Amazing Activists Who are Changing Our World

Amazing Activists Who are Changing Our World
Rebecca Schiller and Sophie Beer
Walker Books

Having explained on the opening pages what activism is essentially about and the wide-ranging causes people devote themselves to, author Rebecca Schiller has selected twenty awesome activists, some familiar some less well-known, to present to younger readers. She chooses widely going back as far as the 18th century – William Wilberforce, and including several contemporary figures from various parts of the world, allocating a double spread to each one. Thereon is essential biographical information along with some words about their beliefs, the reasons they acted as they did and why each one remains important today. Included for each activist is a quote that acts as a subtitle to the spread and an activity for readers and a specially nice touch is three words describing the person’s activist powers; for Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, a cyclist with a disability these are ‘optimistic, tough, active. 

For environmentalist, Aditya Mukarji, whose focus is reducing plastic pollution and who has prevented more than 26 million plastic straws being added to environmental waste, the words are ‘persuasive, responsible, methodical’ 

and attributed to biologist Wangari Maathai, creator (along with a team of helpers) of a tree planting project, The Green Belt Movement are ‘expert, hopeful, organiser’.

Visually alluring and with Sophie Beer’s striking illustrations, children will meet individuals who opposed racism, slavery, stood up for human rights, women’s rights, female empowerment, disability rights, LGBT+ rights, environmental causes, wildlife and freedom of speech. Offering a wealth of possible starting points for discussion as well as the ideas themselves, the book ends by asking its audience to think about the things they feel strongly about and to identify their own powers.

Women Who Led The Way

Women Who Led The Way
Mick Manning and Brita Granström
Otter-Barry Books

Herein, team Mike and Brita celebrate 21 inspiring women adventurers and explorers from all over the world, going back as far as the 9th century. Speaking for themselves, these women are exemplars of the huge amount of courage, determination and sheer power their achievements demonstrate against the odds: boundary breakers all for sure.

A new name to me, the first to tell her story is Aud (the deep-minded), daughter of a Viking ruler of the Hebrides, who, after her warrior son was killed in battle, secretly had a ship built and then together with a loyal crew of twenty warriors, captained a voyage of escape and discovery, eventually starting a Christian settlement on an Icelandic hillside.

French woman Jeanne Baret, disguised herself as her beloved husband’s manservant in order to accompany him on a voyage that eventually took them around the world, exploring and collecting specimens of plants, shells and stones for study, retiring to her native France ten years later, after the death of her husband.

Not all the women travelled so far from home though: In the 18th-19th century Caroline Herschel whose vision was damaged by childhood Typhus, became an astronomer who not only discovered eight comets, but was awarded a gold medal by the Royal Astronomical Society, even being elected an Honorary Member.

Some of the others featured will likely be familiar names to readers – adult ones at least. There’s Mary Anning, Harriet Tubman who escaped slavery to become an army scout and political freedom activist, undercover journalist Nellie Bly, Bessie Coleman the first African-American and Native American female to hold a pilot’s licence, Amelia Earhart (first woman pilot to fly the Atlantic), archaeologist Mary Leakey and nature conservationist Jane Goodall.

It’s impossible in a short review to name all those included herein but we meet Barbara Hillary polar explorer;

the first woman to climb to the top of Everest, and the first female amputee to climb both Everest and Mt. Vinson. Wow! “Set your goals high in life and don’t stop until you reach there.” are words spoken by this inspirational mountaineer on the final spread.

Set into many of Brita’s arresting scenes along with the main narrative, are small illustrated fact boxes, some giving dramatic moments in the life of the featured woman, others providing brief details of another one or two who followed in her footsteps.

One can’t help but feel awed by the achievements of every single one of those exceptional women. Adults who want to inspire children, either in school or at home, to reach high and never stop believing in themselves, should make sure they read this book.

She Heard the Birds

She Heard the Birds: the story of Florence Merriam Bailey
Andrea D’Aquino
Princeton Architectural Press

In this inspiring picture book biography author/illustrator Andrea D’Aquino shines a light on key moments in the life of the pioneering American ornithologist and nature activist Florence Merriam Bailey who was born in 1863.

Daughter of a camping enthusiast father and astronomer mother, Florence grew up surrounded by nature in which she developed an early interest, especially when it came to birds. These she found the most fascinating and she spent time learning as much as she could about these feathered creatures.

As a young woman, while visiting the city, Florence was appalled by the sight of people – dedicated followers of fashion – wearing hats decorated with feathers and the bodies of birds. She was even more disgusted by the sounds of the gunshots in the woods of those ornithologists who thought it acceptable to shoot birds in order to study them.

Determined to make a difference, Florence, armed only with her tools for observing birds – knew she must answer the calls for help of the birds and to do so she must dream big.

She put the information she’d collected into print, writing field guides, and other bird books some giving suggestions about how readers too could learn about these precious creatures becoming peaceful observers of birds in nature too.

Thus guns could be replaced by binoculars and listeners to their songs taking heed of her ‘Shhhhhhh! Listen. What are they saying?’would be filled with delight and share her determination to push forward crucial changes.

Thus it was that one person’s mission gradually became that of many;

the end result being that ‘The world became safer for the birds, and more beautiful for us all.’ How this was actually achieved we aren’t told but it’s evident that the millinery trade and others got the message that began with a single woman nature lover.

In her hand-painted collage, oil pastel, and pencil illustrations, Andrea D’Aquino focuses the reader’s attention on her subject’s personal mission while using rich colours to emphasise the overwhelming importance of nature and its beauty, and giving the birds centre stage.

In addition to giving more detail about Bailey’s life, the final spread contains a reminder that the struggle to protect birds continues and there are some recommendations for readers who want to help.

Great Britons

Great Britons
Imogen Russell Williams, illustrated by Sara Mulvanny
Nosy Crow

Who could fail to be moved by the stories of the fifty people featured in this selection of biographies of key figures who have made Great Britain their home, have made great contributions to society and had a significant impact upon the ways we live, think and feel in today’s world, of which Great Britain is but a small part.

Coming from many different walks of life and eras as far back as Boudicca, the warrior queen of early Britain who led the revolt against the Romans, to contemporary authors Malorie Blackman,

and Lemn Sissay, and Malala Yousafzai, who continually fights for every girl’s right to an education, each of the men and women has added to the rich diversity and talent that is Britain. Every person is allocated a bordered double spread wherein author Imogen Russell Williams highlights the key events of his/her life and their achievements, and is thoughtfully illustrated by Sara Mulvanny.

Herein readers can meet inspiring contributors to medicine, science, engineering, sport, the arts, activism, and the environment including Edith Cavell and Elsie Inglis, Alexander Fleming and Tim Berners-Lee,

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Mo Farah and Tanni Grey-Thompson, Shirley Bassey and Freddy Mercury, Paul Stephenson and David Attenborough. One name is new to me so I must mention Olaudah Equiano once a slave, who as a writer and abolitionist made an enormous difference to the fight against slavery.

A book to add to primary school libraries and family collections.

I Saw a Beautiful Woodpecker

I Saw a Beautiful Woodpecker
Michal Skibiński, illustrated by Ala Bankroft

This moving, hauntingly beautiful book, set in and close to Warsaw, tells the story of the author around the outbreak of WW2.

Assigned a summer project by his schoolteacher, unaware that war is soon to come, eight year old Michal Skibiński writes a single sentence in his notebook every day. ’15.7.1939 I walked to the brook with my brother and our nanny. ‘ ’27.7.1939 I found a big caterpillar and brought it to our garden.’

Each sentence is given its own double spread with a painting – a natural landscape and unpeopled scenery – by Ala Bankroft. Readers truly feel they’re seeing things as Michael saw them: a church window behind a shadowed stone wall; a verdant woodland – green hues prevail in what is at first, an idyllic time.

After sequences of several spreads of Ala Bankroft’s awesome paintings, the pages of Michal’s notebook written in Polish are photographically reproduced, with translations below.

Little by little though, the boy’s observations start to include images of a war slowly approaching. Then comes a stark ‘The war began’ on 1st September followed five days later by, ‘They dropped a bomb near us.’

Adult readers know that awful things are coming, as Michal still somewhat innocently says on 14th September, ‘Warsaw is defending itself bravely.’ the wooded illustration for this now having an orange sky.

Throughout, the boy’s single line entries intensify the impact of the colours used in the paintings.
Indeed it’s only by reading the notes at the end of the book that we know that his 29.8.1939 ’Daddy came to visit me.’ was to be the last time Michal saw his father. He was a pilot and leader of a Polish bomber squadron, and lost his life in a plane crash on 9th September. This powerful resonant revelation brought a lump to my throat when I read it. Here we also learn that today, Michal Skibiński lives in a retirement home for priests and a photo on the book’s back inside cover underscores just how real this story is.

Yes a thing of beauty in its own right, but this unusual, splendidly designed book would also make a good starting point for a class theme on World War 2.

Science and Me

Science and Me
Ali Winter and Mickaël El Fathi
Lantana Publishing

Following their Creators of Peace, author Ali Winter and illustrator Mickaël El Fathi present profiles of thirteen more Nobel Prize winners, this time for their work in medicine, physics and chemistry.

Coming from all over the world and starting with Marie Curie (1903) and concluding with Donna Strickland (2018 winner for laser technology), each of the laureates is given just one double spread so there’s only space for a brief biography that focuses as much on the dedication and challenges overcome as the individual’s discoveries / achievements and the social impacts thereof. For example, it took decades for the discovery of Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar relating to ‘black holes’ to be recognised.

Michaël El Fathi takes a key moment or element from each featured life as the basis for each collage illustration: for Youyou Tu it was the ancient book mentioning ‘Qinghao’, the Chinese name for herbs in the Artemisia family. From these could be extracted Artemesinin, the drug that has subsequently prevented over two hundred million people worldwide dying from malaria.

I particularly like the way in which the author involves readers in considering what science contributes to making the world a better place for us all; she does so both through the title lead in to each of the scientists as well as through the summation on the final spread, the last line of which asks “What does science mean to you?

Beatrix and her Bunnies

Beatrix and her Bunnies
Rebecca Colby and Caroline Bonne-Müller
Nosy Crow

For many adults, myself included, Beatrix Potter’s animal stories and nursery rhyme books were part and parcel of childhood. Indeed I had the entire set. How many though, are aware that Benjamin Bunny and Peter Rabbit were real live creatures that the author befriended as she was growing up. That’s getting rather ahead though, for this pictorial biography of Beatrix starts with her childhood when she lived a rather lonely existence in a large London house. Even then she was an animal lover and had lots of small creatures as pets, but nonetheless she longed for a ‘special friend’ with whom she could play.

Rebecca Colby writes of how on family visits to the countryside, Beatrix would search for wild rabbits to play with but none would stay. None that is until Benjamin. A friend at last and one that would allow his carer make lots of sketches of him, honing her drawing skills in so doing. Inevitably though, Benjamin eventually dies and once more, Beatrix feels lonely. She uses drawing and painting to lift her spirits but, it’s only when she visits the countryside that Beatrix’s drawing really flourishes.

Some time later, another rabbit enters her life, it’s Peter, a truly playful and engaging creature, much loved by visiting children.

This gives Beatrix an idea. Perhaps she can write and illustrate a story about her much-loved bunnies so that children everywhere could read about them, and so she does.

Getting Peter’s adventures published is challenging but eventually she succeeds and the book becomes a huge success, allowing her to move to the countryside where she creates lots more stories.

A lovely book for young enthusiasts of her books and of the environment about which Beatrix cared so much. The elements of Beatrix’s life are beautifully interwoven by the author, who also provides an additional final note explaining Beatrix’s connection with the National Trust (who are collaborators in its publishing) – and equally beautifully illustrated by Caroline Bonne-Miller.

The Stuff between the Stars / Get Up, Elizabeth!

The Stuff Between the Stars
Sandra Nickel and Aimée Sicuro
Abrams Books for Young Readers

This is an inspiring picture book biography of brilliant astrophysicist Vera Rubin, from the time when she was a star-gazing eleven year old who, despite opposition and ridicule

and being ignored during much of her lifetime, became, thanks to her dedication and an opportunity at the Carnegie Institution, a recognised and leading light in the field of astronomy. For it was while working at one of the Institution’s observatories that Rubin made her seminal discovery that “dark matter” explains the phenomenon that stars on the edges of the galaxy move as quickly as those at the centre—and that this dark matter makes up 80 per cent of the matter in the universe.

I love the Rubin quote at the end of the story,: ‘Each one of you can change the world, / for you are made of star stuff, / and you are connected to the universe.’

If the main body of this hugely engaging book hasn’t inspired youngsters, those words surely will. So too will Aimée Sicuro’s gorgeous watercolour, ink and charcoal illustrations that cleverly reflect Rubin’s spiralling ideas in this well researched, enormously engaging account.

An author’s note on Vera, a timeline of her life and a select bibliography conclude the book. It’s one I’d strongly recommend for primary age readers.

Get Up, Elizabeth!
Shirin Yim Bridges and Alea Marley
Cameron Books

The Elizabeth of this rhyming narrative is in fact, the child who later became Queen Elizabeth 1 of England.
It’s her morning routine we share as we hear her being roused from her slumbers. She’s then ordered by the rather impatient-sounding lady-in-waiting to submit to donning her smock, having her stockings laced, her face scrubbed and her teeth rubbed (with soot no less!). All this she tolerates with a degree of meekness but then having been laced into a petticoat,

and acquiesced to sleeve pinning, the young miss attempts to assert herself by stashing a mouse in her skirt. It’s no go though; and with her ruff duly stitched in place, there’s still that mop of unruly hair to be tackled.
Finally, she’s set to go and we watch as she stands, still seemingly meekly, before a throng of waiting subjects.

Shirin Yim Bridges’ rhyming narrative falters slightly on occasion during this chivvying regime and in this small slice of history, it’s Alea Marley’s visuals of the shock-headed miss with her radiant tresses that are the real show stoppers.

There’s a final page giving some extra details on Elizabethan fashion and routine ablutions, as well as a cheeky message from that mouse asking ‘Did you find me on all the pages?’ which adds a search-and-find element to the book. It certainly takes a bit of finding on one or two spreads.

Rashford Rules / Van Dijk Rules / Be Your Own Football Hero: Ronaldo

Rashford Rules
Van Dijk Rules

Simon Mugford and Dan Green
Welbeck Publishing

These two highly illustrated biographies are the first in a series of Football Superstarsand both author Simon and illustrator Dan are soccer fans themselves, supporting Ipswich Town.

Marcus Rashford has recently hit the headlines again with his superb campaigning for free school meals over the half-term holidays which received tremendous community support and certainly put the government to shame. The opening pages of the book acknowledge his national hero status both as an awesome goal scorer and as a charity campaigner. Readers are then told what makes him the brilliant player that he is, and can also discover some statistical information.
Divided into short chapters, there’s information on his Manchester childhood, early achievements, his debuts including a comment by Rashford’s hero Ronaldo. Then come his path to national England player 

and the final chapter focuses on his activist charity work during the Coronavirus lockdown. All this and he’s still only in his early 20s.
The book ends with a quiz and some key soccer words as does the companion book Van Dijk Rules

This follows a similar pattern, giving facts about achievements, his early life in the city of Breda in the Netherlands as a child who always had a football at his feet, and how he progressed from over-grown, sometimes troubled teenager with a part-time job washing dishes in a local restaurant, through his successes with Celtic 

and Liverpool, and as captain of the Dutch team. Both this and the previous title are enormously engaging for young soccer enthusiasts especially. Dan Green’s black and white illustrations capture the essence of the individuals and add additional detail and humour to Simon Mugford’s accessible writing.

Be Your Own Football Hero: Ronaldo
Matt and Tom Oldfield
Studio Press

The Oldfield brothers invite youngsters to don football boots and participate in a decision-making activity as they select one or other of the options presented at intervals throughout the book. There are many choices to be made in the world of a soccer professional such as Cristiano Ronaldo, some of which take the reader along the path taken by the real Ronaldo, others are would-be alternative realities – what might have beens.
Readers are taken back to Ronaldo’s childhood when as son of encouraging, soccer-enthusiast, hard-up parents. the football mad boy has his chance to go and play with his cousin at a Andorinha training session. It turns out to be something of a disappointment so what is your response when your dad asks if you enjoyed it? Time for that first decision …
And so it continues.

I’m not a football fan, but to readers from around six or seven, I can perfectly understand the allure of these books, written by the authors of the Ultimate Football Heroes biography series.