Books pay tribute to little known activists

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Books pay tribute to little known activists

Women's History Month is the perfect time to share a book with a child and learn more about remarkable women who have made a huge impact. Two new books celebrate two very different women and describe how they engaged their communities to transform lives and places around them.

Katherine "Kate" Olivia Sessions was a teacher and activist who saw a problem and worked to fix it. "The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever" (Beach Lane Books, $16.99, ages 5-10), written by H. Joseph Hopkins with illustrations by Jill McElmurry, pays tribute to one of America's earliest environmental activists.

Even as a child, Kate was a pioneer. Growing up in Northern California in the 1860s, she fell in love with nature. Girls from her side of town weren't supposed to get their hands dirty, but Kate did. She loved exploring the forests, and she felt that the trees were her friends.

At the time, girls were discouraged from studying science. But that didn't stifle Kate's passion for nature. After becoming the first woman to graduate from the University of California with a science degree, she was called to a teaching job in San Diego.

Upon her arrival there, Kate was devastated. She had never imagined living in a place without trees and plants.

But it didn't take long for her to take action. She left teaching and began planting trees in the desert town. She became a "tree hunter," writing to gardeners around the world to ask for seeds that could grow in a desert.

Kate's passion for nature inspired the entire community. With help, her trees were soon growing everywhere, even in the city park.

Today, San Diego is known for its stunning gardens and parks. Most of the older trees in the city can be directly linked to her work.

Mr. Hopkins' picture book biography is a long overdue tribute to a virtually unknown environmental activist. In addition to the uplifting story, readers will appreciate the artwork that establishes a sense of place and progress. Ms. McElmurray's nature-inspired illustrations not only compliment the text, they also complete the story. Page after page of paintings celebrate science, nature and determination.

With the arrival of spring imminent (we hope), "The Tree Lady" is a must read.

Like Kate's, the story of Barbara Rose Johns teaches us that the change we desire starts with personal action.

The fight to desegregate America's schools was started in small communities by everyday people. "The Girl From the Tar Paper School: Barbara Rose Johns and the Advent of the Civil Rights Movement" (Harry N. Abrams, $19.95, ages 10-14) by Teri Kanefield tells the story of how 15-year-old Barbara Rose Johns mobilized her peers in the early days of the civil rights movement.

It was 1950, and the Robert R. Moton School for black students was falling apart. In fact, the classrooms were nothing more than shoddy tar-paper shacks.

In Barbara's classroom, the heat was never right and the roof leaked. Strategically placed buckets caught rain as it passed through the roof.

"Some students sat under umbrellas so the ink of their paper wouldn't run," Ms. Kanefield writes. The building was unfit for learning and paled in comparison to the nearby whites-only school.

For years, the local school board rejected pleas for a new school building. With inspiration from her teacher, Barbara began to think about how she could help change things.

It was the birth of the civil rights movement. Barbara got the idea to organize a protest against the educational inequities of segregated education. She led her classmates on a student strike that gained national attention. But not all the attention was good.

Her family's business began to suffer, crosses were burned, and her parents received a threat against her life. Fearing for her safety, they sent her to Alabama to finish school.

The student strike didn't bring immediate change to the school. But Barbara's actions became part of the growing movement to desegregate America's schools.

The NAACP of Virginia supported her case, and it became part of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case that ruled segregation unconstitutional in 1954.

Despite having such an important role in the civil rights movement, Barbara Rose Johns never became a household name. Author Kanefield does an excellent job putting together interviews, news articles, personal documents and numerous photographs to tell Barbara's story.

The stories of Kate Sessions and Barbara Rose Johns prove that despite seemingly impossible odds, sometimes we manage to change something. With courage and support, the everyday person can make the world a fairer, more equitable place -- and a more beautiful one.

Celebrate these women's lives and pick up a copy of the books at your local library today.


Michael Balkenhol is a library assistant at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Hazelwood.

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