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Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell

Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell
Written by Tanya Lee Stone and Illustrated by Marjorie Priceman
Published in 2013 by Henry Holt
ISBN: 9-780805-090482
Grades 2 – 8
Book Review
Back in the 1840’s, there were lots of things girls couldn’t be…. being a doctor was definitely not an option.” But, this didn’t discourage Elizabeth Blackwell, who persisted in applying to medical school despite receiving twenty-eight rejection letters. Addressing her readers in second person to maximize engagement, award winning nonfiction author, Tanya Lee Stone uses the genre of picture book biography to impress upon us the remarkable achievements of Blackwell, the first female student at Geneva Medical School and the first practicing women physician. Stone’s direct, yet detailed narrative tone is well suited to convey Blackwell’s personality traits: “But Elizabeth didn’t believe in couldn’t or shouldn’t. She refused to give up. She was stubborn as a mule. Quite rightly!” Touching briefly on Blackwell’s childhood with greater focus on her application to and experiences in medical school, this overview is more fully fleshed out through a two page author’s note at the conclusion of the book. Marjorie Priceman’s energetic gouache and India ink illustrations further enliven this portrait of one seriously determined lady. Students reading this title will gain perspective on the challenges and accomplishments of women’s history and will be inspired to persist in pursuing personal goals.
Teaching Ideas / Invitations for Your Classroom:
Grades 2 – 8
Pioneering Women. Gather a collection of picture book biographies that feature women who were pioneers in their field. Divide students into small groups and ask students to read the books and make notes about the subjects of their books. Ask students to prepare a brief summary to share with classmates. After each group shares their summary in a whole group session, ask your students to brainstorm categories to construct a comparison chart featuring the women’s lives and accomplishments. Return to small group work with and ask groups to complete the information to construct the chart. When the chart is assembled, hold another whole group discussion, noting any patterns across the categories. The Classroom Bookshelf blog features several titles ideally suited to this activity, including Me…Jane and  The Watcher (Jane Goodall), Night Flight (Amelia Earhart), Annie and Helen and Helen’s Big World (Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan), Life in the Ocean (Sylvia Earle), Miss Moore Thought Otherwise (Anne Carroll Moore) and Rachel Carson and Her Book That Changed the World.
Persistence. Despite many obstacles, Elizabeth Blackwell persisted in her goal to become a doctor. Ask students to recall the opposition that Blackwell faced and her efforts to keep moving toward her goal. Ask student to think about and then they write about a time in their lives when persistence was needed. Students could illustrate their stories, which could then be bound into a class book to share with others.
Focused Comparison: Stone as Biographer. Tanya Lee Stone has also written a picture book biography featuring suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, titled Elizabeth Leads the Way: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Right To Vote (Holt, 2008). Read each title to first compare the life stories of these women. Next, reread the stories with a focus on writing style.  What can you learn about writing biography from studying Tanya Lee Stone’s writing choices? In each book, what events in the subject’s lives receive most emphasis? How does Stone use details to characterize her subjects? How are quotations used and documented? What kinds of information are provided in an author’s note? For a broader study of biography, move into a comparison on Stone’s writing style with that of other picture book biographers or extend your author study to include Tanya Lee Stone’s other biographies (listed on her website).
Women’s Rights Movement. This book has a place in a more comprehensive study of women’s rights and efforts to open doors previously closed to women. Gather texts that support an understanding of the timeline and advocacy involved in the Women’s Rights Movement. Suggested include Tanya Lee Stone’s Elizabeth Leads the Way: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Right To Vote (Holt, 2008), Shana Corey’s You Forgot Your Skirt, Amelia Bloomer (Scholastic, 2000), and Jean Fritz’s You Want Women to Vote, Lizzie Stanton? (Putnam, 1995). These, and other books, can be contextualized with the timeline found on the website of the National Women’s History Museum (Smithsonian). You and your students may be inspired to explore aspects of women’s history more deeply, developing inquiry questions to pursue through books, primary source documents, and perhaps through first hand research (for example, interviews).
Grades 2 – 8
The Craft of Picture Book Biographies
Biographers’ Choices: Which Story to Tell? When writing biography for a child audience, authors make decisions about how to frame the subject’s life; they make choices about which available information to include and which to exclude. Gather together additional biographical information about the subject of a picture book biography. Your local librarian will be willing to help you locate additional biographies for a child audience, including series titles. Read across the collection of biographies about a single subject, noting commonalities and discrepancies in the way particular events are relayed. Discuss how and why biographers make decisions about how to tell a life story.
Biographers’ Choices:  Life Story. Biographers must also make choices about which events to highlight in a subject’s life. Some biographies highlight a particular event in a character’s life, while contextualizing the event within a life trajectory (for example, Rosaby Nikki Giovanni, a picture book biography of Rosa Parks). Other biographies focus on the childhood of a famous figure, foretelling their accomplishments with childhood interests (for example Me.. Jane by Patrick McDonell, a picture book biography of Jane Goodall). Other titles place more even emphasis across the lifespan of the subject. Assign small groups of students several picture book biographies and ask them to examine the structure and content of the book in order to describe how the author narrates the subject’s story. This close look will prepare students to make decisions when composing about how to structure a biography.
Characterization: Details that reveal character.As biographers relay the story of their subjects’ lives to their readers, they must work to convey their personalities, traits, and idiosyncracies. We call this ‘characterization’ or ‘character development.’ Often, authors incorporate details and descriptions of characters’ actions or behaviors that reveal character. For example in Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors?, Stone lets the reader know that Elizabeth Blackwell liked to challenge herself, exploring her limit, revealing this characteristic by describing her as “a girl who tried sleeping on the hard floor with no covers, just to toughen herself up.” Biographer can also reveal character through dialogue (using quotes from the subject), by describing the reaction that others’ have to the subject, and through illustration. Work with your students to review a collection of biographies, mining them for specific examples of character development. Make a two column chart, recording quotes from biographies on the left side and a description of how this quote reveals character on the right side. This exercise will prepare students to write more sophisticated biographies.
The Author’s Note: Back Matter. Gather a collection of picture book biographies and conduct a focused study of the back matter, in particular, the Author’s Note. What kinds of information do authors include in an Author’s Note? How does this information enhance or clarify a reader’s understanding of the text of the book? Use a variety of Author’s Notes as mentor texts for students’ own writing.
Online Resources
Macmillan Group Book Page
Tanya Lee Stone
NIH: Changing the Face of American Medicine: Elizabeth Blackwell
National Women’s History Museum: Elizabeth Blackwell
National Library of Medicine
Times Topics, Elizabeth Blackwell, The New York Times
The Elizabeth Blackwell Society, New York City
Gale/Cengage: Elizabeth Blackwell
Hobart-William Smith/Geneva Medical College
The Blackwell Sisters, Library of Congress
Elizabeth Blackwell, Gilder Lehrman Institute
“Women in Medicine: How Female Doctors Have Changed the Face of Medicine,” Yale Journal of Medicine and Law, May 2012
Ashby, R. and Ohrn, D.G., Eds. (1995). Herstory: Women who changed the world.  New York, Viking.
Corey, S. (2000). You forgot your skirt, Amelia Bloomer: a very improper story. Ill. by C. McLaren. New York: Scholastic.
Fritz, J. (1995). You want women to Vote, Lizzie Stanton? Ill. by D. DiSalvo-Ryan. New York: Putnam.
Gorrell, G.K. (2000). Heart and soul: The story of Florence Nightingale. Toronto: Tundra Books (Grades 5-8).
Goldsmith, B.Z. (2010). Dr. Mary Edwards Walker : Civil War surgeon & medal of honor recipient. Adina, MN: ABDO Pub.
Snodgrass, M.E. (1993). Crossing barriers: People who overcame. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.
Stone, T.L. (2008). Elizabeth leads the way: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the right to vote. Ill by R. Gibbon. New York: Henry Holt.

Erika Thulin Dawes About Erika Thulin Dawes

Erika is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former classroom teacher, reading specialist, and literacy supervisor, she now teaches courses in children’s literature, early literacy, and literacy methods. Erika is the co-author of Learning to Write with Purpose, Teaching with Text Sets, and Teaching to Complexity.