8 Kids Books to Celebrate Women’s History Month

Womens_History_MonthMany girls in tech face an ongoing gender bias. One result is that girls interested in technology and science-related fields, such as programming and engineering, have far fewer female peers as they get older.

“Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics,” a study published by the American Association of University Women in 2010, notes that only 20% of bachelor’s degrees in physics, engineering and computer science are earned by women. The number of women pursuing these fields decreases even more at higher levels of education and in employment.

National and international organizations have formed to respond to this disparity and to counter the social, environmental and educational factors that contribute to it, including Girls in Tech, Girls Who Code, and IGNITE (Inspiring Girls Now in Technology Evolution). There are also many community-based programs.

And, of course, there are books. The following are 8 books about women to highlight during Women’s History Month in March, or any time of the year. The list includes a contemporary example of a girl who breaks stereotypes and 7 more examples of women who have challenged the status quo throughout history.

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1. The Great Green Heist

SMB_greenheist“Megan is cool and all, but she has no business being president of the tech club. They only elected her because she’s pretty.”

“She’s actually really smart.”

“She’s a cheerleader.”

One of the many things I appreciate about that conversation in Varian Johnson’s delightful novel The Great Greene Heist is that, in a few lines, it challenges and refutes two common stereotypes about girls and technology.

The speaker criticizing Megan is the story’s antagonist, an eighth grader named Keith Sinclair who is out to steal the election for student council president (with the help of the principal). Keith can’t believe a cheerleader might get elected tech club president.

Embedded in his disdain are two wrong but not uncommon assumptions: girls aren’t really interested in technology, and they aren’t very good at it.

Jackson Greene, the novel’s protagonist, disagrees. When Jackson puts together a group to run a con to ensure the student council election isn’t rigged, he leaves out Megan, whose tech skills are legendary, but only because of something personal that happened between them months before. Eventually, they move beyond their personal problems, and Megan becomes part of the team. The sixth graders she works with are in awe of her. Sure, she’s pretty. More important, she’s also a technology whiz. And she speaks Klingon.

Challenging this gender stereotype is a welcome dimension of this entertaining novel for upper elementary and early middle school readers, which takes elements of a classic heist story and transfers them to a middle school setting. (The author was inspired by the movie Oceans Eleven).

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2. Marvelous Mattie

MarvelousMattieMarvelous Mattie by Emily Arnold McCully is a picture-book account of 19th-century inventor Margaret E. Knight, who designed the flat-bottomed paper grocery bag, among many other things. Like many other pioneering women, Margaret battled others’ disbelief that she could have thought up her inventions on her own.

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3. Look Up!

LookupHenrietta Leavitt also fought gender stereotypes. She was fascinated by the stars as a child and studied astronomy at college.

In his picture book biography, Robert Burleigh chronicles Henrietta’s work at an observatory around the turn of the 20th century.

She was rarely allowed to use the telescope in her job. Instead, Henrietta and other women recorded, measured and calculated the results of what the men had observed. They were not expected to think. But Henrietta did.

She began noticing and recording patterns in the blinking of stars, and she eventually realized what they meant: she’d figured out the way to determine a star’s true brightness, which was essential for measuring its distance from Earth.

“Yes, I am an astronomer!” Henrietta’s curiosity and intelligence shone as brightly as the stars she measured.

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4. Dare the Wind

darethewindThe stars were important to Ellen Prentiss, too. Dare the Wind is Tracey Fern’s lively account of Ellen’s role in a record-setting sailing adventure, beginning with learning to sail on her father’s schooner as a child.

“He taught Ellen how to hoist a sail and splice a rope. He taught her how to tack against the wind and turn the wheel.”

He also taught her to use a sextant to navigate by the stars. When Ellen grew up, she married a fellow lover of the sea. And when her husband became captain of a ship, Ellen was his navigator.

As they raced to set a new world record for a trip from New York to San Francisco, Ellen pushed the ship on a swift course, setting a record and proving that a woman could navigate the seas.

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5. Little Melba and Her Big Trombone

LITTLE_MELBAOne thing that most women pioneers in nontraditional fields seem to have in common is that they followed their passions and interests from childhood into adulthood — regardless of their field of endeavor.

“From as far back as her memory would go, Melba loved the sounds of music. Blues, jazz, and gospel rhythms danced in her head.”

Katheryn Russell-Brown introduces young readers to self-taught jazz trombonist and composer Melba Liston in Little Melba and Her Big Trombone.

Exceptional and unafraid to be herself, despite the sexism and racism she faced, Melba more than held her own among the greats of jazz.

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6. In Mary’s Garden

MarysGardenMary Nohl “was a little girl with big ideas. While the other girls took cooking classes, Mary tried woodworking … Mary was happiest when her hands were busy making, building, creating things.”

In their picture book In Mary’s Garden, Tina and Carson Kügler tell how Mary became an artist and teacher. Her most famous creations, in the yard of her house along the shores of Lake Michigan in Milwaukee, WI, spoke to her childhood passions.

Using found objects she gathered on the beach, wood and cement, pipes, and chicken wire, she created a menagerie of otherworldly creatures that “leapt and crawled and danced” from her imagination into three dimensions.

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7. Drum Dream Girl

DrumDreamGirlMillo Castro Zaldarriaga, the subject of Margarita Engle’s Drum Dream Girl, was born in Cuba in the 1920s. She grew up attuned to the rhythms of the world, both around her and inside her. She dreamed of drumming, but at that time only boys and men learned how to play the drums.

She dared to drum anyway, but her father said no when her musical sisters asked her to join their band. Only boys should play drums, he said. But Millo couldn’t silence the beat.

Her father found a teacher who listened to Millo, taught her and gave her a chance to change the way people thought about girls and drumming. Millo went on to become a world-famous drummer, changing hearts and minds.

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8. Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors?

SMB_WomenDoctorsOf course, not all successful women follow their childhood passions. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor in the United States, did not grow up wanting to study medicine. In fact, as a child, she hated the sight of blood.

Tanya Lee Stone, in Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors?, describes Elizabeth Blackwell’s efforts to study medicine and establish a practice after an older female friend encouraged her. When Elizabeth finally found a medical school willing to accept her, her fellow male students thought of her as a joke.

She proved that she was no laughing matter, graduating at the top of her class. She faced a lot of resistance from patients, too, but she eventually went on to do groundbreaking work in treating women and establishing opportunities for women to become doctors.

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Comparing Elizabeth Blackwell’s struggles then to the great number of female doctors today is heartening. Here’s to providing girls not just equal opportunities across every field but also support from the youngest age to follow their dreams. And here’s to more books like The Great Greene Heist that show contemporary girls and young women as able contributors to the world of science, technology and related fields.

Author

Megan Schliesman

Megan Schliesman

Megan Schliesman is a librarian at the Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC), part of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she manages Intellectual Freedom Information Services. She also writes the “So Many Books” column for LibrarySparks magazine (librarysparks.com) and serves on the American Library Association (ALA)/Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) Board of Directors. Megan was also the recipient of the 2014 Wisconsin Library Association (WLA)/Wisconsin Educational Media and Technology Association (WEMTA) Intellectual Freedom Award, recognizing Megan's tireless crusade for intellectual freedom in the state.