In the month in which we celebrate International Women’s Day, Elaine Chant talks to Kate Pankhurst about her Fantastically Great Women series.
Kate Pankhurst’s Fantastically Great Women is an established favourite with young readers, parents and educators. The engaging content with its pertinent theme has ensured numerous shortlisting for awards, including the Kate Greenaway Medal, and translations into over 20 languages. Looking back to 2016 when the arrestingly named Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World first appeared, there was nothing quite like it out there. A strikingly visual non-fiction picture book for the very youngest readers introducing a range of high achieving women with an aspirational message to ponder what they might go on to achieve.
A distant descendant of Emmeline Pankhurst, Kate tells me her ancestor was partly a catalyst for the series. She was first made aware of the connection when she was in her twenties and felt encouraged to think about this legacy in a way that would celebrate strong female role models. A further stimulus came from her drawing of a fictional character inspired by Amelia Earhart and her epic solo flight across the Atlantic. Kate’s agent prompted her to explore the possibility of a whole book about amazing women. It’s fitting that the story of Amelia, in her distinctive red plane, became the first spread Kate showed to her publisher.
From the range of innovative ideas which Kate deploys in her visual storytelling, it comes as no surprise to discover that she initially trained as an illustrator. ‘I always start with the images and visual research. This adds depth and personality to everything I read afterwards. I do doodles of each woman as I go.’ Each double-page spread overflows with colourful cartoon style characters who burst out of their bubbles. Squiggly lines and arrows lead us on journeys through time and discovery, and information boxes take on myriad forms from conical flasks to billboard posters.
The titles in this series focus on themed areas where women’s achievements have frequently gone unnoticed. Particularly topical is Fantastically Great Women Who Saved the Planet, and I’m sure I won’t be alone in acknowledging the majority of women were unknown to me. Kate explains that, as the series has developed, she has sought to include a much greater diversity of women, reflecting different cultures and backgrounds. Although her theme undoubtedly appeals directly to young girls, Kate has many fans from both sexes who can enjoy the feats and determination shown by these extraordinary individuals and share the aspiration to make a difference in some way. She recalls a request from one young male reader to write a book of ‘Fantastically Great Men’ and explained that this had already been done quite a few times!
Fantastically Great Women Scientists and their Stories, published this year, marks a new departure with the first chapter-book title for a slightly older readership. The thinking behind this new venture is that many of Kate’s readers who have loved the picture books are now ready to delve a little deeper into the subject matter, discovering new figures and gaining more detail about characters who they have encountered in the previous titles. The stories of eight remarkable women are told in Kate’s distinctive, quirky style with multiple intriguing ways to present the information. She casts her net wider, delving into stories of women whose extraordinary achievements are set against the backgrounds of prejudice and oppression. Women such as Tu Youyou who saved millions of lives through her research into the treatment of Malaria at the time of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and Caroline Herschel, the first professional female astronomer who wasn’t allowed to go to school because her parents wanted her to be a servant. A supplementary glossary and further reading lists are also included.
Kate has relished moving into chapter-books. ‘It is great having more space to play with and to be able to delve deeper, but this also presents challenges like having to illustrate complicated scientific information about things such as DNA for children. I have to work more as part of a team in the writing, research and design.’ She tells me that she has agonised over how to tell the difficult aspects and moments in these women’s stories, be it the injustice of their situation or the tragic events linked to their field. What shines through in this collection, as does in her picture books, is the joy and positivity that underpins each story. The tone is carefully honed and maintains a light, often playful touch, despite the serious nature of the content. Condensing substantial, and sometimes complex, biographical information is handled with skill and Kate maintains a compelling narrative. I am reminded that her first published writing was the fictional Mariella Mystery series, whose protagonist is a strong girl with attitude. This may well explain why her account of the real-life stories of these women scientists are so compelling to read.
The last year has been eventful for Kate with the birth of a little girl called Luna, who I had the pleasure of meeting virtually! With the lifting of lockdown in sight, Kate is looking forward to being able to resume visiting schools, but has been able to maintain contact with her readers through online drawing sessions, including an event as part of International Women’s Day. She regards the opportunity to meet her young readers as stimulating, often providing her with ideas for future stories.
Kate kindly provided a glimpse into her future writing projects. “There will be more chapter books; Fantastic Great Women Artists and their Stories will be the next theme and some further stories of female achievements in a new picture book package. I am also writing a new fiction chapter- book series about a gothic laundrette!’
Bring on more of these inspiring women!
Elaine Chant is a former Director of Learning at a Birmingham Sixth Form College and partner/editor of Carousel The Guide to Children’s Books. She jointly founded a North Birmingham branch of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups.
Published by Bloomsbury pbk @ £6.99 each:
Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World 978-1408876985
Fantastically Great Women Who Made History 978- 1408878903
Fantastically Great Women Who Worked Wonders 978-1408899274
Fantastically Great Women Who Saved the Planet 978-1408899298
Fantastically Great Women: Scientists and their Stories 978-1526615336