Feisty historical heroines in a world that wasn't ready for them

Back in the days of corsets and long skirts girls were not expected to be physically brave or financially astute and they certainly weren't meant to know more than men. But many girls did not conform. Willingly or not, they grabbed public attention by exercising their abilities in unusual spheres - and as these drawn-from-real-life picturebooks demonstrate, their stories make vivid and compelling reading.

Cousins Elsie and Frances took photos that electrified the world - but did they fake them? Even Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle couldn’t tell. Joan Procter was a fearless expert who left her mark on science despite a disability, and 62-year-old Annie Taylor was the last person you’d expect to barrel-ride a waterfall. 

Textual approaches vary from Sender’s lyrical minimalism to van Allsburg’s in-depth reportage, but it’s their sophisticated and intriguing illustrations that really set these books apart. Words and pictures work together to create evocative storyworlds, drawing us into emotional landscapes and immersing us in something more than we expect.

All three titles are based on historical facts, will spark debates, creative responses and investigations with older readers and are well worth sharing with children and young people from about 6 to 12+ years.

The Cottingley Fairies by Ana Sender, published by NorthSouth in 2019


During the First World War, cousins Frances and Elsie took a series of black-and-white photos of the fairies they said they'd played with in the woods near their home. The pictures made headlines worldwide and thousands of people descended on Cottingley to see the fairies for themselves.

This book tells the story from the girls’ perspective – how they made a series of paper cut-outs that fooled the public, how their fairy friends kept messing up the shots and why the adults didn’t understand that fairies could be real and not-real, both at once. Friendly yet sophisticated, serious yet humorous, this picturebook offers rich opportunities for creative and investigative responses with older children and invites historical research.


Queen of the Falls by Chris van Allsburg, published by Andersen Press in 2011
In 1901 at the age of 63, you might have expected American charm-school proprietress Annie Taylor to slip into genteel retirement. Instead she decided to ride the Niagara Falls in a barrel - a feat that gained her a taste of the fame she craved, but not the fortune. 

Van Allsburg uses sepia-coloured documentary-style images, unusual angles and cinematic close-ups to capture Annie’s bravado and pathos. Her story evokes mixed feelings and will inspire discussion and debate.

Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor by Patricia Valdez and Felicita Sala, published by Andersen Press in 2018


Joan didn’t play with dolls, she played with lizards - so when she became curator of the Natural History Museum’s reptile collection just after the First World War, those that knew her weren’t surprised. Women weren’t expected to take such roles but times were changing.

Joan went on to design the reptile house at London Zoo and achieved widespread media attention when she treated a Komodo Dragon for a mouth infection. This picturebook tells an engaging story with immense style and, like its heroine, has a strong and eccentric heart. 



This article first appeared in issue 25 of Primary First, the Journal of the National Association for Primary Education

You can find out more about NAPE here

To read issue 25 of Primary First, click here 

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Copyright: Cast of Thousands 2020 All rights reserved.
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