Tag Archives: children’s books

Marie Curie on Ada Lovelace Day

Today is Ada Lovelace Day,  an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology. From their website, ‘Women’s contributions often go unacknowledged, their innovations seldom mentioned, their faces rarely recognized. We want you to tell the world about these unsung heroines.” I think the day is a great idea, and it offers another opportunity . Not only is it crucial to highlight the accomplishments of these tech heroines, it’s also important to make sure that memory of these women is not distorted through gendered lenses.

I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Marie Curie, one of the worlds most famous scientists. Her life story is by all accounts an amazing story of a woman’s success in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. While Curie may seem like a strange choice for a day celebrating unsung heroines, the way in which stories of her youth are generally distorted underscores a need to check up on stories to make sure they do not distort the accomplishments of women through gendered lenses. Consider the difference between different stories about Curie in children’s books.

Curie Cries

While Marie Curie is one of the most well known scientists when we tell her story to children it is generally through a deeply gendered lens. Practically every children’s book about Curie focuses on following story. In this story Manya Skłodowska (Curie’s childhood name) was the youngest and smartest student in her class. The occupying Russian forces forbid teaching children in Polish and teaching Polish history. Instead, schools were required to have children memorize Russian history and learn the Russian language. The school that Manya attended disobeyed these rules. When Russian school inspectors came to check on the school a look-out in the hallway would warn the class and the class would hide their Polish books. Once the inspector came in, the teacher would call on Manya to answer his questions. In the story, Manya succeeds by answering all of the Russian inspector’s questions in Russian to his liking. After he leaves, apparently exhausted, she cries and is comforted by her teacher.

In this story it becomes apparent that while Manya is very smart and strong she still has a kind of frailty. In this situation readers see that Manya’s knowledge gives her a kind of importance. She is called on in class because of her impressive memory, and saves the class from the inspector. While there is a clash with the authority of the inspector the story places Manya in a much more traditional relationship with the authority of her teacher, who comforts her once the inspector leaves. While the stories of Einstein were marked by an exaggeration that stressed his clashes with authority, the story of the Russian inspector is usually treated in a way that is much more consistent with the authoritative texts.

Curie The Rebel

A very different picture of Curie emerges in the other stories from Curie’s youth. These selections come from the second chapter of Eleanor Doorly’s 1939 book, The Radium Women: Madame Curie book, appropriately entitled “Rebels.”

In the Russian-run high school Manya and her friend Kazia “took delight in inventing witticisms against their Russian professors, their German master, and especially against Miss Mayer who detested Manya only a little less than Manya detested her.” Their teacher Miss Mayer stated, “It’s no more use speaking to that Sklodovska girl than throwing green peas at a wall!” On one occasion Doorly tells us of a time in which Manya was openly disrespectful, and witty. “I won’t have you look at me like that!’ Miss Mayer would shout. ‘You have no right to look down on me!’ ‘I can’t help it,’ said Manya truthfully, for she was a head taller that Miss Mayer. No doubt she was glad that words sometimes have two meanings” (1939, pp. 21-22).

In all of these other school stories the young Manya is openly disrespectful of her teachers. While the story of her encounter with the Russian inspector is interesting it should be just one of several stories about Manya’s school experience. Importantly, it is the only story that puts her in a position of weakness against the authority of both the teacher and the inspector. Other stories show the potential of portraying a Manya who is similar to the exaggerated Einstein, openly disrespectful of a rather hostile teacher.

Curie’s Curls

To highlight the extent to which current portrayals in children’s books have departed from Doorly’s 1939 children’s biography of Curie and Eva Curie’s depiction of her mother, consider the following two discussions of Manya’s curls. According to Keith Brandit’s 1983 picture book about Marie Curie,

Manya was the picture of the perfect pupil. She stood straight, her face calm and serious. Her hair was neatly braided and tied with a dark ribbon. She wore the school uniform: a navy-blue wool dress with steel buttons and a starched white collar. On her feet were dark stockings and polished, black, high laced shoes (1983, p. 35).

Here, not only is she the perfectly upright pupil, she is also the picture of the perfect student. Compare this with Doorly’s 1939 Manya.

Look at your ridiculous, frizzy, disorderly head, Manya Sklodovska! How often have you been told to confine your curls? Come here and let me brush them down and make you look like a decent school girl.” “Like a German Gretchen!” thought Manya, but she said nothing. So with the brush that brushed everybody’s hair, she set on Manya’s head with good hard blows. But however hard she brushed, the curls were rebels, still those light, capricious, exquisite curls that framed Manya’s round rebellious face (p. 25).

Putting these two texts in parallel it is hard to see them as discussions of the same individual. In the 1939 piece from Doorly, we see a witty and rebellious student far more exciting than Brandit’s 1984 “picture of the perfect pupil.” Both the story of the inspector and the other stories originate in Eva Curie’s biography of her mother. However the only story included in practically all books after 1939 depicts Manya’s power as something subject to the authority of the teacher. The Curie books ignore parts of her story to emphasize just the opposite point. All of the incidents between Curie and her teachers at the Russian school are ignored and young readers are left with only the incident with the Russian inspector. While Curie does exercise a kind of power in the incident with the inspector, it is subdued.

Recognition Is A Good First Start, But It’s Not The End

Women in science and technology are often enough uncredited, and it is important that we make sure their accomplishments are recognized. But even when they are, like in the case of Marie Curie, it is not enough. Not only is it crucial that women are recognized its also crucial that recognition is scrutinized to be sure that it is not simply recycling the gendered stereotypes.

References:

Brandt, Keith. Marie Curie, Brave Scientist. Mahwah, N.J: Troll Associates, 1983. 

Doorly, Eleanor. The Radium Woman, a Life of Marie Curie; and Woodcuts. New York: Roy Publishers, 1939. 

This post draws on information from a larger study, published in the journal Cultural Studies of Science Education.

1934: A Better Time to Be A Girl Interested in Science?

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Nature Study was the cutting edge approach in American science education. Educational scholars claimed students should “study nature, not books” and education took on a much more practical bent. Some scholars have noted that this approach to science education was much more gender inclusive, that nature study invited more women and girls into the sphere of science. The following images from Science Stories, a 1934 American science textbook, would seem to support the argument that nature study was more inviting to girls. In the past fifty years various science textbooks have come under scrutiny for including only pictures of boys and men in the book’s illustrations. Take a look at the following set of pictures from the book, these representative selections show boys and girls working together, something later books have largely failed to do. If this book is at all indicative of other texts and approaches from the time it would seem to be incontrovertible that Nature Study brought about a much more gender neutral approach for presenting science to children.

Science Stories follows a group of students and their teacher through the four seasons. Almost every page includes a picture, and almost every picture that includes a boy includes a girl as well. In the picture above we can see students in Autumn looking at leaves and twigs. Many of the stories focus on students activities outside. It is also worth mentioning that the science teacher is female.

The gender equity in the pictures follows the students back into the classroom. Many images like the one above show boys and girls workign together, in this case on some sort of diorama. Almost every single image shows boys and girls working together.

Beyond dioramas the gender equity extended to working with scientific equipment (see above) and children working on their homework.

Throughout the book boys and girls work together, collaborating and exploring their natural world. Aside from being a pleasant read, filled with beautiful illustrations, the Science Stories book is an interesting example of a gender inclusive curriculum. While we like to think that science and science education have become increasingly open to women these images, work like Kimberly Tolley’s Science Education of American Girls and explorations of the nature study movement suggests otherwise. It seems that the history of gender in science and science education is much more dynamic than we previously thought.

Suprises in Early Children’s Books About Evolution

From the Scopes to Dover Area School District teaching evolution continues to be a perennial sore spot in American education. More often than not textbooks are at the center of these controversies. There are several excellent studies of the history of Evolution in text books. In Trial and Error Edward Larson argued that the scopes trial exacerbated “Existing restrictions and fears of further controversy” in teaching about evolution and ultimately “led commercial publishers to de-emphasize evolution in their high school textbooks.” In a similar vein sociologist Gerald Skoog found after the Scopes Trial “The most sensitive evolutionary topics, including the origin of life and the evolution of man, rarely appeared at all” in textbooks “Less than half of the texts even used the word “evolution”. ” Curiously, the the Scopes trial seems to have had the opposite effect on children’s books about evolution. Books directed at a much younger audience. The first time the Children’s Catalog, a guide to Children’s books for librarians, listed books under the heading “Evolution” was the year after the scopes trial.

William Maxwell Reed‘s 1929 book The Earth for Sam is one of the first American children’s books to engage with evolution. ( I have found six other books from the same time period) In an example endemic of all these children’s evolution books Reed claims; “We saw life become a cell, then a group of cells. In turn there have appeared before us the fish, the amphibian, the reptile, and the mammal.” He goes on to address human decent directly; “Finally from among the mammals there appeared the primates and from among the primates the European white primates who founded the British Empire and the United States of America.” While the textbooks were becoming conservative, often not even mentioning the word evolution, children’s books emerged boldly asserting an ancient earth, and the decent of man.

I think this example may be a fruitful one for considering the relationship between children’s books and textbooks more generally. Every student gets the textbook. I think this may well make them a much more conservative medium. In contrast children’s books can be marketed to smaller niche groups of parents and librarians; allowing them to encompass a broader range of perspectives. Because Historians and Sociologists considering the place of evolution in the history of American education have focused on textbooks they have missed some nuance in this history. Instead of Scopes forcing education to become much more conservative, the trial appears to have had a polarizing effect. Simultaneously forcing the conservative medium of textbooks to cut out evolution and in parallel creating enough public interest in the topic to substantiate a new genre of children’s literature on the topic.

Pictures from William Maxwell Reed, The Earth for Sam: The Story of Mountains, Rivers, Dinosaurs and Men. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929.


Another way to count the books

I asked a sociologist why there are more kids books about Curie than Einstein. He looked puzzled for a moment and then responded, “Of course! If your going to write a book about a scientist for girls you don’t have that many options, but if you are writing a book for boys there are so many options.” This would quite naturally inflate the number of books about the individual female scientists. In this scenario it is crucial to consider how many of the total quantity of books about each scientist are written about men and how many are written about women.

The initial data would seem to support this. While the woman and the black man are each respectively the most written about scientist and inventor, women and blacks are still dramatically underrepresented in the total quantity of books.

Children's Books in english by Gender

Children's Books in english by Race

Still, they are represented much more equitably in children’s literature than in books for a adult audience. See the charts below.

Books for adult audience sorted by the gender of their subject

Books about black scientists compared to white scientists

Final thoughts: I find it fascinating that the percentages for gender and race mirror each other so perfectly. In some sense it makes the comparison all the more powerful. While gender and race are radically different it is interesting to see that they have such a closely mirrored place in children’s books about scientists and inventors.

I think there is something to this sociologists idea but I am not sure it quite satisfies me. It is still nonetheless interesting. The next project is to historicize the information. The next way I want to play with the numbers is to see when Curie and Edison became the most written about scientist and inventor.

Why Historians Need to Be More Interested With Children's Literature

One of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn’t belong. This picture from the 1976 children’s book The Value of Learning: The Story of Marie Curie depicts the resolute young Curie standing her ground against a visiting Russian school inspector. (I have posted about this confrontation before) It is a ‘Value Tale‘ publication. If you aren’t particularly familiar with Curie’s life take into consideration the following. Curie, born in 1867 would have fifty by the October revolution of 1917, needless to say the Soviet Uniform worn by her harsh Russian instructor is a bit out of place. This could point to a interesting argument for why there are so many Curie children’s books, stories about harsh Russians past and present make for good stories during the Cold War.

But back to the title of the post. While The Value of Learning does not come highly recommended it is still one of the most avaliable to children around the world. I have to believe that if historians were involved in the review process for these books these kinds of kinks could be better ironed out.

Ann Donegan Johnson, The Value of Learning: The Story of Marie Curie (La Jolla, Calif: Value Communications, 1978).

Children's Books By The Numbers: Or Two Things I Learned From Franco Moretti

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of reading Franco Moretti’s Graphs Maps and Trees. If you haven’t read it I highly recommend it as a truly compelling exploration of what individuals interested in the history of literature can glean by counting. After a bit of thought I am confident that some of his approaches will be quite useful in framing our understanding of children’s nonfiction.

As previously mentioned my project began in consideration of an anomaly of numbers. There are more Children’s books about Marie Curie than any other scientist. As a start to quantifying the history of science literature for children I thought it would be worth sorting out a bit more of who the popular stars are in comparison to the major players in biographies of scientists written for a more mature audience.

For a rough start I did some quick searches on the Worldcat for juvenile and non juvenile biographies about a laundry list of popular scientists and inventors and dumped the data at swivel.

Number of Children's Books About Different Scientists and Inventors

It appears that the same trend for gender in science is mirrored in race in invention. Curie is the most written about scientist for children, and George Washington Carver is the most written about inventor. But when we take the list of books for a older audience they fall far out of their top positions. What are we to do with this? The second thing I took away from Moretti is his insistence that we should be actively looking for questions we have no answer for. While this is essentially the same question I started my undergraduate thesis with I don’t really feel I am any more qualified to answer it.

Number of Biographies of Scientists and Inventors Written For An Adult Audience

I have a few ideas but I need to spend a bit more time fleshing them out. Stay tuned for more. In the mean time, what do you think could explain this phenomena? In the next few weeks I will post some of my thoughts on this and hopefully pull together some more robust numbers about these books. I am working on a way to export a CSV file from my Zotero collection that should help me isolate when Curie and Carver became the most written about scientist and inventor for kids

But in the mean time, why is there such a large market for children’s books about Carver and Curie for a young audience, and why does that market dry up when those children grow up?

Curie and Einstein Go To School

These are two of my favorite pictures from my research on children’s books about Einstein and Curie. (You can click on them to see the bigger images). They are I think, the most visual example of my thesis’s argument and I think they are also illustrative of exactly what we need to pay attention to in Children’s biography.

Stories about famous figures’ biographies are the most directly applicable aspect of children’s literature. This is the part of the story that with which children can most readily identify. Tragically, this part of the story of these lives is generally the thinest part of the historical record. Because children’s literature is so rarely reviewed by historians, this is not an issue for many children’s authors. They can simply invent the figures childhood.

Albert Einstein and His Tutor

The first picture is a picture of the young Albert Einstein terrorizing his baby sitter. Albert is described as cruel, and angry, he throws tantrums the text tells young readers that “His temper so terrifies a tutor hired to help young Albert prepare for school that she runs away, never to be seen again.” In the picture Albert and his anger are foregrounded as the tutor runs away in terror, apparently never to be seen again. You will be hard pressed to find historical precedent for this story: By all accounts Albert was a much more timid boy, but it is easy to see here how masculinity and power are imbued on this child.

cries.jpg

The second picture is of Curie crying in the arms of her teacher. Before I get into the details, consider the differences between these two images. Notice the relative size of Curie and her teacher. Einstein is bigger than his tutor, while the small (and surprisingly Aryan) Curie is presented as significantly smaller. In the second picture, the teacher does not come down to her level and instead maintains her size and visual power. This story appears in almost every single children’s book about Curie. The young Manya Skłodowska was the youngest and smartest student in her class. Her school, which was run by Polish teachers, was under constant threat from the Russians who occupied Poland. The school was barred from teaching children in Polish and teaching Polish history. Instead, schools were required to have children memorize Russian history and learn Russian language. The school that Manya attended disobeyed these rules. When Russian school inspectors came to check on the school a look-out in the hallway would warn the class and the class would hide their Polish books. Once the inspector came in, the teacher would call on Manya to answer his questions. In the story, Manya succeeds by answering all of the Russian inspector’s questions in Russian to his liking. After he leaves she cries.

In this story it becomes apparent that while Manya is very smart and strong she still has a kind of frailty. Readers are told that Manya’s knowledge gives her a kind of importance. She is called on in class and because of her impressive memory; she saves the class from the inspector. While the stories of Einstein were exaggerate stories that stress his clashes with authority the story of the Russian inspector is usually treated in a way that is much more consistent with the authoritative texts. However, Eva Curie tells several other stories about Manya that only make it into one of the children’s books, and thus the picture of the young Manya is shaped more by exclusion than by exaggeration.

The following anecdotes come from Eleanor Doorly’s 1939 book, The Radium Women: Madame Curie. Doorly’s book went through many printings and was highly acclaimed, being recommended in three consecutive editions of the Children’s Catalogue. Doorly states quite clearly in the opening of her book that it is a children’s adaptation of Eva Curie’s biography of her mother. This book stays very close to Eva’s biography and offers insight into a different trajectory that could have been developed in accounts of Curie. These selections come from the second chapter of her book, appropriately entitled “Rebels.”

In the Russian-run high school Manya and her friend Kazia “took delight in inventing witticisms against their Russian professors, their German master, and especially against Miss Mayer who detested Manya only a little less than Manya detested her.” Their teacher Miss Mayer stated, “It’s no more use speaking to that Sklodovska girl,” she said, “than throwing green peas at a wall!” On one occasion Eva tells us of a time in which Manya was openly disrespectful, and witty. “I won’t have you look at me like that!’ Miss Mayer would shout. ‘You have no right to look down on me!’” Manya responded “‘I can’t help it,’ said Manya truthfully, for she was a head taller that Miss Mayer. No doubt she was glad that words sometimes have two meanings.”

In the second series of stories, the young Manya is openly disrespectful of her teachers. While the story of her crying in front of the Russian inspector is interesting it should be seen as just one of several stories about Manya’s school experience. Importantly, it is the only story that puts her in a position of weakness against the authority of both the teacher and the inspector. Other stories show the potential of portraying a Manya who is similar to the exaggerated Einstein, openly disrespectful of a rather hostile teacher.

Brown, Don. Odd Boy Out: Young Albert Einstein . Houghton Mifflin, 2004.

Doorly, Eleanor. The Radium Woman, a Life of Marie Curie; and Woodcuts. New York: Roy Publishers, 1939.