Katherine Woodfine: Re-imagining women's history for early readers

Katherine Woodfine: Re-imagining women's history for early readers


In celebration of Women’s History Month, we’re delighted to welcome Katherine Woodfine to the blog as she shares some of the inspiration behind her brilliant historical retellings!

Sometime in late 2016, I was in my kitchen, only half-listening to a history podcast, when an anecdote about an 18th century fashion designer caught my attention.

Rose Bertin

The name ‘Rose Bertin’ was vaguely familiar to me as the creator of Queen Marie Antoinette’s iconic, history-making outfits. But this particular story was about the fashion designer’s childhood, and how a chance encounter with a fortune-teller when she was a young girl helped set her on the path to a fashion career. Inspired by the fortune-teller’s predictions, the young Rose soon set out to Paris, where she found work in a dressmaker’s shop — but it was a funny mix-up involving a princess and a case of mistaken identity which led to her first big success.

The fairy-tale elements of this story (fortune-tellers, princesses, fabulous gowns!) caught my imagination at once — it sounded exactly like the plot of a children’s book. What’s more, instead of the grand-looking, elaborately-dressed woman I’d seen depicted in 18th century oil paintings, I now had a clear vision of this famous designer as an excited young girl, heading out to seek fame, fortune and fashion in the city of Paris.

I stopped what I was doing, grabbed a notebook, and scribbled down the outline of what would soon afterwards become (with the help of Barrington Stoke and illustrator Kate Pankhurst) Rose’s Dress of Dreams — my first book for the super-readable Little Gems series. It introduces young readers to Rose Bertin as a little girl with a wild imagination, who follows her dreams of designing fabulous dresses all the way to Paris — and ultimately the home of a princess.

The last 10 years have seen a wealth of new children’s books published which, like Rose’s Dress of Dreams, shine a light on (the often less well-known) stories of amazing women from history. There’s been everything from the phenomenally successful Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls and my Rose’s Dress of Dreams collaborator Kate Pankhurst’s brilliant Fantastically Great Women books, to novels retelling the stories of famous women like Ada Lovelace (Julia Gray’s I, Ada), Mary Anning (Lightning Mary by Anthea Simmons) or aeronaut Dolly Shepherd (The Girl With Her Head in the Clouds by Karen McCombie). The same has been true in the adult publishing world, with books like The Story of Art Without Men by Katy Hessel becoming bestsellers. These books have formed part of a wider wave of literature shining a light on untold stories of the past — Black histories, LGBTQ+ histories, the histories of disabled people, or indigenous people.

Lottie the Little Wonder

I'm delighted that my Little Gems titles have formed part of this groundswell of publishing. This month sees the publication of my fourth title, Lottie the Little Wonderillustrated by Ella Okstad. This time, I’ve taken inspiration from 19th century sporting legend Lottie Dod, who won the Wimbledon Ladies Singles aged just 15. Not content with becoming a tennis superstar, she also played hockey for England, was a champion golfer, and won an Olympic medal for archery — all whilst being a vocal supporter of women in sport at a time when their opportunities were limited.

Girls cant play tennis as well as boys? What a lot of NONSENSE!” Lottie Dod is DETERMINED to show that girls can be just as good as sports as boys. She runs and jumps and leaps after the ball – playing tennis makes Lottie feel WONDERFUL. After beating her brothers, she eventually goes on to reach the finals of the most important tennis competition of them all – WIMBLEDON! Can she continue her winning streak to become the worlds first female sports SUPERSTAR? NEVER underestimate what little girls can do!

Lottie playing tennis

Lottie is a character who I hope readers will find not only inspiring, but deeply relatable — whether she’s squabbling with her older brothers, or getting into trouble for sneaking out of the house to follow her tennis dreams. When writing about women from history, I’ve been keen to find ways to help readers to connect with them directly and personally, rather than simply admiring their impressive achievements. By starting with stories from their childhoods (like the anecdote about Rose Bertin that originally grabbed my attention) I hope that young readers will begin to see how their own present-day interests and passions might set them on the path to exciting future adventures, just as Lottie’s love of playing tennis in her garden with her family (and especially her determination to beat her brothers!) leads her to sporting stardom.

Sophie Takes to the Sky

I have also been interested to explore some of the ways that our interests might help us to overcome challenges and difficult times — so in Sophie Takes to the Sky, illustrated by Briony May Smith, we meet groundbreaking aviator Sophie Blanchard as a timid little girl who is too frightened even to ride in a horse-drawn carriage, but whose fascination with a magnificent hot air balloon allows her to be brave beyond her wildest imaginings. 

Elisabeth and the Box of colours

Or in Elisabeth and the Box of Colours illustrated by Rebecca Cobb, we see how the young artist Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun turns to her love of art and colour to help her overcome feelings of overpowering sadness, loneliness and grief.

By exploring these women’s childhood experiences, and the ups-and-downs of their ‘origin stories’ I hope to help bring history more vividly to life for young readers. The books are of course intended to illuminate historical figures that readers might be less likely to encounter elsewhere, as well as to inspire them to be curious about stories from our past. But most importantly, I hope they will help make the past feel like something children can really relate to — that feels engaging, real and relevant. Finding fresh ways to connect readers with people of the past in this way is a joy — and with so many fascinating women from history to explore, I know there will be no shortage of more inspiring stories to tell…