Reading Time: 8 minutes
Following up from last week’s books for Women’s History Month, here are several more stories about women. As always, I find myself with more books to read than I can finish, but here are the ones I’ve gotten to so far!
Her Fearless Run: Kathrine Switzer’s Historic Boston Marathon by Kim Chaffee, illustrated by Ellen Rooney
Kathrine Switzer always loved running, even at a time when many people thought girls were too weak or fragile for sports. She later joined men’s running teams in college because there wasn’t a women’s running team. When she learned about the Boston Marathon, she knew she had to try it. Her application to the 1967 Boston Marathon was accepted and she received a number—the first time a woman ran the Boston Marathon with a number—because officials had just assumed that “K.V. Switzer” was a man. They tried to stop her once they saw her running, but she completed the marathon, and went on to run over thirty-five marathons.
This book shares the story of Switzer’s love of running, up to her triumphant moment finishing her first marathon; you have to read the Author’s Note to find out some more details, like the fact that she was then expelled from the Amateur Athletic Union, or that she later organized the first Avon International Women’s Marathon. Switzer’s first marathon run was just a year after Bobbi Gibb snuck into the race (without a number), a story that was told in Girl Running (see this Stack Overflow).
Gloria Steinem is a feminist icon, which also means she’s been a controversial figure. This book takes a look at her life starting from her early childhood up until the present day. It’s interesting to see the various places and ways that she learned about the world, the challenges she faced, and that paths that she took throughout her life. She fought for women’s rights, but was also involved in the civil rights movement, particularly in making sure that women of color were also heard. Whether you agree with all of her views or not, it’s a thought-provoking look at a woman who challenged the status quo.
This book celebrated Beatrix Potter’s 150th birthday … though I’m two years late myself. Thirty-two artists contributed their own memories and illustrations to this book, which also includes some of Potter’s stories and illustrations throughout the book. While this, I suppose isn’t technically history, I included it because of the way that Potter clearly influenced so many children’s book illustrators with her work.
Have You Heard About Lady Bird? Poems About Our First Ladies by Marilyn Singer, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter
If you enjoyed the book about First Ladies in last week’s Stack Overflow, here’s another one: in verse! Organized in chronological order by presidents, each First Lady from Martha Washington to Melania Trump gets a poem to herself (some short, some longer) that highlights what she was known for. The poems have various types of meter and rhyme, so you don’t get stuck in iambic pentameter for 45 poems, which is nice—though it also means I stumbled a little the first time through. The illustrations are well done, though it does seem like they start off a little more cartoony and end up more realistic—probably based on the availability of reference photos, I would guess. The back of the book includes brief biographies of each woman, plus a quotation (usually from the First Lady herself, but occasionally from others). This book is a follow-up to Rutherford B., Who Was He?, a collection of poems about the presidents.
Speaking of First Ladies, this book is an updated version of Eleanor Roosevelt’s 1932 book that explains in a kid-friendly way how the government works. Despite the title, the book doesn’t actually begin with voting. Instead, it starts in what might seem to be an unusual place: firefighters. Then there are police, then garbage collectors, and then the mayor (and city councils), who are responsible for managing things like fire departments and police departments. After that, it explains how governments are organized—city, county, state, and national—and then how people come to be in the various positions, from senators and representatives to judges to secretaries to the president. Then, finally, after you’ve seen how these pieces fit together, there’s a message about voting.
Eleanor Roosevelt felt it was important for kids to understand how the government works, so that when they became voting adults, they would have both a sense of responsibility and the knowledge to make wise decisions. This book (which has been modernized and updated by Michelle Markel) is a great place to start, and Grace Lin’s illustrations are a nice addition as well.
Becoming Madeleine is a biography of Madeleine L’Engle, written by her granddaughters. It’s written at a middle grade level, and begins with a little bit about L’Engle’s parents and marriage, up through the publication of A Wrinkle in Time and its reception. The book includes photographs and reproductions of correspondence and journal entries, so that you get to hear L’Engle tell parts of the story in her own voice. It’s clear that Voiklis and Roy really loved their grandmother, but they’re also not afraid to write about some of her faults, either.
I was pleased to see a photo of L’Engle with Touché, the dog who “wrote” the picture book The Other Dog (mentioned in last week’s column); there’s a brief story about Touché but then not much more, alas. For kids (or adults) who are fans of A Wrinkle in Time, this book is a window into the circumstances that made L’Engle who she was.
I, uh, meant to read this when it was first published in 2015, which also happened to be Ada Lovelace’s 200th birthday … and clearly I missed it by several years. Well, I’ve finally gotten around to reading it and every bit of it is wonderful, from the story behind the comic to the comic itself to the curated selection of primary sources in the appendix.
Ada Lovelace is often called the first computer programmer, because she wrote programs for Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. The catch is that this Analytical Engine was never actually constructed: Ada Lovelace died at age 36, and Charles Babbage never stopped tinkering with his design. Sydney Padua was encouraged by a friend to draw a webcomic about Ada Lovelace, became fascinated with their story, and felt that Lovelace and Babbage deserved a second life. So she created a “pocket universe” in which Lovelace survived, Babbage completed his vast steam-powered computer, and the two of them were charged by the Queen to fight crime … though their definitions of “crime” may be a bit stretched at times.
The book is thoroughly—I might even say obsessively—researched; even though the plot is fiction, a lot of the dialogue is taken from letters and books. Lovelace and Babbage encounter many famous contemporaries (many of whom interacted with Babbage in real life), and go on a lot of curious adventures. The comic strip includes entertaining and illuminating footnotes, which in turn have endnotes … which occasionally have footnotes of their own! There are also a few instances where the characters interact with the footnotes.
Padua even has an extensive explanation of the Analytical Engine: when she went looking for a visual explanation of how it worked, she was surprised to find that nobody had ever made a visualization of the whole thing, so she drew it herself. The subsequent breakdown of how the machine would have worked (if Babbage had ever gotten around to building it) is really fascinating.
The book touches on a lot of different subjects pertaining to math and computing: finances, Boolean logic, four-dimensional geometry, and even automated spell-checking. But it also paints a vivid picture of both of its main characters, who both led incredible, noteworthy lives. I had a blast reading this book, and highly recommend it (four years late). My only hesitation about including it in this column is that most of the source material is about Babbage rather than Lovelace, for several reasons (among them, that Lovelace was a woman and that she died young).
McNeil Island in Puget Sound was home to a prison for roughly 130 years, and when it closed in 2011 it was the last prison in the United States that was only accessible by water or air. Colleen Frakes and her family lived on the island for about a decade, and this comic book is a memoir of her time there. The book jumps back and forth between her time living on the island and the present, when she returned to the island with her family for the closing ceremonies.
It’s an interesting story, perhaps as much because living on an island presented certain difficulties as because there was a prison there. There were a few prison escapes in their time there, but it’s only a small part of the story. Taking the ferry to the mainland for school, the difficulties of ordering pizza, and then the odd feeling (when the island closed) of seeing homes and community centers that were simply abandoned, some left unlocked.
Marjane Satrapi is well-known for her 2-part graphic autobiography Persepolis, which described her childhood growing up in Iran. It’s an unflinching look at life during the Islamic Revolution, particularly the way that it affected women and girls. Embroideries also portrays the lives of Iranian women, but this time with a focus on a different topic: their sex lives. Satrapi sets the scene with her grandmother, mother, and various aunts and neighbors and friends, having an afternoon drinking tea and talking. The women share stories about themselves and others: how the grandmother helped a friend fake her virginity on her wedding night (with some absurd results), comparing notes about European men, affairs and failed marriages, and more. This book, unlike Persepolis, is intended for adult readers, and offers a different sort of glimpse into life in Iran. Some stories will seem familiar and almost universal, like a debate between marrying for love or marrying for convenience; others feel specific to these women in this place at this time. At any rate, it’s entertaining and illuminating.
My Current Stack
I wish I had even more time, but in my stack I’ve got a few other biographies of authors, a graphic novel about Zora Neal Hurston, and a middle grade book about how American women won the right to vote. Maybe next week! In the meantime, here’s what else I’ve been reading this week.
I picked up the first volume of Man-Eaters by Chelsea Cain et al. at the store; I’d heard some good things about it (including from GeekMom writer K. Tilden Frost, in case you don’t mind some spoilers), but I hadn’t read it before. The brief synopsis is that toxoplasmosis has mutated, causing some girls to turn into giant, vicious cats when they menstruate. The government responded by spiking water with estrogen to prevent menstruation, and there’s also a specialized Strategic Cat Apprehension Team (SCAT) that responds to big cat incidents. Volume 1 collects the first four issues, so it’s still sort of building out the world and setting up the story, but there are some interesting (though not always surprising) reveals along the way. There’s also a lot of material from Estro Corp, because of course somebody’s making a lot of money from this crisis—there are ads for all of Estro Corp’s products (usually for men and boys, who need to be protected from those scary, unpredictable girls), and the fourth issue is actually a copy of their magazine Cat Fight rather than the continuation of the comic book story. It’s scathing, and really funny.
I also read Vei (Book 1) by Sara B. Elfgren and Karl Johnsson, a reimagining of Norse mythology that features the familiar Norse gods, but as antagonists to the people of Jotunheim, who worship the giant Jotuns. It’s gorgeously illustrated and has that strange familiar-unfamiliar feeling to it, where you recognize bits and pieces but they’re arranged in a different way. More on this one in the future.
And currently I’m reading Crowded by Christopher Sebela et al., another comic book I picked up at the store on a whim. It’s set in the future, with a gig economy that has extended beyond ride-sharing and home-sharing to pretty much all aspects of life. Crowdfunding has also gotten darker: a site called Reapr allows people to contribute to a hit-job campaign, and Charlotte Ellison has just found herself the target of one. She hires a protector (from the Dfend app, of course), but she’s not very good at following directions. I haven’t finished it yet, but I’m enjoying the skewering of social media and the internet economy.
Disclosure: Except where noted otherwise, I received review copies of the books in this column.
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