When City Lights publishes a children’s alphabet book, you can bet that the “A” won’t stand for “airplane.” Try “Angela Davis” instead.
The recently released Rad American Women A-Z: Rebels, Trailblazers, and Visionaries Who Shaped Our History…and Our Future! is an encyclopedia of feminist icons, written by Alameda-based Kate Schatz and illustrated by Berkeley High School art teacher Miriam Klein Stahl. For each of the 26 women featured in the book — activists, artists, scientists, Supreme Court justices — Stahl created a striking paper cut-out portrait against a boldly colored background.
But eager readers had to wait in suspense to see them. Rad Women, the first children’s book from legendary San Francisco publisher City Lights, sold out almost immediately after it was released on April 7. (Update: As of Monday morning, April 20, we hear it is back in stock and available for purchase.)
“It’s an awesome problem to have, but it sucks for going on book tour,” Stahl said earlier this month, as she prepared to travel to the Pacific Northwest for readings. “It’s obviously hit a nerve. We first thought that feminist moms would be totally into this book but it’s clearly gone well beyond that demographic.”
Rad Women is the first entire book that Stahl, co-founder of Berkeley High’s Arts and Humanities Academy (AHA), has illustrated. But her characteristic bold, political prints, cut-outs, and drawings can be found in galleries, anthologies, and public spaces, and on posters and protest signs.
“Miriam’s graphic paper-cut artwork has been a sort of visual soundtrack to my queer, politicized life in the Bay Area,” said writer Michelle Tea recently in Mutha Magazine. “I’ve been enjoying her portraits on flyers and t-shirts and friends’ tattoos for years and years.”
Stahl’s style is equally suited to children’s literature as it is to a tattoo.
“My best hope for images that I put out into the world is that they’re bold and graphic and really visible from far away, but then when you get up close to them there’s a lot of interesting detail,” she said.
Stahl had previously contributed to an anthology curated by Schatz, and when the author approached her about working on a feminist kids’ book, she agreed immediately. She joked that she says yes to all projects that come her way, but this one felt particularly worthwhile. The prospect of making a book of role models for her 7-year-old daughter Hazel and her young friends appealed to Stahl.
“And then my job as a teacher also played into wanting to make a book that celebrated women,” she said. “A lot of my seniors, when they’re applying to college, look at things like rape statistics at schools as a determinant of whether they’d want to go there.” She has long thought about how she can help her students change the misogynistic culture, and thinks much of the power and responsibility lies with teenage boys, a target audience of the book.
Stahl’s Rad Women images are available free online for educators, and already some BUSD teachers have used the book in their classrooms.
Julia Beers, Hazel’s second grade teacher at Malcolm X Elementary, initially invited Stahl to come read from the book and ended up using it as a jumping off point for two class projects. In pairs, the kids researched “rad women” from history and put together reports and illustrations. Over spring break, they interviewed rad women in their own lives.
“I wanted them to have the experience of mimicking Miriam’s art,” Beers said. Stahl brought in the light table she uses at Berkeley High and demonstrated the paper cut process. The kids did an age-appropriate adaptation, using tracing tools instead of X-Acto knives.
Stahl’s own students have come along for the ride, watching their teacher create the illustrations and attending a reading. They know their ABC’s but they’re not too old for the message.
“My 7-year-old daughter loves it and my 77-year-old mother loves it,” Stahl said. “I think because of the content of the book and the diversity of the book it also has outreach and appeal to adults as well — that both see some of their personal heroes in it and also find out about some women they didn’t know about.”
Among the grown-up readers who have praised the publication are two of its subjects: Dolores Huerta and Kate Bornstein.
If all goes as planned, Rad Women will be the first in a series of A-Z installments by Schatz and Stahl. Next might be an A-Z of events that have changed the world, Stahl said. “A” is for “Alcatraz.”
The Berkeley book launch is Wednesday, April 22, at 7:30 p.m. at Pegasus downtown. Hazel has been known to read the letter “X,” which stands for “the women whose names we don’t know.”
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