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Women Scientists in Novels

  • April 29, 2011 5:15 pm

This post is a bit of a departure from the premise of my web site. The novels featured below are not published by small publishers, nor are they specifically for young people. Nevertheless, I thought they would be of interest to teachers, parents, and teens looking to read and recommend novels featuring women scientists.

The following novels are ones that I’ve enjoyed and consider to be “good literature.” The novels below are realistic works of fiction—not science fiction. The science in these books is prominent and a main part of the story.

Interestingly, most of these books feature two women scientists who are friends and/or colleagues.

If you have other books to add to this list, please feel free to leave a comment below.

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier — A historical novel based on the lives of two real women fossil hunters in the early 1800s: Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot. Anning, from a working-class family, started hunting fossils to sell as a way to increase her family’s income, and ended up finding several large skeletons of extinct marine reptiles. Philpot, a middle-class lady, hunted fossils to pass the time, and amassed a respected collection of fossil fish. The novel chronicles their friendship, as well as their efforts to be noticed and included in the male-only scientific community of the time. This book would be a good companion read with Persuasion by Jane Austen. Remarkable Creatures takes place in the English seaside town of Lyme Regis at the same time that Jane Austen lived and wrote. A portion of Persuasion also takes place in Lyme Regis.

The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh — A beautiful, absorbing, unusual book about an Indian-American cetologist (dolphin researcher) working in the Sunderbans, a group of tropical, tiger-infested islands off the coast of India. Piya, the cetologist, befriends an illiterate fisherman, Fokir, who has an amazing self-taught knowledge of river dolphins. Although they don’t share a language, they manage to communicate enough to collaborate on tracking the movements of these dolphins. The final storm scene is gripping and poignant.

Intuition by Allegra Goodman — Two of the main characters are women scientists: Robin, a single 38-year-old post doctoral student researching cures for cancer, and Marion, a married mother who is co-director of the lab where Robin works. The story revolves around Robin’s attempt to prove that the remarkable results produced by her former boyfriend are the result of false data. Is Robin motivated by jealousy, or by a dedication to scientific rigor? Why does Marion fail to support Robin in her quest for accuracy and truth? The characters in this novel are complex and the lab scenes are full of detail. This would be a great book to spark discussions of issues like jealousy, competition, ambition, and collaboration.

Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver – There are two women scientists in this book: Deanna, a 47-year-old wildlife biologist who studies coyotes, and Lusa, a twenty-something entomologist interested in moths. During the summer of this story, these two women, who happen to live in an isolated Appalachian town, attempt to engage with and educate the farmers and hunters in their area about the importance of wildlife and nature. The story also deals with the fertility, mating, and reproduction that goes on among humans and animals during this one “prodigal summer.”

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett — again, two women scientists are featured in this novel. Forty-two-year-old Marina Singh is a pharmaceutical researcher who is sent to the Amazon rainforest to track down 73-year-old Annick Swenson, an aloof researcher who has been living with an Amazon tribe for years, researching a fertility drug. Annick is a former medical school professor of Marina’s, but while Marina revered her teacher, Annick doesn’t remember her student.  While in the rainforest, Marina also wants to investigate the mysterious death of her colleague Anders Eckman. This novel has a strong plot and a fascinating setting.

Lacey and the African Grandmothers

  • March 13, 2011 7:38 pm

Click on picture to purchase book

This is another unusual novel from the Kids’ Power Series from Second Story Press in Canada. It is based on the true story of Lisa Jo Sun Walk, who as a teenager helped raise money for African grandmothers.

Lacey, a 12-year-old Blackfoot girl living in Alberta, Canada, learns about the plight of African grandmothers raising their grandchildren orphaned by AIDS. Although Lacey’s life is very difficult–she is one of 8 siblings in a poor family–she is determined to participate in the Grandmothers to Grandmothers program.

With her grandmother’s help, Lacey learns to sew and decorate purses and bags. Community members donate fabric, decorations, and time, and together they make about 30 purses, which they sell to raise money for the African grandmothers.

Then, Lacey learns something amazing: two African grandmothers are touring Canada to publicize the Grandmothers to Grandmothers program, and they want to come see her and her community! The entire community works together to prepare food, gifts, and performances for Florence and Zubeda from Kenya. Lacey realizes that these African grandmothers remind her of the elders in her own community.

The book is illustrated with actual photographs of tote bags made by Lisa Jo Sun Walk and her family and friends, and photos of the African grandmothers’ visit.

Based on reading level alone, this book would be appropriate for kids 8 and up. However, because of some mature content, I would recommend it for kids 11 and up. For example, Lacey’s 17-year-old sister is in a relationship with a young man who is verbally abusive to her. Teen pregnancy is front and center, since much of the book takes place at an alternative high school for girls who have given birth.

This inspiring book is highly recommended. I have included it on my girls list.

Aruna’s Journeys: Authentic or Inaccurate?

  • March 6, 2011 12:53 pm

I was surprised to see, recently, a whole bunch of new reviews of my book Aruna’s Journeys on Amazon.com. It appears that these reviews are from young Indian-American readers.

The reviews were mixed: one recent reviewer liked it because “in this book I felt as if India was important. Some characters in this book were supportive, and liked India.” Another reviewer said “I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, because they will get the wrong idea about Indians.” One reader said that the book “made me feel different. I felt that I wasn’t something good, like all Indians/Indian Americans were bad. But they did show our traditions and stories.”  Another reader assumed that I was trying to show “how all Indian Americans acted when talking about their culture.”

I found it interesting, and somewhat dismaying, that all these reviewers assumed that I was trying to say something universal about all Indian-Americans, or all Indians, or even all of India, in my little book. Why did they assume that this book, and the character of Aruna, was representative of all India or all Indian-Americans? Why did these reviewers assume that if a character in the book behaved in a negative manner, then that meant that all Indians are bad? Why did one reader feel bad about being an Indian-American after reading this book?

It was certainly not my intention to speak for all Indians or all  Indian-Americans with Aruna’s Journeys. It is a book based on my own childhood, and although it is fiction, it includes details that I picked up through many childhood trips to India, and through being part of an Indian-American community in northeastern Ohio. So I hope it seems authentic, and I hope kids of many different cultures find something to identify with.

But since India is extremely diverse, one book cannot hope to universally represent all Indians or all Indian-Americans. After thinking about this, I believe that the readers quoted above came to assume that Aruna represents all Indian-Americans because there are so very few realistic novels about Indian-American kids out there. Most of the children’s books that deal with India are folk-tales. They do not feature realistic characters who are of Indian origin and living in America.

After all, when a reader reads a book such as Ramona the Pest, they don’t complain that Ramona makes them feel bad to be a white girl! Or they don’t say that the book shows that the United States is important! They just view it as the story of one particular girl with her own unique concerns.

We need more realistic novels about Indian-American children, to show the diversity of lives of Indian-Americans. Then maybe Aruna can go back to being just one girl with her own unique concerns, instead of some sort of mascot for Indian-Americans, which she was never intended to be!

Here are a few other books about East Indian-American children for ages 8-12:

  • Blue Jasmine by Kashmira Sheth — a lovely story about an 11-year-old girl who moves from a small town in India to Iowa City. As she struggles to fit in, she also develops compassion for a poor girl she had shunned back in India.  
  • Seaglass Summer by Anjali Banerjee — my husband read this book to our 8-year-old son, and they both loved it. Poppy is an 11-year-old Indian-American girl who wants to be a veterinarian. She gets to spend the summer with her Uncle Sanjay, a veterinarian on an island near Seattle. This book contains lots of great details about animal care.  Indian culture is not front and center in this book, but I found this realistic since none of us thinks about our culture all the time.

By the way, I would like to thank the readers who posted reviews. These reviews have given me a lot of food for thought.

Kids Changing the World

  • January 15, 2011 1:28 pm

I love books about kids taking action to help others and make the world a better place. Children’s talents and abilities are underused in this world, I believe. Young people are often seen as incapable of holding valid opinions or exercising leadership. We generally do not allow children or young people a voice or any responsibility in running their own schools or communities.

Here are a couple of recent books which profile children and teenagers who have taken on leadership roles and made a difference in the world.   I hope that books like these will encourage adults to train young people for leadership roles, and to share leadership and responsibility with young people in an appropriate way.

Click on the titles below to buy these books.

Our Earth: How Kids are Saving the Planet, by Janet Wilson features full-color, two-page spreads about 10 young people from around the world, as well as shorter profiles of 20 more. At the back of the book are suggestions for how readers can get involved and make a difference. My son and I enjoyed reading about William Kamkwamba of Malawi, who put together windmills using salvaged parts; Kruti Parekh of India, who incorporates environmental messages in her magic shows; Fang Minghe of China, who takes photos of illegal wildlife being sold in order to help the police catch these criminals; and all the other young people in this book.

Real Kids, Real Stories, Real Change by Garth Sundem profiles 30 young people from around the world. The profiles are grouped into five categories: Kids Saving the Environment; Kids Standing Up for Themselves; Kids Helping Others; Kids Overcoming Challenges; and Kids Using Talents and Creativity. Unfortunately, this book includes no actual pictures or photos of the kids that are profiled. Despite this drawback, it is an inspiring book. Some of the young people in this book are also featured in Our Earth, but many are different.

I have included these books on both my girls and boys lists.

Tao-Girls Rule! by CJ Golden

  • October 24, 2010 2:12 pm

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The subtitle of this book is: “Finding balance, staying confident, being bold, in a world of challenges.” Tao-Girls Rule! is a cross between a self-help book and a pep talk, with advice based on the ancient Chinese philosophy of Tao.

According to this book, a Tao-Girl is tenacious, accepting, optimistic, grateful, imaginative, radiant, and loving. Chapters are organized around these seven qualities, and explain how girls can use Tao principles such as “tzu jan,” “wu-wei,” and “yin-yang” to deal with life’s challenges.

The author, CJ Golden, has worked with Girls Scouts of the USA to present Tao-Girls workshops, and stories from these girls are included throughout the book. Golden’s web site, www.taogirl.com, also features stories from girls who have completed her workshops.

I liked this book and I would recommend it, but I did not like some of the silhouette images on the cover. A couple of the images show girls with skirts that are far too short (in my opinion). All the girls on the cover are very thin. I do like the image of the girl in lotus posture. I would hope that, in a future edition of the book, the author and publisher would find a way to include silhouettes or drawings of a more realistic representation of teenaged girls on the cover.

That said, don’t judge this book by its cover! The advice inside is invaluable. I wish I’d had this book as I was growing up.

I have included this book on my girls’ book list.