Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Poetry in the Classroom - Notable Women

While growing up I liked to pretend to be famous women--Amelia Earhart, Diane Fossey, Marie Curie (apparently all dead women!), and others. I never had any aspirations to be famous, but certainly wanted to emulate some of their personal qualities. I have several books of poetry dedicated to notable women that capture some of these traits.
All by Herself: 14 Girls Who Made a Difference, written by Ann Whitford Paul and illustrated by Michael Steirnagle, is a book of biographical poems about girls who grew into women of note. The poems focus on the experiences in their early lives that helped shape who they became. You'll find verses here about Amelia Earhart, Mary Jane McLeod, Violet Sheehy, Rachel Carson, Sacajawea, Ida Lewis, Harriet Hanson, Wilma Rudolph, Wanda Gág, Kate Shelley, Pocahontas, Maria Mitchell, Golda Mabovitch (Meir), and Frances Ward. Here is an excerpt from one of the poems.
Rachel Carson

When Rachel was a child,
she hiked alone around her farm
and learned the names of flowers growing wild
and bugs and birds and trees.

When Rachel was a child,
after chores of milking cows
and making cheese, collecting eggs
she read.
Her fondness was for nature books.
Sometimes she made up stories in her head
and wrote them down.

Poem ©Ann Whitford Paul. All rights reserved.
At the beginning of the back matter you'll find this poem.
Each by herself has acted strong.
This book is short,
but could be long.
Many girls have done the same,
but there's not room
for every name.
How true. When you reach the end of this collection you'll want more poems, more stories, more information about the amazing women that have helped to shape our history. The end notes describe a bit about each girl and the experience described in the verse, as well as what the girl went on to do in adulthood. A biography for further reading is included.
Borrowed Names: Poems About Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madam C.J. Walker, Marie Curie, and Their Daughters, written by Jeannine Atkins, tells the story of three daughters moving from childhood to adulthood. Each of the three sections of the book begins with a bit of backstory about the mother and daughter and where their story in poems begins. The poems convey a real sense of person, and after reading them you feel you really know these women in an intimate way.

Irene Curie's story begins with birth of her younger sister and follows with the untimely death of her father, living with grief, her mother's second Nobel medal, war, Irene's studies at the Sorbonne, working side-by-side with her mother, and more. Here' are excerpts from two of the Curie poems.
from Without School Bells (p. 160-161)

Irene can't worry about yawns or crushes.
She needs to comprehend
the laws of radiance, reflection, refraction.
Every question and answer binds her
to the one world her mother loves.

from Paris (p. 185)

Irene and now work side by side, though Irene
can't forget one of them
keeps two Nobel Prizes in her bureau.

Poems ©Jeannine Atkins. All rights reserved.
As with the other stories in the book, Irene's ends with a section entitled Legacies, that tells of her life after her mother's death. The book ends with a timeline marking important events in the lives of the three mothers and daughters. A selected bibliography is also included.
VHERSES: A Celebration of Outstanding Women, written by J. Patrick Lewis and illustrated by Mark Summer, is a collection of 13 poems celebrating some remarkable women, including Emily Dickinson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Georgia O'Keefe, Martha Graham, Amelia Earhart, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Rachel Carson, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Fitzgerald, Gertrude Ederle, Anne Frank, Jane Goodall, and the Williams sisters (Venus and Serena). Here is the poem about Georgia O'Keefe.
Unstill Life

Master of the shifting shape,
Botanical and desertscape,

Her orchid still lifes might have meant
To call to mind a continent

Of love. The space of Western skies
Is fixed win the longhorn's empty eyes.

Romantic vistas hum out loud
Beneath the mesa's patterned cloud.

She gave bleached bones and ancient skulls
More life than living animals

That haunt the still and soft light show
Of her beloved New Mexico.

What is it if it is not art
That turns the handle of the heart?

Poem ©J. Patrick Lewis. All rights reserved.
Each of the poems is accompanied by a gorgeous portrait and a bit of interesting information about the subject.

I hope some of these poems have inspired you as much as they inspire me. If you want to learn more about notable women, visit some of these sites.
Have I missed a book of poetry about important women past or present? If so, please let me know.


  1. All By Herself is one of my favorite books ever! Thanks for highlighting it!

  2. What a thoughtful celebration, Tricia, by these wonderful authors featuring amazing women.

  3. Tricia, Thank you so much for including Borrowed Names in your good list of books. I'm also a fan of Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Story of the Greatest All-Girl Swing Band in the World by Marilyn Nelson, illus Jerry Pinkney. Because I often write about well known women, or at least those I think should be well known, I like to remind students that fame isn't the only criteria for being notable. It's nice to use a book like Tracie Vaugn Zimmer's Steady Hands: Poems about Work, that showcase the importance of librarians, dance teachers, florists, cooks, etc. who don't always get heralded.