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Review of the Day: Women Daredevils – Thrills, Chills, and Frills

Women Daredevils: Thrills, Chills, and Frills.
By Julie Cummins
Illustrated by Cheryl Harness
Dutton (a division of Penguin)
ISBN: 978-0-525-47948-2
Ages 8-12
On shelves now

Non-fiction Monday.  Picture Book of the Day has the round-up.

If there’s one thing I know about human beings it is this: They’re much more likely to pay attention to you if they think you’re about to get hurt. That’s sort of the basis behind everything from the success of Harry Houdini to the extreme sports you run across on daytime TV. Basically, if someone thinks that you are mere moments from an untimely demise, they are MUCH more inclined to give you their money. Men have been doing stuff along those lines for years, but less lauded in today’s Fear Factor age are the women who also willingly, repeatedly, placed themselves in harms way. I’m talking about the girls that threw themselves into Niagara Falls, walked on planes, or dove with horses. Now, Julie Cummins has compiled a book giving props to the more than thirteen ladies between the years of 1880 to 1929 that made names for themselves by doing the impossible over and over and over again.

One hundred years ago if you were an average woman living in America your career choices pretty much began and ended with marriage and childbirth. One hundred years ago if you were an extraordinary woman living in America your career choices pretty much began with getting shot out of cannons and riding horses bareback, or ended with taming tigers and doing plane stunts. Welcome to the world of women stunt performers. In this book, author Julie Cummins has compiled a list of various high stunting dames, risking their lives over and over to give their audiences the requisite amount of thrills desired. You’ll see the LaRague Sisters doing a dangerous one-car somersault act in 1908. Georgia "Tiny" Broadwick jumping out of planes to test aerial life preservers. Or Mlle. D’Zizi leaping over elephants on a bike traveling at "a terrific clip". Collected here for our contemporary amusement and edification are a group of women that looked death right at the eye on a regular basis and achieved a modicum amount of fame in the process

I don’t consider myself an uninformed individual, but of all these women in this book the only one that I had heard of before was Sonora Webster Carver. And to be perfectly truthful, the only reason I’d even known her story was because it was turned into a live action Disney movie in 1991 called Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken. So it is a pretty good guess that this book will cover characters the like of which your kids, students, and patrons have never known. Maybe you’ll encounter the stray child familiar with the Robert Redford film The Great Waldo Pepper who knows what a wingwalker is, but don’t get your hopes up. Plus I enjoyed the fact that lots of little facts in this book ended up explaining things I’d never even thought to consider. Why were pilots sometimes called "barnstormers"? Cummings speculates that "some showoff pilot may have actually flown through a barn, christening the Barnstorming Era." Sounds like as good an explanation as any I could come up with.

The end of the book contains a Chronology of the events listed as well as a section dedicated to Sources and Acknowledgments. I would have preferred a straight out Bibliography, but the ways in which Cummins got her information made this impossible. Listing her Sources also allows Cummins to detail how difficult it was to get some of this information. "Only two women had books written about them." That meant finding sources elsewhere. "The early period proved to be the biggest challenge: in many cases the only resources were archival files, newspaper clippings (often so fragile the paper crumbled in your hand), and tidbits in out-of-print books." The rest of the page details how she found her information, the places she had to go, and the people and historical societies that provided her with her facts. It makes for fascinating reading in and of itself.

Cheryl Harness has provided the illustrations in this book and she is certainly an interesting choice. In almost every case, Harness employs two different styles on each person. When they’re first introduced we get a realistic, often exciting view of the woman. Many of these images may have been based on photos, and if so then I’m pleased with how they’ve been rendered here. Then, as we read more about that woman, cartoonish sketches accompany her history, fans, and tricks. I enjoyed the mix of styles and the fact that every single page has an image on it so as to keep the eye moving and the reading kid-friendly. This is one well-designed pup.

A lot of librarians get kids excited about reading by doing "booktalks" where they make the book in hand sound like the coolest thing since sliced bread. The problem with booktalking, though, is that you always want to have a non-fiction selection to promote alongside your three fiction titles. And finding the right kind of non-fiction title with the requisite inherent interest can be a daunting task. So, as it stands, Women Daredevils is going to be the answer to many a librarian’s prayers. For that matter, it will fill many a kid’s needs as well. Any child inclined to know more about women athletes or women who dared to cheat death is going to find at least some of the stories here fascinating. I can guarantee that there’s nothing like it in your library right now. Fun, heady stuff you never knew you needed to know.

Notes on the Cover:
I dunno.  I like this picture with all the colors, the fire, and the lady.  It sort of resembles a circus poster with the font, the insets, and the red border.  On the other hand, I wish it was (how shall I put this?) a little more extreme.  There’s something genteel in this lady’s expression.  She looks like she’s going for a lovely Sunday stroll, rather that bursting forth from a canon to her potential death and doom.  If you’re advertising “Thrills” and “Chills” then shouldn’t your cover image be more of a thriller?  I loved the book, but I feel like the cover should have indulged in the shameless self-promotion and reliance on deep dark fears that these original ladies’ promoters relied on so heavily.  Less calm ladies.  More nail biting, please.

Other Blog Reviews:
I.N.K. Interesting Nonfiction for Kids

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. Thanks! I wouldn’t have encountered this book without your review because SLJ recommends it for grades 3-5 (Booklist has grades 3-6). It sounds like a great book to use with my 6th graders — wish I could get it in this week because I’m getting ready to do a Girl Power display and it would fit in nicely with it. By the way, I really liked Shooting the Moon and plan to booktalk it today. Your review made me put it on the top of my tbr pile.

  2. Aw. Thanks. And I think that you could definitely use this with sixth graders, though the individual sections aren’t very long. It’s probably better suited to the 4th grade range, but it’s interesting and wordy enough to use with older grades as well.