"Scribbling Women": True Tales from Astonishing Lives


In 1855, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote to his publisher, complaining about the irritating fad of “scribbling women.” Whether they were written by professionals, by women who simply wanted to connect with others, or by those who wanted to leave a record of their lives, those “scribbles” are fascinating, informative, and instructive.

Margaret Catchpole was a transported prisoner whose eleven letters provide the earliest record of white settlement in Australia. Writing hundreds of ...

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In 1855, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote to his publisher, complaining about the irritating fad of “scribbling women.” Whether they were written by professionals, by women who simply wanted to connect with others, or by those who wanted to leave a record of their lives, those “scribbles” are fascinating, informative, and instructive.

Margaret Catchpole was a transported prisoner whose eleven letters provide the earliest record of white settlement in Australia. Writing hundreds of years later, Aboriginal writer Doris Pilkington-Garimara wrote a novel about another kind of exile in Australia. Young Isabella Beeton, one of twenty-one children and herself the mother of four, managed to write a groundbreaking cookbook before she died at the age of twenty-eight. World traveler and journalist Nelly Bly used her writing to expose terrible injustices. Sei Shonagan has left us poetry and journal entries that provide a vivid look at the pampered life and intrigues in Japan’s imperial court. Ada Blackjack, sole survivor of a disastrous scientific expedition in the Arctic, fought isolation and fear with her precious Eversharp pencil. Dr. Dang Thuy Tram’s diary, written in a field hospital in the steaming North Vietnamese jungle while American bombs fell, is a heartbreaking record of fear and hope.

Many of the women in “Scribbling Women” had eventful lives. They became friends with cannibals, delivered babies, stole horses, and sailed on whaling ships. Others lived quietly, close to home. But each of them has illuminated the world through her words.

A note from the author: OOPS! On page 197, the credit for the Portrait of Harriet Jacobs on page 43 should read: courtesy of Library of Congress, not Jean Fagan Yellin. On page 197, the credit for the portrait of Isabella Beeton on page 61 should read: National Portrait Gallery, London. On page 198, the credit for page 147 should be Dang Kim Tram, not Kim Tram Dang. We are very sorry about the mix-up in the Photo Credits, they will be updated on any new editions or reprints.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“[CBC’s] Children's Book Panel recommends some great summer reading for kids… Scribbling Women by Marthe Jocelyn….”
—Michele Landsberg, CBC Radio

“…Do you have to ask why I think this is the best sort of book for any girl who wants to be a writer, or any grown up female author who wants to know the great company she is now part of?”

“…an astonishing, intriguing biography, sampler and study of writing and character….”
—The Toronto Star
“…eye-opening work….”
“Jocelyn draws on real scholarship to paint novelistic portraits of her subjects’ inner lives. The women here truly live up to their billing as ‘astonishing.’”
–School Library Journal

  “This beautifully written text evokes women’s private lives down through history as revealed in their own, often astonishing, words… Well researched, informative and engaging… Jocelyn engages the reader’s imagination through her accessible language, attention to historical detail, creative description and narrative skill.”
—Norma Fleck Award, Jury Comments

School Library Journal
Gr 8 Up—This slim, elegant book contains 11 biographies of women born between the years 965 and 1937. With the exception of Sei Shonagon (author of The Pillow Book) and Harriet Jacobs (author of the noted slave narrative), the scribblers profiled here will probably not be known to teens. Although these women left behind written records of their lives—diaries, letters, and stories—most did not publish or consider themselves authors. Writing was simply an activity they squeezed in among other pursuits, from whaling to scientific expeditions in Africa. Approximately half of those included are women of color: Japanese, Inupiat Eskimo, African American, Aboriginal Australian, and Vietnamese. The collection is refreshing because it does not hail women for conventional accomplishments, but celebrates smaller, more personal triumphs in the context of their society. Readers will cheer for aspiring scientist Mary Kingsley (1862–1900) when she is finally free to pursue her dreams after decades of being the caregiver to a family of men. They will deeply respect Margaret Catchpole (1762–1819) because she writes so bravely and insightfully about serving a life sentence for stealing a horse. Jocelyn draws on real scholarship to paint novelistic portraits of her subjects' inner lives. The women here truly live up to their billing as "astonishing."—Jess deCourcy Hinds, Bard H.S. Early College, Queens, NY
Kirkus Reviews

Spanning the globe and 1,000 years, Jocelyn profiles extraordinary women whose writing offers fascinating insight into their respective places and times.

Of the 11 female writers profiled in this collective biography, the only name most readers are likely to recognize is pioneering investigative journalist Nellie Bly. Jocelyn begins with Sei Shonagon, whose Pillow Book offers vivid insights into 10th-century Japanese imperial court life. The letters of Margaret Catchpole, a convicted thief, provide the earliest record of white settlement in Australia. Doris Pilkington Garinara's Rabbit-Proof Fence and other works explore the terrible consequences white settlement had for Australia's aboriginal people. The intrepid explorer Mary Kingsley chronicled her amazing adventures in West Africa. Other subjects include Ada Blackjack, the sole survivor of a disastrous Arctic expedition, and Dr. Dang Thuy Tram, a North Vietnamese doctor who chronicled in a diary her ordeal treating the sick and wounded in a jungle field hospital. Jocelyn wisely gives readers a sense of these writers' unique voices through generous quotations of their works. Her admiration and enthusiasm for these women is evident, as is her detailed knowledge of the places and times in which they lived.

The title refers to disparaging comments made by Nathaniel Hawthorne in a letter to his editor; Hawthorne was convinced female writers had nothing worthy to say, but this collection consistently proves him wrong. (notes, bibliography) (Collective biography. 14 & up)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780887769528
  • Publisher: Tundra
  • Publication date: 3/22/2011
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 1,517,733
  • Age range: 14 years
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Toronto-born MARTHE JOCELYN is the award-winning author and illustrator of over twenty books. Her picture book Hannah’s Collections was short-listed for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Illustration. Her novel Mable Riley won the inaugural TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award. Marthe Jocelyn is the 2009 recipient of the prestigious Vicky Metcalf Award for her body of work.

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 4, 2011

    I Also Recommend:

    just the tip of the iceberg

    Starting with Sei Shonagon in Heian Japan and working her way chronologically to Doris Pilkington Garimara in modern day Australia, Jocelyn manages to look at the writing of a wide variety of women. She admits in her introduction that she was limited to work written in or translated into English, which explains the predominance of North American and British women in these pages. Still, this is not a book filled with the polite letters of Victorian ladies.

    Of the eleven women in these pages, five are women of color and five (not the same five) spend a better part of their lives as decidedly lower class. Their stories really do cover a broad spectrum of the female experience; no two are alike. Whether you are looking for action or introspection, gumption or the strong will to make do, there is woman here for you. The women include a surgeon during the Vietnam War (Dang Thuy Tram), an undercover reporter (Nellie Bly), the eight-year-old author of still in print The Young Visiters (Daisy Ashford), and one of the first female felons to be shipped to Australia (Margaret Catchpole).

    My only problem with this book was that I wanted to know more about each of the women, which is actually a good thing. In some cases, there is just not that much more that is known. In others, I'm going to have to go looking for information about these women or others like them on my own. There is a bibliography in the back of the book, but it's arranged in alphabetical order (like bibliographies should be) rather than organized by subject or chapter, and it's pretty long. I would have much preferred short biblios at the end of each chapter even if it would have broken up the narrative a bit. Also, though this book has the subject heading of "biography," the information contained in Scribbling Women is based almost entirely on the writing of the women themselves. I love this, but it will make this book a hard sell for report writers as some common details are often not included (birth and death dates, however, are present). Still, this is an interesting book about an interesting mix of women that nonfiction readers and budding young writers are sure to enjoy.

    Book source: Review copy provided by the publisher through LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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