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Changing the SySTEM: Illustrating the Lives of Women in Science

In recent years, an increasing number of women have been breaking into careers in fields that have previously been male dominated. This has been particularly true in the area of STEM, or Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths. One of the best ways to spark an interest in young girls in these fields, and to inspire all children in general, is to show them the incredible achievements women have already contributed in these areas. Until recently, many children might not have been able to easily find female models, studying and working in science and technology. Luckily for us now, there are many books illustrating the lives of incredible women who have been outstanding in their various STEM fields. For this article we’re specifically looking at picture books, and books that combine captivating artwork and accessible prose, to capture the imagination of young readers.

We recently took a look at books that offer a compilation of vignettes of inspiring women throughout history. You can read that article here:

Illustrating the Illustrious Women of History: Picture Books to Inspire Young Feminists

These books take a general approach, looking at women from all walks of life. There are also several books in a similar format that are specifically about women in STEM:

Rachel Ignotofsky’s book Women in Science, instantly catches the eye. The black pages are almost chalk-board in style, filled with block colours, fun, stylised illustrations and doodled details, and they easily draw the reader in to learn about some of the great names, and some of the lesser-known ones, of trailblazing women in science. The women come from all kinds of backgrounds, whether it’s Marie Curie, and her triumphant sacrifice to science or Alice Ball who found a way to treat leprosy, there is an abundance of fascinating women to be found here, and Ignotofsky’s charming style carries these stories wonderfully.

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The next two books take a look at a specific area within STEM fields. 

First, Libby Jackson’s book In a Galaxy of her Own is all about the women who have literally been reaching for the stars. From the first star-gazers and astronomers to our own modern day astronauts, and all the steps in between, Jackson highlights the women who have been part of this journey. Each woman gets a portrait in a different art style from a range of different illustrators. Jackson, as a leading UK expert in human space flight, is perfectly placed to write this exciting collection.

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Next, Catherine Thimmesh’s Girls Think of Everything is a look at the inventions created by women that have made the world a better place. 

Thimmesh’s book, illustrated in a scrapbook style, with lots of doodles and drawings, emulates the processes of bringing an idea to fruition. The women featured have brought about a range of inventions, in a variety of ways, whether it’s chocolate chip cookie, or the windshield wiper, interlocking bricks, or medical syringes. There’s plenty to be inspired by, including the multiple struggles these women had to have their work recognised. It’s a lighthearted but uplifting look at ingenuity of women throughout history.

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Finally, it’s never too late to be inspired, and what’s good for the gander is good for the goose, and so this year, a set of two books, aimed at adult readers, offers a selection of micro-biographies of women, along with portraits in stunning artwork, much in the style of the books we have been looking at.

 The two books from this Forgotten Women series are ‘The Scientists,’ and ‘The Leaders.’ Newly released, these books written by Zing Tsjeng give much more substance for adult readers. The Scientists features 48 women, as that is the number of women who have won Nobel prizes. The book is divided into sections: Earth & Universe; Biology & Natural Sciences; Medicine & Psychology; Physics & Chemistry; Mathematics and Technology & Inventions. Featuring artwork by a range of fantastic female illustrators and artists, this is a truly empowering book, and one which will intrigue all kinds of readers. The Leaders also includes portraits of 48 women, influential and rebellious, who have been for the most part forgotten. They include a 16th century Irish pirate queen, an ancient Muslim warrior queen in northern Nigeria, and a spy in the French Resistance who worked against the Nazis.

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Illustration of 'The Harvard Computers' in Forgotten Women: 'The Scientists'.

Following these anthologies, the rest of our recommendations here will be picture books for children. Each of them look at a specific woman in history and her contribution to the field of science, and to the world. They provide a great way to introduce young children to the stories of women in science, and to encourage and inspire them to make their own path in exploring and understanding the world around them.

Grace Hopper

“If you’ve got a good idea, and you know it’s going to work, go ahead and do it.”

The inspiring story of Grace Hopper—the boundary-breaking woman who revolutionized computer science—is told told in an engaging picture book biography.

Who was Grace Hopper? A software tester, workplace jester, cherished mentor, ace inventor, avid reader, naval leader—AND rule breaker, chance taker, and troublemaker. Grace Hopper coined the term “computer bug” and taught computers to “speak English.” Throughout her life, Hopper succeeded in doing what no one had ever done before. Delighting in difficult ideas and in defying expectations, the insatiably curious Hopper truly was “Amazing Grace” . . . and a role model for science- and math-minded girls and boys. With a wealth of witty quotes, and richly detailed illustrations, this book brings Hopper's incredible accomplishments to life.

Life in the Ocean

Nivola’s folk-styled paintings immediately pull readers into this short biography of oceanographer Sylvia Earle, a pioneer and entrepreneur in her field who also set an example for women of the mid–20th century. Earle first lost her heart to the ocean as a young girl when she discovered the wonders of the Gulf of Mexico in her backyard. As an adult, she dives even deeper. Whether she's designing submersibles, swimming with the whales, or taking deep-water walks, Sylvia Earle has dedicated her life to learning more about what she calls "the blue heart of the planet." With stunningly detailed pictures of the wonders of the sea, Life in the Ocean tells the story of Sylvia's growing passion and how her ocean exploration and advocacy have made her known around the world.  Earle’s zeal for ocean exploration and preservation is evident in this visually striking introduction to a remarkable scientist. This picture book biography also includes an informative author's note that will motivate young environmentalists.

Hidden Figures

Based on The New York Times bestselling book and the Academy Award-nominated movie, author Margot Lee Shetterly and illustrator Laura Freeman bring the incredibly inspiring true story of four black women who helped NASA launch men into space to picture book readers. Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden participated in some of NASA's greatest successes, like providing the calculations for America's first journeys into space. And they did so during a time when being black and a woman limited what they could do. In this beautifully illustrated picture book edition, the story of four female African American mathematicians at NASA is explored. 

The Girl Who Thought in Pictures

If you've ever felt different, if you've ever been low, if you don't quite fit in, there's a name you should know... Meet Dr. Temple Grandin, one of the world's quirkiest science heroes. When young Temple was diagnosed with autism, no one expected her to talk, let alone become one of the most powerful voices in modern science. Yet, the determined visual thinker did just that. Her unique mind allowed her to connect with animals in a special way, helping her invent groundbreaking improvements for farms around the globe. The Girl Who Thought in Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin is the first book in a brand new educational series about the inspirational lives of amazing scientists. 

The Tree Lady

Katherine Olivia Sessions never thought she’d live in a place without trees. After all, Kate grew up among the towering pines and redwoods of Northern California. But after becoming the first woman to graduate from the University of California with a degree in science, she took a job as a teacher far south in the dry desert town of San Diego, where there were almost no trees.

Kate decided that San Diego needed trees more than anything else. So this trailblazing young woman singlehandedly started a massive movement that transformed the town into the green, garden-filled oasis it is today. Now, more than 100 years after Kate first arrived in San Diego, her gorgeous gardens and parks can be found all over the city.

Swimming with Sharks

Before Eugenie Clark's groundbreaking research, most people thought sharks were vicious, blood-thirsty killers. From the first time she saw a shark in an aquarium, Japanese-American Eugenie was enthralled. Instead of frightening and ferocious eating machines, she saw sleek, graceful fish gliding through the water. Focused on becoming an ichthyologist (a fish scientist) and undeterred by the lack of women in her field, Clark took every relevant class available, earning a master's degree in zoology. After she became a scientist—still an unexpected career path for a woman in the 1940s—she began taking research dives and training sharks, earning her the nickname "The Shark Lady." Lang's wonder-filled narrative makes for an inspiring tale of a successful female scientist, with a decided emphasis on her successes. Solano's gorgeous illustrations, done in a soothing, muted palette of greens and blues, suggest the ocean and enhance this selection's appeal. 

Me...Jane

In his characteristic heartwarming and minimalistic style, Patrick McDonnell tells the story of a young Jane Goodall and her special childhood toy chimpanzee named Jubilee. As the young Jane observes the natural world around her with wonder, she dreams of 'a life living with and helping all animals,' until one day she finds that her dream has come true. One of the world's most inspiring women, Dr. Jane Goodall is a renowned humanitarian, conservationist, animal activist, environmentalist, and United Nations Messenger of Peace. With anecdotes taken directly from Jane Goodall's autobiography, McDonnell makes this very true story accessible for the very young - and young at heart

The Doctor with an Eye for Eyes

If you like to think big, but some say you're too small, or they say you're too young or too slow or too tall... Meet Dr. Bath-the scientist who never lost sight of her dreams. As a girl coming of age during the Civil Rights Movement, Patricia Bath made it her mission to become a doctor. When obstacles like racism, poverty, and sexism threatened this goal, she persevered-brightening the world with a game-changing treatment for blindness! The Doctor with an Eye for Eyes: The Story of Dr. Patricia Bath is the second book in a brand new educational series about the inspirational lives of amazing scientists. 

Rachel Carson and Her Book That Changed the World

In 2014 it was the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Silent Spring, the seminal environmental science book. This is a biography of the pioneering environmentalist. "Once you are aware of the wonder and beauty of earth, you will want to learn about it," wrote Rachel Carson,  who wrote Silent Spring, the book that woke people up to the harmful impact humans were having on our planet.

Ada Lovelace, Poet of Science

From nonfiction stars Diane Stanley and Jessie Hartland comes a beautifully illustrated biography of Ada Lovelace, who is known as the first computer programmer. Two hundred years ago, a daughter was born to the famous poet, Lord Byron, and his mathematical wife, Annabella. Like her father, Ada had a vivid imagination and a creative gift for connecting ideas in original ways. Like her mother, she had a passion for science, math, and machines. It was a very good combination. Ada hoped that one day she could do something important with her creative and nimble mind. A hundred years before the dawn of the digital age, Ada Lovelace envisioned the computer-driven world we know today. And in demonstrating how the machine would be coded, she wrote the first computer program. She would go down in history as Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer. Diane Stanley's lyrical writing and Jessie Hartland's vibrant illustrations capture the spirit of Ada Lovelace and bring her fascinating story vividly to life. 

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Editorial content writer at Bookwitty. Lives up to her name by having a housemate called Watson, but is still working on the violin-playing and crime-solving.

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