All across the blogosphere and print publications the celebration of Women’s History Month is well underway. Engaging posts feature important and worthy picture book titles about women who have made contributions to the course of history. Many of these are recent releases and attention allows these titles to find readers- and fans.
This week I’ll use some older titles to call attention to some unsung, often anonymous women and girls who helped to build this country. These heroines bore the many burdens of expansion and homesteading with strength and courage, but not without fear and suffering. Their names are unsung because the roles they played were so unremarkable, so typical, yet no less heroic.
Sketchy details about real women, sometimes family ancestors, are often the prototypes for historical fiction. Stories based on these family retellings and supported by extensive research generate wholly authentic tales that deserve to be told, offering admirable icons of everyday women.
Ann Turner’s DAKOTA DUGOUT uses only 126 words and Ronald Himler’s richly detailed line drawings to trace one such woman’s prairie years from the days of her soggy sodhouse, blizzard devastation, and searing crop destruction to her eventual life in a clean clapboard home in a thriving community. Each of Turner’s 126 words is precious, especially the final eight: “Sometimes the things we start with are best.”
Eve Bunting, a notable woman of history herself, brings us DANDELIONS, illustrated by Ronald Himler. In this case a young girl tells her version of the struggling, often miserable first year in a sod home on the prairie, desperately transplanting a stray dandelion on their roof. The only hint of time passing occurs on the final page with a view of sprawling dandelions.
These are terrific books to pair with the 2012 middle grade release, MAY B. by Caroline Starr Rose. At 225 pages, this, too, is a fairly easy read with few words per page. The story in verse relates not only preteen May B.’s life-or death challenges but also reveals that not all prairie wives withstood the stresses of soddy life.
In each case the simplicity of the words require the reader to engage deeply with ideas and the realities of a ruthless time in our history, weighing the costs and consequences, considering what their own choices might have been.
APPLES TO OREGON: BEING THE (SLIGHTLY) TRUE NARRARIVE OF HOW A BRAVE PIONEER FATHER BROUGHT APPLES. PEACHES. PEARS. PLUMS. GRAPES, AND CHERRIES (AND CHILDREN) ACROSS THE PLAINS. Deborah Hopkinson’s text and Nancy Carpenter’s illustrations invite repeated readings , raise questions, and encourage further research. Young Delicious (yes, she was named for the apple) is no less courageous because of her age and stands proudly in the ranks of women who shaped America.
THE PRAIRIE TRAIN, written by Antoine O’Flatharta, illustrated by Eric Rohmann. It’s a wild and rollicking view of the impact of railroads in the settlement of the west. Rail passage brought access to supplies, but it also provided the woman and child power needed to make homesteads into homes in that exhausting, demanding new world.
TRAIN TO SOMEWHERE, also by Eve Bunting, illustrated (once again) by Ronald Himler. Based on true stories of children transported by train from east coast orphanages to stops along the route, they would line up at each station to be selected (or passed over) by locals as needed. Newspapers advertised their scheduled arrival and, quite naturally, able-bodied lads were the first to find homes. In fact, though, these often proved to be little more than unpaid slave markets.
One final reminder, here, of the series of picture books, illustrated by Wisconsin’s own Renee Graef, which introduces younger readers to Laura Ingalls Wilder. MY FIRST LITTLE HOUSE SERIES, including A LITTLE PRAIRIE HOUSE, reveals the humor and challenges of families moving to the outer edges of our land.
Speaking of word counts, I’ve far exceeded a reasonable number of words here, but the potential for titles, links, and tributes goes on and on. The collection sited above includes Caldecott illustrators, Newberry notables, and more starred reviews than you can shake a cornstalk at. So, just as we can search out the everyday heroic women of past and present, I urge you to read, share, and celebrate the books already on our library shelves.
***I hope you’ll also check the links to these authors and illustrators- notables one and all.