Reading about historical women, fact & fiction, in Pénélope Bagieu’s graphic novel Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World and in Joy McCullough’s older teen book in verse, Blood Water Paint.
Valerie P., Teen Library Assistant
It’s obviously part of my job to read as many books as possible, so I can give the best recommendations to folks that are interested in the widest variety of topics, niche and otherwise. However, lots of the time I don’t actually have much time to actually… read (!). Because our libraries are so busy, a lot of my time off of the reference desk gets eaten up by planning programs like storytime and Teen Tuesdays, problem solving technical issues, and getting people excited about coming to the library! So, how do I stay on top of what the coolest most interesting books are?? I read a lot of reviews and am on a ton of email lists from professional book reviewers (*insert heart eyed emoji here*), so I can 1) be aware of what’s out there and fresh and 2) wisely decide which books to spend my valuable time reading. I am very selective about what books I actually sit and read all the way through, just because there are so many books that look so good, and I have to guard the time that I do have!
But actually, for both of the books that I’m going to rave about today, no one recommended them to me! They just snuck up on me and jumped on my back and wouldn’t let go until I read them!! THEY WERE BOTH AMAZING AND QUICK AND EASY AND YOU SHOULD DEFINITELY CHECK THEM OUT!
Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World by Pénélope Bagieu
For the Francophiles out there, this graphic novel was originally released in two parts in French, called “Les Culottées”. Now, I don’t speak French, but according to Google Translate, that translates to “the cheeky ones,” which I personally think is a great title. I guess the publishers thought “Brazen” would sell better or whatever. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Regardless, French artist/author Pénélope Bagieu did an amazing job with it, and it covers thirty women – trans women, cis women, lesbian women, bi women, straight women, Black women, Asian women, Native American women, Middle Eastern women, white women, autistic women, disabled women. There was a woman or three that I had learned about in my schooling – and I have a Master’s Degree in Women and Gender Studies – but mostly women I had never heard of before, all women who had done something really super cool, and things that SHOULD HAVE been included in my education! There were also more long dead as well as still living women included that I had expected there to be.
The art is beautiful throughout, and I kept wanting to buy prints to cover the walls of my room with them, and the book overall was inspirational, fun, and light – and helped me get out of a funk I had been in. HIGHLY recommended for everyone to check out! 🙂
Also also also!! I just learned that apparently they made/are making a TV show based on this book for French television, consisting of thirty 3 minute episodes, done with a different artist. Maybe soon there will be an English translation, or you could use it to learn some French! 😉 Learn more about the series and its performance at film festivals here.
Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough
trigger warning: this book contains instances of sexual assault, parental abuse, & misogyny
Another really awesome famous woman who happens to be super dead now is Artemisia Gentileschi, an Italian painter who lived in 17th century Italy. I mostly know her from this really cool piece of art, Judith and Holofernes, which is actually one of my favorite paintings from the Baroque movement (which lasted from the early 17th until the mid-18th century). I think one of the reasons that I like it so much is because it is a depiction of a scene from a Biblical story that has been done by other artists, but the way that Artemisia does it is so different, so much more real and full of emotion. Look at the expression on Judith’s face, and the muscles in her arms, how you can see her leaning back so she doesn’t get hit with the blood that’s squirting everywhere. ISN’T THAT COOL?!? Relatedly, for more information on her growth as an artist and an examination of the differences between her two paintings, below, check out this blog post “Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes” by Dr. Esperanca Camara on SMARTHISTORY.ORG.
But like, aside from this cool work of art that I learned about when I was in high school, and was then lucky enough to SEE IN PERSON in a trip to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, I knew nothing else about Gentileschi – until I read this book!
Joy McCullough, the author of Blood Water Paint, actually first wrote this book as a play, which was staged in 2015 in Seattle and I’m super jealous of the folks that got to see it because it looks like it was really awesome! The book is actually mostly in verse – which means it looks like poetry – which can be a little intimidating if you’re not used to reading poetry or books in verse, but it’s actually really great and easy to read, with the format of the text heightening Artemisia’s emotions.
Because yes, Blood Water Paint is actually about Artemisia when she was a teen, and still learning how to paint, still learning about her place in 17th century Italy’s society. In the book, Artemisia is living with her father, who is a master painter, but Artemisia’s skills have actually surpassed her father’s, so she’s doing his work for him and signing his name on the art, to keep money coming in. Her mother died when she was small, and she doesn’t really have anyone to confide in. However, she still remembers the stories that her mother told her about other strong women, and she uses them to give her strength when times get tough. So when her father uses Artemisia’s youth and beauty to get her a spot working under a more respected artist who is in town working on a big ($$$) job, Artemisia is excited about the opportunity, and hopes that this handsome man can teach her how to paint perspectives. Unfortunately, being a woman has never been easy, and when those that she trusts take advantage of her, she has to make some hard decisions.
This book was powerful in a different way from Brazen, and particularly timely, as I happened to be reading it as more and more people were speaking out about their experiences of sexual assault. I would definitely recommend this book to everyone that feels able to read it.