Women's history: a write-in campaign

BOOKS FOR KIDS

March 19, 1993|By Molly Dunham Glassman | Molly Dunham Glassman,Staff Writer

Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. said of women: "They have made up at least half the human race, but you could never tell that by looking at the books historians write."

Unscientific research at any local library bears him out. A quick scan of juvenile and young adult books in the biography section finds that stories starring men outnumber those about women by at least 20-to-1.

The ratio would be far worse if not for an influx of new books about the contributions of African-American women. Now that the emphasis on Black History Month is starting to yield dividends, maybe publishers will start investing in Women's History Month as well.

Viking is leading the way. Its fine "Women of Our Time" series is geared to ages 7-11, and the slim biographies are engaging and relatively affordable ($10.95 hardback, $4.50 as Puffin paperbacks).

Subjects range from Mother Teresa to Grandma Moses, from Mary McLeod Bethune to Margaret Mead to Golda Meir. There are athletes (Babe Didrikson, Martina Navratilova) and entertainers (Diana Ross, Dolly Parton, Carol Burnett, Beverly Sills -- how's that for range?). Two of my favorites are "Rachel Carson: Pioneer of Ecology" and "Laura Ingalls Wilder: Growing Up in the Little House."

Although written and illustrated by different authors and artists, the biographies in the series are uniform. Most open with the subject's childhood, often focusing on an anecdote that hints at what is to come.

In "Amelia Earhart: Courage in the Sky," Amelia is 7 when she and her 5-year-old sister hammer boards together to build a roller coaster track that stretches 8 feet from the roof of a toolshed to the ground. Amelia climbs into a wooden packing crate, hurtles down the incline and crashes at the bottom, telling her sister, "It's just like flying!"

The series manages to make history accessible to an often-ignored age group without "talking down" to readers -- a tough trick to pull off.

* Another book geared to elementary school audiences is "Good Queen Bess," by Diane Stanley and Peter Vennema, illustrated by Ms. Stanley (Macmillan, $14.95). This wife-and-husband team won acclaim for "Shaka, King of the Zulus" in 1988, and they have another winner in "Good Queen Bess," the story of Elizabeth I of England.

It will be an eye-opener for kids who know Britain's royal family only through headlines in supermarket tabloids. Elizabeth II could have saved herself plenty of trouble by following the lead of her namesake and staying single and childless.

"Good Queen Bess" is an unabashedly flattering account of the popular monarch. It even puts a positive spin on the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, emphasizing how much Elizabeth dreaded signing the death warrant.

Elizabeth was indeed a great monarch, as monarchs go. But it wouldn't hurt to explain that she could be manipulative and vain (taking after her father, Henry VIII) as well as clever and fair.

Ms. Stanley's illustrations are in gouache -- watercolor with white added to give it an even, flat color -- and they draw the reader into every page with their luminous detail, glowing like the pearls embroidered into puckers on the queen's bodice.

* A book for even younger readers serves as an introduction to an influential woman of another sort: "Emily" by Michael Bedard, illustrated by Barbara Cooney (Doubleday, $16, ages 5-8).

Emily Dickinson isn't mentioned until the afterword, and kids don't have to know who she was or what she wrote to be swept up by this picture book about a mysterious woman in white.

The narrator is a little girl who lives in Amherst, Mass., across the road from the yellow house where the woman called the Myth lives. "She hasn't left her house in nearly twenty years," the narrator says. "If strangers come to call, she runs and hides herself away. Some people say she's crazy. But to me she's Emily . . ."

The little girl is scared and curious when her mother is invited to play the piano at Emily's house. She is allowed to go with her mother, and while her mother is playing in the parlor of the yellow house, the little girl sneaks up the stairs to find the ghostly woman in white.

At first spooky, the recluse turns out to be warm and giving. In the afterword, Mr. Bedard tells how Emily Dickinson befriended neighborhood children, often lowering a basket of gingerbread to them on a string from her second-floor window.

Ms. Cooney's flat illustrations are a perfect match. Her work includes "Roxaboxen," "Miss Rumphius" and two Caldecott Medal winners, "Ox-Cart Man" and "Chanticleer and the Fox."

*

Author and illustrator Steven Kellogg, whose books include "Island of the Skog," "Pinkerton," "Jimmy's Boa," "Pecos Bill" and "Mike Fink" will appear next Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium. Free tickets are available at Greetings & Readings, at Loch Raven and Taylor avenues, and at Baltimore County and Carroll County libraries. Tickets are going fast, so call your local branch for availability.

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