Wonder women who helped the environment

A relative of suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst has produced a children’s book on female role models who have tried to save the world, writes Marjorie Brennan

Wonder women who helped the environment

A relative of suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst has produced a children’s book on female role models who have tried to save the world, writes Marjorie Brennan

When writer and illustrator Kate Pankhurst had an idea for a picture book about great women who had changed the world, she searched for other similar books to get an idea of the market. What she found surprised her.

“When I developed the pitch for that first book, I Iooked around at picture books for children about women from history and saw there weren’t any — although there were individual biographies.”

That all changed, however, on the publication of the book in 2016, which also coincided with the release of the phenomenally successful Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, another compendium of extraordinary women sidelined by history.

“The timing was really weird, because Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World came out at the same time as the Rebel Girls book. Those two books captured a moment; people were like, ‘I have to get this book for my children’. When I was working on it, I didn’t realise that was going to happen.

"It is really brilliant that it has become its own little genre — if you go to a bookshop now, there are lots of books about feminist stories and exploring women from the past,” says Leeds-based Pankhurst.

That first book led to two others, Fantastically Great Women Who Made History and Fantastically Great Women Who Worked Wonders, and now Pankhurst has produced a fourth, Fantastically Great Women Who Saved the Planet, an imaginatively illustrated and particularly timely collection of inspirational stories about women who dedicated their lives to studying, conserving and protecting the Earth.

While the book includes well-known women like primatologist Jane Goodall and Body Shop founder Anita Roddick, most of the stories are about women whose contribution has been largely unnoticed or unremarked upon.

“Most of them you might not have heard of, it gives a voice to women from around the world who have done incredible things. It is a global view, to accurately reflect what is going on in the world. [In terms of research], we tried to dig a bit deeper.

We talked to as many different people from different cultures… then we had to whittle it down. We had lots of brilliant women but we needed a geographical spread, a balance.

"What I realised in the research for the book and what I hope readers get from this as well is that there are a lot of women who did incredible things; their way of looking at the world led to important discoveries.”

Of course, Pankhurst herself shares a name with one of the most famous women in history, suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst who helped women win the vote in Britain. She is not a direct descendant but the name has been a source of pride and inspiration.

“As I love telling the kids at school events, she was my great-great-grandfather’s brother’s son’s wife,” she laughs.

“Although I can’t say I grew up in a family where we spoke about Grandma Emmeline all the time, her story did follow me through childhood, and that is a massive inspiration for what you end up doing as an adult.

"I think these books would have been something I wanted to do anyway but that connection to Emmeline Pankhurst was definitely in the mix of inspiration that led to these books.”

Pankhurst enjoys doing events with children, and says they tend to initially connect with the stories rather than any perceived message or moral.

“It is always really lovely. A lot of the time, they will have a favourite in a book, someone who chimes with their hobbies or interests. They will come to events dressed in full suffragette costume. You get a lot of ‘I want to be just like her when I grow up’.

I think a lot of the time young readers enjoy it as a collection of stories, while parents like the messages they are picking up.

She is also keen to emphasise that her books are not just for girls.

“I get a lot of comments at events along the lines of ‘this is really good for girls, could you do something for boys as well’ and I say, this is for boys, they are inspiring stories for girls and boys; the children don’t question that it just has women in it, I think it’s more the parents who ask ‘will my son like it?’.”

- Fantastically Great Women Who Saved the Planet by Kate Pankhurst is published by Bloomsbury

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