By Emily A. Klein
There are no beauty queens in Rad American Women, A-Z. That’s not to say that many of the women featured aren’t beautiful: the intent of the book, however, is to celebrate women for their accomplishments, not their looks. When the book’s author, Kate Schatz, had her daughter, Ivy, she knew that she wanted her to grow up with powerful female role models. Pop culture and history textbooks are densely populated with male leaders, athletes, scientists, inventors, explorers, and artists. The roles available to women, however, tend to be more narrowly defined, with appearance often (implicitly or explicitly) considered more important than achievement. Schatz wanted to help correct that imbalance by telling the stories of brilliant, trailblazing women in an accessible, fun way that would appeal to kids. Along with illustrator Miriam Klein Stahl, she has succeeded brilliantly: The book sold out its first two print runs, and is headed for a third.
The alphabet book is a time-honored children’s book formula that keeps kids turning pages. In the case of Rad American Women, “A” isn’t for “apple”—it’s for Angela Davis, black feminist scholar and activist, “who never backs down from the fight for justice.”
You won’t find Rosa Parks under “R,” nor Harriet Tubman under “H.” Although their contributions to American society were tremendous, Schatz and Klein Stahl wanted to feature lesser-known—but equally remarkable—American women. Ever heard of Ella Baker, mentor to M.L.K. and Rosa Parks, “who shaped the Civil Rights movement from behind the scenes”? Neither had I, until I picked up Schatz and Klein Stahl’s book. What about Dolores Huerta, a labor leader “who demands dignity and justice for farm workers,” or Nelly Bly, a pioneering reporter “who changed the face of journalism—and world travel”? Alongside writers and activists (who made up a disproportionate number of the entries early on, according to Schatz) the book features athletes, artists, musicians, scientists, and a Supreme Court justice.
At each reading of the book, an audience member is invited to read aloud the entry for “X”—the traditional bane of alphabet book authors. At the reading I attended, it was ten-year-old Lila. “X,” it turns out, is for “the women we haven’t learned about yet, and the women who’s stories we will never read… for the women whose voices weren’t heard… for the radical histories that didn’t get recorded… for all we don’t know about the past, but… also for the future.”
The reading was packed, with a few rapt kids sitting up front on the floor, and adults—alone or accompanied by kids—filling every chair. The Q and A session featured thoughtful questions from the audience about the rad women who had inspired the author and illustrator, the development of the book, and its groundbreaking nature: Rad American Women is the first children’s book to be published by City Lights (the publisher of Alan Ginsberg’s Howl) in more than 60 years. Afterwards, Klein Stahl did screen prints featuring her portrait of Dolores Huerta on onsies, T-shirts, and hoodies brought by audience members. It was an uplifting, lively event, and a testament to the book’s impact in a culture hungry for the stories of rad women.
I had the chance to ask Schatz a few questions by email. Here are her responses:
The word “rad” is often used as a synonym for “cool,” “amazing,” or “remarkable.” But it’s also an abbreviation of the word “radical”—an apt descriptor of the women featured in your book. How did you decide on the title?
I’m a California girl so it’s always been a part of my vocabulary. I like playing with the various meanings of the word, and demonstrating that there are many ways to be rad, and thus, to make a difference.
The stories of the women in your book provide inspiration and empowerment for girls of all ages. Do you hope that boys will read it too?
Absolutely, 100 percent. I have a son and I can’t wait for him to grow up (he’s almost two!) and read this book. Learning about cool women is not just for girls—boys can be empowered, inspired, and motivated by all of the people in this book because their struggles and achievements are just plain interesting. It’s so dangerous to assume that this book is for girls, or that boys won’t like it—why is a boy any more likely to relate to George Washington than to Sonia Sotomayor? You don’t have to be a trans person to recognize yourself in Kate Bornstein’s story—any young person who has been bullied, or has felt different can relate. These are the assumptions and stereotypes that adults put upon children—I’ve done numerous classroom visits and can tell you that the boys are absolutely as engaged as the girls.
It must have been difficult to narrow the field of pioneering women to include in the book. How did you decide who would make the final cut?
It was a long, challenging, fascinating process that entailed a great deal of research. We collaborated with friends to get their ideas, and made a huge spreadsheet jam-packed with rad women. From there we narrowed it down, seeking a balance of women from different time periods and fields (i.e. scientists, artists, activists, etc). We prioritized women of color and women whose stories are underrepresented in traditional historical media (textbooks, etc.) and aimed for a grouping of women who would be inspiring, interesting, and a bit surprising.
The bold paper-cut portraits by Miriam Klein Stahl pair beautifully with the text. Did you originally conceive of the art as such an integral part of the project?
Yes, I knew from the start that the illustrations would be a crucial element, and I was thrilled when Miriam agreed to this collaboration.
Do people ever question the need for a book that focuses exclusively on the achievements of women? How do you respond to them?
So far it’s limited to a few boring trolls online whose threatened responses are so predictable and banal—”But why isn’t this about MEN?!”—that they’re just laughable. For the most part I ignore them, and don’t feed the culture of misogyny and mansplaining that is rampant online (and in real life) I’m very open to genuine critique of the book, should anyone approach me with it. But the whole “Angela Davis is an evil Communist” and “this is feminazi propaganda” BS is hilarious and worth no one’s time… A book that tells the stories of 26 cool women doesn’t invalidate or erase men. I promise. Anyway, I’d rather respond to the kids who write me thank you letters for coming to their classes, or the people on Twitter who are so thrilled to share this book with the kids in their lives. Those are the people whose feedback matters!