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5 inspiring new books for young readers

These titles spotlight strong women and girls, both historical and fictional.

"Watch Us Rise" by Renée Watson and Ellen Hagan (Bloomsbury, February 2019) Photo Credit: Bloomsbury

"Brave Ballerina: The Story of Janet Collins" (Henry Holt, ages 3-7, $17.99) begs to be read aloud. The book, by Michelle Meadows, tells the story of Janet Collins, a gifted dancer born in New Orleans in 1917, a time when many ballet companies would not accept a black artist. Meadows' simple rhyming narrative introduces young listeners and readers to the moments that made up Collins' road to success as a dancer — including the young ballerina's own hard work and the strong support of her family — and to the heartbreaking ways she was thwarted by racial segregation. Ebony Glenn's graceful, friendly illustrations show Collins as a child, arms outstretched in the joy of dancing, and later as a young woman working to perfect her art in lithe poses and wearing beautiful costumes. Collins became the Metropolitan Opera's first African-American prima ballerina. The triumphant closing lines, "This is the dancer, /bold like the sun, /a prima ballerina/ in 1951" ring both victorious and beautiful. This is a wonderful and inspirational biography for aspiring young dancers and other athletes. — KATHIE MEIZNER

Hedy Lamarr's initial heyday came during World War II, when she starred in Hollywood movies and raised funds for the American War effort. But the glamorous actress (1914-2000) is belatedly being celebrated for her discoveries. There have been magazine articles, a major biography and a feature-length documentary (aptly named "Bombshell"); now there are two illustrated books for children celebrating her work. "Hedy Lamarr's Double Life: Hollywood Legend and Brilliant Inventor" (Sterling, ages 5 and up, $16.95) shows how Lamarr's creativity emerged early in her Viennese childhood: Her father encouraged her scientific thinking, and she loved to play pretend and to imitate others. Laurie Wallmark's lively biography also explains Lamarr's most brilliant idea (conceived with composer George Antheil), which improved the guidance system for torpedoes and led to today's wireless communications. Katy Wu's digitally created illustrations add cartoonish energy and color. Jan Wahl's "Hedy and Her Amazing Invention" (Penny Candy, ages 7 to 10, $16.95) proceeds in seven short chapters and may leave the slightly older reader wanting more. Either way, Morgana Wallace's charming collage illustrations convey the intelligence and charisma of this newly appreciated pathbreaker. — ABBY MCGANNEY NOLAN

"When my grandmother was born, women didn't have the right to vote," Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand writes in the opening pages of "Bold & Brave: Ten Heroes Who Won Women the Right to Vote" (Knopf, ages 5 to 10, $18.99), her vivid picture book about the women who helped change that. Gillibrand's clear one-page biographies include figures such as Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Gillibrand also writes about Ida B. Wells, who spoke truth to power and confronted injustice and inequality everywhere, and Inez Milholland, a lawyer and activist who led the 1913 Women's Suffrage Parade. Accompanying the stories are Maira Kalman's vibrant gouache portraits of these determined women. The robust pinks and yellows in these lively illustrations channel a sunrise palette of hope and change. The right to vote also meant, of course, the right to hold public office, to help make the laws by serving in local and state legislatures, and to be elected to the U.S. Congress. This is a terrific, handsome look at a long — and unfinished — story of courage and persistence.— KATHIE MEIZNER

At the beginning of the powerful, intelligent YA novel "Watch Us Rise" (Bloomsbury, ages 13 and up, $18.99), best friends Jasmine Gray and Chelsea Spencer announce their goal for junior year: to "totally shut down the patriarchal systems of oppression." Co-authors Renée Watson, who won a Newbery Honor for "Piecing Me Together," and poet/activist Ellen Hagan chart the course as their two protagonists take strong action to do just that. Marginalized and even mocked for their feminist stance on body shaming, racism and artistic integrity, Jasmine, a black actress and writer, and Chelsea, a white poet, start a club "specifically for women" at their progressive high school. When their blog goes viral, the young women must deal with the mixed reactions: affirmation from kindred spirits, resistance from fellow students and disciplinary action from the principal. Watson and Hagan intersperse the girls' poems and reflective essays throughout the story, and these raw pieces punch at the beauty standard, sexual harassment and gender inequality, at their school and in society. Through this intense year of change and growth, Jasmine and Chelsea persist in speaking their truth. — MARY QUATTLEBAUM

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