Weekly Warm-Up: 6 Inspiring Books About Real-Life Heroines

Wondering how to celebrate Women’s History Month in your classroom this March? Why not combine it with Read Across America Day? We’ve picked six books about real-life heroines to inspire the young leaders at your school. Do you have a favorite read about a woman from history? Let us know!

1. Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted a Million Trees
by Franck Prévot, illustrated by Aurélia Fronty
Grade Level: 1–4

In 2004, the Kenyan activist Wangari Maathai received the Nobel Peace Prize for her work toward reforestation, peace, and democracy. Her organization, the Green Belt Movement, planted more than thirty million trees in just thirty years—all while employing many who may have otherwise struggled economically. Frank Prévot’s stunning picture book teaches kids about the environment, Kenyan culture, history, and more.

Dr. Wangari Maathai.
Photo by Center for Neighborhood Technology, courtesy Flickr. CC-BY-SA-2.0

“It’s almost as if Wangari Maathai is still alive, since the trees she planted still grow.”

2. Island of the Blue Dolphins
by Scott O’Dell
Grade Level: 2–5

Not all fans of this novel realize that its heroine, Karana, is loosely based on a woman whose true name and story are mysterious. She lived alone for 18 years on San Nicolas Island, now a part of California. It’s unclear whether she was stranded there or escaped to the island for refuge, but her story of surviving independently off the land is powerful either way.

The woman who inspired Island of the Blue Dolphins.
Photo by Edwin J. Hayward and Henry W. Muzzall, courtesy Southwest Museum of the American Indian and Wikimedia. Public domain.

“The Russian grasped his beard. ‘Since the sea is not yours, why do I have to give you any part?’ ‘The sea which surrounds the Island of the Blue Dolphins belongs to us,’ answered my father.’”

3. Passenger on the Pearl: The True Story of Emily Edmonson’s Flight from Slavery
by Winifred Conkling
Grade Level: 7-12

When Emily Edmonson was just 13 years old, she and her five siblings boarded a ship sailing north in search of freedom from slavery. Although this escape plan was thwarted, Emily later became a teacher at a school for young African American women. This chapter book tells an affecting personal story about the history of slavery in the United States.

This photo of an African-American school in Anthoston, Kentucky, was taken in 1916.
Photograph by Lewis Hine, courtesy the Library of Congress. Public domain.

“Emily Edmonson waited in darkness. Some time near 9 p.m. she heard a handful of dirt scatter across her bedroom window. That was it: the signal.”

4. Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music
by Margarita Engle
illustrated by Rafael López, Grade Level: P–2

Millo Castro Zaldarriaga was a Chinese-African-Cuban girl who was determined to play the drums even though society where she grew up—in 1930s Cuba—dictated only men should play. She and her sister eventually performed together in Cuba’s first all-girl dance band. Margarita Engle’s story is told as a lyrical poem, brought to life by Rafael López’s dreamlike illustrations.

These bata drums were carved in the U.S. by Harold Muñiz.
Photo by Kenneth Ritchards, courtesy Wikimedia. Public domain.

“so the drum dream girl / had to keep dreaming / quiet / secret / drumbeat / dreams.”

5. The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science
by Julie Des Jardins
Grade Level: 9–12

Though their names are not all well known, many women have left their marks on the fields of science and technology. This book highlights the life achievements of Jane Goodall, Rosalind Franklin, Barbara McClintock, and Rachel Carson, among many others.

Marie Curie.
Photo by Underwood and Underwood, courtesy the Library of Congress and Wikimedia. Public domain.

“Some fathers tell their kids about mythical, home run hitters who won the World Series…My father’s story to me was about Enrico Fermi and the scientists who created a nuclear chain reaction…”

6. Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle
by Claire A. Nivola
Grade Level: P–3

Oceanographer and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Sylvia Earle has spent more than 7,000 hours exploring underwater worlds. This beautiful picture book shares Sylvia’s story of ocean advocacy, a passion that started when she was just a young girl.

Dr. Sylvia Earle.
Photo by Susan Middleton, courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. CC-BY-2.0

“Little Sylvia would sit by herself—very still and for a very long time—waiting and watching to see what was going on in the pond, or under a fallen tree in the woods.”

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