Faces of Feminism

Fight Like a Girl: 50 Feminists Who Changed the World
By Laura Barcella
Illustrated by Summer Pierce
(Zest Books, 2016, San Francisco, $14.99)

What is feminism? Every feminist has a different definition of the concept. In Fight Like a Girl, Laura Barcella profiles fifty women, all of whom project a different image of feminism. There’s a lot to like about this collective biography for young adults: Barcella’s lively voice, Summer Pierce’s engaging black and white portraits of the book’s subjects, and the diverse array of individuals profiled. Barcella’s subjects include artists and scientists, athletes and politicians, activists and writers, white women and women of color, straight women and members of the GLBTQ community.

Still, despite these virtues, some of Barcella’s choices are questionable. In her introduction, she explains that she didn’t include Gloria Steinem and other well-known feminists because she “didn’t want this book to exist solely as a refresher course.” However, it seems unlikely that today’s teens would have significant knowledge of Steinem, Friedan, or other well-known feminists who do not appear in this book. Also, although Barcella profiles some early figures, including Sojourner Truth and Mary Wollstonecraft, others, including Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Lucy Stone, do not appear. In fact, not one figure from the American suffrage movement made the cut. Instead, Barcella celebrates pop culture icons (Beyonce, Madonna, Queen Latifah) who have spoken about women’s rights. She also includes notable women who do not necessarily identify as feminists or have connection to the movement (Rosa Parks, Jane Goodall, and Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama). Had Fight Like a Girl merely been a collective biography of influential or pioneering women, these choices would have made sense. As the book exists, however, these selections seem more like an attempt to stretch the definition of feminism than to educate readers about early participants in the movement.

Fight Like a Girl purports to give young adult readers a kaleidoscope view of feminism, and it does show the diversity of the concept and its adherents. However, by spurning early activists in favor of contemporary celebrities, the collective biography inadvertently dismisses the sacrifices women made so that others could vote, own property, work without fear of harassment, and attend school. Singing a song about women’s issues may still be controversial, even in twenty-first century America. However, early activists faced social ostracization and even imprisonment. They had to be braver than today’s boldest artists. Without their efforts, the actions of today’s feminists might not be legal or possible.

– Dorothy A. Dahm

A Walking Dictionary

9780544129832_hresNoah Webster: Man of Many Words
By Catherine Reef
(Clarion, 2015, New York, $18.99)

Although most Americans associate Noah Webster with dictionaries, writing a dictionary was not his sole contribution to American life and letters. He wrote about American history, politics, science, history, religion, and spelling, penning encyclopedia, a version of the Bible, a spelling text, and countless essays during his lifetime. He also successfully campaigned for the first copyright laws passed in the United States. Through it all, Webster sought to celebrate and encourage the existence of a uniquely American, always evolving form of English, one he hoped would unite the people of the fledgling republic.

In Noah Webster: Man of Many Words, Catherine Reef paints a lively, nuanced portrait of the vigorous and quirky visionary. Although Reef’s young adult biography is sympathetic, she occasionally lends her dry wit to her subject. For example, she describes how a young Webster addressed audiences about “such riveting subjects as long and short vowels.” Readers encounter Webster as opinionated iconoclast, tireless author, and devoted husband and father. Reef also includes contextual information about politics, education, and language in his era. In addition to helping readers understand his life and work, this material also makes the book a compelling introduction to eighteenth and early nineteenth-century American life.

Noah Webster may have spent years of his life brooding over pronunciation and spelling, but he is far from a dry biographical subject. After reading Reef’s excellent new biography, both young adult and older readers will have a new appreciation for the man behind the dictionary and the dynamic nature of language.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

In Search of Fairness

9780547290928_hresIda Tarbell: The Woman Who Challenged Big Business – and Won!
By Emily Arnold McCully
(Clarion, 2014, New York, $18.99)

Best known for her articles, which later became a book, about the Standard Oil Company and its abuses, Ida Tarbell was as much a historian as she was a journalist. She penned series of articles about the lives of Napoleon and Lincoln that were well known in her day and also wrote about the business practices of her era.

Ida Tarbell: The Woman Who Challenged Big Business – and Won! is a thoughtful, detailed biography of Tarbell, one of the first and most notable American women to earn her living as a journalist. Author Emily Arnold McCully intertwines Tarbell’s story with that of John D. Rockefeller and his Standard Oil Company. Because Tarbell addressed many sociopolitical concerns during her long career, McCully’s narrative also discusses such topics as American imperialism, women’s suffrage, and Taylorism.

A highly readable account of Tarbell’s exciting life, Ida Tarbell is also an intellectual biography of the writer. McCully shows readers the joys and frustration of the research process: an endeavor that often sent the meticulous Tarbell across continents and oceans in search of a particular source or interview. In addition, she explores some of the writer’s confounding positions on a number of issues. Tarbell, for example, may have been among the most successful women of her era, but she did not support the campaign for women’s suffrage, a stance equally astonishing to both her contemporaries and today’s readers. McCully neither condemns nor defends what social reformer Jane Addams called “some limitation to Ida Tarbell’s mind.” Instead, McCully puts Tarbell’s beliefs in their historical context and incorporates this and other irrational beliefs into her nuanced portrait of the otherwise incisive writer.

At 235 pages, Ida Tarbell is much longer than most other young adult biographies. However, McCully’s impeccable research, clear style, and balanced treatment of her subject – virtues not unlike Tarbell’s own – make the book excellent reading for teens and adults interested in history and journalism.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Quiet Strength

ImageReal Courage: The Story of Harper Lee
By Katherine Don
(Morgan Reynolds, 2013, Greensboro, North Carolina, $ 28.95  )

Harper Lee has only published one novel in her lifetime, but that book has influenced countless Americans, especially schoolchildren, since its 1960 publication. In Real Courage, Katherine Don tells the story of the woman who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. Don explores the novel’s historical contexts, weaving her account of Lee’s life with discussion of the era’s political and artistic currents. The young adult biography also considers the people and places who inspired Mockingbird: in a gripping opening chapter, readers enter the sleepy Alabama town where Lee grew up and meet her father A.C. Lee, a local lawyer. In a scene worthy of the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, Mr. Lee quietly defends a vulnerable man from bullies. This chapter is an ideal introduction to Lee’s convictions, just as Don’s nuanced biography is a thoughtful introduction to the woman herself.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Crushing through History

Historical Heartthrobs cover lo-resHistorical Heartthrobs: 50 Timeless Crushes – from Cleopatra to Camus
By Kelly Murphy with Hallie Fryd
(Zest Books, 2014, San Francisco, $17.99)

As no human activity proves as universally absorbing as sex, many adult biographies focus on their subjects’ love lives. In Historical Heartthrobs, Kelly Murphy brings sex to the young adult biography, profiling fifty historical figures renowned for their physical appeal or personal charisma.

Murphy draws her subjects from the worlds of arts, letters, politics, sports, and fashion, including figures as diverse as Che Guevera, Coco Chanel, Ernest Hemingway, Frida Kahlo, John Wilkes Booth, Frederick Douglas, Marie Antoinette, Carmen Miranda, and Jim Thorpe. Some of her choices, such as Benjamin Franklin, may puzzle readers. She begins each profile with a brief summary of the individual’s life and accomplishments. Each entry also includes short headings about the subject’s sex life, overall significance, “Best Feature,” and “Heat Factor” on a scale from one to five. (Franklin gets a four!)

The collective biography’s focus and Murphy’s breezy, irreverent style make Historical Heartthrobs a guilty pleasure, much like celebrity gossip. But this resemblance is also the book’s downfall: while amusing and often interesting, Murphy’s assessments lack depth and, occasionally, accuracy. For example, she writes that Lord Byron’s poetry “shocked Victorian audiences,” but Byron died in 1824, thirteen years before Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837. Murphy skates blithely over some ambiguities, including Chanel’s possible collaborations with the Nazis and Marie Antoinette’s real attitudes toward the peasantry. She also accuses writer Dorothy Parker of being shallow about appearances – a strange charge from the author of a book about attractive people. Finally, she examines her subjects’ sexual identities through a twenty-first century lens, celebrating Byron and George Sand as champions of GLBTQ rights. She forgets people of earlier eras did not think of sexuality in terms of orientation, but in acts.

None of this should detract from readers’ enjoyment of Historical Heartthrobs. However, it is a mere introduction to its subjects, and it often does them – and young adult readers – real injustice. Depending on our convictions, we admire some people for their courage and vision and revile others for theirs. When we look backwards, looks hardly matter.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Dreaming of Freedom

lightning dreamer_hresThe Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist
By Margarita Engle
(Harcourt, 2013, Boston, $16.99)

In mid-nineteenth century Spain, Getrudis Gomez de Avellaneda, a Cuban expatriate, wrote poems, plays, and prose expressing her abolitionism. Cuban landowners profited at their slaves’ expense – and so much of Avellaneda’s work was banned in her native land. She also outspoken about her opposition to arranged marriages and the position of women – a sentiment that even most of her fellow abolitionists did not share.

In The Lightning Dreamer, Margarita Engle crafts a fictionalized telling of young Avellaneda’s awakening in free verse. The novel begins when Avellaneda, called Tula, is thirteen. A curious, imaginative girl, Tula is frustrated by her mother’s attempts to limit her access to books and paper. She reads and writes anyway, of course. She also develops a social conscience as she watches the island’s slaves at works – and hears of the atrocities landowners commit against them. During this time, she also becomes acutely aware of her position as a woman: the fact that young women, like slaves, are auctioned off in marriage to the highest bidder. This insight increases her empathy for the enslaved and makes her determined to eschew a loveless marriage and pursue her own identity as a writer and human. Eventually, after much travail and heartbreak, she succeeds.

Deceptively straightforward, Engle’s verse evokes the conflicts of a young girl learning to question the world around her. Different voices, including those of Tula, her family members, their free black cook, and the nuns who teach Tula, narrate the story in turn. Tula, in particular, often speaks in short lines, the better to give each word emphasis:

Mama commands me to hush,
and my stepfather grumbles,
so I try to be quiet,
but silence feels
like an endless
of smooth
shiny mirrors
that reflect
my ragged

The Lightning Dreamer contains many echoes and mirrors, both in language and narrative. The plight of women forced into arranged marriages mirrors that of slaves sold at auction. A former slave’s dash to freedom resembles a young girl’s refusal to marry without love; another’s unrequited love reminds Tula of her own heartbreak. Tula’s ability to see these parallels underlies her growing compassion for all people.

Often startling, The Lightning Dreamer is a moving introduction to Cuban history and Avellaneda’s life and work. This biographical novel-in-verse should also encourage readers to perceive relationships between sufferings and injustices, past and present.

Dorothy A. Dahm

The Library Lady

miss moore thought otherwise_hresMiss Moore Thought Otherwise: How Anne Carroll Moore Created Libraries for Children By Jan Pinborough
Illustrated by Debby Atwell
(Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, Boston, 2013, $16.99)

Once upon a time, libraries did not offer story hour. In fact, children were not allowed to borrow books – and in some cases, kids were not even permitted inside the library. Young people, librarians believed, would only abuse books and disturb other patrons. In any case, many believed that reading wasn’t very important for children anyway, especially girls. But change was in the air. In the early twentieth century, a young librarian named Anne Carroll Moore pioneered the children’s library as we know it in New York City: story hour,  kid-sized furniture, cheerful artwork, and a variety of books to entertain and engage children of all ages. Moore created a space in which children could ask questions, explore ideas, and begin a lifelong love affair with reading. She acquired children’s books in a variety of languages and used dolls to put shy children, especially recent immigrants, at their ease. She also wrote book reviews to elevate the status of children’s literature. When she retired, she traveled around the country, helping other libraries improve their children’s sections.

In Miss Moore Thought Otherwise, Jan Pinborough and illustrator Debby Atwell tell Moore’s story. The picture-book biography starts with her free-spirited childhood in small-town Maine and concludes with a musing on the nature of libraries today. Throughout Pinborough’s delightful narrative, Miss Moore thinks “otherwise” about the role of women, libraries, children, and retired people.  Atwell’s illustrations are reminiscent of folk art: her paintings’ lively use of color, simple forms, and busy composition suggest Moore’s delight in books and the world around her. In one of the book’s most striking spreads, the island of Manhattan seems to glow with light. Boats of all sizes circle the island, horse-drawn carriages fill its streets, and tiny forms occupy its docks and alleys. Above it all, a grinning Anne Carroll Moore appears in a ray of light: this is the adventure Moore saw in her adopted city.

In many ways, Miss Moore Thought Otherwise is a celebration of today’s libraries in all their openness and inclusiveness. In the age of e-readers, it is easy to take libraries for granted: however, the idea that anyone can select any book and borrow it for free is still exhilarating and perhaps even revolutionary.

Dorothy A. Dahm

The Man Behind the Dictionary

Noah Webster and His Words
By Jeri Chase Ferris
Illustrated by Vincent X. Kirsch
(Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2012, New   York, $16.99)

The man whose name has become nearly synonymous with dictionaries also helped establish American English as a distinctive form of the language. Noah Webster, best known for Webster’s Dictionary, also penned a speller and a grammatical text. Although many words had multiple spellings in the eighteenth century, he insisted that all Americans use a single form of each word. Along the way, Webster also taught school, practiced law, wrote other books, and founded a magazine and newspaper.

In Noah Webster and His Words, Jeri Chase Ferris and illustrator Vincent X. Kirsch paint an affectionate portrait of the opinionated grammarian. Ferris’s narrative lends itself well to reading out loud. The book starts and ends on the same humorous note – “Noah Webster always knew he was right” – implying that a biographical subject, even a clever, well-intentioned one, is as prone to human pitfalls as any picture-book character. Kirsch’s illustrations bring the same sense of fun to the story. Webster’s large, smiling head suggests the extent of both his intellect and his self-regard. If the lively text and illustrations exemplify today’s picture books, the typeface, which dates from the 1770s, links the past with the present, much like Webster’s Dictionaries do today.

The picture-book biography also plays homage to Webster’s most famous creation. Whenever Ferris uses a word that may be unfamiliar to beginning readers, she inserts a dictionary entry for the word, complete with part of speech, syllable count, and definition, thus introducing kids to both new vocabulary and the dictionary itself. While adults may find this tactic disruptive, it should engage young readers. Noah Webster and His Words is a playful look at a towering, though little studied, figure in American history.

-Dorothy A. Dahm






The Man Behind Middle-Earth

Cover Illustration by Brad Weinman

Mythmaker: The Life of J.R.R. Tolkien
By Anne E. Neimark
(Harcourt Children’s Books, 1996, 2nd edition 2012, New York, $12.99)

For years, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings have enthralled children and adults alike. In Mythmaker, Anne E. Neimark tells Tolkien’s story for middle-grade and young adult readers.

Tolkien’s life lends itself well to biography as his truth was nearly as spellbinding as his fantasies. Growing up in South Africa and England, he was orphaned at a young age and endured a repressive guardian, poverty, dreary boarding houses, a nearly tragic romance, and the trenches of World War I before becoming a professor of ancient languages at Oxford. Tolkien was as much a world-builder as a novelist: he invented languages and even alphabets for his Middle Earth characters. In The Silmarillion, he created a mythology that supported his other works.  What is most remarkable is that Tolkien led an active life – raising four children with his wife, publishing scholarly works, mentoring students, even serving as an air raid warden during World War II – while weaving his Middle Earth tapestry.

Neimark often employs the techniques of fiction in her biography. At times, this approach allows her to connect the storyteller with his work and to vividly portray certain significant moments in his life. Mythmaker begins with three year old Tolkien scampering away from his African nurse on a quest of his own: in this scene, Neimark conjures his South African childhood and his early love of adventure. Occasionally, this novelistic approach backfires, especially when she uses stilted dialogue to convey information about Tolkien’s life.  However, Mythmaker is a readable and often poignant introduction to a man who loved fantasy for its ability to show us “light and high beauty for ever beyond” the shadows in our own lives.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Wild on the Moors


The Brontë Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne
By Catherine Reef
(Clarion, New York, 2012, $18.99)

Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë led lives worthy of their fiction. All the elements present in their novels – cruel teachers, illicit or unrequited passions, the wild beauty of the Yorkshire moors, isolation, madness, early loss, and death – were all realities they or their brother Branwell experienced. Losing their mother and two eldest siblings at a young age, isolated in their father’s Yorkshire parsonage, the children sought refuge in each other and their imaginations, creating fantastic kingdoms and writing stories about these places.  As adults, all three sisters penned poetry and novels now considered masterpieces.

In The Brontë Sisters, Catherine Reef describes the women’s hardships and rich inner lives, which form the backdrop of their novels. She refuses, however, to romanticize her subjects: all three sisters worked as governesses or teachers, and all were difficult employees despite their intellectual gifts. “There could never have been temperaments less adapted to such a position,” observed one of Charlotte’s friends. Neither did the sisters mix well with company. Even Charlotte, the most worldly and conforming of the three, could appear odd and aloof. Emily rarely spoke to or made eye contact with people outside the family. But the very qualities that made the Brontës strange and difficult let them turn an unflinching eye on subjects proper Victorians ignored or accepted: the uneasy position of governesses (Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey), abusive schools (Jane Eyre), domestic violence (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall), human cruelty, revenge, and bitterness (Wuthering Heights), and the general position of women (nearly all of the Brontës’ novels). Despite their inward focus, they wrote vividly about the world outside the parsonage.

The Brontë Sisters is an accessible introduction to the sisters’ writings and their era. It is also a thoughtful meditation on the relationship between a writer’s biography and oeuvre, prose and temperament.

Dorothy A. Dahm