Happy International Women’s Day. As usual, I have spent the last few months reading and reviewing a selection of books that I feel are all great choices to read today, either alone or with your children. I hope that something in here calls to you and that you have an inspiring and empowering day.
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The Future of Science is Female by Zara Stone
The Future of Science is Female: The Brilliant Minds Shaping the 21st Century by Zara Stone is a short book showcasing several women who are currently working in STEM along with their inventions and companies. The book shares how they are changing the world in a variety of different ways.
The bulk of the book is divided into five chapters, each of which covers a very different area by focusing on one female entrepreneur in that field but touching upon the work of many others. In chapter one we meet Pree Walia, creator of Nailbot and founder of Preemadonna, chapter two covers women working in future food technology such as creating fish replacements grown from algae, while in chapter three robots take center stage thanks to women like Vivian Chu who created Moxi, a robot nurse currently assisting in the corridors of Texan hospitals.
Chapters four and five were some of the ones that interested me the most. Chapter four’s subject is climate change where women like Etosha Cave are inventing machines that can suck CO2 out of the atmosphere and convert it into useful plastics and using data to map changes in air quality because without data, how can we be sure what’s working? Finally, chapter five looks at how new technology can help with prison reform, reducing recidivism rates, and addressing the ways in which people of color are disproportionately incarcerated compared to their white counterparts. This is an area I’ve never seen tackled in one of these books before, but it’s a hugely important one and I was fascinated to see how technology is already being applied to take some first steps toward improvement.
At less than 150 pages, this isn’t the most thorough and in-depth of books yet it packs a huge amount of information into its minimal pages, and it inspired me to start following some of these amazing women on social media and learn more about the work they are doing. If we are going to tackle climate change, racial injustice, gender inequality, and all the other ways that our society is failing, then we need to start making big changes and women are some of those folks leading the way.
She Persisted Series
My next choice is an entire series, rather than a single book. Back in 2017, Chelsea Clinton wrote a picture book called She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World. That concept first inspired two more picture books and has now been expanded into a series of chapter books, with one for each of the 13 women featured in the original picture book. While Clinton has lent her name to the overall series, she is not the author of these chapter books. Instead, 13 female authors have each written one of the books and very importantly, Black female authors have been brought aboard the project to write the books about Black figures.
I read three of the first books from the series to be released: Harriett Tubman, Claudette Colvin, and Sally Ride. While I was familiar with Tubman and her involvement with the Underground Railroad, I knew little about her life and found this book to be a fantastic primer that is perfect for upper elementary/lower middle grade readers. While a book aimed at this age range naturally skirts around most of the more horrifying elements of a story rooted in slavery, it also doesn’t gloss over them and makes it clear how awful life was for Tubman and other enslaved people.
Claudette Colvin was a name I was far less familiar with, having only ever heard the name in passing. Again, I found this book to be an excellent primer that gave me a thorough grounding in Colvin’s life story and her importance to the US civil rights movement, including her connections to names I was more familiar with like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. The book made me immediately want to go out and learn more about Colvin and discover why her name isn’t nearly as well known as some of her contemporaries.
Finally, I read the Sally Ride book. Ride is another figure with whom I was familiar but I knew very little about her life outside of NASA. This book explored her childhood and the years she spent training to play tennis as well as her NASA career which gave me a more detailed understanding of her as a whole person. I was also pleased to see that the book didn’t shy away from acknowledging her long-term same-sex partner later in her life.
At the end of each book is a short section titled “How You Can Persist”. These sections list practical ideas for helping you to honor the subject of that book. In Tubman’s book, the ideas including helping a lost person find their way, making a wish on the North Star, and listening to a traditional spiritual from her era, and thinking about how it inspires you. Colvin’s book suggests learning about your rights, reading the US Constitution, and researching others working to bring about positive changes in the world, while Ride’s suggestions include reading one of her books, stargazing to spot her favorite constellation, and helping take care of the planet. These sections are followed by a list of references including books and websites that will be ideal for those wanting to learn more or for kids studying for school projects.
This is an excellent series so far and one I know I’ll be continuing to read throughout the year as further books are released. I also hope we will eventually see future volumes based on Clinton’s other She Persisted picture books.
Bookish Broads by Lauren Marino
Moving back to individual books, and my next pick is Bookish Broads by Lauren Marino. This book looks at the history of women writers from Murasaki Shikibu who lived around 1000 years ago and is considered to be the world’s first novelist, right until the present day.
The book switches between two different types of chapters, short individual biographies, and themed chapters that delve into a specific subject. Over 40 women receive individual biographies that, while short, also include an incredible amount of depth and detail. The biographies are organized in roughly chronological order from past to present and included a wide range of authors, many of which I was familiar with – Mary Shelley, Agatha Christie, Octavia Butler – and many more that I wasn’t – Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Kate Chopin, and Carson McCullers. The biographies also didn’t shy away from scandal and controversy, whether that was from times long past or issues still ongoing.
The themed chapters were fewer but also some of the most interesting sections. They covered topics such as the women of Shakespeare’s time who may have influenced (or even written) some of his work, the use of pseudonyms among female writers, a look at children’s authors, and a collection of illustrations showing the rooms where many famous names created their masterpieces.
Bookish Broads made me want to dive into the work of many of these authors, whether re-reading an old favorite or finally picking up a classic that’s been sitting on my TBR for far too long (looking at you Anne of Green Gables). While not entirely comprehensive – it couldn’t be unless it was the size of an actual library – Bookish Broads is a fantastic reminder of how many amazing female authors there are out there waiting to be discovered, and also reminds us how late in life many of them began their writing careers, meaning its never too late to join their numbers.
Secrets of the Sea: The Story of Jeanne Power, Revolutionary Marine Scientist by Evan Griffith, Illustrated by Joanie Stone
The next book I want to share is one of two picture books in this selection. Secrets of the Sea: The Story of Jeanne Power, Revolutionary Marine Scientist by Evan Griffith is a short biography of Jeanne Power, a 19th-century scientist whose name had passed me by entirely until now.
Jeanne Power grew up in France and became a highly-regarded seamstress until she married and moved to the island of Sicily, near Italy. In Sicily, she became fascinated with the local wildlife and began taking meticulous notes, deciding quickly that she wanted to become a naturalist. She was especially fascinated by marine wildlife and soon set about creating her own equipment to allow her to study live specimens.
After some time spent studying the paper nautilus – a species of octopus – Jeanne solved a mystery that other scientists had been arguing over for years. She wrote papers and presented her findings, eventually being welcomed into several scientific academies. She experienced many setbacks in her life, especially for being a female scientist. Much of her work was lost in a shipwreck forcing her to spend time repeating it, male scientists dismissed her work and even tried to pass it off as their own, but she fought back and insisted upon her rightful recognition, allowing her name to be recorded in the history books.
This was a fascinating and beautifully illustrated book that introduced me to a new name that I know I want to learn more about. There is a lot of depth here and plenty of opportunities for further discussions about science, marine life, and women’s place in scientific history and it concludes with some more details about Jeanne’s life, the paper nautilus, and marine conservation, along with a helpful bibliography that will be useful for anyone wanting to begin their own research, just like Jeanne!
Secrets of the Sea made me wonder how many more female scientists there have been who have contributed valuable knowledge to the world but whose names I have not yet come to know? It is a fantastic book that I would thoroughly recommend to anyone interested in women’s history, marine biology, and science in general.
Your Mama by NoNieqa Ramos, Illustrated by Jacqueline Aleantara
My second picture book for this collection is one that will be ideal for Mother’s Day. Your Mama by NoNieqa Ramos is a positive play on the old “Yo Mama” jokes, illustrated in an unusual, highly modern style that combines traditional tattoo-style artwork with illustrations that look as if they have come straight from a celebrity gossip magazine featuring a Black mother and daughter with an obviously strong relationship.
Throughout the book, the same Your Mama… refrain repeats. Your Mama so sweet, Your Mama so strong, Your Mama a brainiac… We see the mother and daughter visiting the library, sewing costumes, taking road trips, attending protests, and baking together. What I really loved is that the mother in the story is celebrated for both her traditionally motherly/feminine attributes and activities (her amazing clothes and hair, her baking, and her sewing skills) and also her typically masculine virtues too (her physical strength, solving math problems, and being funny). There’s a great mix of both, showing that a mother can do anything.
Another interesting element to Your Mama is the way it uses language in creative ways. The book occasionally mixes English and Spanish together, introducing Spanish terminology within English sentences so the new words are understandable in context, even for readers unfamiliar with the language. There’s also a lot of modern slang in here. The mom in this book slays vacays, her brain is “mo’ betta than any app” and sometimes, she’s a little cray cray too – what mother isn’t? The result is a book that feels modern and casual rather than an overly lyrical and twee story about motherly love.
I really loved this book. It’s great to see a mom in a picture book who dresses like the mothers I know, skinny jeans, cool boots, and the occasional pair of killer heels – unlike the traditional depictions of floral dresses and nice cardigans. The mother here is someone I felt that modern mothers could relate to, and that’s surprisingly rare, making it a book that will be perfect for today and Mother’s Day too.
The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna
I’m not generally a big fantasy fan so fantasy novels have to really stand out to catch my attention, and that’s exactly what The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna did, both by its stunning cover and attention-grabbing concept.
Deka has grown up in the nation of Otera where all girls undergo the Ritual of Purity at the age of 16. Those who bleed red are pure and become women, donning the masks they will wear in public for the rest of their lives, and becoming eligible for marriage. Those rare girls who bleed gold, the spawn of hidden demons, are sentenced to the Death Mandate.
However, minutes before her ritual, Deka’s village is attacked by Deathshrieks – monsters that have been attacking all across the country. She is stunned to learn that not only does she bleed gold, she is also able to command the monsters. Imprisoned by the village elders and abandoned by her father and friends, Deka is visited by a mysterious woman who offers her a choice: stay in the village and continue being tortured by the elders, or come with her and join an army of “impure” girls being trained to take on the Deathshrieks. Deka journeys to the capital where she begins training with dozens of other cursed girls like her, but the more she learns, the less those things add up and Deka begins to suspect that everything she has ever been taught about her role in society, her cursed blood, and her future, is wrong.
This was a powerful story that wove a wonderfully feminist message into a well-constructed fantasy tale set in a world that, while very different from our own, was also instantly familiar. The women of Otera have been taught for generations that they exist only to be married off and raise a family while the men control everything around them, it’s a deeply patriarchal society with countless rules – often disguised as religious guidance – there to enforce it. Watching Deka unlearn this conditioning and lean into her own power was intoxicating and made me tear through this book in a matter of hours. I also deeply appreciated the pagan message it contained that echoed how the church frequently worked to erase traditional narratives in favor of those that placed and kept only men in power.
There were also a few negatives here. The romance subplot felt entirely unnecessary and contrived while I also struggled with how easily the main characters accepted the new truths they discovered throughout the story. These new truths completely upended everything they had grown up believing but the girls quickly replaced everything that, often only pages before, they were desperate to return to. However, these things did little to damage an otherwise brilliant story and I’m already looking forward to seeing how the series continues in future books.
Chainmail Bikini Anthology
I have been a gamer as far back as I can remember when my dad would code shape matching games onto our old Atari in the late 80s. While the technology I’m using to play has certainly moved on, my connection to gaming has remained and only grown stronger through the years which is why I picked up Chainmail Bikini.
Chainmail Bikini is an anthology of comics written by female and nonbinary gamers – including many queer and trans voices – there are 40 stories in here covering all sorts of games from video games to LARP, D&D, and MTG. Every story draws from personal experience but those experiences are as different as the people who lived them, however, there are a few common themes. Escaping from difficult experiences, finding connections with like-minded others, and simply getting to exist in a world where you have power, opportunity, and privilege were concepts I saw brought to the surface again and again, and all were things I could relate to. In my games, I am not held back by my health, my financial situation, my position in society, or anything else, and that is freeing in an almost unimaginable way.
Sadly, despite all this, I ended up only rating this anthology a two out of five. Many of the stories felt rushed and I lost count of the times I turned the page expecting one to carry on, only to realize it had already ended. It felt as if maybe half the contributors had sent in unfinished work. While the majority of the stories here were good, only a small handful from the 40 really stood out in a memorable way, the majority of the others I had forgotten within minutes – often because their lack of an obvious ending left them somewhat adrift.
I loved the concept behind this anthology and would love to see a second volume that perhaps allowed for longer, less hurried storytelling. Even with my low rating, I would still recommend you give Chainmail Bikini a try as hearing from female, non-binary, queer, and trans voices in a field that is still so heavily cis male is refreshing and important.
Want more reading suggestions? Check out the IWD reading lists from 2018, 2019, and 2020, and check out GeekMom EGM’s Make/Play/Watch/Read post for more ways to celebrate International Women’s Day this year.
GeekMom received copies of all books included here for review purposes.