I just finished Rachel Baker’s The First Woman Doctor, and while I absolutely found Elizabeth Blackwell’s life fascinating, I realized that I’ve become a bit spoiled in the children’s non-fiction department. After all, because of my Newbery quest, I’ve read quite a few books by Russell Freedman, as well as a couple of Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s; not all of them were biographies, of course, but they were all meticulously researched and well-told accounts of either historic events or famous people. The First Woman Doctor, by contrast, has a certain tone that’s not uncommon in biographies written for children, especially those written in the latter half of the 20th century; it’s an inspiring story told to children in such a way that an adult reader can easily recognize the signs of assumptions and opinions throughout the book. That’s not to say that it’s willfully inaccurate, necessarily; it’s just that the book has a definite spin. No negative aspects of Elizabeth Blackwell’s personality come up at all (unless you count her restlessness, which is essential to her story); it isn’t that I want dirt on someone, but this sort of biography is an idealized portrait, rather than a vivid snapshot. It’s a style of biography that describes a life in a certain way and likely omits details that interfere with that vision. I’m not saying that the facts in the book are inaccurate, mind you, but it would certainly make an interesting lesson on fact and opinion for high school students. I think I might enjoy reading the book with them and then discussing different aspects–is this a fact or an opinion? Can the author prove this? What ideas and happenings are presented as true that are inherently subjective?
I certainly don’t believe Rachel Baker had any intent to deceive. I just think she wanted to tell an inspiring story about the first woman doctor, rather than present the complexity of the life of an extraordinary human being. After all, don’t we all emphasize what we want to and downplay certain details in the stories we tell? It’s not, necessarily, a terrible thing. For myself, however–I remember details of what I read, and in a work of non-fiction, I like those details to be solidly researched and accurate. This book was not a waste of time by any means; it did, however, illustrate the differences in the types of children’s non-fiction out there.
Russell Freedman is much more my style.