Posts tagged ‘Women’

Breakthrough!

Breakthrough.jpgTitle: Breakthrough!: How Three People Saved “Blue Babies” and Changed Medicine Forever
Author: Jim Murphy
ISBN: 9780547821832
Pages: 130 pages
Publisher/Date: Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, c2015.

It wasn’t only that the operation was very complex and risky. The surgery he was about to perform on Eileen’s struggling heart had never been done on a human before, let alone one so tiny or frail. This was why the balcony-type observation stand along the west side of room 706 was packed with curious Johns Hopkins staff and why a movie camera had been set up pointing at the operating table. If the operation worked — if the patient survived — history would be made.
Moreover, Blalock had never performed this procedure, not even on an experimental animal. In fact, the only person to have done it successfully start to finish, wasn’t an official member of the surgical team. According to hospital rules, he wasn’t even supposed to be in the room. But he was there now, at Blalock’s request, standing just behind the surgeon on a wooden step stool. His name was Vivien Thomas, and most people at the hospital thought he was a janitor. (xiii)

On Wednesday, November 29, 1944, history was made. The first ever operation on a child to increase blood flow to the heart was scheduled to take place. Not only was it a moment in medical history, but it was also a moment in women’s rights and African-American rights. For over a year Dr. Alfred Blalock, chief surgeon and researcher at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and his African-American research assistant Vivien Thomas had been studying the research of hearing-impaired pediatric physician Dr. Helen Taussig. At Taussig’s request, they had been searching for a means to solve this reoccurring problem of abnormal development of the heart, which had cost her the lives of over two hundred patients. When they finally develop what they think is a solution, they find themselves in a race against time with undeveloped technology and unpracticed procedures to save the life of a young child.

An interesting introduction to a rarely considered medical event, this narrative nonfiction provides background contextual information, primary source photographs, and simplified descriptions of scientific concepts. Mentioned in the short description above, this book could be used to spread knowledge about medical, women’s, or African-American history. Vivien Thomas is unable to attend medical school due to the economic collapse of the 1930s, and ends up being essentially educated on-the-job after he is hired by Blalock, ten years his senior. With his boss and upon first arriving at Johns Hopkins, Thomas is forced to confront racist tendencies that had been culturally ingrained for decades. Dr. Helen Taussig also had to confront others’ prejudices against her, including not being allowed to take more than one or two classes at a time and not being allowed to study in the same room as her classmates for fear she would “contaminate” the other students. Her gradual hearing loss also proved unique problems that she solved in order to continue the professional career track she had fought so hard to achieve. Other social issues at the time that are still prevalent today, including animal testing, sterilization methods, and insider industry information, are touched upon to provide context.

It’s the personal vignettes behind the discovery that create the compelling narrative. The inclusion of period photographs featuring the people and places involved all bring the incredible story to life. The medical concepts are broken down into the barest, most simplistic terms. While that makes it easy to understand for readers, additional visuals to aid in comprehending the surgery and the anatomy involved would have been appreciated. The sequence of development of the heart on page 28 and the drawing of the chest cavity inside a child on page 49 was extremely helpful in envisioning it, although the captain makes it sound like the drawing was done by Thomas. Even enlarging the newspaper clipping found on page 77 would have sufficed, to make it easier to read the information contained and see the drawing provided, although it is a remarkably clear and readable scan.

For a fuller picture of the historic event, it’s implications, and aftermath, readers should read the detailed source notes, which contain information that regrettably did not make it into the primary text. It’s my impression that most people neglect to read the included back matter in informational texts. For instance, while the text vaguely mentions that Thomas was later recognized, including a formal portrait, an honorary doctorate, and made head of the laboratory, the significance of his becoming an “instructor of surgery at the school, an extraordinarily rare appointment for someone who was neither a surgeon nor a doctor” is only mentioned in the source notes. Overall, the book does a solid job recognizing the accomplishments of scientists that no one has heard of or probably even considered investigating.

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

Squirrel Power

Squirrel Power -- Squirrel Girl 1-4.jpgTitle: Squirrel Power
Series: The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (#1-4)
Author: Ryan North
Illustrator: Erica Henderson
ISBN: 9780785197027
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Marvel Worldwide Inc, a subsidiary of Marvel Entertainment, LLC, c2015.

Doreen Green is Squirrel Girl, a minor Marvel character introduced in Marvel Super-Heroes #8 back in 1990 approaching Iron-Man as a possible sidekick. Now reappearing in her own comic, Doreen is off to college. Attempting to keep her identity a secret is going to be harder then she thought, since in just the first four issues compiled in this volume she fights off three different sets of street gangs/thug/bank robbers, Kraven the Hunter, Whiplash, and Galactus, all before the end of the first day of classes.

“Fights off” is used loosely though, as two out of the three named bad guys are talked down, which frustrates me personally as implying that a woman as strong as Squirrel can’t take down bad guys and that all women are good for is talking. However, it does prove that fighting isn’t the only solution to the problem and that a superhero with non-traditional powers can be victorious in battle, no matter how unconventional the battle. Many letters to the editor mention reading them to their younger children as young as four years old, and I think it’s great that there is a comic book out there that doesn’t sexualize women and allows a little fun to enter the story line. I also think it’s horrible that every time we run across a comic that does this we have to mention it and field questions and comments like this, when we don’t have to do the same about rippling biceps and spandex for the guys’ costumes.

The original appearance of Squirrel Girl is included in the back bonus material, and I’m personally happy they got rid of the crazy eye-liner marks, although she is very obviously and conspicuously the same person in disguise, just minus the tail which she somehow manages to tuck into her pants without anyone realizing they are padded. Does she ever get to wear a swim suit? Her awkwardness around people is painful, making me wonder how she has ever kept her secret identity a secret. It’s not my favorite comic, but I can see the appeal. I personally loved the fact that she steals Tony Stark’s Ironman armor right from under him, and her use of squirrel abilities and accessories is neatly wrapped into the plot (crushed acorns, walking on electric lines, and super strength and speed). Talking about the highlights to a friend, we were laughing at the feasibility and fantastical nature of the more memorable plot points. Obviously one you need to share to fully enjoy.

Princeless 1

PrincelessTitle: Princeless (first four issues)
Author: Jeremy Whitley
Illustrators: M. Goodwin (art and colors) and Jung Ha Kim (letters)
ISBN: 9781939352545
Pages: Unpaged (128 pages)
Publisher/Date: Action Lab Entertainment, c2015

That very day, the prince and princess were married. They lived happily ever after and had lots of beautiful children. The End.
“That story is complete hogwash. [..] First of all, it’s full of plot holes. I mean, really, what kind of dragon dies with one blow? Not to mention, how did he get her down from that tower?”
“I suppose he climbed.”
“Climbed? Climbed Mom? He climbed ‘the tallest of tall towers’. Then managed to get the helpless princess of his down without any kind of magic? Did you see that girl’s arms? They’re PIPE CLEANERS! She’s not climbing down anything! […] And how did she get up there in the first place? Who has the kind of grudge against this beautiful princess that they would lock her in a tower? […] Plus where do you even buy a dragon? Dragons are wild animals! You’re going to put that thing in charge of your daughter? What if it wanders off? What if it eats her? […] All I know is, when I turn sixteen, you and dad had better not lock me in some tower.”

Oh, but that’s exactly what happens to Adrienne, is she gets locked in a tower guarded by a dragon waiting to be rescued. After several princes get eaten and one runs away screaming, she takes matters into her own hands. Breaking both herself and her dragon Sparky free, they begin a quest to rescue the rest of her sisters from their respective towers. Returning to her home leads to a case of mistaken identity, and now she’s running from her own guards. Will a plucky blacksmith’s daughter with her own ideas of women warriors be an asset to her quest?

Remember all those good things I said about Nimona, and how it subtly alluded to cultural tropes regarding superheroes, feminism, and tradition? Place all those things in glaring, blinding, glowing neon skyscraper height letters, and you get Princeless. Plastered on the front cover is a quote from Comics Alliance hailing it as “the story Disney should have been telling for the past twenty years,” but I feel that’s true only if Disney was being run by overly politically correct government officials. In less than two hundred pages we cover:

  • anti-feminist messages of old-fashioned fairy tales (quoted above)
  • blatant recognition of sexism in the costumes of female heroes (“What I’m saying is why should a woman’s armor have to show cleavage or stomach? […] Why not make real armor, which would actually be effective in a fight for a woman warrior?”)
  • the mistaken emphasis of women’s worth as a commodity instead of a companion that persists in some cultures even today (“And the worst part is, all he wanted was money for her”)
  • patriarchal views of the role of women in society (“It is not a woman’s place to rule, but to be ruled.”) and
  • the stereotyping against “feminine” qualities in men and “masculine” qualities in women.

Why don’t we just use Bedelia’s giant hammer to pound feminist philosophies into everyone’s head, as that would be about as subtle as this book. I guess for some people it’s necessary to be this obvious, but it seriously impacted my enjoyment of the story, not because I disagree with the messages. I agree whole heartedly that young girls need realistic role models of all types in literature, and have long wished that more superheroes took the functional female route instead of the spandex bikini-clad boobs and butts. However, let the story prove the point, and don’t make medieval characters spout modern-day political talking points ever dozen or so pages.

Now don’t misunderstand, I did enjoy the premise of the story. The details were really key, with Princess Adrienne actually falling off her dragon the first time she hops on due to the lack of a proper saddle. I like her ingenuity when it comes to getting herself out of trouble. Her ethnicity, minus one early mention about how she will never be a “fair maiden”, amazingly goes largely unremarked upon but is unquestionable in the illustrations. Princess Adrienne has an admirable attitude, not similar to Junie B. Jones but more to that point that she knows what makes sense and she’s not afraid say what she’s thinking. I’m hopeful the series will become less about what other comics and fairy tales are lacking and more about the good qualities that this storyline offers. There are certain scenes that really steal the show, especially the last one with Adrienne’s sister, and those are the types of scenes that I want to see more. A good, promising start if you’re willing to dodge the propaganda when necessary.

Nimona

NimonaTitle: Nimona
Author/Illustrator: Noelle Stevenson
ISBN: 9780062278234
Pages: 266 pages
Publisher/Date: HarperTeen, an imprint of HerperCollins Publishers, c2015.

“The agency sent me. I’m your new sidekick!”
“That makes no sense. Why would they send some KID to be my sidekick?”
“I don’t know, something about helping your image? They want you to appeal to today’s youth.”
“Did the Agency really send you?”
“Yes”
“Where’s the letter?
“I left it in the… uh… FIIIINE so the Agency didn’t send me.”
“I KNEW IT.”(1)

Ballister Blackheart, “the biggest name in supervillainy” has just become the unlikely recipient of a surprisingly bloodthirsty sidekick named Nimona. Not because he really was looking or wants one, but he has to grudgingly admit that she has some traits that could be useful. While they both have their own ideas about villainy, they find common ground in fighting against the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics, specifically Ballister’s nemesis Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin. Everyone has secrets though, and when those secrets are discovered, they lead to questions regarding who is good, who’s bad, and who can be really trusted.

An award-winning web comic gets the graphic novel treatment and I’m so glad it did. While I’ve gotten more involved in graphic novels and web comics in the past couple years, I am by no means an expert and it’s fortunate I can expand my exposure to them when they get printed through traditional means. Noelle Stevenson does an admirable job of embracing the stereotypes and tried and true troupes of the genre while still breaking tradition and flipping them on their head. Yes there is a bad guy and a good guy, a plucky sidekick and a secret agency, but there is also an overly secured secret lair that everyone knows about and double and triple cross traps that fail, succeed, and then fail again and are openly discussed. Oh how I love plucky sidekick Nimona! Her dialogue is spot-on, she’s all over the place with energy, and then she has this other side of her that you get to meet that makes you sit up and take notice of her in a whole new light.

The thought-provoking plot provides lots of surprises, with questions of good versus evil, personal identity, friendship, and science, most of which I can’t talk about without ruining the joy of discovering them for yourself. The artwork is just as stunning, with action-packed panels at every turn, filled with explosions but just as frequently zooming in on quieter character development, subtle hints and details, and back stories. This being originally a web comic, you do notice a change in the rendering of the characters, but I think they change for the better, and the sheer number of panels rendered for each page is impressive to say the least. Stevenson put a lot of effort into this, and it shows!

This is one of my favorite graphic novels of the year in a crowded field of girl-powered themed exploits that were published this year. I’m fan-girl fawning over her, and if I was to ever cosplay someone, I think Nimona would be my first choice, although I have no idea how I would do her hair style justice. Pick this up, get acquainted with her, and — since the ending ties up everything but still leaves an opening for more adventures — we all need to hope like heck Nimona will receive the sequel treatment.

Interstellar Cinderella

Interstellar CinderellaTitle: Interstellar Cinderella
Author: Deborah Underwood
Illustrator: Meg Hunt
ISBN: 9781452125329
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Chronicle Books, c2015.

Once upon a planetoid,
amid her tools and sprockets,
a girl named Cinderella dreamed
of fixing fancy rockets. (unpaged)

This space themed spin on the Cinderella tale has all the components of the classic, including the step-family, the helpful mouse, and a fairy godmother (although in robotic form). Promoting STEM based feminism and diversity without a single overt mention of racism, feminism, or prejudices, everyone following the “We Need Diverse Books” publicity should take note: this is how it should be done. In perhaps a subtle nod to the importance of education, pink-haired, freckled, and fresh-faced Cinderella spends her evenings studying ship repair. She would be self-sufficient, except her step-family steals the tools, forcing her to rely on the help of a fairy godrobot. The robot doesn’t fix the ship for her though, but instead produces the tools Cinderella needs to do the job herself. Her obscured identity is explained by a helmeted spacesuit and goggles, and she doesn’t accept a marriage proposal from the dark-skinned prince but instead negotiates a job offer to become his chief mechanic.

The primarily humanoid looking bodies of the alien species are probably the only stereotypical thing about the story, but there is some variety in the number of limbs, heads, and eyes, with some resembling species of Earth animals. I also would have fixed the Prince’s hair, which streams behind him in a cross between a mohawk and a mullet, but that is a very minor personal quibble, especially considering Cinderella’s beautifully and realistically portrayed practical bun, which I love with the fly-away wisps. The sing-song verse reads well (just make sure “family’s” three syllables, not two when reading aloud), and Cinderella shines like the star she is in every scene. Where can I get my own robotic mouse? Better yet, when can we get a sequel?

Roller Girl

Roller GirlTitle: Roller Girl
Author/Illustrator: Victoria Jamieson
ISBN: 9780803740167
Pages: 240 pages
Publisher/Date: Dial Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, c2015.

“By the way, did you see this in the program? There’s a junior roller derby camp, starting this summer.”
“What?! Let me see! Please!”
“It starts next month, right after school lets out.”
And just like that, my fate was decided. I was going to be a roller girl. (24-25)

Astrid’s mother periodically takes twelve-year-old Astrid and her friend Nicole to events for “evening of cultural enlightenment”. Usually they consist of concerts or museums, but this time around it’s a roller derby match. Astrid is hooked from the very beginning, even though she doesn’t own skates and doesn’t know how, and is eager to sign up for the upcoming junior roller derby camp. Nicole though, has not caught the bug, and Astrid worries about attending without her only friend. When she gets there, Astrid realizes that while it may look like fun, it’s also a lot of work, and she’s worried that while she might look like a roller girl with newly dyed hair, is she really ready to compete?

Fans of Raina Telgemeier will celebrate that there is another bold, brightly colored, friendship based, girl centered graphic novel for them to find and check out. Astrid is just a tiny bit clueless when it comes to her good friend Nicole and will just not accept that the two could have such drastically different interests. Her acts of rebelliousness — like dying her hair and lying to her mother — are realistic. This non-traditional sport has been gaining popularity and cultural presence, I think ever since the Drew Barrymore movie came out. Author/artist Jamieson is a competitor in real life, and takes the time to explain the game to readers in a way that allows them to learn along with Astrid. I loved that her single-parent family was presented in such a way that I didn’t even notice until the end that her father isn’t mentioned once. We don’t know what happened, and it doesn’t matter because it’s not central to the plot and Astrid has a loving, involved, and supportive parent who acts like a parent. Highly recommended.

Swing Sisters

Swing SistersTitle: Swing Sisters: The Story of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm
Author: Karen Deans
Illustrator: Joe Cepeda
Pages: unpaged
ISBN: 9780823419708
Publisher/Date: Holiday House, c2015.

Dr. Jones loved music and wanted the children to love it too. In 1939 he started a school band that was just for girls, and he called it the Sweethearts.

Started as an fundraiser for a African American orphanage founded in 1909, the Sweethearts soon became something more. They played in the beginning for schools and church groups. When the musicians aged out of the orphanage, they stayed together, playing all over the country, including at the Howard Theater in Washington to an audience of 35,000 people and overseas in Europe for the troops during World War II. For years they quietly broke Jim Crow laws, allowing any women who could jump, jive, and swing on an instrument to join their band. This caused problems with some folks, forcing some of their members to sneak out of their bus and head to the train station via taxi rather than getting caught by the police in the company of African Americans. Eventually, the group disbanded as the women pursued other goals and interests, like other jobs or families.

It’s interesting to learn about an African American orphanage during the 1900s that taught literacy skills to children many saw as underprivileged, when so many African American children weren’t taught how to read or write. With sparse writing that conveys just enough information for younger readers which the book is geared toward, it’s a welcome addition that websites, books, and documentaries are available for those who would like to learn more, including a NPR broadcast and a Smithsonian feature from a few years ago. While just a blip in music, women’s, and African American histories, these trail blazers have not been forgotten, even if — as one interview remarks — few recordings of their work are still around.

The illustrations are multicolored and textured, and the oil and acrylic paintings lend a texture, similar to cracked paint, that encourage a lingering look and give it an old time feel. The crowd scenes are equally impressive as many of the people have distinguishing characteristics and skin tones, and the period clothing is quite colorful. The closing scenes of a silhouetted band playing in front of a sunset orange and yellow hued background, paired with an older women passing along a trumpet to a younger girl, reflect the closing sentiments of the book. “Those Sweethearts didn’t know it at the time, but they helped open doors for women of all backgrounds.” (unpaged)

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

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