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I hope I never have to find out. For my latest woman in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) picture book biography, Numbers in Motion: Sophie Kowalevski, Queen of Mathematics, the pictures by Yevgenia Nayberg are an integral part of the book.

Let’s start with the cover. Many children are afraid of math, so they would not be inclined to pick up a book about a mathematician. Yet, Yevgenia Nayberg’s whimsical style pulls them in. Sure, there are equations in the background of the cover. But there’s also a woman spinning a top and looking off to the side. This brings up several questions for children. What does a top have to do with mathematics? What has caught Sophie’s interest that the child can’t see? Is it mathematical or something else? Questions like these pique children’s interest, causing them to open the book.

Once they do, the illustrations serve to amplify the words of the text. For example, on one spread, the words say, “pages and pages of math problems covering her walls from floor to ceiling.” That’s certainly a striking mental picture. But to see the illustration of Sophie in her bedroom surrounded by mathematical equations and functions really brings it home.

On another spread, the text tells the reader that Sophie was “the only woman in her classes.” These words don’t have the same emotional impact as seeing her in a lecture hall surrounded by men.

My favorite spread pictures a low point in Sophie’s life. This is when she finds out that although she had done the original research needed to receive her doctorate, someone else published his findings first. “She had to start over again.” This spread has two pictures. On the left, two men are congratulating the mathematician on his publication. On the right, Sophie, arms crossed across her chest, gives them the stink eye. She knows she has to start over again with a new research problem. Again, the illustration really brings out the emotion of the scene.

The book ends with the text, “Sophie had always known that women plus math added up to a powerful equation. Now the rest of the world knew it, too.” The illustration shows her teaching in a more modern setting, with one student using a laptop. Clearly this is not a realistic portrayal of a mathematics classroom in the 19th century. But it serves to bring the book to the present time, making it relevant to today’s children.

So back to my original question. What would a picture book be without pictures? The answer–so much diminished. It’s this combination of words and illustrations working together that has kids reading (or being read) picture books over and over again.

  • Writer's pictureJeff Gottesfeld

It’s amazing, and often uplifting, to learn about how my friends are changing during this Covid-19 crisis. I’m not just talking about social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands, and finding new ways to be when group activity is off the table. I’m referring to the many folks who are talking a long, hard look at their own lives, and seeing misplaced priorities, pointless consumption, and too much done mindlessly. It never would have happened all at once but for the shock to the system of this pandemic.

I offer myself as Exhibit A. A few weeks into the Los Angeles stay-at-home, I went through my drawers and closet, and weeded for donation a slew of clothes I owned but rarely wore. Pointless acquisition stared back at me from filled boxes destined for charity. I then cut the cable in favor of Sling, and haven’t missed it. Biggest of all, my family used to buy food several times a week. Grocery store, Trader Joe runs, a burrito at El Chavo, ice cream pit stops. From the start of the crisis, it’s now an every-two-weeks trip to the supermarket, and if we don’t have it on hand, we don’t eat it. I’ve learned that barley goes as well with chicken as rice does, and that two adults and a hungry teen can eat brilliantly on $170 a week. Never would have happened but for the crisis, and I doubt we’ll ever go back to the way we were before. How it was seems, somehow, shameful.

To be sure, my de facto wife and I have the greatest privileges of all in this time. She’s a clinical psychologist whose practice is holding up fine through tele-therapy, and as a writer I haven’t been smashed in the face economically like so many, though it has been a bummer to launch a new book now. Our challenges have been personal, moral, and even religious. Personal, in the long hard look in the mirror. Moral, considering hierarchies of responsibility to others, and in the recognition that others’ calculi about participation in economic and social life may be based on different heuristics and assessments of risk from ours. Religious, in having patterns of observance turned upside down.

Our system, in short, has been shocked.

The same thing was true in Beate Sirota Gordon’s life and world, only more so. I write about those shocks in No Steps Behind: Beate Sirota Gordon’s Battle for Women’s Rights in Japan, illustrated with dazzling precision and insight by the incomparable Shiella Witanto.

At the age of five, her Jewish parents executed a culture shock, moving young Beate from cosmopolitan Vienna, Austria to Tokyo, Japan. In Vienna, the Sirotas’ world the crème de crème of artistic society, as Leo Sirota was an ultra-world-class pianist. In Tokyo, she knew no one. She responded to the shock by embracing Japan and its people, noting with disgust the general misogyny, and learning perfect Japanese to go with her German and Russian (check out the Youtube video of her

Then came the rise of Japanese military adventurism, the Nazis, and the Axis. Her family being stripped of its Austrian citizenship, rending them stateless. Another shock when her family sent her to America to Mills College, because it was the closest school to Tokyo where she might be safe. Then, Pearl Harbor, World War II, and the firebombing of Japanese cities, with Beate not knowing if her parents were alive or dead. In Europe, the Nazis and their collaborators waged the one-sided war against the Jews we call the Holocaust. Then, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Japanese surrender, and the American occupation of that nation.

By the end of the war, Beate was a Mills College graduate, spoke German, Russian, Japanese, French, English, and some Spanish, and was enlisted by the American military to be an interpreter in Japan. After finding her parents alive, interned far from Tokyo in the freezing mountains, she was placed on the committee drafting a new, democratic constitution for America’s former arch-enemy. Through her sole efforts – it never would have happened but for her – she managed to include two major equal rights for women clauses in that document. Today, even after her death, she is a Japanese national hero, with books, plays, and movies about her in that nation (

Beate was a crucial catalyst, for sure. But would Japan have ever considered a radical change to its social system but for the shock to its cultural system that arose from a humiliating defeat, and unconditional surrender to America and the Allies? Doubtful. Let’s face it: there are plenty of nations on earth today where misogyny is institutionalized, either de jure or de facto. With the shock to its system, Japan’s constitution does something that the American constitution still does not do, which is to guarantee equal rights to women.

We are just starting to see the effects of the Covid-19 shock on our world, nation, communities, families, and selves. May they prove as positive as the ones that Beate helped to bring to Japan.

Usually, when it comes to plotting a novel, I struggle with getting it all to come out the way I envision. I have a strong beginning and knowledge of how I expect it to end. It's what comes in between that throws me for a loop. I'll write down possible scenes, things the character(s) need to do or potential conflicts that could arise. Most of the plot ideas that end up staying in the story are ones that I discovered after many revisions. I expect there are many of us out there with this same kind of problem.

For my new novel in verse WISHES, DARES, AND HOW TO STAND UP TO A BULLY, plotting was a totally different animal. The main character Jack spoke to me in a voice so loud and clear. He was insistent that I tell his story the way he spoke it, which turned out to be free verse. So, instead of plotting what might happen, I began to compile a list of words that would spark a conversation between Jack and me. (The title for the story at this stage was Fish, Wish, and Other Four Letter Words...hence the list of four-letter words).

Each day I'd sit down with the list, choose a word and let Jack tell me his thoughts on it. The list expanded as we got further into the story and the final version that became the book veered from the strict four letter word format. But that list is the plot, sure and true. Every crossed out word is a poem in the story. I hope you enjoy the result.


Eleven year old Jack misses his Dad who is MIA in Vietnam. It’s been months since he and his family had word of his whereabouts. The last thing Jack wants to do is spend summer with his grandparents. Mom believes it will be good for them all – Jack, his sister Katy, Mom, Gran and Pops – to be together while they wait for word about Dad. Keeping busy will keep them out of trouble and help them think of other things.

Jack expects the worst summer of his life. The first summer without. Without Dad, without friends, without his room and all the things that remind him of Dad. When Jack meets a girl named Jill - a girl with a brother who makes trouble for both of them – things they believe are turned upside down. Welcome to a summer of fishing, camping, bullies, and a fish who grants wishes. A fish that could be the answer to Jack’s problem. But when Jill makes wishes of her own, things don’t turn out the way they expected. Every wish has a consequence.

Will the fish grant Jack’s biggest wish? Will Jack be brave enough to ask?

Here's an easy ORIGAMI CRAFT for making fish book markers. The link has a step-by-step video:

Here's a printable WORD SEARCH PUZZLE with a list of words used in the book.

wishes wordsearch 3
Download PDF • 54KB

And, since we're all indoors or close to home these days, why not try out an ALPHABET SCAVENGER HUNT? Here are two versions, one using the book, another using objects from your own home.


Until we’re able to travel freely again, it doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the fun of scavenger hunts. You and your friends can try both these hunts in your house and neighborhood, or by using the book to find objects from the story.

Version One: Copy the letters of the alphabet vertically on a sheet of paper and then use it to search for items in your house, or yard until you get all 26. If you collect all of them and take a photo, send it to us and we will put it on this blog.

Version Two: Again, list the letters of the alphabet vertically, but this time, use the book WISHES, DARES, AND HOW TO STAND UP TO A BULLY to find as many things as you can from the story. Examples: Poem titles (Jack, Katy, Kite, Fish, etc) or fun things Jack and his friends did or played with during their summer together (Camping, Fishing, bike, vegetables, etc.)

Happy Hunting!

Darlene Beck Jacobson is a former teacher and speech therapist who has loved writing since she was a girl. She is also a lover of history and can often be found mining dusty closets and drawers in search of skeletons from her past. She enjoys adding these bits of her ancestry to stories such as her award-winning middle grade historical novel WHEELS OF CHANGE (Creston 2014) and WISHES, DARES, AND HOW TO STAND UP TO A BULLY (Creston 2020).

Darlene lives and writes her stories in New Jersey with her family and a house full of dust bunnies. She’s caught many fish, but has never asked one to grant her a wish. She’s a firm believer in wishes coming true, so she tries to be careful what she wishes for.

Her blog features recipes, activities, crafts, articles on nature, book reviews, and interviews with children’s book authors and illustrators.

Twitter: @DBeckJacobson

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