March for Women: Picture Book Biographies of Women in the Sciences
Does anyone remember this commercial in which a father and daughter sit on a beach, and the young girl asks innocently, "Daddy, why is the sky blue?" He answers, "To match your pretty eyes." She promptly and mercilessly informs him that the real reason has to do with the diffusion of oxygen and the wavelength of the color blue... and I've never forgotten it. Well, the commercial. I couldn't tell you why the sky is blue. But nine-year-old me thought it was pretty dang cool to hear a girl around my age talking about how oxygen is diffused to make our sky look the way it does.
Women's History Month is coming to a close, and we're wrapping up our picture book biography series with a list on books of women in the sciences. As we've learned in recent past, women's mark in this arena has remained hidden for years. Their work has been covered up with pen names and closed doors for centuries, but it seems as though we're slowly peeling back the popular accounts to find the true stories beneath them.
These women bear the same qualities as the women in our other lists: determined, bold, passionate. They have blazed trails that seem to be all the more difficult to cut back, based on the more limited number of books out to tell their stories (or, please, blame the curator for the smaller list and help me find more!).
Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 by Helaine Becker, illustrated by Dow Phumiruk
(Ages 3-6, 6-9*) Though we've already recommended the picture book edition of Hidden Figures, Helaine Becker's picture book biography is not to be slighted. When Katherine was young, she counted anything and everything, and the impulse to count never stopped. She surpassed her brother in school, showing great proficiency even from a young age. She continued on to college, facing setbacks and degradations as a black woman—till NASA had a job opening that would eventually have them counting on her to save them. She used her incredibly careful and incredibly fast mathematical knowledge when all depended on her to save the Apollo 13 spacecraft. One of several beautiful picture book accounts of Katherine's life, Counting on Katherine serves as a dynamic introduction to a once hidden figure in history.
The Bluest of Blues: Anna Atkins and The First Book of Photographs by Fiona Robinson
(Ages 6-9) Anna Atkins likely spent much of her childhood accompanying her scientist father on his expeditions to the field. Those tender moments not only deepened Anna's love for her father, but deepened her admiration for the natural world, particularly its plants. She stepped into the world of science and botany as an illustrator, but the demands of growing research stretched the bounds of what could be drawn in a reasonable time. When her father gifts her a camera, Anna discovers the powerful possibilities of using the tool for science—and her cyanotypes remain some of the most impressive early work to date.
Nothing Stopped Sophie: The Story of Unshakable Mathematician Sophie Germain by Cheryl Bardoe, illustrated by Barbara McClintock
(Ages 6-9) As a child, she snuck out of bed at night, illuminating a candle to just keep practicing mathematics. When she finally could attend school, she had to submit her assignments by mail after reading notes on her own. Why all this secrecy and solitude? Because she was a woman, and women simply didn't study mathematics. But when Sophie is the only person to submit a correct solution to an issue of physics, she surpasses all that could have been expected of the woman behind the pen-named formula. With numbers even woven into the illustrations, Nothing Stopped Sophie reveals another remarkable account of an unstoppable woman.
Shark Lady: The True Story of How Eugenie Clark Become The Ocean's Most Fearless Scientist by Jess Keating, illustrated by Marta Álvarez Miguéns
Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Julie Paschkis
(Ages 3-6, 6-9) In the Middle Ages, butterflies—known then as the titular "summer birds"—seemed to appear by magic, and scientific efforts had yet to discover the truth about their life cycle. Told from the perspective of a thirteen-year-old Maria Merian, this picture book puts the truth about their true (but still enigmatic) life cycle on brilliant display! An avid painter and admirer of small creatures, Maria Merian helped pave the way for the study and celebration of the transformational life cycles of butterflies.
Look Up!: Henrietta Leavitt, Pioneering Woman Astronomer by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Raúl Colón
(Ages 6-12) Henrietta Leavitt wanted to know "everything about the wonderful bigness of all she saw." Her fascination led her to study astronomy among, you guessed it, predominantly men. Even when assigned a job in which she was supposed to "work, not think," Henrietta began studying the stars... And it led to a discovery that changed the way astronomers viewed the universe. Even in her success, her love for the stars led her to continue to wonder: "How high? How high is the sky?"
Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor: The Woman Who Loved Reptiles by Patricia Valdez, illustrated by Felicita Sala
(Ages 3-6, 6-12) When a picture book ends with a tea party in a reptile house, we're sold. Joan Procter loves reptiles from the start, and when she grew up she assisted the curator of Reptiles for the British Museum... until the curating job became hers alone, to the surprise of many male scientists returning from the Great War! From the museum to the London Zoo, Procter constructed environments in which people could learn about and admire our reptilian neighbors, all with her komodo dragon sidekick in tow. Playful in narrative but rife with back matter, Joan Procter Dragon Doctor is a must-read for budding scientists or reptile enthusiasts.
Me... Jane by Patrick McDonnell
(Ages 3-6, 6-9) With anecdotes from Jane Goodall's own autobiography, McDonnell tells the story of just how a young girl with a dear stuffed chimpanzee named Jubilee became a world-renowned humanitarian and environmentalist. She admired all the animals within her grasp—the squirrels and birds of her backyard—but dreamt of those on the faraway continent of Africa, too. With childlike drawings to accompany Jane's dreams, Me... Jane shows just how powerful the dreams of a child can be.
Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code by Laurie Wallmark, illustrated by Katy Wu
(Ages 6-12) See this blurb on our Women in American History list.
Thank you all for joining us for this series for Women's History Month! We had such a blast digging through piles of biographies and we're excited to continue turning the pages of the lives of more pioneering activists, scientists, artists, and more.
Check out our other lists of wave-making women here:
*See our guide for Choosing Books for more on age levels.