Every once in a while a children’s book comes out that gives me the urge to run to my nearest bookstore and buy a dozen copies, so that I can hand one to every child in my life. When I first encountered Rad American Women A – Z, I had precisely this urge. Until I sat down with my son at bedtime and read these stories of women athletes, artists and activists and activists, I hadn’t realized how deeply satisfying it was to talk my son about issues that matter. Within our first fifteen minutes of engaging with the book, we talked about sexism, beauty norms, and slavery.
Written by Kate Schatz and illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl, Rad American Women profiles a historic North American woman for each letter of the alphabet. It features names that many of us will easily recognize (Carol Burnett, FloJo, Patti Smith) as well as names that were new to me (Lucy Parsons, the Grimke sisters) In short, it presents compelling woman role models (something all of our children need), and introduces conversations about inclusion and representation. I’m so grateful to have had a chance to talk to Kate, the book’s author, about her vision for this book.
JB: When I introduced this book to my six-year-old son, his immediate response was “Aw, why no men?” We’ve had a number of conversations about sexism and gender, but I had a hard time finding the right words to explain why it’s important to document and recognize women’s history. Do you have any advice?
Kate: First of all, I absolutely love that you read it with your 6-yr old son. This book is for girls, yes, but it’s absolutely for boys too. And I love that he asked that, because it inspires dialogue, and that’s just what we want this book to do. Yes, the questions that children ask may be challenging for us—as parents, caregivers, teachers, etc—to answer, but it’s so incredibly crucial that we do the work to answer these questions. And it’s so crucial that kids even get to ask. In the introduction to the book I made a point to address the importance of finding inspiration in all kinds of people, even the ones who don’t look like you. So to some degree, the answer to your son’s question is there: “These women are American heroes, and they’re part of all of our histories. We can find inspiration in the stories of all people, no matter who they are.”
Beyond that, though, my advice to parents, etc, faced with this kind of question, is to encourage the questioner to begin paying attention to how gender is and isn’t represented. A great place to start for young people might be money—look through a stack of bills and talk about whose face is on them. What do you notice? Why might there not be any girls? Why might it be nice to have a girl on money? The WomenOn20s campaign is taking off right now, and there’s a fantastic video that addresses this exact topic.
I’m also the mother of a son, but he’s 19 months old, so we haven’t had these talks yet. My daughter gets it, and recently, upon learning that her dad is a feminist too (“Really daddy? You’re a feminist too?” “Yup!”) she spread her arms wide, threw back her head, and proclaimed “MY PARENTS ARE FEMINISTS!!!” I’m excited for the challenge of raising my boy, and teaching him how to navigate the tricky terrain of gender and gender expectations, because it is absolutely complex and crazy for boys too.
JB: One thing that has surprised me about this book is that reading it with my son has been incredibly conversational. The other night, we didn’t start bedtime until 9 so I told him we could read three of the entries from Rad Women. Three pages later, I looked at the clock and it was ten-thirty. For us, reading it has been an ongoing project that’s really different from reading a typical story book or chapter book. We have to pause for conversations about Big Things like rules, slavery, and integrity. I’m wondering how you imagined children and their families would engage with the text.
Kate: I love hearing this! So great, and I think one of the wonderful and unique things about the book are the myriad ways that you can approach and experience it. I don’t necessarily imagine that people will read the whole thing, start to finish, if they’re reading it to a young person. I mean, they certainly can! But if you’re reading to a child, it is very likely that you’ll be stopping along the way to discuss. My daughter and I have been doing a letter per night, and aren’t going in order. She likes to flip through, look at the images, and then choose a woman to read about.
JB: Another thing that surprised me was that the entries inspired conversations about racism, classism, and ableism just as much as sexism. For instance, only three sentences into the letter A (Angela Davis), I paused to answer a whole lot of questions about afros, and wound up discussing their historical significance and cultural beauty norms, etc. The book feels very naturally intersectional, but I wonder what process you might have gone through to achieve that.
Kate: First of all, your son sounds like an amazingly curious and awesome kiddo. I love that he’s asking these questions—imagine if all children were allowed exposure to these complicated issues at an early age, and were then allowed to ask questions. And yes, I define the KKK in the first sentence of the book. In a bio about Angela Davis no less. Race, class, ability, sexuality—it’s all in there, because it’s all connected. I recently encountered a woman in a bookstore who was buying several copies and she told me “I can’t wait to teach my niece about intersectionality!” And I was like YES.
As the writer, the intersectionality part came easy, at least in terms of addressing it. I was lucky to get my feminist schooling in the Women’s (now Feminist) Studies department at UC Santa Cruz, and vividly remember my first quarter, where I was thrilled to take a class with Bettina Aptheker whose lectures never ignored the connections between race, class, gender, and ability. Now as for how to break all that down in 300 words that a kid can read and process—that was the challenge. I tried to approach it all in an open and honest manner: how would I explain this to my kid? Often the simplest explanation is best. How do you explain the KKK? Well, they were a group of racist white men. How do you explain that Bessie Coleman couldn’t enroll in aviation school? You say they wouldn’t accept a black woman. I also had help from my fantastic editors, Michelle Tea and Elaine Katzenberger, along with many friends who read along the way.
JB: Something that my son has loved about the book is the way the women often appear with an object or in a pose that reveals what they were famous for. My son likes to stare at each picture for a while and then guess. I got to explain to him what a typewriter was, and he guessed that maybe Lucy Parsons was famous for “being fancy”. The bold style of the images is such a perfect match that it seems inevitable, but I’m curious at what point different stylistic decisions were made–how did the look of the book evolve?
Kate: Miriam and I agreed that we wanted the images to be as dynamic and varied as possible—we didn’t want just portraits, but we also didn’t want everyone to be in motion. We wanted a mix. We looked at many images of each woman, and Miriam selected ones to base the paper-cuts off of. We added the objects for some to help readers connect to what the woman did—microscope, tennis racket, guitar, etc—and to add more texture and variety. Once we decided to collaborate, Miriam was off and running, and would text me pictures of the paper-cuts as she created them. That was thrilling! I loved getting texts and seeing these amazing pieces of art, and I was always, always struck by how well she’s able to capture the spirit and energy of each woman.
JB: Do you have an entry you are particularly fond of, maybe one that you hope readers notice or pay special attention to?
Kate: Well, X of course. That’s a special one because it’s so different from the others, and it’s a place for readers to kind of pause and think. It was emotional to write, for sure—I definitely cried while crafting that one, both because it made me think of the thousands of women whose contributions remain invisible, but also because of the hopeful aspect of the entry, as it looks to the future. My hope is that it expands the reader’s perception of the book and all its meanings by personalizing it. That entry is a favorite for many people—I know Miriam’s 8 year old daughter reads it over and over, and my daughter loves to look at the images, pointing out which ones are “her” and which ones are “me.” I especially love that she’s never ridden a skateboard, but she still chooses that image as one that’s “her”!
You can purchase your copy of Rad American Women A – Z from City Lights Press, or ask your local bookseller.