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The search for the girl scientist in literature

Note: This piece was published by a publishing industry blog a few years ago, but they have apparently reworked their site and I can’t find it anymore. So I am reposting it here. This is one of the pieces that I have written that people find over and over—we need to support our scientist/techy/mathy girls, and part of that is letting them know through literary role models that they aren’t alone. Unfortunately, I got some wonderful suggestions on that blog for other books, but they are now lost! If you have any other girl scientists up your sleeve, please do leave comments!

My eight-year-old daughter is a scientist. This isn’t a career choice. This is just a fact of her being.

When she was 18 months old, she accidentally pulled on her sensitive big brother’s hair.

He cried!

Green glass sea

This is a lovely book for aspiring girl scientists—or any girl who doesn’t fit in.

Another child might have felt guilty or might have been upset. Not my daughter. She had only one possible reaction:

I wonder what will happen when I do that again!

And again and again.

Fast forward seven years, and she’s a regular exhibitor at our county science fair. If I want her to practice her penmanship, we do science. If she learns new words, it’s through science.

In the midst of this we had an accidental book club. We’re homeschoolers, and we do a lot of driving. Those two combined mean that we love audiobooks. I balk at the high price tag, so we get most of our audiobooks from the library. This means that more often than not, we listen to whatever happens to be on the shelves.

Unintentionally, two of the books we listened to were about girls who love science.

The first was The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. This lovely book by Jacqueline Kelly covers nearly a year in the life of a girl living in rural Texas at the turn of the 20th century. She forms an unexpected alliance with her grandfather, an amateur naturalist, and becomes entranced with science the way that some girls now become entranced with teen idols.

This positive portrayal of a girl scientist in a place where she is so completely out of place is riveting. Not only did it inspire more interest in evolution and botany in my already science-loving kids, but it presented the role model of a girl who is a scientist against all odds.

The second book, The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages, is also historical, set in Los Alamos as scientists work desperately to create the “gadget” that will end the war. Dewey is a born scientist also, in this case, an inventor. She loves to create her own gadgets, and largely ignores the taunting of the other kids. When she is unexpectedly required to spend a few weeks living with another family, she forms an alliance with another misfit girl, who is finding her calling as an artist.

Sea and Tate are very different books. In Tate, the negative pressure on the main character comes largely from adults. In Sea, however, adults are largely charmed by Dewey’s inventiveness, but the kids are just short of brutal to her.

In both books, however, today’s girl scientists can see girls sticking to science because it is what calls to them. Interestingly, both books almost ignore the girls’ schooling, which seems tangential to their real lives.

In the midst of this mini girl-scientist book festival, it occurred to me to look for more books. In my wanderings, I got a recommendation to ask Tanya Turek, who runs the blog books4yourkids.com. She mentioned that Sea has a sequel, White Sands, Red Menace, which I had found.  She also reminded me of A Wrinkle in Time, which fits closely enough to the theme I was looking for. But then she came up with a blank.

“I spent quite a bit of time on the internal book search system at the Barnes & Noble where I work as well as the internet and I could not come up with any more books that what I suggested already,” she e-mailed me. “I think that there really, truly are only a handful of books that have scientific themes AND female protagonists.”

I can imagine the reasons for this: Few women are scientists, and scientists in general are unlikely also to be fiction writers, so when you look for the cross-section of those two small groups, you apparently only come up with two current writers amongst our many writers of fiction for children.

To explain the lack of these books, however, does not excuse it! We need more books about girls who love science. Girl scientists, even in the 21st century, meet with a good measure of what met Calpurnia in 1899 and Dewey in 1945: misunderstanding, social pressure, and disappointment. Books are where misfit kids can find themselves, and where they find out they aren’t misfits after all.

When my daughter was three, she was nearly impossible to have in a preschool room. All order would be upset; all expectations would be stymied. Forget learning outcomes, her teachers just wanted her to stop experimenting!

I finally found the right teacher for her. One day when I went to pick her up, Cari said, “I have realized what is going on here. Your daughter is a scientist. She must find out how everything works, and the laws behind everything the classroom.”

As soon as Cari understood my daughter, things went much more smoothly.

Books like Calpurnia Tate and Green Glass Sea will hopefully help my daughter understand herself.

Posted in Books, Education, Parenting, Writing.

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8 Responses

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  1. Suki says

    A friend just sent me a link to this blog that has a list of books about smart girl scientists: http://www.teenlibrariantoolbox.com/2013/08/stem-girls-books-with-girls-rocking.html . It looks like a fair amount of the books on it for teens, but she does cite Calpurnia!

  2. Melisa says

    When my science oriented kid was about 13 we listened to “Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie” by Alan Bradley. The protagonist is a young girl chemist. It is a mystery. We found it a very enjoyable listen!

    • Suki says

      I’ve heard that’s a good one! We’ll get it from the library.

  3. Suki says

    I just got another possibility for my daughter: Alice in Quantumland. I blogged about it here: http://blog.sukiwessling.com/2014/12/decelerated-reader/

  4. Julia says

    The Walking Fish by Rachelle Burk is a great children/YA science-adventure novel with a female protagonist! http://tumblehomelearning.com/product/pre-order-the-walking-fish-book/

  5. Suki says

    The publisher kindly sent me a review copy of The Walking Fish by Kopel Burk – http://amzn.to/1NbkwWq . Published by Tumblehome Learning, this middle grade novel is about a girl who makes the transition from a non-scientist to a scientist. I appreciated the perspective on how children can be inspired to science by events in their lives. The main character may be a little exasperating to kids who already love science (she takes a while to come around), but inevitably she not only becomes a scientist on the trail of learning but also fights against dishonesty in academia. It’s a fine addition into the small category of books about girl scientists.

  6. Suki says

    In a conversation about books that feature homeschoolers, someone recommended Nellie Nova Takes Flight by Stephanie Wilson Peterson. I haven’t read it, but I love that she’s both a homeschooler and a scientist. And an acknowledged gifted girl to boot! http://amzn.to/1RE6oEQ

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Empty Shelves for Gifted Readers – Avant Parenting linked to this post on January 1, 2015

    […] The search for the girl scientist in literature […]



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