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.


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.

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).

Osama bin Laden For Kids

Book Cover: Osama Bin Laden: War on Terror

It might surprise you to know that at least 10 children’s books about Osama bin Laden have been published in the last 6 years. I was intrigued, just what do publishers think children should learn about this contemporary villain?

To start to try answering this question I took a look at two biographies of bin Laden published in very different series. The War on Terror Series “covers the full range of topics and issues needed for meaningful discussion, clear understanding, and hope for the future.” they offer “reassurance that democracies are doing what is necessary to make the world safe.” In contrast the Middle East Leaders Series “presents the life stories of those leaders who, for two generations, have been most important-or notorious-to their people and to international politics.” While both series explicitly frame Bin Laden a bit differently, as either part of a conversation about the war on terror or a Middle East Leader they are remarkably similar, and as far as I’m concerned, they’re both terrible “biographies”.

Book Cover: Osama Bin Laden: Mideast Leaders

Often, children’s biographies start off with extensive discussion of their subjects childhood and school experiences. These stories are almost entirely absent from the bin Laden books. Instead, both books begin with sections on the terrorist attacks of 9/11. As far as children’s book publishers are concerned, the story of Osama bin Laden starts at the world trade center. The books both quickly gloss over his early life, and cut to the heart of the matter: Each book has the bold headline, “Why bin Laden Hates America“.

The books depart slightly from each-other in how they answer this question. The Middle East Leaders series explains bin Laden’s hatred for America in very specific complaints. While “Osama bin Laden hates America, its government, and its citizens for several reasons: “two reasons in particular stand out… the stationing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia…(and) support for Israel.” After discussing these two specifics, the author offers further explanation. “As much as Americans believe that Osama bin Laden is a terrorist, bin Laden himself believes that Americans are the real terrorists. “

Bin Laden’s plans for world dommination

The “War on Terror” biography offers a more general explanation about bin Laden’s perspective . The low quality, heavily tinted image of bin Laden to the left is indicative of the general approach of the book. “He hates everything about us and will fight to the death. Bin laden and his Muslim extremist groups fear a U.S. conspiracy will destroy traditional Islamic culture and values. He believes America has the worst value system in the world. He thinks that democracy and our free society make us materialistic, with a sick desire for possessions instead of spiritual enlightenment. He believes the only way to create a pure Islamic state is to wage jihad, or holy war, against the U. S and its allies and drive their forces out of Muslim lands.”

To answer the question I started with, these children’s books about bin Laden exist to address his role in 9/11 more then they exist to explain his life and failing to achieve the later insures the failure of the former. These books have no interest in making him human, in understanding how someone can be driven to such a terrible extreme. While they each offer slightly different reasons for why he hates America, without a more personal story readers cannot really understand this hatred, instead they are left with vague impressions of a monster lurking somewhere in the Middle East. Possibly the 4 to 8 year old children the War on Terror series targets just aren’t the right audience for biographies on bin Laden.

So what does this tell us about kids books about villains? I have one preliminary thought. Children’s books about heroes generally distill virtues for children to follow. (The clearest and most blatant example is ValueTales biographies) One might think the contrary would be true for books about villains, transforming their lives into parables of what not to do, but if these few bin Laden books are indicative of a larger trend it would not seem to be the case. But I suppose what can we learn from him if he isn’t presented as a person?


bush and bin laden same cover

There is something very striking about the cover from the War on Terror Series. Something about a picture of Osama surrounded by stars, stripes, and a little red white and blue ribbon really seems to send mixed messages. I suppose they are trying to say, “yes its about bin Laden, but the accouterments of the American flag tell you what side we’re on.” When looking at the cover I couldn’t help but think that this kind of cover would make more sense with a picture of a patriot than a picture of public enemy number one. Indeed, it appears that that is exactly the publishers thought. See the image to the right, with George Bush framed by the same cover. (Note to publishers, there are times when it is appropriate to mix things up the covers within a series.)

History Through Children's Literature

sothatsmanborder.jpgThe stories we tell children are also very telling about our history. This blog will present brief examples of these telling moments. Points for consideration of history in children’s literature and facilitate discussion of the issues therein. Children’s books are a very visual medium, but sadly it is overly complicated to get pictures into print publications. Blogs work well for talking about other visual medium, like comics, so why not Children’s Literature.

Two years ago I took Marjee‘s advice to explore the history of children’s books about Marie Curie and Albert Einstein. In the process I came across a whole host of materials of historical interest that just didn’t fit into the project but nonetheless warranted discussion. Inspired by some of my colleagues at the Center for History and New Media‘s blogs I have been looking for a approach and topic for blogging and Marjee and I have been looking for projects to collaborate on. The blog will explore history in children’s books, from that perspective it will focus much more on ‘true stories’ (non-fiction) than on works of fiction. Our particular interest in the history of science will most likely translate into us spending more time on history of science topics. In particular you can expect to see a bit more of Curie and Einstein to begin with.

A bit about us. My name is Trevor Owens, I work as the Technology Evangelist for the Zotero project at the Center for History and New Media. Aside from that I am a graduate student studying American history at George Mason University. I graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a BA in History and the History of Science. My undergraduate thesis explored how children’s books about Albert Einstein and Marie Curie diverged from more authoritative biographies. My other work has focused on the history of school science fairs, children’s books about evolution, and creation/evolution discourse in online communities.

Marjee, works as a Associate Director for PBS TeacherLine, developing, directing, and facilitating professional development for teachers across the United States. Marjee taught high school physics and chemistry, and has studied the history of science education and educational technology. She has previously explored Sputnik’s impact on American science education, online creation science communities, and her work on scientific reasoning in video games has been cited in Science.

Our first experiences with history are crucial, while many of those experiences are impossible to capture children’s books provide a record of many of our first impressions of history. On some level these books represent our first past. Children’s books that make historical assertions and this blog is a attempt to start unraveling those assertions. To start taking a serious look at historical children’s literature. The study of Children’s Literature is in many ways in its infancy, and the study of its history even more so. The short pieces in this blog are intended as a way to help develop a dialog about these books.

Oh, and our views are our own, and in no way reflect the views of our respective organizations etc.
(image from Russell Ray Baker. So That’s Man!. Chicago: Reilly & Lee, 1949.)