History, herstory, whose story?

Big-time reader Emily Bauermeister mines the stacks at the Red Balloon Book Shop in St. Paul. Photograph by Sarah Whiting.

Big-time reader Emily Bauermeister mines the stacks at the Red Balloon Book Shop in St. Paul. Photograph by Sarah Whiting.

Emily Bauermeister likes to read. Her favorites: books about other girls, especially those who live in faraway places. “I like to compare my life to their lives and see if it’s the same or different,” explained the Minneapolis eighth-grader. Bauermeister pays attention when her teachers suggest new titles. She is comfortable scanning book jackets and first pages to get a feel for a book. Her mom takes her to the library on a regular basis and helps her choose titles that are age- and theme-appropriate. But not all girls like to read, not all girls listen when their teachers recommend a book, and not all girls have moms who take them to the library every week.

What about these girls? When they sit down to read for school, do they read much that’s written by a woman about a woman? Beyond Anne Frank, Rosa Parks, Susan B. Anthony and Harriet Tubman, do today’s girls read about female historical figures, and are they assigned books by women authors?

Yes, said Charon Tierney, language arts specialist for the Minnesota Department of Education. “Minnesota law requires that schools teach a wide array of literature … and are sensitive to women writers, writers of various racial heritages and writers with disabilities.”

Each of the state’s 343 school districts is required to file a curriculum plan addressing racial, gender and disability diversity, including objectives and the materials teachers will use.

Each district has its own say

But if the proof is in the pudding, who’s tasting it to make sure it’s got the right balance of ingredients? Maybe nobody. “Minnesota is big on local control,” Tierney conceded. “We’re a state that lets each district make its own choices. Districts have to submit a plan and an outline as to how they are going to address diversity. Yet are the teachers really teaching what they say? Nobody monitors that.” Tierney added, “Unlike some other states, Minnesota doesn’t have a prescribed list of literature. For example, some states say that every high school student will read ‘To Kill A Mockingbird,’ but Minnesota doesn’t. We just say districts need to teach a wide array of literature.”

At the same time, she argued, “Teachers, especially language arts teachers, really want to hook kids into reading and they do that through a variety of ways. One way is to help kids see themselves in literature. Teachers are looking to motivate as many students as possible with books, and keep in mind,” she stressed, “half of those students are girls.”

Bonnie Hild, the literacy coordinator specializing in reading for Hopkins Public Schools, says that the competition among textbook publishers for a limited number of sales each year, plus the fact that their materials must appeal to teachers, not just in Minnesota, but in Arizona and Idaho and South Carolina, makes it in each publishers’ best interest to be as inclusive as possible. “When we do decide to purchase a new program, we’ll scrutinize it sharply, especially if it’s an anthology, to see that it’s disability sensitive, gender inclusive and culturally representative,” Hild commented.

Tierney, who taught English for 27 years, thinks multicultural education can go too far sometimes. “At times I felt like there was so much multiculturalism in language arts that I had to ask myself if there was a balance in what I was teaching,” she said. “I had boys that said, ‘All we do is read women authors.’ Overall, I think Minnesota teachers have a good handle on teaching literature from multiple perspectives.”

Is inclusivity lacking?

Not everyone agrees with Tierney and Hild. Laura Lanik, a ninth-grade world history teacher at Minneapolis’ South High, wishes her textbook were more inclusive. It’s dated 1997, and she hasn’t heard any talk of a new one anytime soon. “Textbook writers,” she said tapping a copy of her classroom edition, “do have a lot to squeeze into these big books. This one is supposed to cover all of world history. But it is disheartening to see that someone like Cleopatra gets a one-paragraph mention.”

Because Lanik isn’t satisfied with the sketchy, short paragraphs and sometimes even one-line mention that many women receive in her world history text, she often supplements her curriculum with material she brings into class. “All teachers supplement their textbooks,” Lanik explained, “with what they know the most about and are most passionate about. For me, that just happens to be reading and women.”

“Every summer I spend time researching famous dead women in history from other countries. I write down the names of women I come across in books and look them up later online. I watch movies and learn about women that way. For example, a few summers ago I saw “Beyond Rangoon,” and that’s how I learned about Aung San Suu Kyi. There are actually two paragraphs in my [text]book about her. She’s one of my favorite women to teach about, even though she’s not dead.

“As I learn more and more about women’s issues, I bring them to the forefront and discuss them in class,” Lanik said. These discussions captivate her students and encourage their participation. “Many of these social issues, because they involve women, ultimately affect children. My students are all under 18 and these issues affect them.

“So much of history is about men written by men,” Lanik continued. “I tell my students on the first day that history is not what happened, it’s what was written down by the people who were left to tell it-the winners, the leaders, the conquerors. For most of the world’s history, the women were not the winners.”

Men make many of the choices

How many teachers share Lanik’s passion for teaching about women? Is it fair to guess, or even hope, that since teaching is a female-dominated profession, teachers are going the extra mile to make sure their students read books? Well, to some extent, it depends on men. According to Lanik, in many high school history departments across the country, men are the teachers. “South’s history department is still dominated by men,” she said. South High has eight male and four female social studies teachers.

Each year, Lanik requires her world history students to read a book with a historical perspective about a culture outside the U.S. One of the books on her suggested list is “Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia” by Jean Sasson, the diary of one royal Saudi Arabian woman. “The boys love this book as much as the girls,” Lanik said. It is disturbing and sad, she explained, yet it appeals to her students’ sense of fairness and justice.

“Ultimately,” Lanik added, “I am just trying to expose my students to a variety of voices and provide a balance so that they understand history is more than just men. There were women there, too.”

The state doesn’t require girls to read these books …
But we think they should.

Julie Fuelling, a buyer at Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul; Kathleen Baxter, a columnist for School Library Journal and the author of four books including “Gotcha!: Nonfiction Booktalks to Get Kids Excited about Reading”; and Laura Lanik, a ninth grade world history teacher in Minneapolis all contributed to this list, as did the staff of the Minnesota Women’s Press and English teachers across the state.

Picture Books/Beginning Readers
I Like Me by Nancy Carlson
Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole
Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
Everybody Cooks Rice by Norah Dooley
Pirate Girl by Cornelia Funke
The Colors of Us by Karen Katz
We See the Moon by Carrie A. Kitze
Gooney Bird Greene by Lois Lowry
Paperbag Princess by Robert Munsch
In Aunt Lucy’s Kitchen by Cynthia Rylant
Mama, I’ll Give You The World by Roni Schotter
Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa by Erica Silverman
Eloise by Kay Thompson

Young Reader
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
The Secret School by Avi
Stealing Thunder by Mary Casanova
Yolonda’s Genius by Carol Fenner
Wake Up, World! A Day in the Life of Children Around the World by Beatrice Hollyer
Boston Jane: Wilderness Days by Jennifer Holm
The Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace
Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan
Belle Teal by Ann Martin
Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan
Listening For Lions by Gloria Whelan
Dealing with Dragons by Patricia Wrede

Young Adult
In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons
Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene
The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Looking For Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta
Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu
Pirates by Celia Rees
Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind by Suzanne Fisher Staples
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
Bat 6 by Virginia Euwer Wolff

Notable Nonfiction
Seven Brave Women by Bethanne Andersen
How High Can We Climb? The Story of Women Explorers by Jeannine Atkins
With Courage and Cloth: Winning the Fight for a Women’s Right to Vote by Ann Bausum
The Power of One: Daisy Bates and the Little Rock Nine by Judith Bloom Fradin and Dennis Brindell
Maritcha: A Nineteenth-Century American Girl by Tonya Bolden
A is For Abigail: An Almanac of Amazing American Women by Lynne Cheney
Adventurous Women by Penny Colman
Hatshepsut: The Princess who Became King by Ellen Galford
African Princess: The Amazing Lives of Africa’s Royal Women by Joyce Hansen
The Forbidden Schoolhouse: The True and Dramatic Story of Prudence Crandall and her Students by Suzanne Jurmain
Ladies First: 40 Daring American Women Who Were Second to None by Elizabeth Cody Kimmel
Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor by Emily McCully
Let It Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters by Andrea Davis Pinkney
More Than Petticoats: Remarkable Minnesota Women by Bonnye Stuart
I Could Do That!: Ester Morris Gets Women the Vote by Linda Arms White

A real girl recommends…Among 14-year-old Emily Bauermeister’s picks:

Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
Indigo by Alice Hoffman
Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Houston and James D. Houston
A Chinese Cinderella by Adeline Yen Mah
Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan
Seeing Emily by Joyce Lee Wong

What would you add to the list? Comment below and let us know!