Why Write About Strong, Smart Women by Laurie Wallmark
Laurie Wallmark and April Chu (the illustrator behind the New York Times-celebrated In a Village by the Sea) have teamed up to celebrate the life of the world’s first female computer programer (from the early 1800’s, no less!) with their new children’s book: Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine. Laurie is a former computer engineer herself, and shares why we need books like this about strong, smart women.
Children need books that mirror their experiences in their own world as well as ones that open a window to the seeing the opportunities of the outside world. With a “mirror” book, children see themselves and/or their lives reflected in the book’s characters, settings, and actions. “Window” books allow children to observe and appreciate the great diversity of people around them.
Women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) are woefully underrepresented in books for children. Often the same women are written about over and over again, ignoring the many contributions of other women in these fields. It sometimes seems as if there are no women scientists other than Marie Curie. This lack of STEM women in literature does a great disservice to both girls, who need a mirror, as well as boys, who would benefit from a window, to the achievements of woman.
But it’s not sufficient to simply place a women mathematician or scientist as a character in a book. Writers need to show these women as being both strong and smart—role models for children to emulate. A writer can show a woman’s strength by having her overcomes adversities such as prejudice, physical or mental disabilities, limited opportunities, family circumstances, and the like. Reading about how she handles these barriers will encourage children experiencing similar ones. For those children lucky enough not to have such obstacles in their lives, these stories can demonstrate that anyone has the capability of achieving success. To demonstrate a woman’s intellect, a writer can describe how she came to her academic or professional accomplishments. Both boys and girls need to realize that woman and men are equally intelligent.
I chose to write a picture book biography about Ada Byron Lovelace for two reasons: First, I teach computer science, and Ada was an important person in the history of computing. She was the world’s first computer programmer. By reading Ada’s story, children might be encouraged to learn more about computers. Second, to pursue her love of mathematics, Ada had to overcome many obstacles, including being blind for several weeks and bedridden for three years. Children who experience difficulties in their own lives can read about Ada and realize they too can achieve their dreams.
It’s all well and good to show strong, smart women in books, but what good is that if children aren’t interested in reading it? Here’s where a talented illustrator is invaluable. A kid-friendly cover will attract children. It will encourage them to pick up and open the book. Gorgeous illustrations within will keep the children turning the pages. Before long, they’ll have read the entire book.
Literature is a wonderful medium for giving children a window and/or a mirror to the opportunities for and the achievements of strong, smart women in STEM.
Laurie Wallmark has published stories in Highlights, Cricket, and other children’s magazines. When not writing, she teaches computer science. Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine is her first book. Visit her blog at lauriewallmark.com. Learn more and order your copy of Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine here.
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