Carla Jean Whitley

In 1955, hundreds of thousands of women disappeared. They were oppressed mothers and wives. They were brides on their wedding days and switchboard operators harassed by their male managers. Later reports—at least, those that were publicly acknowledged—omitted a key detail about this mass disappearance. The women didn’t vanish; they became dragons.

As Kelly Barnhill writes in When Women Were Dragons, “people are awfully good at forgetting unpleasant things.” Just look at our own world, in which willful silence around the injustices of the past affects how history is taught (or isn’t taught) in American schools. The mass dragoning meets a similar fate, but despite her best efforts, Alex Green can’t forget: “I was four years old when I first saw a dragon. I was four years old when I first learned to be silent about dragons. Perhaps this is how we learn silence—an absence of words, an absence of context, a hole in the universe where the truth should be.”

Alex’s Aunt Marla was one of the disappeared women. She was also one of the most influential people in Alex’s life; after all, Marla gave birth to Alex’s cousin and best friend, Beatrice. After Marla’s dragoning, Alex’s parents raised the two girls as sisters, but questions about Marla’s disappearance lingered at the edges of Alex’s consciousness.

Barnhill writes from Alex’s point of view as an adult, looking back on a remarkable period in history that coincided with her formative years. Through teenage Alex’s perspective, readers witness dragons marching with civil rights protesters—because if we aren’t all free, none of us are free. Some dragons seem drawn to one another, rather than to the men they left behind, in a way that young Alex accepts intuitively. Meanwhile, Alex examines her relationship with Beatrice while reflecting on their mothers’ complicated sisterhood. And interspersed throughout these events, Barnhill includes research documents that Marla left in Alex’s care, offering thoughtful context for this eerily familiar world.

In her first novel for adult readers, Kelly Barnhill, bestselling and Newbery Medal-winning author of The Girl Who Drank the Moon, offers the same sort of magic she’s brought to her middle grade readers for years. A close examination of the patriarchy and cultural inequalities, When Women Were Dragons is fantasy that is both political and personal.

In her first novel for adult readers, Kelly Barnhill offers the same sort of magic she’s brought to her middle grade readers for years.

In the mid-20th century, air travel was considered glamorous, even romantic. Federal regulation kept fares high, and passengers were mostly businessmen en route to work destinations. And what did those men want to see at the end of a long work week? A blushing, girlish attendant who doted on them—or so the airlines assumed. A new pair of nonfiction books offer insight into the sexism women faced in the early decades of commercial flight, as seen through the eyes of the women who lived it.

Cover for The Great Stewardess Rebellion by Nell McShane Wulfhart

The Great Stewardess Rebellion recounts the midcentury fight to get airlines to overturn their sexist requirements for flight attendants. In the 1960s, stewardesses were often fired after their 32nd birthdays, or upon marriage, or upon becoming pregnant—whichever came first. Their continued employment was dependent on regular weigh-ins, and they were required to meet other physical expectations, too, such as cutting their hair to their employer’s standard or wearing gloves while in uniform.

Journalist Nell McShane Wulfhart traces flight attendants’ union and legal battles throughout the 1960s and ’70s, focusing on two women whose experiences help make the political personal. Patt Gibbs was unconcerned with age limits when she applied to American Airlines at age 19, since 32 seemed impossibly distant, and she happily monitored her weight to better her chances of being accepted, dropping from 121 to 110 pounds before submitting her application. However, once Gibbs was hired and she saw how poorly she and her colleagues were treated, she became involved in union work—reluctantly at first, then as a passionate advocate for better pay and fewer discriminatory rules.

Like Gibbs, Tommie Hutto also became enraptured by air travel as a young woman. She became an American Airlines flight attendant after college graduation, as a way out of her conservative Texas surroundings. Hutto, too, became involved in the union, and as she and Gibbs sought better treatment for the women who staffed every flight, they transformed from adversaries to allies.

Wulfhart tells the story of airline unions through Gibbs’ and Hutto’s experiences while weaving in the tales of dozens of other bold women—such as Sonia Pressman, who fought for airline industry change as an attorney for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; Dusty Roads and Jean Montague, American Airlines flight attendants who brought the industry’s discrimination to the EEOC’s attention; and Cheryl Stewart and Sharon Dunn, Black flight attendants who challenged their colleagues’ racism. With stylish flair, The Great Stewardess Rebellion explores the nuances of these spirited women and the sexism they battled.

Cover of Fly Girl by Ann Hood

While Wulfhart reveals how women fought to change air travel, Ann Hood paints a portrait of how air travel shaped one woman’s life. Hood (The Book That Matters Most, The Red Thread) is now a bestselling novelist, but in the late 1970s and early ’80s, she was a TWA flight attendant. She always wanted to write, but first she wanted to see the world beyond her Rhode Island home, especially after falling in love with air travel when she took her first flight to Bermuda as a teen. 

Hood’s memoir, Fly Girl, brims with details and personal anecdotes that air travel buffs will love. She recounts both the horrifying ways that misogyny affected her workplace, including unwanted advances from badly behaved passengers, and happier memories of the glamorous days of flying, when stewardesses could bring home sizable paychecks thanks to the work of the flight attendants’ unions. However, as the industry changed in the 1980s, Hood experienced furloughs and had to take jobs with less affluent airlines, bouncing from plane to plane. Through all the ups and downs, jet lag was her normal.

With time, Hood’s self-confidence grew, with regard to both her ability as a flight attendant and her understanding of people and cultures. She began to use time in the jump seat to write, and steadily she made her way toward the writer’s life she’d always dreamed of.

“Life unfolds on airplanes,” Hood writes. “People are flying to funerals and weddings, they are on their honeymoon or leaving a partner, they are carrying a newborn on their first flight to meet grandparents or taking a kid to college or on their way to adopt a baby. And they fall in love.” In Fly Girl, Hood paints a first-class portrait of chasing your dreams and coming of age in the sky.

Two nonfiction books render the complex lives of women during a bygone era of air travel.

Parents express affection in different ways. The care packages Mary Laura Philpott received when she was in college are a perfect illustration: If the package was from her mother, it would contain sweets, maybe something practical, perhaps money. But if her dad sent the box, it was almost always filled with canned food. It became a joke between Philpott and her roommate—“Here we go, another bomb shelter box”—as they slowly worked their way through the accumulated display of her father’s care. 

Now, as a mother of two, Philpott expresses her love for her children through worry, often wishing for an actual bomb shelter to protect her family from every affliction.

This was especially true the morning Philpott and her husband, John, awoke to an unusual sound: a thump that turned out to be their teenage son in the throes of a seizure. Philpott’s anxiety levels skyrocketed in the aftermath of this event, and she began obsessing over ways to protect her boy and his younger sister.

The bestselling author of I Miss You When I Blink reflects on her life among the stacks.

Bomb Shelter is full of laugh-out-loud moments as Philpott weaves her recollections of growing up with present-day observations about her children’s adolescence. However, she is equally gifted in delivering heartbreaking moments, such as her husband rifling through their son’s belongings looking for any sign of a vape pen in an attempt to explain the seizure. (“He stuck a USB thumb drive in his mouth and tried to suck air through it. Nothing.”)

Fans of Philpott’s previous essay collection, I Miss You When I Blink, will find even more to love in Bomb Shelter. As Philpott grapples with anxiety, she seeks—and gives—comfort in the world around her. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, she prepared a Christmas dinner for a college-age couple who couldn’t go home for the holiday. “You build, if not an actual shelter, a box of food,” she writes. “You let that surge of caretaking energy go where it can—if not into saving the world, into saving this one day, or at least this one meal, for this one pair of people.”

Philpott’s openhearted joy and fear is relatable regardless of your parenting status—a reminder that, even amid the most frightening challenges, we are rarely alone.

The openhearted joy and fear woven throughout Mary Laura Philpott’s second memoir-in-essays is relatable, even comforting.

Serena Drew is returning to Baltimore after a daytrip to meet her boyfriend’s family. As she and her boyfriend wait for their train home, she thinks she spots her cousin Nicholas Garrett. Her boyfriend is incredulous; how can she be unsure whether or not the man is her cousin? But Serena doesn’t come from the sort of family in which first cousins recognize each other in the wild.

Anne Tyler is a master of interpersonal drama and intricate depictions of characters’ lives. Her astute observations have earned her a Pulitzer Prize (Breathing Lessons) and two turns as a Pulitzer finalist (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and The Accidental Tourist), among other accolades. In French Braid, her skilled storytelling once again takes center stage as she reveals the minor family dramas that have resulted in Serena’s inability to positively identify her cousin. Chapter by chapter, Tyler follows a different member of the Garrett family, beginning with a family vacation in 1959 and ending in spring 2020.

As Tyler turns her attention to each Garrett, she reveals finely honed character portraits. Daughters Lily and Alice are opposites, and their little brother, David, often goes his own way. Mother Mercy searches for her identity as the kids grow up and leave the house, but father Robin is left confused; he has always been content with his home and family exactly as they were.

Each chapter is as well-crafted as a short story and reveals the heart of its central character. Tyler weaves these individual tales together to build something even greater, and like the braid of the novel’s title, this interpersonal family drama becomes more substantial as its pieces combine.

“That’s how families work, too,” says David, reflecting on the lasting effect of a French braid. “You think you’re free of them, but you’re never really free; the ripples are crimped in forever.” (His wife laughs and asks, “You are finding this out just now?”)

French Braid is a case study of the circumstances and interactions that shape the lives of one family.

Anne Tyler is a master of interpersonal drama, and her skilled storytelling takes center stage in French Braid.

Jabari Asim isn’t limited by genre or form. He’s a poet, essayist, children’s book author, cultural critic and novelist who is adept at navigating language and story.

Asim’s latest novel, Yonder, draws readers into the heart of plantation life and the existence of the “Stolen” who live there. Notably, Asim never uses words such as enslaved or slave in describing their stories, and skin color is rarely mentioned. Instead, Asim emphasizes the individual experiences of his characters, focusing on their humanity.

“As my William has said to me more than once, a story depends on who’s telling it, what they choose to mention, and what they leave out. There’s also the way they tell it, and the way they tell it has been shaped by everything that’s happened to them,” a character says early in the novel. Asim’s storytelling approach mirrors this explanation as he unravels the tale from five perspectives.

William is one of the strongest, most respected Stolen men at Placid Hall. Even William’s captor, a “Thief” called Cannonball Greene, holds begrudging respect for William after seeing him stare down a loose horse, stopping the runaway animal in its tracks before it plowed into a Thief child.

Cato is William’s closest friend. He’s frustrated by William’s spiritual skepticism and bereft after being torn from his love. Margaret is William’s lady. She’s captured his heart and wants to have his baby, but William has been permanently scarred by things he saw before arriving at Placid Hall. Pandora has also seen quite a lot, observing others at Placid Hall and drawing lessons from their behavior. She believes a better life is possible, despite the odds. Ransom is an itinerant preacher to whom William’s companions look for guidance, but William distrusts a man who can move freely through the country without interference from Thieves.

Asim weaves together these five voices in lyrical prose. He is a gifted storyteller, first building the world in which his characters are bound before setting in motion their united mission toward freedom. Throughout, the five main characters wrestle with their doubts, beliefs and hopes for something more. Yonder reminds us that even in despair, love and the human spirit can endure.

Like Jabari Asim’s talent, stories of slavery and racism transcend boundaries. His latest novel draws the reader into the hearts of five people pursuing freedom.

Did you know the sports bra wasn’t invented until 1977? Yeah, neither did I. I’m an active person who exercises multiple times a week and sometimes teaches yoga, and this essential part of my fitness wardrobe predates me by only four years.

When I read that fact, I expressed my shock aloud—and author Danielle Friedman was just getting started. Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World bulges with tidbits like this, drawing readers into this history of exercise and modern women. The factoids boggle the mind, but Friedman goes further, providing a rich story for each fitness trend she examines, from jogging to Jazzercise, bodybuilding to yoga and beyond.

Friedman uses her award-winning reporting skills to profile the fads of the past century, the women who instigated them and the challenges they faced. Whether through clothing that offered freedom of movement or movement that offered freedom of expression, Friedman demonstrates that women’s growing interest in and access to fitness has often granted them a sense of liberation and strength.

But the fitness industry has also created obstacles for women, of course, by pressuring them to conform to whatever physical ideal is currently in vogue. Even in activities that sought to break those norms, such as bodybuilding, participants have couched their efforts in the belief that women’s muscles shouldn’t be too big.

America has historically idolized white bodies, as well, which is a truth Black bodybuilder Carla Dunlap faced head-on. Even when she won contests, lower-ranking white contestants would snag magazine covers. Friedman also examines the classism inherent to these often-expensive activities and the privilege—whether related to time, money or access—that gives some women a chance to move but restricts other women from doing the same.

Let’s Get Physical incorporates the stories of dozens of women, including the author herself. Friedman shares just enough of her own experience to grant the book a defined point of view: that of a woman approaching middle age, seeking strength and release in movement. Her research is thorough, and her storytelling is as energetic as the exercises she describes. Let’s Get Physical is full of stories that humanize an industry that sometimes seems to prioritize perfection over people.

Let’s Get Physical bulges with factoids you will scarcely believe, drawing readers into the history of exercise and modern women.

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