Books are stealthy: tucked into engaging adventures we often find lessons in bravery, kindness and perseverance. In the best books, we also find inspiration. Shining light on women endeavoring to create their own futures, Ernestine’s Milky Way and Born to Ride are two promising stories set against the backdrop of American history. These are two cheerful, thoughtful tributes to the many countless women who donned bloomers, kept their heads up when the path was thorny and forged ahead to the future.
In the midst of World War II, in a lush valley of the Great Smoky Mountains, Ernestine—a determined 5-year-old—sets off on a very important errand. With her dad away at war, all the chores fall to Ernestine and her mother. Life back then wasn’t easy or convenient. Their days were full of hard work, but also kindness, imagination and courage. Ernestine will need every one of these if she’s going to deliver milk to her neighbors a long walk away. Wrapped in the magic of adventure, Ernestine’s Milky Way is a lesson in determination.
Ernestine’s story rings with the sounds of life in the Smokies. Author Kerry Madden-Lunsford gracefully employs local dialect in order to give readers a sense of location and time. In addition, Madden-Lunsford makes resourceful use of animal sounds, descriptive language and poetic expressions to place us on the trail with Ernestine.
Illustrator Emily Sutton fills her pages with flora, fauna and lush, subdued color. Ernestine’s path takes her through brambles and berries and barbed-wire fences, which Sutton illustrates with fine detail and unrestricted enthusiasm. Sutton’s eager brush strokes convey a sense of wildness and awe, while chickens, fire-burning stoves, banjos, barrels and wagons plant the story firmly in its time.
Based on the recollections of the author’s friend, the real-life Ernestine, Ernestine’s Milky Way gives readers a snapshot of country life in the 1940s. Today, the idea of a five-year-old being sent on errands alone is foreign and even shocking, but that was the reality for many farm children who shouldered much of the work of this era.
Also shining light on an era of U.S. history, Born to Ride, by Larissa Theule, begins with the “cannots” of a late-19th century girl. But there is one cannot that young Louisa Belinda will not abide. Despite the rules, despite what the adults might think, even despite the threat of getting permanent “bicycle face,” Louisa Belinda is determined to learn to ride a bike. But as Louisa Belinda conquers the bike, a new era is being wheeled into her town, assisted by her mother—who has a few surprises of her own.
Illustrator Kelsey Garrity-Riley creates a small-town Rochester, New York, that is charming and cheerful. Garrity-Riley fills her pages with the trappings of 19th century; milkmen and pinafores, feathered hats and horse-drawn carriages. The suffragettes are calmly at work, making signs and planning a rally. Small details—rally buttons, a poster for Susan B. Anthony’s speech—lend historical authenticity. In this exciting environment, a young girl is bravely forging her own future.
Theule narrates in a youthful, conversational tone that invites discussion and questions. And young readers may have many: the idea of scandalous bloomers, no vote for women and the threat of bicycle face seems unbelievable and downright ridiculous to today’s girls. While Louisa Belinda’s own bike riding is met with little resistance, three concluding pages of historic photos and facts about “wheelwomen” and the suffragette movement help open the door to the genuine gritty struggles women faced.