February Books: Women Change History

By on February 1, 2012

Revisiting the past can give us courage and hope for what lies ahead. These books about women who made choices that changed the world can prompt us to discover new directions for our own futures. Read on!!

by Meribeth C. Shank

by Phillip Hoose. Square Fish, $9.99, Ages 10+

Growing up in central Alabama during the 1950’s, if you were black, meant you lived a segregated existence and you couldn’t even touch a white person without some kind of repercussion. Buses were central to the separation of the races, and a daily humiliation for blacks who often had no other form of transportation to get to their employment.

Claudette Colvin, who was fifteen years old in March 1955 when she refused to leave her seat at the bus driver’s demand to “Get up, gal!” actually predates Rosa Parks’ seated activism by nine months, and re-invigorated conversations about a bus boycott that had been quietly under discussion for many years. Colvin was arrested, later convicted, and appealed without success.

In December, Rosa Parks was arrested for her now-famous resolve. This last was the provocation that actually produced the bus boycott. Then during the boycott, the decision was made to file a lawsuit in Alabama federal court as a “constitutional challenge to state law.” This resulted in the judgment by a federal court to abolish “segregated seating on … Alabama’s buses,” bringing success and an end to the boycott.

Using sometimes-graphic archival photos and well-placed sidebars with related information, this slim, well-written, intriguing book reads almost like a novel.

by Vicky Alvear Schecter. Boyds Mills, $17.95, Ages 11-14

Using a chatty writing style, refreshing brief sidebars to accompany often-diverting archival photos, and slightly longer sidebars to enhance the occasionally funny text, author Schecter immediately engages her readers in the Introduction by asking questions and predicting surprise. The layout of the book makes it a quick read, in large part because the headings – chapters, sections are brief but dynamic, using a staccato conversational reporter voice that is nearly irresistible.

Beginning with a warning that everything the reader may have previously read or heard about this fascinating, intelligent ruler is likely manipulated by her detractors, Schecter follows with the observation that the famous (or perhaps infamous) last pharaoh of Egypt grew up nerdy – that is to say, she spent a lot of time in the renowned Library of Alexandria (Egypt) becoming a scholar, especially of languages, but also of mathematics, science, philosophy and politics. All of which prepared her for her role as princess, queen, ruler, pharaoh, and beloved goddess of the Egyptian people.

The text manages to mix palace intrigue, sibling marriage, independence, strategic alliances, assassination, feuding, wars, negotiations, sumptuous barges and power parties, wealth and jewelry, cosmetics and wigs, even calendars, and of course suicide, to successfully display a brilliant and visionary intelligence wedded to a formidable magnetic presence, to characterize this ruler whose female force was used to create a world of power sharing.

by Jo S. Kittinger, illustrated by Steven Walker. Calkins Creek, $17.95, Ages 7-9

This nonfiction book is the biography of a bus, telling the story of the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott that lasted for 382 days, after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. This particular bus, #2857, was manufactured by General Motors in Pontiac, Michigan in 1948, and served first in Terre Haute, Indiana for six years, before arriving in Montgomery.

The story of this bus is also the story of the different ways white people and black people were treated on public buses in Alabama, and other southern states of the United States in 1955. “That’s just the way things were” is a repeating line, insistently reminding readers of both the unfairness of the Jim Crow laws, and the fact that people accepted this injustice as part of daily life.

Other important elements in this picture book are the commitment of black people to walk instead of ride, and the financial losses the bus company experienced when black people, and their money, disappeared from daily bus trips for over a year. Oil illustrations strengthen the power of the story with dark and light in opposition, adding intensity. One vigorous double page spread shows pairs of feet, at street level, striding across the sidewalk, spreading the energy behind the boycott and alternating with other pages of faces during an indoor church gathering, and both within and outside the bus.

The book concludes with the rescue of the old bus from a junkyard and later, from a field where it stood for many years, rusting, before being sold at auction, restored, and placed on display back in Michigan where it was “born” — this time at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn.

Meribeth Shank works in the Media Center at Miami Country Day School, an independent school in Miami Shores, Florida, teaches classes on Writing Books for Children, and earned her MFA in Writing for children from Vermont College. You can also find her on the web: http://meribeths.blogspot.com

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