Game Changers: Women Making History | Focus On

A compilation of books about women who made a difference in their chosen fields and in the world in general. The highlighted individuals include standard-bearers and lesser-known figures, all of whom showed exemplary strength, determination, and all willingness to make a stand.
Above image: Papercut artwork by Miriam Klein Stahl, from Rad American Women A-Z, published by City Lights Books (Mar. 2015).

Papercut artwork by Miriam Klein Stahl, from Rad American Women A-Z, published by City Lights Books (Mar. 2015).

Listen to Louisa May Alcott in Little Women: “I’m not afraid of storms for I’m learning how to sail my ship.” Or consider the words of Amelia Earhart: “Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace.” And finally, it was Rosa Parks who said, “I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.” These three women led by their exemplary strength, determination, and willingness to make a stand. Author, aviatrix, and activist, they broke new ground for all who follow them. On the heels of the second-wave feminist movement, in the 1980s, March was designated as Women’s History Month. This year the National Women’s History Project has chosen “Weaving the Stories of Women’s Lives” as its theme. The titles listed here are a tapestry that cannot highlight all the women who’ve opened doors through the centuries. However, they do offer today’s students a mix of emblematic standard-bearers and lesser-known figures, past and present. From literature to sports, they represent efforts to address gender and racial inequality, secure basic civil rights, and protect freedom of expression. With a concentration on biographies published in the last four years, most are nonfiction. Many are picture books suitable for pre-K to grade 8 with potential use as models for informal reports in upper elementary and middle school.


MARTIN, Jacqueline Briggs. Alice Waters and the Trip to Delicious. illus. by Hayelin Choi. Readers to Eaters. 2014. Tr $18.95. ISBN 9780983661566. Gr 2-4–Waters’s food-focused life started when she won a contest wearing an asparagus crown. As owner of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, she’s a premier chef and founder of the Edible Schoolyard Project, a national movement to teach children about growing and preparing seasonal foods. Colorful, lively images follow an informative biography. Concludes with the chef’s simple culinary suggestions. Audio version available from Live Oak Media. SCHROEDER, Alan. Baby Flo: Florence Mills Lights up the Stage. illus. by Cornelius Van Wright & Ying-Hwa Hu. Lee & Low. 2012. Tr $18.95. ISBN 9781600604102. Gr 1-4–Born into poverty in 1896, Florence Mills was a singing/dancing prodigy on vaudeville stages, and her talents led to international performances. While Mills grew to be a Harlem Renaissance star, Schroeder concentrates on her childhood competitions. Expressive watercolor and pencil illustrations add depth. A rare glimpse into a niche not often seen. WOELFLE, Gretchen. Write On, Mercy!: The Secret Life of Mercy Otis Warren. illus. by Alexandra Wallner. Boyds Mills/Calkins Creek. 2012. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9781590788226. Gr 3-6–Growing up in colonial Massachusetts, Mercy was fortunate to receive an education and encouragement to write. Later identified, she anonymously penned Revolution-era poems, political plays, and books. Each of the demure gouache illustrated spreads includes period quotes. An instructive view of women’s role in American literature as well as the American Revolution.


HARNESS, Cheryl. Mary Walker Wears the Pants: The True Story of the Doctor, Reformer, and Civil War Hero. illus. by Carlo Molinari. Albert Whitman. 2013. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780807549902. Gr 1-4–Hard for today’s jean-clad kids to believe, but Mary Walker was considered odd when she wore pants in the mid-1800s. She was also a female doctor caring for wounded Civil War soldiers. Awarded the Medal of Honor, Walker was a staunch civil rights advocate. Deeply hued, detailed illustrations match the period in tone and style. HOPKINSON, Deborah. Annie and Helen. illus. by Raul Colón. Random. 2012. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780375857065; lib. ed. $20.99. ISBN 9780375957062; ebk. $10.99. ISBN 9780449818015. Gr 2-5–In 1887, a brand-new teacher faced challenges when she met her deaf and blind student. Determined ingenuity broke through when, at the water pump, Annie finger-spelled w-a-t-e-r in the girl’s hand. Focused on Helen’s early education, the title includes snippets of Annie’s letters and Helen’s first writings. Muted illustrations enhance the careful text. MCCULLY, Emily Arnold. Ida M. Tarbell: The Woman Who Challenged Big Business—and Won! Clarion. 2014. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780547290928; ebk. $18.99. ISBN 9780544151604. Gr 7 Up–McCully offers an in-depth survey, complete with photos, of the life and times of an important pioneering investigative journalist. Working in the early 20th century, Tarbell uncovered corruption and, through a series of articles, faced down Standard Oil. Later, her writing included an authoritative Lincoln biography. Students can compare her methods with present day reporting. PRÉVOT, Franck. Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees. illus. by Aurélia Fronty. Charlesbridge. 2015. Tr $17.95. ISBN 9781580896269. Gr 2-7–Drawing on her rare opportunities for an education, Maathai was determined to reforest Kenya and stand up for democratic rule and women’s rights. Fronty’s buoyant, stylized illustrations convey Maathai’s struggles to institute the Green Belt Movement, which led to her Nobel Peace Prize. A comprehensive time line springboards more study. RAY, Deborah Kogan. Paiute Princess: The Story of Sarah Winnemucca. illus by author. Farrar. 2012. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780374398972; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9781466816404. Gr 3-6–Born in 1844 when her people roamed Nevada, Thocmetony, called Sarah, witnessed how life changed with the arrival of white settlers. Fluent in English, she served as tribal interpreter. Intertwining passages from Sarah’s autobiography, along with details about the Native American experience, this title fully immerses readers. Glowing chalk illustrations, period photos, a map, and endnotes complement the text. Audio version available from recorded books. TURNER, Ann. My Name Is Truth: The Life of Sojourner Truth. illus. by James Ransome. HarperCollins. 2015. lib. ed. $18.89. ISBN 9780060758998; Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780060758981. Gr 1-4–Weaving lyrical first-person prose and lush watercolor illustrations, this title follows the abolitionist preacher’s life. Born into slavery as Isabella Baumfree, sold to a brutal master, then owned by other families, Truth attained her freedom and became a powerful speaker. An artful, reader-enfolding retelling of her remarkable life. Ask students if they’d like the name Truth. WINTER, Jeanette. Malala: A Brave Girl from Pakistan/Iqbal, a Brave Boy from Pakistan. illus. by author. S. & S./Beach Lane. 2014. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781481422949. Gr 2-4–Simple text and bright clean illustrations introduce the Nobel Peace Prize–winning young woman whose courageous defense of girl’s education almost cost her her life. A dual biography, this title also highlights Iqbal, a Pakistani boy killed for speaking out against child labor. Age appropriate for primary grades, it can also be used to kick start research by older students.


MACY, Sue. Sally Ride: Life on a Mission. S. & S. 2014. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781442488540; ebk. $10.99.ISBN 9781442488564. Gr 5-8–It took intelligence, dedication, and quiet strength to be America’s first female astronaut in space. Though Sally Ride died in 2012, this well-documented volume presents a vital and private woman whose post-flight life concentrated on science education, especially for girls. Have students imagine Ride’s journey as they write tweets from one of her space shuttle flights. MONTGOMERY, Sy. Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2012. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780547443157; ebk. $10.99. ISBN 9780547733937. Gr 6-8–Aided by her autism, Dr. Temple Grandin developed an understanding of animal behavior and is a respected authority on both subjects. Studded with personal photos, this title offers valuable insights into her exceptional life and current work and includes Grandin’s suggestions for kids on the spectrum. Check for the well-acted, 2010 HBO biopic, also titled Temple Grandin. Audio version available from Audio Bookshelf. NIVOLA, Claire A. Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle. illus. by author. Farrar/Frances Foster Bks. 2012. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780374380687; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9781466808799. K-Gr 4–As a young girl, the future marine biologist avidly explored ponds and beaches near her childhood homes. In 1970, Earle spent two weeks in a deep-sea station, and she says working deep in the ocean is like “diving into a galaxy.” Detailed watercolor spreads, often softly blue, bring viewers into her underwater world. Audio version available from Recorded Books. POTTER, Alicia. Mrs. Harkness and the Panda. illus. by Melissa Sweet. Knopf. 2012. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780375844485; ebk. $10.99. ISBN 9780449812020. K-Gr 3–Though a fashion designer, Ruth Harkness followed her late husband’s 1930s quest to find pandas in China. Despite difficult terrain, Harkness worked with a knowledgeable guide until they discovered a baby panda to bring back to America. Sweet’s collage illustrations echo Asian aesthetics, and an author note addresses animal ecology concerns.


MACY, Sue. Basketball Belles: How Two Teams and One Scrappy Player Put Women’s Hoops on the Map. illus by Matt Collins. Holiday House. 2011. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780823421633. Gr 2-5–The almost play-by-play account of an 1896 women’s collegiate basketball game is told in a fictionalized, first-person narrative by Stanford player Agnes Morley. Even a damaged hoop didn’t discourage the ladies from playing the then-divided court game. Collins’s demonstrative illustrations spark across spreads. Compare with today’s women’s NCAA March Madness championship. MCCULLY, Emily Arnold . Queen of the Diamond: The Lizzie Murphy Story. illus. by author. Farrar. 2015. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780374300074. Gr 1-3–In the early 1900s, Lizzie Murphy not only played semiprofessional baseball, but she insisted her pay match that of her male teammates. This outstanding athlete also swam, played ice hockey, and ran foot races. Ink and watercolor illustrations convey the action and differing emotions. Share news coverage of Mo’ne Davis, a 2014 Little League World Series pitcher. WALLACE, Rich & Sandra Neil Wallace. Babe Conquers the World: The Legendary Life of Babe Didrikson Zaharias. Boyds Mills Pr. 2014. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9781590789810. Gr 5 Up–The well-researched text, nicely interspersed with photos and quotes, leads readers as they follow Babe to the 1932 Olympics, basketball courts, and golf courses. Sometimes considered abrasive, she nonetheless opened doors and affirmed the muscular strength of women. Ask students to identify today’s women athletes who gained from her efforts.

Collected Biography

COOPER, Ilene. A Woman in the House (and Senate): How Women Came to the United States Congress, Broke Down Barriers, and Changed the Country. illus. by Elizabeth Baddeley. Abrams. 2014. Tr $24.95. ISBN 9781419710360. Gr 6-10–From suffrage to the present-day, this chronologically organized title gives an overview of eight periods of U.S. history while providing details on women who have served in Congress. Cartoon-style illustrations mixed with documentary and close-up photos make for a lively and informative presentation. Clear, informal text can help students create a mock forum speaking as these women. NATHAN, Amy. Yankee Doodle Gals: Women Pilots of World War Two. National Geographic. 2001. Tr $21. ISBN 9781419710360. Gr 6-8–More than 1,000 women piloted noncombat missions during World War II. By ferrying supplies and equipment as well as working as instructors, these Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) made a significant contribution to the war effort. Documented with numerous photos, this also includes brief biographies of several women pilots. Let students choose one for a reaction essay. OTTAVIANI, Jim. Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas. illus. by Maris Wicks. Roaring Brook. 2015. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9781596438651. Gr 7 Up–Louis Leakey recruited these women to study primates, and they’ve made international reputations with their investigations of chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans. With some creative fictionalization, the title utilizes a graphic novel format. Panel palettes reflect primate habitats and shift among the three observers. Endnotes explain this is a tale, not a textbook. SCHATZ, Kate. Rad American Women A-Z: Rebels, Trailblazers, and Visionaries Who Shaped our History…and Our Future! illus. by Miriam Klein Stahl. City Lights. 2015. Tr $14.95. ISBN 9780872866836. Gr 4-8–Strong, graphic print images and single-pages of worthwhile text introduce a diverse lineup of powerful females, from Angela Davis to Zora Neale Hurston, with obvious choices, such as Rachel Carson, and a rarely profiled transgender writer, Kate Bornstein, found in between. Read one profile per day in March (or any other month).

Barbara Wysocki, a retired children’s librarian in Rocky Hill, CT, also writes about travel and art.

For Students

MAKERS: The Largest Video Collection of Women’s Stories. Makers. (Accessed 1/22/15) Gr 6 Up–Describing itself as a “digital and video storytelling platform,” this site offers video profiles of more than 125 women in business, entertainment, politics, and the arts. Also features one-hour documentary specials about groundbreaking American women that first aired on PBS. National Women’s History Project. National Women’s History Project. Santa Rosa, CA. (Accessed 1/22/15) Gr 4 Up–Founded in 1980, the NWHP devises yearly themes for Women’s History Month. The site’s calendar includes detailed lists of historic events and noteworthy birthdays. Resources for teachers and librarians include quizzes to test student knowledge and a registry of women’s history performers. NCWHS: National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites. National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites. Evanston, IL. (Accessed 1/22/15) Gr 6 Up–Dedicated to preserving and promoting American landmarks, such as the birthplace of Abigail Adams, the Clara Barton National Historic Site, and the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, the NCWHS works closely with like-minded organizations to make “women’s contributions to history visible.”

For Teachers

National Women’s History Museum: Education & Resources. National Women’s History Museum. (Accessed 1/22/15) Lesson plans for middle and secondary grades related to the museum’s online exhibitions come complete with objectives, materials, and procedures. Subjects include “Women’s Voting Rights (Suffrage),” “American Women in the Olympics,” “Women in Early Film,” and more. Women’s History Month for the Classroom. National Education Association. (Accessed 1/22/15) Offering links to lessons on women’s achievements for grades K–12, the site also includes activities, bibliographies, speeches, quizzes, and resource links. Nature, art, music, politics, and history are among the topics.

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