Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor: The Woman Who Loved Reptiles by Patricia Valdez, illustrated by Felicita Sala

Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  From the time she was a young girl, Joan Procter loved reptiles.  Instead of a doll, she carried around her favorite lizard, and she got a pet crocodile for her 16th birthday.  She started hanging out with the curator of reptiles and fish at the Natural History Museum when she was still in high school. He was impressed enough to hire Joan as his assistant, and she eventually took over his job when he retired.  From there, she went to work at the London Zoo, designing a new reptile house. The most amazing part of her new creation was the exhibit featuring Komodo dragons, a fabled but little-known animal from Indonesia.  People assumed they were ferocious, but Joan soon learned they were quite gentle, and one of them, Sumbawa, became something of a pet to her. He often accompanied her around the zoo, at children’s tea parties she held there, and even at a scientific presentation at the Zoological Society in London.  An author’s note gives more biographical information, including the sad fact that Joan was sickly much of her life and died at the age of 34. 40 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  Kids will warm up right away to Joan and her love of animals; they’ll also be inspired by her groundbreaking work as a woman scientist.  The illustrations are beautiful, especially the ones of the reptiles.  And who doesn’t love a Komodo dragon?

Cons:  Hopefully no reader will be inspired to bring a baby crocodile to math class, like Joan did.

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Dream Big: A True Story of Courage and Determination by Dave McGillivray, with Nancy Feehrer, illustrated by Ron Himler

Published by Nomad Press

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Summary:  As a child, Dave McGillivray aspired to be an athlete, but he was too small for most sports.  On his 12th birthday, he decided to try a new sport, running, and ended up running 12 miles.  Encouraged by his grandfather, he ran 13 miles on his 13th birthday, and continued that pattern for four more years.  At age 17, he announced he was ready for the Boston Marathon, but his lack of training caught up with him, and he collapsed at mile 18.  His grandfather encouraged him again, advising him that big dreams require hard work, and Dave promised him he’d cross the finish line the following year.  Sadly, his grandfather died before that marathon, and Dave almost gave up before the end of the race.  Taking a break at mile 21, he realized he was resting next to his grandfather’s cemetery.  This inspired him to finish the race, and he has continued to run it every year since.  Now he runs it two ways, as the director of the race and as the final runner, traversing the course at night after everyone else has finished.  Includes a challenge to run 26 miles, read 26 books, and do 26 acts of kindness in 26 weeks.  32 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  Just in time for marathon day, this inspiring story encourages kids to work hard and challenge themselves in a variety of ways.

Cons:  Reading 26 books seems a LOT easier than running 26 miles.

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The Boo-Boos That Changed the World: A True Story About an Accidental Invention (Really!) by Barry Wittenstein, illustrated by Iris Hsu

Published by Charlesbridge

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Summary:  When Earle Dickson married Josephine in 1917, he noticed she was accident prone, often cutting or burning herself in the kitchen, then trying to clean up with the nearest rag.  As the son of a doctor, Earle didn’t want her injuries to get infected, so he stuck some sterile gauze on a long strip of adhesive tape.  Josephine would cut off what she needed to bandage her wound.  Earle convinced his boss, James Johnson, to mass produce these bandages, calling them Band-Aids, but they didn’t really catch on until they were turned into individually-wrapped bandages and distributed for free to Boy Scouts and World War II soldiers.  After the war, Band-Aids really took off, and today they come in all kinds of sizes and designs and are used around the world.  Includes an author’s note, timeline, and additional resources.  32 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A cute story of the invention of something we all take for granted with appealing illustrations that have the feel of a retro magazine ad.

Cons:  I didn’t really enjoy reading about the details of Josephine’s kitchen injuries.

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A Lady Has the Floor: Belva Lockwood Speaks Out for Women’s Rights by Kate Hannigan, illustrated by Alison Jay

Published by Calkins Creek

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Summary:  Although a contemporary of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Belva Lockwood is (unfairly) less well-known for her contributions to women’s rights.  Starting as a teacher at the age of 14, Belva began her activism in the world of education, introducing public speaking and physical education for both boys and girls, and eventually opening up her own private school.  From there, she went to law school, sticking it out when other female classmates quit. She graduated, but had to petition President Ulysses S. Grant to receive her diploma. As a lawyer, she fought for the underserved: widows, Civil War veterans, and former slaves, and eventually became the first woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court.  In 1884, she ran for President of the United States and received over 4,000 votes. Sadly, Belva Lockwood died in May, 1917, a little more than three years before the Nineteenth Amendment gave women the right to vote. Includes author’s note, timeline of U.S. women’s history to 2016, and bibliography 32 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  A lively and engaging biography of an important and often overlooked suffragist; the timeline does a nice job of placing her life in the context of history.  

Cons:  Some readers might struggle with the cursive font that appears on some pages.

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Midnight Teacher: Lilly Ann Granderson and Her Secret School by Janet Halfmann, illustrated by London Ladd

Published by Lee and Low

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Summary:  As a young child working in the master’s house, Lilly Ann Cox was sometimes included in games of school with the other children.  She learned how to read and write, and enjoyed teaching other slaves when the master’s family went visiting on Sundays.  When the master died, Lilly was sold to a plantation in Mississippi, where she was forced to work in the cotton fields, often beaten for not being able to keep up.  When she became ill, she was moved into the kitchen.  On her trips to the market, Lilly discovered an abandoned cabin, and eventually opened a school there.  Slaves would sneak out in the middle of the night.  The penalty if they were caught was 39 lashes with a whip; however, when they were finally found out seven years later, they were miraculously allowed to keep the school going with no punishment.  After the Civil War, Lilly married and raised three children, while continuing her career as a teacher.  An afterword describes her work in greater detail and how it positively influenced her descendants, including great-grandson Charles C. Diggs, Jr., who became a Congressman and helped found the Congressional Black Caucus.  40 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  A fascinating story about one woman’s courage to improve the lives of others that had an impact for generations after her.  The acrylic paintings nicely illustrate Lilly’s story.

Cons:  Be prepared to answer questions about Lilly’s difficult days working in the cotton fields of Mississippi.

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The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science by Joyce Sidman

Published by HMH Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Maria Merian faced some tough obstacles to studying science in the 17th century, not the least of which was the risk of being painfully executed for practicing witchcraft.  Fortunately, she had a supportive family who was pretty tolerant of her obsession with insects.  Her father was a printer and engraver; after he died, she had an artist stepfather.  Both included her in the family business, and Maria used her artistic skills to capture what she observed in nature.  She set about disproving the theory of spontaneous generation by studying the life cycles of as many moths and butterflies as she could.  As an adult she produced books of her subjects, usually in their natural habitats, making connections between plants and animals that few of her contemporaries observed.  In her 50’s, she traveled with her daughter to Suriname, where she was among the first European naturalists.  Her final masterpiece, an illustrated guide to the insects and plants she observed there, was well-received throughout Europe and influenced John James Audubon and other naturalists more than a century later.  Includes an author’s note, timeline, bibliography, and index.  160 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  A fascinating biography of a woman who was many centuries ahead of her time, balancing family and running a household with her art and science careers.  Her paintings and engravings throughout the book are almost unbelievably detailed and realistic.  Newbery poet Joyce Sidman named each chapter for a stage of a butterfly’s life and wrote an appropriate poem for each.

Cons:  While the book seems like it could appeal to third and fourth graders (only 120 pages of text and lots of pictures), the subject matter makes it more appropriate for grades 5-8.

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Shaking Things Up: 14 Young Women Who Changed the World by Susan Hood, illustrated by 13 extraordinary women

Published by HarperCollins

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Image result for shaking things up hood

Summary:  13 poems honor 14 girls and women (sisters Jacqueline and Eileen Nearne, secret agents during World War II, share a poem), with art for each one from a different children’s book illustrator.  Some of the subjects are better known (Frida Kahlo, Malala Yousafzai) than others (Annette Kellerman, Angela Zhang).  Their fields range from art to science to sports, and each one is in a different form of poetry.  A brief biographical paragraph accompanies each poem, and a timeline at the beginning shows where each woman fits into history, from the early 1780’s to 2014.  Sources and additional resources are listed for each woman at the end.  40 pages; grades K-5.

Pros:  Readers will be inspired to learn more about these girls and women, many of whom were well on their way to success in their teens.  The variety of illustrations celebrates women artists as well.

Cons: I was occasionally frustrated by only having a little information about someone I would have liked to learn about in greater depth.

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