Women Scientists Are Not Unicorns: Picture Books for Fighting the Good Fight

800px-Chemical_compound_being_drawnLast Wednesday, the person who runs the wildly popular “I fucking love science” Facebook page, as well as its counterpart Science is Awesome, finally got a Twitter account. A link to this shiny new account got Elise Andrew an unexpected response: mass shock at her profile picture.

“You’re a girl?!?,” people gasped. “HOT HOT HOT,” many added helpfully. The strangely breathy comment thread prompted a burst of blog posts raising eyebrows at the apparent assumption that science is a male-only interest, and that a woman’s physical appearance is relevant to every discussion, even that of a science writer.

In the wake of this kerfuffle, perhaps it’s time to read kids some books that don’t act like female scientists are unicorns? The “IFLS” conversation owes a great deal to the stereotype of the middle-aged white male scientist, an image that’s still being planted firmly in children’s minds. These limiting assumptions start early, but they don’t just sprout up from nothingness: when we change what children see, the scientists in their minds (and in their futures!) change, too.

Here’s a sad story, though. Recently I headed to a bookstore and asked for help finding “picture books that include women scientists, or girls or women science nerds, or women science teachers, that sort of thing.” The children’s literature salesperson pondered and scanned shelves while making noncommittal noises for several minutes before admitting defeat. “I just can’t think of anything that specific. We have books about strong little girls, but … picture books about science for little girls?” “Or boys,” I added pointedly. She brightened visibly: “Oh, they can be about boys?” Sigh: “No, I mean, boys can read about women scientists, too.”

I am here to assure you that books for young children do sometimes celebrate, highlight, and—most refreshingly—simply assume the existence of women in science. Here are some picture books that do right by the world’s female science nerds:

  • Let’s start with a classic: Joanna Cole’s Magic School Bus books (after 1985) are awesome, nonsexist science fun. Quirky, smart, risk-friendly science teacher Ms. Frizzle takes her students on fantastic science adventures without gendered nonsense, and readers learn lots along the way.
  • Ornithologist and artist Sophie Webb has written three research-journal-style books for young people, including the beautiful Far from Shore. Webb’s work focuses on the experience of field research rather than on textbook-like scientific facts, which makes it a valuable way to talk about science as an exciting process. Webb herself is a woman, and her illustrations feature both men and women going about their work as a team of scientists.
  • An excellent introduction to fossilization and paleontology, Jacqui Bailey’s Monster Bones: The Story Of A Dinosaur Fossil follows a single dinosaur’s path from living creature to museum exhibit. Three cheers for referring to the dinosaur and other fossilized creatures as “it” rather than the default “he,” for making the lead scientist and about half the humans in the images women, and for including a significant proportion of people of color, all without making a fuss over it.
  • Patrick McDonnell’s, Me, Jane  is a well-designed, visually appealing, and evocative book that focuses on Jane Goodall’s childhood. I like that this one emphasizes Goodall’s deep curiosity, hard work, and commitment to a dream that everybody but her mom kinda scoffed at. A great way to start a conversation about Goodall, chimpanzees, careers in science, and conservation.
  • I’ll close with a book by a real live girl science enthusiast, Olivia Bouler. Bouler is an aspiring ornithologist who, at age 11, wanted to help the birds affected by the Gulf Coast oil spill, contacted the Audubon society, and started selling her detailed bird art to raise funds. Olivia’s Birds: Saving the Gulf isn’t about Bouler being a girl who’s into science: instead, Bouler herself expresses her delightfully nerdy ornithological passion through cool facts about birds. Meanwhile, her very existence shows that girls can, indeed, be into science.

Tell us more! Please leave other great women-in-science titles and authors in the comments.

Molly Westerman is a feminist writer, book nerd, PhD, and parent. She talks pregnancy, birth, parenting, and gender at First the Egg, writes about children’s and young adult literature at Bitch magazine’s blog, and is currently working on a book for feminist parents.

Image via Wikimedia Commons/United States Department of Defense

  • http://www.randomhandprints.com Anna

    I recently was reading a book about inventors with my kids, and didn’t even notice until my daughter pointed it out to me that in the entire book there was only ONE woman mentioned. Thanks for all these great titles, will be sure to share them with my daughter!

  • http://www.sheheroes.org/2009/12/sheheroes-episode-2-professor-margaret-murnane-2/ Sophia

    Check out our online videos of women shattering glass ceilings
    here are 2 in science – a physicist
    http://www.sheheroes.org/2009/12/sheheroes-episode-2-professor-margaret-murnane-2/
    and surgeon
    http://www.sheheroes.org/2011/12/sheheroes-episode-9-dr-verna-gibbs/
    donate to support more videos in science or whatever field you want someone profiled in. =)

    I don’t have specific scientist women picture books – but I do have general power women picture books – Madame President, Tough Chicks by Mimi Ceng is GREAT,

  • Lara

    In fiction, check out the Franny K Stein, Mad Scientist books. Goofy kid humor, not fine literature, but a lot of fun. Tangentially, the Guinea PI series is adorable, cute and clever humor without potty talk; the main character is a brilliant, gruff and resourceful female guinea pig, reluctantly become “PI” instead of “PIG” when the “G” falls off her sign and one of the hamsters in the pet shop begs her to solve a mystery. In both of these series, no one comments on the fact that the main character is female in a role stereotyped as male. I read these with my boys. I prefer them strongly to Captain Underpants, another favorite of theirs, for read-aloud!

  • http://mommacommaphd.wordpress.com Momma, PhD

    My daughter (in preschool) enjoys “Nancy the little gosling” by Eve Tharlet.

    It’s about a little gosling who wants to be a lepidopterist (butterfly biologist)- she’s even picked out a name for the new species she’ll discover.

    I wrote about it here:
    http://mommacommaphd.wordpress.com/2011/08/28/a-book-for-a-baby-scientist-or-is-it-for-a-scientists-baby/

  • http://jennymiller62.wordpress.com Jenny

    I remember magic school bus. Never read the books sadly, but I did enjoy the tv show. If the books were anything like the movie, I might have to look them up just for nastalga sake. :)

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