Category Archives: biography

Wrinkles, time, love, Madeleine

becoming madeleineMy book club is reading A Wrinkle in Time for June, and because my to-be-read stack is so huge, I decided to re-read the Hope Larson graphic novel version for a change of pace.  I love the original, and when I re-read it, I always notice that I remember it differently than it actually is, and that happens with the graphic novel, too. I don’t mind one bit.  It’s wonderful both ways.

And then the other day, Becoming Madeleine landed on my desk at work – a biography of Madeleine L’Engle, written by two of her grandchildren.  The perfect pairing?  Oh yes!   There are journals, grade reports, and pictures. For fans, this is a wonderful look into one writer’s youth and early adult life, and a reminder that even the best writers are rejected and unsure of their talent sometimes.  A good reminder for all.

Becoming Madeleine by Charlotte Jones Voiklis and Lena Roy

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Future Batgirl wins the day

library on wheelsMary Lemist Titcomb – Miss Titcomb – was a fierce advocate of libraries, pushing aside those people who said working people and children weren’t interested in reading, charging forward to provide more varied library services to people who didn’t live close to physical libraries.  AND she thought up a plan which she put into action to get the first bookmobiles out into parts of the community that did not have access.  What a gem!

The pictures and documents are fascinating, and though Miss Titcomb is not a well-known figure today, learning about her is sure a treat.

Library on Wheels:  Mary Lemist Titcomb and America’s First Bookmobile by Sharlee Glenn


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Girl power — now with comics!

brazenI know.  I’m a total sucker for exactly this kind of book – cool stories about smart women, fun facts, charming and engaging illustrations.

You might say I’ve been glowing and gushing about a lot of books lately, and you’d be right.  This one is really, really good.  Really.  There are a few women I knew already and many I didn’t, but all of their stories are compelling and just plain fun to read.  I read the whole thing in two days, but I could easily see reading one biography a day, or just going back and rereading the book several times to look for little details I missed.

It might be especially wonderful to me–I do love me some women’s history–but the format is one that would appeal to all kinds of people from teens to old ladies with open minds.  It’s the way it’s told that really made it come alive.  And although some people might be uncomfortable with its discussion of controversial topics, others might find that to be a great selling point.  We all know there are nice books about super amazing women out there, but somehow they don’t all sing, do they?  Too much dense text on the page?  Boring pictures?  Not much zing?

I don’t know what it is, but this one has exactly the right combination of all the things I want to read, maybe more than once.

Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World by Pénélope Bagieu

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Girl power — rebels and visionaries

what would sheIt feels like there have been just loads of books about interesting women coming out in the last few years–rebel girls, mathematicians, Hidden Figures, and all–but it’s never enough when you come across a really good one.  I wasn’t expecting much from this one, but it delivered in content, art and discussion potential.  The biographies are short and highly readable, full of interesting tidbits, and very colorful, both in descriptive words and engaging art.  Sometimes the “what would X do?” questions seem a little forced, but it’s maybe a fun way to translate everyday situations into lifetime decision-making skills.  The message is always “never give up,” whether those words are used or not.  So persist some more, friends.  Get out there and lead the future.

What Would She Do? 25 true stories of trailblazing rebel women by Kay Woodward and many illustrators.

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Girl power with style

bloomHere’s what I love in a picture book biography:

  • People who persist and overcome obstacles to do amazing things
  • Imagination
  • Dreams
  • Beautiful art

This book has everything I like, along with a lot of shocking pink and some really fun fashion.  Elsa Schiaparelli said NO to the expected and used her imagination, persistence, and dreams to overcome in wild and interesting ways.  I might not be looking for a hat that looks like a shoe myself – although I’m sure I could find a way to rock one along with my favorite cardigan – but we can all appreciate who she was and what she achieved.

Bloom: A Story of Fashion Designer Elsa Schiaparelli by Kyo Maclear and Julie Morstad

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Girl power with sneakers

girl runningBobbi Gibb loved running, even though it wasn’t a “girl” thing to do.  So she ran.  And ran some more.  And one day, she decided to train for the Boston Marathon, even though they didn’t allow women to run, telling her that women were not “physiologically able to run twenty-six miles.”

Well, they were wrong, weren’t they?  Bobbi showed up and ran, and it turned out she beat two-thirds of the men on her way to the finish line.  So there.  You go, girl.

Girl Running: Bobbi Gibb and the Boston Marathon by Annette Bay Pimentel and Micha Archer

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Girl power with science and butterflies

girl who drewMaria Merian very definitely did not grow up in a time and place that valued her skills and abilities as a scientist and an artist.  She managed to find ways around the many expectations put upon her as a woman in the late 1600s, learning to draw and paint from her father and then using that as a way to further her interest in science, eventually leaving her husband and moving to a religious community and then Amsterdam and then traveling the world.

It’s not just that the illustrations are – not surprisingly – wonderful in this book.  Maria’s story is a well-written, dramatic tale, full of interesting details, explanatory sidebars, and a clear picture of what Maria’s daily life might have held.  You go, girl.

The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science by Joyce Sidman

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Of dreams and stars and unhelpful adults…

maeOne of Mae Jemison’s teachers suggested that she should maybe think about becoming a nurse instead of an astronaut.  Since the book’s about the first African-American female astronaut, we know how that advice worked out.  It’s an inspirational story, sweetly illustrated and simply told, and it’s a nice addition to any collection of biographies – of people who have overcome, of African-American leaders, of girls and women who resisted stereotypes, of dreamers.

I’m not picking on nurses or teachers here.  Nursing is a great profession for anyone.  So is teaching, and it’s actually the rare teacher now (I think) who would tell a little girl that she should maybe change her goals to fit with something more socially appropriate.  As an adult, it’s a good reminder of the impact we have in children’s lives and that they sometimes remember for a very long time when we show them that we don’t think they can be who they’re hoping to become.  It’s more helpful to support them, while letting them know what they actually have to accomplish to reach that goal.  As kids, we don’t really understand all the steps it takes to become an astronaut or a teacher or a nurse, but the right adult(s) can help a child nurture that dream into reality.

Mae Among the Stars by Roda Ahmed and Stasia Burrington


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Good guys and bad guys, survival and struggle

1saboteurI’ve loved historical fiction about World War II since I was first reading chapter books.  One of my all-time favorites as a kid was Snow Treasure, a story about kids who foil the Nazis by sneaking gold out of the country on their sleds.  Over the years, I’ve also read a lot of nonfiction on the topic, everything from Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts to Double Cross by Ben Macintyre and quite a lot in between.  I also have a fondness for World War II era mysteries – everything from the Foyle’s War TV series to the Bernie Gunther novels of Philip Kerr, Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series (which actually starts at the end of World War I) and the Maggie Hope mysteries by Susan Elia MacNeal.

So it’s no surprise that I loved The Saboteur: the Aristrocrat who Became France’s Most Daring Anti-Nazi Commando by Paul Kix.  French Resistance, Nazis, escaping certain death several times – I’m there!  The story of Robert de La Rochefoucauld reads like a spy novel instead of a series of documented life events, which has ensured that I’ve suggested it to all of my patrons who like reading about spies, war, or French history.  It’s also a wonderful book, because it addresses the gray areas in which people exist during war.  Not everyone is 100% good or bad; there are compromises and bad decisions in addition to all of the luck and occasional happy endings.

While I can see many adults and even some teens enjoying this book, you might also consider some fictional favorites of mine on similar topics.  Some are specifically for younger readers; others work for many ages.

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Dreams big and small

My friend Danette was the tightrope walker in the kindergarten circus – walking carefully across a rope taped to a table –and since that looked pretty fun, I thought for a while I’d be an acrobat or a dancer.  (I was not impressed with my role as a somersaulting bear.  She had a much better costume.) My total lack of coordination and inability to even do a cartwheel did not slow me down in dreaming of what I could be.

Later, I thought maybe I’d write songs and be a rock star in spite of – again – my lack of ability and talent in that area and the added problem of paralyzing stage fright.  Scientist.  Nope.  International businesswoman. Nope.  Social activist.  Still working on that one.

So what I like about these two picture books is the way dreams are a bit fluid for Scott Kelly and Frank Lloyd Wright.  (Possible pun intended.)

Fallingwater is illustrated by LeUyen Pham, one of my favorite illustrators these days, and it’s a beauty.  Frank Lloyd Wright was actually on the other side of his career – in his sixties and a legend though not a very active force in architecture when he was approached by Edgar Kaufman, who dreamed of building a home close to a waterfall on some property he owned.  And inspiration struck and FLW went on to design many more amazing buildings.

My Journey to the Stars follows Scott Kelly’s youth and lack of interest in school until he came across a book which sent him in the direction of being a test pilot, which gave him the motivation to study and achieve, which led him to join NASA with his twin brother, which gave him the opportunity to spend longer than any other American in the International Space Station.  When your dreams have a focus, you can succeed with hard work, he seems to be saying.

Maybe our dreams become real after being sparked by inspiration?  When you find it, you sense some purpose to what you do, and really amazing things might just happen.

Fallingwater by March Harshman, Anna Egan Smucker & LeUyen Pham

My Journey to the Stars by Scott Kelly and Andre Ceolin


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