For adults, books about women scientists have been available for a solid century now. Beginning with the pioneering work of Edna Yost, and continuing through Ogilvie, Osen and the Rayner-Canhams, there emerged a small but increasing stream of interesting and well-researched women in science studies throughout the twentieth century. The kids of that century, however, were not so lucky – children’s books devoted to women scientists were virtually non-existent for decades upon decades until, in the year 2000, a light went on in the industry, and the past nineteen years have seen a veritable explosion in books available about the rich history of women researchers. The list of 33 books below (arranged chronologically by publication date) is by no means comprehensive, but represents a good starting point of picture books, chapter books, graphic novels, and portrait collections that should get a youngster on the way, regardless of what branch of science has stoked their curiosity.
Picture Story Books
1. Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian. Margarita Engle (writer), Julie Paschkis (illustrator), 2010
One of the greats. Engle’s prose manages to make Merian’s accomplishments accessible to children while conveying a healthy respect for the beauty and complexity of all forms of life. Merian was responsible for an approach to biological classification that made an animal’s growth over time, preferred environment, and habitual food sources as important as its mature physical structures, a revolution that had to wait 300 years for its proper time. Engle tells the tale of one woman patiently collecting and observing, coming to conclusions that challenged the reigning superstitions of her time, and it is all accompanied by some of the most striking illustration among all the books you will see on this list. Paschkis’s color choices are vibrant, and her mixture of 17th century iconography with natural illustration is unfailingly arresting in its impact.
2. The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life with the Chimps. Jeanette Winter (Writer/illustrator), 2011
One of the more difficult things to do in a children’s book is to make all parts of a scientist’s career equally engaging, and for Goodall that’s a particular challenge. How do you make her work traveling the world, informing the public about conservation issues, as dramatic as her work in the forest directly engaging with chimpanzees? Winter accomplishes this task brilliantly, her gradual unveiling of the lives of the chimpanzees that Goodall studied lends a sense of urgency to the destruction of their habitat which Goodall’s career as a speaker is critically aimed at halting. The illustrations do a wonderful job in slowly making the chimpanzees more visible and ultimately, more human, as Goodall learns more about them. For a child interested in animals, and protecting them, it is a wonderful gift.
3. Rachel Carson and Her Book That Changed the World. Laurie Lawlor (writer), Laura Beingessner (illustrator), 2012
This book does something that I wish more children’s books would do: present the true power of Books to change the world. Books are a somewhat endangered species in children’s rooms these days, and I know a number of students who do not quite see the point of them – why bother with the commitment required of reading a full length book when you can get a summary of the issue at hand on the internet? Lawlor and Beingessner, however, make their case that books can change everything, and in showing Carson as a person deeply devoted both to nature, and to the long and careful process of putting together facts to write a book of depth and importance, their book is more important now than ever. If you want an example of a children’s book that shows, both through gorgeous illustration and charming text, the importance of character, truth, and responsibility to the environment, you can hardly do better.
4. Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle. Claire A. Nivola (writer/illustrator), 2012
This book gives me goosebumps whenever I open it – Nivola’s art, so rich in color and texture, strikes you with the full force of nature from the first page, and only increases in magnificence as you descend into the oceanic depths with Earle. Combine that with a sensitive and sympathetic encapsulation of Earle’s remarkable life arguing for the preservation of the oceans in the face of overfishing and plastic inundation, and it’s a truly awesome experience to impart to a child.
5. The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever. H. Joseph Hopkins (writer), Jill McElmurry (illustrator), 2013
This is the wonderful story of how Kate Sessions changed the face of San Diego with her introduction and importation of drought-resistant tree varieties. The San Diego of today, with its eucalyptus and jacaranda trees, is the result of her vision. Known as the Mother of Balboa Park, her story is one of somebody using both their scientific and aesthetic gifts to help her community in ways that speak through centuries. Hopkins’s prose is engaging and sympathetic, and McElmurry’s style complements it well, culminating in some inspired final pages.
6. Look Up! Henrietta Leavitt, Pioneering Woman Astronomer. Robert Burleigh (writer), Raul Colon (illustrator), 2013
Leavitt’s discovery of a galactic-scale “yard-stick” in the form of cepheid stars is one of the most important tales in the history of modern astronomy, and Burleigh tells it with wonder and scientific accuracy. Colon’s illustrations are striking, but as will be the case in their later collaboration, tend towards the cold. Views from behind the principle characters interweave with front shots of people who look, for the most part, unhappy to be there. The joy and discovery of the text is occasionally replicated in the imagery, but not often enough to keep the book from feeling more dirge than celebration.
7. Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine. Laurie Wallmark (writer), April Chu (illustrator), 2015
This book won a number of awards, and a passing glance at any interior page is sufficient to see why. Chu’s illustration is rich, lush, and dripping with a vibrant sense of historical tone. Wallmark’s story focuses on a description of Lovelace’s youthful investigations and illnesses, where it shines, only to become curiously brief when talking about her work on the Babbage engines. Compared to the Stanley-Hartland Lovelace book of the following year (see below), the clipped description of what an algorithm is and what Lovelace did to promote the idea of a programmable engine is particularly striking. A young reader picking up this book will get a definite impression that Lovelace was an original mind who did- something – somehow – that led to computers. My dream book is to take Stanley-Hartland’s description of Lovelace’s collaboration with Babbage, glue it onto Wallmark’s description of her early years, and have the whole thing illustrated by Chu, but in the absence of that, you’re probably safest just getting both!
8. Solving the Puzzle Under the Sea: Marie Tharp Maps the Ocean Floor. Robert Burleigh (writer), Raul Colon (illustrator), 2016
Burleigh and Colon return! The story of how Marie Tharp discovered the Mid Atlantic Rift through painstaking analysis of ocean floor sounding data is an important one in our understanding of the Earth, and Burleigh details that process clearly and with a sense of contagious excitement as the pieces click into place for Tharp. He doesn’t shy away from explaining HOW she did what she did, and that’s a refreshing choice in a children’s book. Colón’s art is immediately striking in its textures, and could have made a magnificent complement to the text if he didn’t depict so many of the people in the book from behind or in obscured profile, a tendency that was there in Look Up! and intensifies here. Children like faces and expressions, and having people resolutely and repeatedly turned away from the reader is an odd choice, though when you do see faces the people often look dejected or miserable or stare with dead white eyes that lack pupil or iris. Those depressed, expressionless faces tend to undercut the excitement the text is trying to convey. Solving the Puzzle Under the Sea is a good story, it reads well, and the visuals are memorable, but the disconnect of tone between text and image is stark.
9. Swimming With Sharks: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark. Heather Lang (writer), Jordi Solano (illustrator), 2016
An absolutely beautiful book, what strikes you at first is the richness of Solano’s color palette that brings the sea monumentally to life, but after the first read what is even more remarkable is his gift for expression which electrifies the figure of Eugenie Clark, communicating wonder and skepticism, determination and excitement, as the opportunity arises. Lang’s story, of one individual rescuing an entire class of animal from the uninformed myths surrounding them, is an inspiring one, and the circular arc of the story is genuinely touching. Lang captures the vastness of Clark’s project in words, and Solano amplifies it beautifully with his visual sense, and placed together they represent one of this genre’s true star pairings.
10. Ada Lovelace Poet of Science: The First Computer Programmer. Diane Stanley (writer), Jessie Hartland (illusturator), 2016
Stanley’s text here is great – he gives time to Lovelace’s youth and early investigations, which you don’t often seen done, and actually explains in an accessible way what the Babbage engines were, what an algorithm is, and Lovelace’s role in the popularization and creation, respectively, of them. It’s a book that SHOULD capture the imagination of any child interested in computers and programs and apps and such, but there’s something in the business of the visuals that gets in the way. Hartland’s illustrations have a child-like and whimsical quality to them, but there is a tendency to cram the page with Stuff, which would work in a book with fewer words per page, where most of your time-per-page is spent looking for and identifying things on the page with your kid, but here, where there are often quite a few words, which require some amount of explanation, the extra visual detail tends to become frustrating rather than enhancing.
11. To the Stars! The First American Woman to Walk in Space. Dr. Kathy Sullivan (writer), Carmella Van Vleet (writer), Nicole Wong (illustrator), 2016
I imagine a child picking up this book would be most interested to see what it’s like to walk in space, and what special things Sullivan had to do in order to become the first American woman to accomplish that feat. The problem is, we don’t get that spacewalk until the very last page when we’re informed flatly that Sullivan was the first American woman to walk in space, which we knew from the title. What was it like? What did she see? These are questions a child most definitely has, but with that statement of historical fact, the book is over. I think the problem comes from the book’s devotion to a particular structure, wherein scenes of the young Sullivan alternate with related scenes in the life of the older Sullivan, two pages of the former followed by two pages of the latter. That devotion to structure shoves Sullivan’s astronaut career into a tiny corner of the book, and while the tales of youthful flying are charming, the swapping back and forth keeps pulling you from that story and throwing you into a part of the older Sullivan’s life that you are thrown back out of again before you quite know where you were. I love Sullivan as a person, but her life story probably deserves a more coherent telling.
12. Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code. Laurie Wallmark (writer), Katy Wu (illustrator). 2017
Communicating the accomplishments of Grace Hopper to a young audience seems a tricky proposition when you think about it in the abstract: How do you explain the difference between computer language and human language, or the virtues of pre-written strands of code, or software compilers, to a kid? Wallmark and Wu, however, have found a magic formula in this book that makes these seemingly intricate issues immediately graspable. Wallmark explains beautifully the challenges that Hopper overcame while capturing the best in Hopper’s determined character (no mention of the alcoholism or depression, obviously), while Wu’s illustrations have this expressive, 1950s advertising vibe to them which pops from the page.
13. Margaret and the Moon: How Margaret Hamilton Saved the First Lunar Landing. Dean Robbins (writer), Lucy Kinsley (illustrator), 2017
The lack of a stand alone Margaret Hamilton biography still counts as one of the giant holes in the body of women scientist literature. She is well represented in social media, has her own Lego mini-set, and boasts a set of contributions to the early days of NASA’s computerization that would seem to call for obligatory biographical treatment. While we don’t have that volume today, however, this book by Robbins and Knisley might well inspire some young person to write it tomorrow. This is a great book for any kid who likes looking in Guinness Books for facts and figures that they then memorize, who likes writing out detailed procedures for solving imagined problems, or who simply needs a bit of validation that the act of sitting, thinking, and solving can be as heroic as leaping and shoving and shooting. I know at least one person at NASA took some objection to the portrayal of Mission Control as “panicking” during the lunar landing in this book, which is a fair point, but for me the big picture is one of foresight and planning, wedded to a deeper fascination with math and computing, pulling off the impossible, and that’s a story kids can’t hear enough.
14. Out of School and Into Nature: The Anna Comstock Story. Suzanne Slade (writer), Jessica Lanan (illustrator), 2017
This is my gold standard example of how you do a children’s book about a scientist. The art and words are in perfect sympathy with each other, the story is inspiring and important, and there are moments in it of bittersweet beauty on par with the best in all of children’s literature. I adore it.
15. She Found Fossils. Maria Gold (writer), Abagael West (writer), Amy J. Gardiner (illustrator), 2017
I confess I don’t have a copy of this one, but I very much want to – a children’s retrospective of women paleontologists? Take my money!
16. The Doctor with an Eye for Eyes: The Story of Dr. Patricia Bath. Julia Finley Mosca (writer), Daniel Rieley (illustrator), 2017
Mosca and Rieley have teamed up for three books so far, and one of the things I admire most about them is their consistent willingness to choose modern and lesser-known figures for their books instead of the tried-and-true Greatest Hits of the woman scientist pantheon. They always do a good job in telling a motivational tale in jaunty verse for the smaller kiddos, with interesting and thorough biographical material in the back for parents who want to take their kids to the next level of curiosity. In this story of Dr. Patricia Bath, for example, her key invention of the laser probe is left at just that level of explanation in the actual book – it’s a way to use lasers to help eyes – and then, if your kid wants to know more, it’s there in the back, which is a nice compromise. The Mosca-Rieley books are fun and inspiring, and if you know a kid who just needs a little extra push to believe in themselves and their dreams, they are just the thing.
17. The Girl Who Thought in Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin. Julia Finley Mosca (writer), Daniel Rieley (illustrator), 2017
All that said, this is I think the weakest of the three. The visual choices aren’t always the most engaging, and the overall message is more difficult to pin down than with the other two, for reasons I mentioned in my original writeup of the book, which you can find here!
18. Nature’s Friend: The Gwen Frostic Story. Lindsey McDivitt (writer), Eileen Ryan Ewen (illustrator), 2018
I enjoy the freshness of Ewen’s illustrations, and the commitment of McDivitt’s prose, and the story of Gwen Frostic is one that certainly deserves telling, and I think that, eighty percent of the time, all these forces are tending in the same direction, it’s just the twenty percent of the time when the images and words are talking about different things that proves distracting. Is the twenty percent of cross-purposes worth working through to get to the eighty percent of beautiful and whimsical storytelling? I would say so, particularly if you have a kid who loves drawing things in nature but can’t see that as part relevant to a career, or who is treated differently in school on account of some medical problem and who could use a bit of hope that things can get better.
19. The Girl With a Mind for Math: The Story of Raye Montague. Julia Finley Mosca (writer), Daniel Rieley (illustrator), 2018
This is, hands down, my favorite of the Mosca-Rieley series. The story of Raye Montague, who was the first person to use a computer program to design a naval ship after a hard-fought career that overcame barriers of race and gender, is a great one, and Mosca’s verse flies to its telling while Rieley makes all the right decisions in communicating the impact of the story in a few deceptively simple images. It’s a story as important to tell as it is fun to read out loud.
20. Mae Among the Stars. Roda Ahmed (writer), Stasia Burrington (illustrator), 2018
This came out just last week and my copy has been somehow held up in the post, so I suppose I’ll have to wait until later to tell you about it apart from noting that it’s a children’s picture book about astronaut Mae Jemison, which might well be all you NEED to know!
Books of More Words than Pictures
21. Girls Who Looked Under Rocks: The Lives of Six Pioneering Naturalists. Jeannine Atkins (writer), Paula Conner (illustrator), 2000
Atkins is the primal source for all of us who try to tell the stories of women scientists to younger generations and, what is particularly notable is her Bowie-like ability to constantly grow and evolve her story telling techniques. In this book she harnesses her story-telling skills to present her six chosen naturalists in individual narrative tales. It’s a great assortment too: three that you expect to find (Merian, Carson, Goodall) and three to deepen your knowledge (Comstock, Hamerstrom, Rothschild). A classic.
22. Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions By Women. Catherine Thimmesh (writer), Melissa Sweet (illustrator), 2000
Maybe the most iconic cover in Women in Science children’s book history, the book behind it is a slim and zesty guide through the stuffed history of women inventors, from scotchguard to Kevlar, Liquid Paper to the Snugli, and windshield wipers through the computer compiler. Thimmesh and Sweet were pioneers in showing the historical breadth of women putting their minds to solving the practical problems of the world and coming up with solutions that no one had considered before.
23. The Girl’s Guide to a Life in Science. Ram Ramaswamy, Rohini Godbole, Mandakini Dubey (Ed), 2012
I love this book, and wish that there were more like it. It is a collection of stories of women scientists from India covering darn near every field of scientific research you can imagine, and as an antidote to the “50 Profiles of Mostly Dead White Women” approach to presenting women scientists to young readers, it is great.
24. Women of Steel and Stone: 22 Inspirational Architects, Engineers, and Landscape Designers. Anna M. Lewis (writer), 2014
Of COURSE I love this book. In my decade and a half or so of collecting biographies of women in science, I have had tremendous luck collecting physicists and biologists, chemists and astronomers, but civil engineers are maddeningly thin on the ground. This book tells the story of 22 important people who built. A few you might know already, but overwhelmingly this is a set of life stories perched precariously at the tipping point of oblivion, and Lewis has done a wonderful service not only in telling them, but in such a way as to make them accessible to just the people who need the inspiration of their stories the most.
25. The Illustrated Women in Science: Year 1, Year 2 and Year 3. Dale DeBakcsy (writer/illustrator), 2015, 2016, 2017
I am often asked at conventions what the age range for my books is, and I tend to say “12 and up” though I suspect “14 and up” would be a slightly more accurate zone to place these in. In any case, these are the collections putting together each year’s Illustrated Women in Science columns and comics, and I still find them pretty fun.
26. Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science. Jeannine Atkins (writer), 2016
Perhaps the most unique book on this whole list, it takes Atkins’s well-established story-telling gift and pushes it into the realm of poetic drama. In covering the life of Merian, Mitchell, and Anning, Atkins could have treated them as cool biographies or exciting stories of the sort from her earlier book, but she made the choice to push the envelope and treat her readers to a mixture of poetry and narrative that has no equal. If you have a kid who has a hand in both the humanities and the sciences, this is the sort of book to give them to show that they need not choose one OR the other, that both can live hand in hand in the same person.
27. Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors, and Trailblazers Who Changed History. Sam Maggs (writer), Sophia Foster-Dimino (illustrator), 2016
This is my choice for THE book to put in the hands of a middle schooler. Maggs’s writing is engaging and I found myself laughing aloud multiple times at her vivacious sense of wit. Her selection of figures represents a diverse cross section of eras and nations, and each section includes a little mini-interview with somebody currently doing work in that area. And not only all that, but a glance at the bibliography shows how deeply Maggs cared about getting the science and history right, which is something I deeply appreciate. This ticks all the boxes for me for how to get a scientifically curious tween to really see themselves as a scientist or engineer or adventurer.
28. Trailblazers: 33 Women in Science Who Changed the World. Rachel Swaby, 2016
This is the young adult version of Swaby’s Headstrong, and a great book to have in a classroom for students to get ideas from about interesting and off the beaten path biography project subjects. Each figures gets about 4 easy to digest pages of explanation, so a student can sample several at a sitting and get a number of good ideas for a scientist they might want to delve into a bit deeper.
29. Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World. Rachel Ignotofsky (writer/illustrator), 2016
This book has done very well, but for my money, if you’re looking for a book to give to a 9 to 14 year old, go with Maggs or one of the graphic novels below.
30. Radioactive: How Irene Curie and Lise Meitner Revolutionized Science and Changed the World. Winifred Conkling (writer), 2018
Not only a telling of the lives of Irene Curie and Lise Meitner, two towering figures in the history of atomic studies, but also a history of humanity’s attempts to plumb the nature of and harness the power of radioactivity over the course of the first half of the twentieth century, a middle or high schooler who reads Radioactive! will emerge with a renewed appreciation for these two women but also a sense of how science, grasped by politics or profit, can become polluted if not carefully guarded. Clear and engaging, the attention to the science is the equal of the attention to the life stories, and that is a wonderful thing.
Graphic Novels and Fiction
31. The Age of Unreason series. J. Gregory Keyes (writer), 1999
These four books were core reading back when Geoffrey Schaeffer and I were starting to put together ideas for Frederick the Great: A Most Lamentable Comedy Breaching Time and Space (2007-2018), and I maintain that the character of Adrienne de Montchevreuil in them is basically a powered-up version of 18th century math legend Emilie du Chatelet.
32. Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas. Jim Ottaviani (writer), Maris Wicks (illustrator), 2015
These three researchers, who brought success to the observation of chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans, respectively, where so many had failed before them, were linked together in their time as the “Trimates” – a group of unorthodox and wildly successful natural observers picked and supported by anthropologist Louis Leakey, and I suppose their stories will always be linked together. Ottaviani, who prior to this had written graphic novels about Richard Feynman and Niels Bohr, does not shy before detailing the emotional and personal turmoil and cost that scientific research often entails. We learn of not only these scientists’ crowning achievements, but also the crippling depression and exhaustion that often went with them. A bittersweet book that tells truths that students deserve to know about what life in the field can bring, it’s a good volume to pass along to a high schooler with thoughts of a career in science.
33. The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer. Sydney Padua (writer/illustrator), 2015
Padua is one of my favorite webcomic artists of all time – her renderings of Lovelace are dynamic, and she is able to say more with an eyebrow than I can with a thousand word essay. This collection of her Lovelace/Babbage comic is justly beloved, a perfect present for that quirky youngster with a sharp sense of humor who you might know, and one of those presents that you probably want to read yourself before you pass it along.