February 04, 2016


Women Who Changed the World: 50 Amazing Americans. By Laurie Calkhoven. Illustrated by Patricia Castelao. Scholastic. $8.99.

     Sixty-six women, actually: there are the 50 referred to in this book’s title and 16 others listed more briefly at the end. Women Who Changed the World is not really about women who changed the world – it is about women who, to at least some extent, changed the United States, or who at least accomplished significant things. The never-stated foundation of the book is the phrase “despite being women and being neglected or downplayed by male-dominated history books” – a typical redress-the-balance approach for a work avowedly aimed at 21st-century girls who, Laurie Calkhoven clearly hopes, will grow up to do special things themselves: “Seemingly ordinary girls grew up to become extraordinary women! …[Y]ou, too, can grow up to change the world!”

     This is a bit over-the-top, but Calkhoven’s brief biographies and Patricia Castelao’s straightforward illustrations are solid enough – although some of the drawings of the women look little like the photographs that are also included, with Castelao going out of her way to make her subjects seem dynamic and intense even if, for example, her color portraits of Lucille Ball and Maya Angelou bear little resemblance to the inset black-and-white photographs.

     Most of the names here are de rigueur for books intended to inspire contemporary girls: Pocahontas, Harriet Tubman, Helen Keller, Eleanor Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, and a slew of women born in the 20th century (30 of the 50 in the primary list, unfortunately implying a paucity of female role models from earlier times). It is good to see some less-familiar names among the frequently mentioned ones: journalist Nellie Bly, photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White, pharmacologist Gertrude Eliot, ballerina Misty Copeland. And it is good to have the book laid out in a readily accessible format, with a “Fact File” about each woman (birth and death years and locations, spouse if any, children if any) and a couple of specific facts of interest in addition to those contained in each brief biography. For example, the item about author Laura Ingalls Wilder talks about how much the children in Wisconsin in her time enjoyed roasted pig tail as a once-a-year treat; the one about athlete Babe Didrikson Zaharias explains that she got her nickname after hitting five home runs in one baseball game, putting her on par with Babe Ruth in the eyes of her neighborhood friends; and the one about Nancy Reagan mentions her starring opposite Ronald Reagan in a film called Hellcats of the Navy.

     There are no profundities in Women Who Changed the World. That is not the purpose of a book intended as an easy-to-read work of uplift for 21st-century girls who may be searching for role models. The specific women chosen for the main list and the subsidiary one at the end are arguable: Ella Fitzgerald makes the main list, but Marian Anderson does not, for example, and – genuinely strangely – Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor is in the main sequence while Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman ever to sit on that court, is not. The book also includes a rather odd 25-term glossary that contains the words “classify,” “eclipse” and “settler.” The word selection makes it seem as if the book is targeted at very young children indeed, but the writing itself is appropriate for somewhat older readers – up to age 10 or even 12. Girls who encounter a paucity of discussions of women in traditional school books – a less-common occurrence now than a generation ago – may find Women Who Changed the World a useful supplement to classroom reading. It is not a particularly entertaining book, and is not intended to be; but as a gateway to basic information on some women whose roles in United States history may be inspirational for young girls today, it is certainly a satisfactory work.

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