In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Scientific women

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Welcome back from summer! It's lovely to hear from you, and to get a glimpse of the goings-on at the National Book Festival.

You asked whether Harry Potter has made an appearance in Eleanor's life. It's interesting: several of her friends and 3rd-grade classmates have gotten very into the books, but Eleanor is holding off. Twice, she's tried starting to read the first book on her own, and each time she has stopped because she feels like it's "too scary." This from a girl who within the last year devoured all of Percy Jackson, and is two-thirds of the way through the Books of Beginning, both series which include great violence, battles, magic, and end-of-the-universe stakes. And yet there's something about Harry that she doesn't feel ready for. As we've discussed in person and you've mentioned on the blog, there's a lot of material in the later Harry Potter books that isn't really appropriate for elementary-age kids, so I'm fine with Eleanor waiting until the books click for her. I've thought about beginning it as a read-aloud, but right now most of our read-aloud time also includes Isabel, and I don't really want to start Harry Potter with an almost-6-year-old.... Ah, well. Thankfully, there's plenty of time for reading and rereading.

Isabel has started out her first-grade year by declaring that she wants to become a rock star, and that her favorite subject is science. As if by magic, two of your recent gifts chronicle female scientists who became rock stars in their fields. Both books have become huge hits over here.

The Tree Lady, by H. Joseph Hopkins, is a picture book chronicling the life and times of Kate Sessions, the scientist and tree hunter who brought trees to the desert climate of San Diego in the early 1900s.

On each page, Hopkins positions Kate as an exception to the rules of her world:

Katherine Olivia Sessions grew up in the woods of Northern California. She gathered leaves from oaks and elms. She collected needles from pines and redwoods. And she braided them together with flowers to make necklaces and bracelets.

It was the 1860s, and girls from Kate's side of town weren't supposed to get their hands dirty. 

But Kate did.


When Kate grew up, she left home to study science in college. She looked at soil and insects through a microscope. She learned how plants made food and how they drank water. And she studied trees from around the world.

No woman had ever graduated from the University of California with a degree in science.

But in 1881, Kate did.

A nice proud feminist vibe throughout!

The illustrations, by Jill McElmurry, are beautifully specific: pictures of plant cells, specific (labeled!) types of leaves and desert trees, a real sense of the desert climate in the San Diego scenes.

There's enough of a story here to make it interesting, and enough scientific detail to encourage questions and further investigation.

The graphic novel Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas, by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks, gets far deeper into the complexities and triumphs of scientific research. This is a book you can get lost in.

Primates provides a clear and well-dramatized introduction to the work and lives of these three primatologists, the first to live with and study primates for years in their natural habitats: Goodall with chimpanzees, Fossey with mountain gorillas, and Galdikas with orangutans. Each woman tells her own story in first-person, and in her own font and color, which helps keep the voices distinct. There are similarities in the stories, but the very different personalities of the researchers come through well.

The fourth voice in the book is that of Louis Leakey, the anthropologist and archeologist who gave all three women their start. He believed that women were better-suited to this kind of work: more patient, more observant. Through Leakey, the three women meet each other, so there are some nice moments of crossover.

Ottaviani and Wicks don't romanticize the details of living in the bush. You get a real sense throughout of the difficulties and privations of each woman's chosen career: leeches, trekking through forest, sitting for hours, days, weeks in observation. All three come across as passionate and unconventionally brilliant, deeply dedicated to the animals and their land.

While non-kid-friendly details are alluded to in the book -- Louis Leakey's womanizing, Dian Fossey's murder -- the stories are kept age-appropriate. It feels to me like a book that will deepen with rereading as you learn more about each woman's life from other sources.

I think that Isabel responds to the fierce determination of the women depicted here: their focus and refusal to be put off. I have a feeling there are more animals in her future.

Love, Annie

Saturday, September 12, 2015

National Book Festival

Dear Annie,

I spent last Saturday at the National Book Festival, which now takes place in a huge convention center and not in the circus-like tents it formally occupied on the National Mall.  Worse ambience now, but better climate control.

The day felt like a series of meditations on the theme, "Why write?"  First up was Kwame Alexander, who won the Newbery Medal this year for his novel-in-poetry,
The Crossover
"There's no such thing as a reluctant reader," he said, only someone who hasn't found what they want to read (a man after my own heart).  His own discovery of poetry at age 12 connected him more intensely to the written word.  He talked about poetry, because of its economy of language, as a basic building block, one from which the reader can move on to other genres.  When children are small, he said, they love poetry -- Seuss, Silverstein.  "My goal [in writing] is to bring back that love."  Start with poetry, he says, and other kinds of reading will follow.

For others, it has to do with the author's need to write.  The person who introduced Libba Bray, author of a slew of hugely popular YA novels, many of them historical/magical, quoted from her website bio:
Three weeks after high school graduation, I had a serious car accident. I demolished my face and lost my left eye. ... It took many years to put me back together again, but most of the pieces seem to be in the right places, and anyway, that’s when I discovered how powerful writing can be, because writing everything down kept me alive. This is how I know that writing can save your life. ... Should you ever find yourself in a bad, hopeless place, please know that you can write your way out of something that feels completely unwinnable and into something better and, just possibly, into something wonderful.
El Deafo
Cece Bell, author of El Deafo, came with the clunky hearing aid which was central to the book and strapped it on herself (still fits: she's a small woman).  A strong contrast to the two small aids she now wears behind each ear, which she removed to show us.

She talked a lot about how uncomfortable she had been with deafness, not identifying with other deaf kids when she was growing up.  A child in the audience asked how it felt to write about herself.  "It was terrifying to write an autobiography." she said.  "I live in a hearing world.  I was terrified I would offend others who are deaf."   The result of taking the risk and writing about herself, though, brought a profound result:  deaf people reacted to her account, she met more members of the deaf community than she ever had.  "I've made new friends who are deaf.  It's been a great ride," she said, with a trace of tears in her eyes.  Writing about her isolation led to new connections.

Books as a connection among people came up frequently at the festival.  I spent some time listening to kids who had won writing contests read their essays.  Allison Templeton, a winner in the "A Book That Shaped Me" contest, credited the Harry Potter series with staving off loneliness. She wrote about changing schools in fourth grade, and finding new classmates who were also reading the series.  The most important thing, though, was how the books kept an old friendship going:
Without the same teachers, classes, or even friends in common any more, we turned to Harry Potter as a topic of conversation.  We spent hours debating whether Professor Snape was good or evil.  We laughed about Fred and George Weasley's funny sayings.  Being able to discuss our favorite characters, our emotions while reading and predictions about what would happen next helped hold our friendship together.
Anyone who was of reading age when the books first came out will recognize this behavior.  For an earlier generation, Harry Potter was a mass phenomenon.  It makes me happy to see that Harry provides the same connections -- of immersion, anticipation, speculation -- on a smaller scale for succeeding generations.

How does your family feel about Harry Potter?  Does Eleanor have interest in reading the books?