Women Who Led The Way
We have been making books as a double-act for over 25 years and on themes from nature to history and everything in between. Our last book for Otter Barry Books was The History of Prehistory, a picture book that uses time-travelling children. They explore volcanoes and ride on mammoths and explain the pre-history of earth all the way to the first written word. After that ‘mammoth’ task we began to wonder what was next. I grew up in Sweden, and we now have a small house close to my family’s farm. That is where the idea for this book began; with a dusty album of old photographs taken by my great-great aunt Hedvig. She had emigrated to America in 1885 returning to Sweden in 1913. She had owned her own camera - something very unusual for a woman in the late 1800s. Among the photos we found a small image, from about 1915, of two women straddling a huge motorbike. After some research we realised this was actually Hedvig’s friend Ester Blenda Nordström. In Sweden she is a folk-hero, a determined young woman who, in 1913 had gone under cover as a farm maid to report on and expose the harsh working conditions of household servants in Sweden. This was just the first of various adventurous journalist-assignments that would include: living with the Sami in Lapland and taking her own ‘walk on the wild side’ by hitchhiking alone across the USA.
Her adventurous life-example set Mick and I thinking. Then, after a discussion with publisher Janetta Otter Barry, we discovered that, by coincidence, Janetta had received a request from primary teachers for a book about female explorers. We began to research further and, as we began to draw up a list of female explorers from history - we felt like we were assembling a team of elites. As we discovered more and more examples of strong, adventurous women we began to select and edit as we had a publisher-set limit on how many spreads we were allowed. We concentrated on diversity and also individuals who helped us span the last thousand years. However not all our elite explorers were map-readers or travelled the world. We found examples of amazing women who explored the microscopic universe, the undersea world and of course the heavens, represented by the 18th century career of Caroline Herschel, who, despite having only partial sight in one eye, discovered comets and star clusters.
We have a bright-as-a-button Anglo-American niece called Mae who lives in New York and is so obsessed with space that she wants to be a space explorer herself when she grows up (she is only 4 years-old just now). So of course Mae Jemison the US astronaut is her hero and this made researching Mae’s career all the more thrilling. We have also featured the amazing story of the Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space.
Mick particularly enjoyed the story of Lee Miller, the brave photojournalist who followed the front line troops and mocked the defeated Nazis by posing for a photo in Hitler’s personal bathtub with her muddy army boots on his bathmat! But, of all the amazing people in our book, I think Arunima Sinha’s story moved us most. This is the uplifting story of a volleyball champion who was selected for the Indian police force, only to be attacked by thieves as she travelled by train for her interview. Arunima defended herself but in the struggle she was thrown off the train and injured so badly her leg had to be amputated. Yet she didn’t give up! She went on to climb Mount Everest and become a great motivational speaker!
After careful research and using quotes and interviews Mick and I have ‘invited’ our selected explorers to tell their own stories and we feel this approach adds to the book’s humanity and diversity. It’s no coincidence our book is publishing on International Women’s Day and our heroic women deliver a common, unflinching message to children everywhere: ‘Girls should be able to do anything they want to do, wherever they live’! We have been inspired by all the women in our book and we feel sure others will be too. In my introduction to the book I quote Mae Jemison (herself a Star Trek fan) who once said. ‘It’s your life! Go on and do all you can with it!’
And, in case you wonder why my dear great aunt Hedvig isn’t in our book I should explain that we have decided she should have a book all to herself one day… anyone interested?
Women Who Led The Way by Mick Manning and Brita Granström was published by Otter-Barry Books £12.99 on 8th March 2022, International Women's Day.
Mick and Brita have pioneered Picture Book Non-Fiction since 1995. They have won the Smarties Silver Award, five English Association Awards and have been shortlisted twice for the Astrid Lindgren Prize. In 2020 they were jointly awarded the SLA/Hachette award for Outstanding Contribution to Information Books.