Osha Lynette Smith
As a teacher, I am passionate about providing my students opportunities to learn about persons who have done great things but are less well-known. I call them “Unsung Heroes.” These persons of color and diverse ethnicities and gender identities who have contributed to society in powerful ways are represented in the inspiring recently published books in this column.
Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer. Traci Sorell. Illus. by Natasha Donovan. (2021). Millbrook.
Traci Sorell tells the life story of Mary Golda Ross (1908-2008) noting the presence of Cherokee values in each step of Mary’s journey. In the early 1900s girls were not expected to love math and science, but Mary excelled in these subjects. She went on to attend the teachers college her grandfather, the Chief of the Cherokee Nation, helped found. During World War II, Mary became a mathematician for the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, but she faced challenges. Wanting to design and build aircraft and spacecraft, Mary became Lockheed’s first female engineer and blazed the path for other women to join the field. Throughout her career, Mary modeled the Cherokee values of working in cooperation with others, staying humble regarding one’s accomplishments, and ensuring equal education and opportunities for everyone. Back matter includes a timeline, an author’s note, information on Cherokee values, source notes, and a bibliography. (Gr 3-5)
Claudette Colvin (She Persisted). Lesa Cline-Ransome. Illus. by Gillian Flint. (2021). Philomel.
Many people attribute the start of the Civil Rights movement to Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a bus to a white woman, but Black fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin (b. 1939) was actually the first to take a stand for her rights in this way. Lesa Cline-Ransome tells Claudette’s story in an engaging easy-to read text. She tells of Claudette’s childhood when she and her sister were sent to live with their aunt and uncle in the small town of Pine Level, Alabama, and the education she received, both in school and in church. Claudette was inquisitive and constantly asked questions. Learning that God created everyone equal, Claudette questioned, “Why aren’t Black people treated as equals?” When her sister, Delphine, became sick with polio and died, she asked, “Why Delphine?” These critical questions spurred Claudette to stand up for her rights, an action that contributed to the desegregation of the Montgomery city buses in 1956. Also included is an introduction by Chelsea Clinton and a list of ways readers can make a difference. (PreK Up)
Dennis Brutus: Poet and Political Activist (Discovering History’s Heroes). Craig Ellenport. (2021). Aladdin.
Craig Ellenport introduces middle-grade readers to Dennis Brutus (1924-2009), who was born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Growing up in South Africa, Dennis was affected by the inequities of apartheid. His mixed-race parents were classified as “colored,” and the family was subjected to segregation and discrimination. During his life, Dennis Brutus was banned from teaching and was not permitted to publish his poetry in South Africa. He was also shot and imprisoned. Upon his release from Robben Island Prison after serving eighteen months of hard labor, he promised Nelson Mandela that he would do everything possible to put an end to apartheid. Ultimately, he was exiled from South Africa and went to London where he continued his anti-apartheid activism. Coming to the U.S. in 1970, he taught at various universities, published his poetry, and continued his political activism before permanently returning to South Africa in 2002. Readers will find Dennis Brutus’s life story fascinating and inspiring. Back matter includes a glossary, endnotes, and a bibliography (Gr 3-5)
The Fearless Flights of Hazel Ying Lee. Julie Leung. Illus. by Julie Kwon. (2021). Little, Brown.
Hazel Ying Lee (1912-1944), who was fearless and strived to be the first and the fastest as a young girl, knew she wanted to become a pilot after taking her first airplane ride. She earned her pilot’s license, but no one wanted to hire a Chinese American woman. During World War II, Hazel signed up for a new program, the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), and became the first Chinese American woman to fly for the U.S. military. Since women were not permitted to fight, the WASPs tested and ferried planes to bases. Julie Leung allows the reader to feel Hazel’s conflict as she describes how, when in the air, no one judge her as not an American. Julie Kwon’s illustrations are boldly colored and expressive. Hazel, who died in a plane crash in 1944, did not receive military honors and was not permitted to be buried in a white’s-only cemetery. Her family fought against this ruling and won. The author’s note provides additional information on this brave and determined woman. (PreK Up)
Grace Banker and Her Hello Girls Answer the Call: The Heroic Story of WW I Telephone Operators. Claudia Friddell. Illus. by Elizabeth Baddeley. (2021). Calkins Creek.
Claudia Friddell’s biography of Grace Banker (1892-1960) honors Grace and her brave World War I team of telephone operators, known as the Hello Girls. Women were not permitted to serve in the army—nor could they vote—but twenty-five-year-old Grace became the Chief Operator of the U.S. Signal Corps. Friddell chronicles the dangers and discomforts the women faced crossing the Atlantic on the Celtic and in the Paris headquarters of the American Expeditionary Force. The reader sees Grace as a hard and dedicated worker yet she was the life of the party and a prankster. “Our office is most primitive. Three switchboards, not another stick of furniture . . . I wouldn’t exchange this bare office for any other. I love it here.” Grace received the Distinguished Service Medal in 1919, “for exceptionally meritorious and distinguished services.” Friddell includes photos, a detailed timeline, notes, and a bibliography. (Gr 3-5)
June Almeida, Virus Detective!: The Woman Who Discovered the First Human Coronavirus. Suzanne Slade. Illus. by Elisa Paganelli. (2021). Sleeping Bear.
In this engaging and well-designed picture book biography, Suzanne Slade describes how, at the age of thirty-four, June Almeida (1930-2007) discovered the first human coronavirus. June’s interest in science and desire to help sick people began at a young age, but she was not able to attend college. Nevertheless, she was determined to pursue her interests in science and began working in a hospital lab. Later, June worked at a lab in Canada where she used a powerful electron microscope that magnified things 25,000 times and allowed her to clearly distinguish viruses from cells. In 1964, she worked in a London lab using a technique called negative staining and discovered a mystery virus that, because it looked like a crown, was given the name coronavirus. After returning to Canada, she continued studying other disease-causing viruses. Back matter includes a “More About June” section with photographs, an illustrated timeline of virologist June Almeida’s life and work, and a bibliography. (PreK Up)
The Leaf Detective: How Margaret Lowman Uncovered Secrets in the Rainforest. Heather Lang. Illus. by Jana Christy. (2021). Calkins Creek.
“We are part of our ecosystem, not outside it.” This epigraph is the perfect opening to this biography of Margaret “Canopy Meg” Lowman (b. 1953). Heather Lang’s lyrical text is rich in figurative language as she talks about the accomplishments of this intriguing scientist, who “stuck like sap to her passion” As a young girl, Meg was a “leaf detective.” In college, she faced sexism as the only woman in her science classes, but persevered and became the first graduate student at Sydney University to study the tropical rainforests of Australia. The text is peppered with quotes, and related information is presented in leaf-shaped text boxes. Jana Christy’s vibrant, richly detailed digital illustrations show the reader Meg’s exploration of the secret world of the rainforest canopy and how she has educated people about rainforests and the need to adopt sustainable practices for conserving them. Back matter includes an author’s note with photographs; a “Rainforest Magic” double-page spread showing the layers of the rainforest—forest floor, understory, canopy, and emergent layer—and their inhabitants; books, videos, and websites; and source notes. (PreK Up)
Saving American Beach: The Biography of African American Environmentalist MaVynee Betsch. Heidi Tyline King. Illus. by Ekua Holmes. (2021). Putnam.
Heidi Tyline King presents the life story of MaVynne Betsch (1935-2005), an African American environmentalist and activist, in an engaging writing style. Abraham Lincoln Lewis, MaVynee’s grandfather, purchased the beach front he named American Beach because he wanted all people to be able to use it, unlike the segregated beaches and other such areas in Florida. Returning home after a career as a world-famous opera singer, MaVynee restored the neglected beach, cleaning it up and planting trees and flowers. Later she fought against development of the beach for condominiums and led the petitioning of President George W. Bush to sign a law protecting American Beach forever. Ekua Holmes’ vibrant mixed-media illustrations beautifully capture the essence of MaVynee Betsch and American Beach. In an author’s note, Heidi Tyline King leaves the reader with a powerful message, “. . . you too, will experience sadness in your life, often by something that is not your own doing. Will it destroy you, or will you use it for good, like the Beach Lady?” Back matter includes individual notes from Heidi Tyline King and Ekua Holmes. (PreK Up)
Susan La Flesche Picotte: Pioneering Doctor (Discovering History’s Heroes). Diane Bailey. (2021). Aladdin.
Susan La Flesche Picotte (1865-1915) was the first Native American woman to earn a medical degree. Deeply affected by watching an old woman die on her Omaha Reservation while waiting for a doctor who never showed up and angered by this injustice, she was determined to become a doctor. Susan persisted in her desire to make changes to help her people. In 1910, she went to Washington, D.C. to speak to government officials about issues the Omaha Tribe was facing. Susan was tiny and spoke her powerful words softly. “We are not stones—we are not driftwood. We have feelings, thoughts, hopes. We have suffered enough from your experiments.” Her words made a difference in getting government officials to change their policies related to the Omaha Tribe. She returned to the reservation in Nebraska to provide care for anyone who needed medical support. Diane Bailey engages the reader with this heartfelt, inspiring life story of a Native American women that shows how injustice can be fought with education and determination. Back matter includes a glossary, endnotes, and bibliography. (Gr 3-5)
Who Is Neil deGrasse Tyson? Pam Pollack & Meg Belviso. Illus. by Manuel Gutierrez. (2021). Penguin Workshop.
On June 30, 1973, an African American fourteen-year-old boy from the Bronx watched a total eclipse of the sun while on board the ocean liner SS Canberra, a floating laboratory full of scientists sharing their knowledge. This boy was Neil deGrasse Tyson (b. 1958), who was on this ship because he had won a scholarship from The Explorers Club, a New York City club dedicated to science. Neil had a front row seat! He was also a participant in their experiments and shared in discussions with the scientists and astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Scott Carpenter. Tyson, who has been interested in all things related to the universe since visiting the Hayden Planetarium in New York City when he was nine, is now the director of the planetarium. Pam Pollack and Meg Belviso weave in information on interest-catching topics such as NASA, Star Wars, Carl Sagan, and climate change as they share the life story of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson in this engaging book in the Who Was? biography series for young readers. Back matter includes a timeline of Neil’s accomplishments as well as a timeline of the world and a bibliography. (Gr 3 Up)
Osha Lynette Smith serves as Contributing Faculty in the Richard W. Riley College of Education and Leadership for Walden University.