Illustrating the Illustrious Women of History: Picture Books to Inspire Young Feminists
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This is a time for women’s voices to be heard, there’s no doubt about that. Whether it’s the women of the #MeToo moment calling for change and action, or whether it’s the success of female led projects, in films like Wonder Woman or Ladybird, women are coming forward to tell their stories. There are more and more inspirational role models, for young people and especially young women. But there have always been extraordinary women who have transformed the world around them, and with more contemporary female voices coming to the fore, the time has also come for women in history to get their moment in the spotlight. In the last few years, there has been an explosion of books about them for children and teens. These wonderful illustrated compendiums of various fascinating historical figures highlight the achievements of women throughout history in all kinds of capacities, and will hopefully inspire young girls to reach new heights, and for us all to build a world of equality.
These books are typically structured to give us snapshot views of the lives of various women in history. Their formats make them ideal for light bedtime reading, or to leave out to flick through. There will obviously be quite a bit of crossover between these books, but the hope is to highlight the wide variety of styles and approaches available so you can pick one or more that are particularly to your tastes or to the tastes of those reading them.
In this article we are focussing on books that offer examples of women from all walks of life, in all kinds of professions, and with all kinds of interests. We hope soon to have reading lists that are more tailored to specific interests, such as women in science or politics, but for now these books will give a taste of the enormous range of ways in which women have changed history.
Read our recommendations for picture books of women in science: Changing the SySTEM: Illustrating the Lives of Women in Science
Perhaps the most famous of the books on this list, Good Night Rebel Girls has taken the world by storm. This was the book that started a cascade of feminist books for young readers; indeed almost all the books on this list have followed its pioneering footsteps. It has been translated into 30 languages, bringing it to audiences all around the world, and a second volume was published, giving us two books, each with a hundred stories, that look at women from the world over, and from every time in history. This book is in the vignette style, a double page spread, with a portrait on one page, and a short account of the person's life on the other. The collection is illustrated by 60 artists, all women, who provide unique and stunning portraits of the historical figures.
These are not accounts of perfect, unattainable women, many are messy and flawed, and some will not be to the everyone’s taste, but this is exactly as it should be. This is a spotlight on women who pushed boundaries and broke rules, and with 200 stories told, these books provide a comprehensive look at the enormously different ways women have impacted history. The book’s co-authors Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo, do an excellent job of compressing the fascinating and complex lives of these women into bite-sized chunks. The more complex elements are nicely synthesised, while leaving enough gripping detail to keep readers’ attention.
As mentioned, these books are part of a wave of similarly structured books showcasing the incredible achievements of women around the world. While they have many similarities, each has its own particular style of illustration, or approach to the topic. We’re displaying a few of them here as a taster so that you'll be able to pick out the ones that most appeal to you.
First is the only book in this article to have come before Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, it also differs from the majority of the list, as it is aimed at teenagers, rather than children.
Rad Women Worldwide: Artists and Athletes, Pirates and Punks, and Other Revolutionaries Who Shaped History is the follow on book to Rad American Women A-Z, written by Kate Schatz and illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl. Both books look at women who were trailblazing forces of their time. In striking graphic-design style illustrations, this book has less whimsy and a bit more grit, and aims to inspire teenager readers to take on the world around them.
Taking a similar approach of looking at the women who broke new ground and broke down barriers throughout history, Bygone Badass Broads, written by Mackenzi Lee is filled with stunning block colour illustrations by Petra Eriksson. Just released, this book is targeted to pre-teens, a slightly younger audience than Rad American Women and it has its own offbeat way of describing these fierce ladies of history. Finally, we’re returning to a younger audience, with another book released in 2018, Anthology of Amazing Women, written by Sandra Lawrence and illustrated by Nathan Collins. Wonderfully uplifting and cheerful, these cleverly illustrated portraits include key objects and places in the women’s lives. Lawrence does an excellent job of selecting women who aren’t typically highlighted, while including those that can’t be omitted. A particular favourite entry was for Anita Roddick, creator of The Body Shop franchise, and a champion of ethical and environmental businesses.
Moving away from these vignette-style books, the next book in our recommendations takes a very different angle in illustrating the lives of women in history. Three Cheers for Women! by Marcia Williams takes us through a wide range of women in history in a charming comic-strip style that will draw in even reluctant readers.
Williams is famous for this style, and it can be found in her other beloved books in which she delves into famous times in history and works of literature, including Ancient Egypt: Tales of Gods and Pharaohs and Mr William Shakespeare's Plays. Filled with fun facts and jokes, the book's illustrations have lots of quirky details to enjoy. The busy style may be distracting for some young readers, but for many it allows lots of space for exploration, and gives a sense that the stories are joyfully bursting over the edges. The book has over 70 stories of women who, for the most part, are a well-established part of the historical canon. However Williams does make a concerted effort to make sure this collection is diverse, as so much of the historical canon focuses on white Europeans. Aimed at 7 years and up, this jubilant collection certainly feels like a celebration of the incredible women who have made their mark on history.
Written and illustrated by Kate Pankhurst, a descendant of suffragist icon Emmeline Pankhurst, these books deliver a lively and fresh look at some iconic women in history, aimed at 5-12 year olds. Illustrated in a scrapbook style, the books take us all around the world, with many snippets of information, quirky cutouts and doodles. This illustration style is lovely, and it helps break up the information into fun and interesting chunks. Like the previous recommendation from Marcia Williams, these books are perfect for readers who struggle to enjoy learning history, or who have a hard time getting into reading, but the stories are captivating for readers at all levels. Also, like Williams’ book, Pankhurst draws a somewhat more traditional set of women in history, which makes her selection slightly less diverse than Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, although this is not to say there are not fantastic examples in the books of minority groups or global cultural backgrounds, and certainly the second book works hard to redress the imbalance. If you’re looking to focus on those women who are often underrepresented, however, then our next recommendation is for you:
Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History, by Vashti Harrison, showcases the incredible accomplishments of black women throughout history.
It should be noted that while the title is ‘Black History’, it should be noted that the book is restricted to American History (along with a newly released UK edition with British women featured). These women however, have a global appeal. There are women from a huge range of backgrounds and professions; some are better known than others, whether it’s nurse and social activist Harriet Tubman or filmmaker Julie Dash, they all have a place here.
The book started as an initiative by Harrison to post an illustration on Instagram of a remarkable black woman for each day of Black History Month in 2017. The series was wildly popular and was quickly converted to a book, with a 7-11 year old audience in mind.
The structure of the book is similar to Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, with a brief biography on one page and a portrait of the woman on the opposite page, and could have been included in those listed above, but its exclusive focus on women of colour warrants special attention.
This book marks a change from the punchy stories of Rebel Girls or the busy detail of comic strips, in fact, Harrison's book can be best described as serene. These certainly are the ‘Bold Women’ of the title but Harrison’s portraits are meant to look like young girls dressing up as these incredible women. With its pastel tones and its quietly celebratory feel, this is most certainly a charming book. Although it focuses on women in history, the book also has a section at the back for honourable mentions, which features women in modern society, such as Misty Copeland and Gabby Douglas, who show the continuing accomplishments of black women in society.
I’ll take this moment to recommend another book that does not quite fit within the remit of this article but is well worth mentioning.
Young, Gifted and Black by Jamia Wilson is a stunning book which explores 52 figures from African-American history, both men and women, and the impact their impact on the world. Like Little Leaders, this book primarily focuses on American and British history, but it does broaden its scope with the inclusion of figures such as Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan, and Pelé. This is a fantastic book to introduce young readers to a part of history that is too often overlooked, and like Little Leaders, it is written with 7-11 year olds in mind. Andrea Pippins' vibrant illustrations are utterly captivating, with their bold colours and geometric shapes. It’s hard to resist this stunning book of black history, and the men and women who played their part.
The final book on this list returns to a comic-strip style, but Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World by cartoonist Pénélope Bagieu, unlike Marcia Williams’ book, is resolutely aimed at teenagers.
It's a wonderfully irreverent look at some irreverent women in history. The book was originally a two-book series in French called Les Culottées, but even before this Bagieu was no stranger to fascinating women of history, as she has already produced a full-length graphic novel biography of Cass Elliot in California Dreamin’. Brazen represents Bagieu’s wish to tell the stories of more women, faster. Again this book has opted to put the spotlight on lesser-known names for the collection. Bagieu’s cartoons are clever, funny, and even at times a little sexy. In all they’re a lot of fun, without being flimsy, rather, Bagieu manages to get lots of information into her nine panel pages. She has a real skill with storytelling that makes her cartoon figures leap off the page. This is a really wonderful book, that is at once fantastically entertaining and a powerful testament to women of all experiences.
Cover image, a compilation of illustrations taken from Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. Frida Kahlo by Helena Morais Soares, Grace O'Malley by Kathrin Honesta, Policarpa Salavarrieta by Paola Esocbar, and Alex Wek by Bijou Karman.