By Elaine Elinson
City Lights Publishers
“Rad American Women A-Z: Rebels, Trailblazers, and Visionaries Who Shaped Our History…and Our Future!”
A book written by Kate Schatz and illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl
When I was a new reader in Chicago in the 1950s, my idea of a great afternoon was a walk to the Pullman Library. I would make a beeline for a shelf of orange volumes — biographies of great Americans. I gobbled them up: Jane Addams, Clara Barton, Sacajawea, Amelia Earhart. There were probably some men among then, but I most vividly remember being inspired by the lives of these bold, innovative women.
I imagine that “Rad American Women A-Z: Rebels, Trailblazers, and Visionaries Who Shaped Our History … and Our Future!” — by Kate Schatz and illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl — will have that same impact on many young readers today.
This is the first children’s book for City Lights Books, the renowned San Francisco publisher and bookstore that is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. As executive editor Elaine Katzenberger explains, “We knew it was a natural for City Lights. Our goal is always to empower our readers, to foster independent thinking and intellectual courage. This book provides wonderful examples of exactly those qualities for young readers.”
Katzenberger’s words invoke the publisher’s daring — and infamous — history: In 1957, City Lights founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti was put on trial for obscenity for publishing and selling Allen Ginsberg’s iconoclastic “Howl and Other Poems.” The landmark ruling in the poet’s favor not only ensured the future of City Lights but paved the way for many more groundbreaking publications.
“Rad American Women A-Z” is an alphabet book with a difference. Though each page illustrates a different letter — starting with A, for Angela Davis, and ending with Z, for Zora Neale Hurston — and the graphics are bright and engaging, the lives depicted have long been left out of children’s history books. They are scientists, poets, pilots and activists from a wide range of backgrounds and historic eras. Half are women of color. They all persevered against challenging odds.
Schatz’s lively one-page biographies show all the things a woman can do — and excel at — from dance to architecture, labor organizing to sports, journalism to rock ’n’ roll. Stahl’s black paper-cuts against primary-colored backgrounds capture individual expressions, easily distinguishable for young readers.
Some letters introduce readers to women who are not very well known:
Angelina and Sarah Grimke were sisters born into a rich, white slave-owning family in South Carolina. They traded in their birthright to become Quakers and outspoken abolitionists who traveled to more than 60 cities advocating for equal rights for women and an end to slavery.
Hazel Scott was only 8 years old when Juilliard gave her a piano scholarship, calling her a “musical genius.” As a renowned pianist and actress in the Jim Crow era, she refused to play for segregated audiences and was targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee for her beliefs.
Jovita Idar, a writer for La Cronica in south Texas, criticized President Woodrow Wilson for sending soldiers to the U.S.-Mexico border. When the Texas Rangers came to shut her paper down, she stood in the doorway to prevent them from entering — and stood up for freedom of the press.
Wilma Mankiller, who had never even used a phone when her family moved from their drought-stricken farm in Oklahoma to San Francisco in 1956, became the first ever-female chief of a Native American tribe 30 years later.
And the author offers new facts and insights about the lives of women we think we know well. Free-spirited modern dancer Isadora Duncan, for example, dropped out of school but spent many hours at the Oakland Public Library, where the librarian was the famous poet Ina Coolbrith, first California poet laureate.
And we may be familiar with Nellie Bly as a muckraking journalist, but unaware that she beat Phileas Fogg’s fictional record of going around the world in 80 days. The illustration shows a determined Bly carrying a small satchel — evidently she brought only one dress, a few pair of underwear and one coat — when she traveled on ships, trains and even a donkey. She made it in 72 days, 6 hours and 11 minutes, and was met back home in New York by cheering crowds.
Some facts are just fun. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor read all the “Nancy Drew” books as a child. And Queen Bessie Coleman, who had to go to Paris to get her pilot’s license because no American school would accept an African-American female student, became a stunt pilot internationally famous for her daring “barnstorming” air tricks such as spins, dives and loop-the-loops.
Schatz, in an interview, said the hardest part of writing the book was cutting it down to 26 women (actually 25 — see more on that below). She crowdsourced to come up with her original list, asking her Facebook friends to nominate fascinating women. “I knew many of them,” she said, “but was excited to learn about women I’d never heard of. I added them to my own list of heroines that I wanted to include — I had a lot to work with.”
Though the book deals with some very difficult issues — including racism and poverty — it is mindful of its targeted audience of late elementary/middle school readers. There is no mention of executions or assassinations. Sometimes this is tricky. Lucy Parsons, for example, was a trade union activist of Native American, Mexican and African-American ancestry who with her husband, Albert Parsons, organized the famous May Day march of 80,000 workers to Chicago’s Haymarket Square demanding an 8-hour workday. When a bomb went off at the rally, Albert was jailed on trumped-up charges and executed. Schatz never mentions the death sentence, but simply (and accurately) writes, “Lucy was not able to free her husband but she never gave up her crusade for justice.”
Similarly, civil rights activist Yuri Kochiyama was at Malcolm X’s side when he was gunned down in the Roseland Ballroom in New York. Schatz writes of Kochiyama’s World War II incarceration, her leadership in civil rights and Asian-American and Puerto Rican communities, as well as her strong ties to Malcolm X — but never about her presence at his assassination.
Nor is the book purely about the celebrated past; Schatz holds an honored place for the huge numbers of unknown women of history and also those yet to come. The letter X is reserved “for the women whose names we don’t know, it’s for the women we haven’t learned about yet, and for the women whose stories we will never read … but X is also for the future. What will you do to make the world rad?”
And to bolster the inspiring stories, Schatz provides a tool kit for activism at the end of the book, listing 26 things you can do as well as a substantial resource guide and bibliography.
“We can find inspiration in the stories of all people, no matter who they are,” she tells her readers. “And no matter who you are, you can make a difference too.”
My hope is that many young readers will wander into their local library, find this book and be just as inspired as I was by those orange-covered biography series so many decades ago. But I’m hedging my bets and getting this invaluable book for all the girls — and boys — I know.
Elaine Elinson is the coauthor of “Wherever There’s a Fight: How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants, Strikers, and Poets Shaped Civil Liberties in California” (Heyday), which won a Gold Medal in the 2010 California Book Awards.