I love the Elizabeth Blackwell story. The Rachel Carson one is new to me, I’ll be on the lookout for it!

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  4. Yes, I’m loving both of these books so very much. So excited to see so many brave, inspiring, trail-blazing women being celebrated through picture books, so that even the youngest children can get to know them. 🙂

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  5. I love when smart women are highlighted in nonfiction picture books. I’ve read the Blackwell title, but I didn’t know the first, so thank you for sharing.

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  6. […] award for her work entitled, Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? (Review by Myra can be accessed here.) Set in 1889, this book tells the story of a young woman named Jane Addams who, at the tender age […]

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