Great stories inspire great possibilities. To celebrate this month’s International Women’s Day, Alison Padley-Woods invites Kate Pankhurst to tell us about her Fantastically Great Women series and discuss the role and responsibility of children's books to champion women and educate.

We can all celebrate women's achievements, raise awareness against bias and take action for equality. All of this starts when we are young. Educating the young minds of today and the adults of tomorrow is is where children’s books come in. 

Books can change people and change people's life stories. There is such a positive link between literacy and lifelong circumstances, and great stories inspire great possibilities, particularly in girls who perhaps have been deprived of important role models.  

When it comes to great stories about women, illustrator and writer, Kate Pankhurst, has one of her own. Emmeline Pankhurst was her great, great, grandfather’s, brother’s, son’s wife. “Whilst I can’t claim to have suffragette blood in my veins,” says Kate, “the story of Emmeline has followed me all my life and has been quite an influence.” 

It’s a link that inspired her Fantastically Great Women series, first published in 2016. 

Cover illustration,
Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World,

"The books focus on women who perhaps didn’t set out to be great," says Kate, "but who followed their passion and didn’t let anything stand in their way. The stories inspire. They show girls how to step up to powerful roles and follow their dreams, and they can learn about themselves."

Of course, following a passion and not letting anything stand in your way are important attributes to becoming a successful illustrator and writer. So how did Kate first get into illustration? Kate explains:

I was a big Beano fan when I was little and made comics in the same style. It was something I did naturally and it’s the basis of where my storytelling style started. The comic strip doodly style with lots of information on one page is still what I do now. It’s interesting to see the voice you have as a storyteller and the way you tell a story can be formed quite young.

I went on to study illustration at the University of Lancashire. In my final year, I entered the Macmillan Prize for Picture Book Illustration and came second. It gave me some contacts and I was lucky enough to get a picture book deal from Macmillan. It was a wonderful start and I got my first taste of picture book publishing. I went on to illustrate chapter books in a series, properly got to know a character and learned where to pick out the illustrations.

Cover illustration,
Mariella Mystery Investigates the Curse of the Pampered Poodle,

So how did the idea for the Fantastically Great Women series come about?

I’d been working on Mariella Mystery Investigates and one character was based on Amelia Earhart. My agent loved this doodle. We were chatting about new ideas and drew a link between Amelia and my family history with Emmeline Pankhurst. After some research, I realised there wasn’t anything on market about women. It was 2015 and I couldn’t believe there wasn’t a book out there celebrating women and that definitely needed to happen. I went away, developed the title and drew up an Amelia Earhart spread. My agent took the cover and sample to the Bologna Book Fair and it was picked up by Bloomsbury. The format hasn’t changed much.


Lady Winkleton, doodle inspired by Amelia Earhart,
Mariella Mystery Investigates the Curse of the Pampered Poodle


Amelia Earhart,
Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World,

It’s a formula that allows children to dip in again and again and discover new things. Kate’s doodly style and her pages crammed with facts appeal to the inquisitive nature in children. Each page opens up a world of discovery, children can follow arrows, read speech bubbles and track their way across pictures to find something out and learn in their own time. Kate explains:
Illustrating non- fiction made me realise that it suits my style of working. My work naturally sits with being more detailed and I think it leans towards non-fiction and chapter books. I’m not content until the page is packed with detail. They are great fun to do.

Wall of Wonder, 
Fantastically Great Women Who Worked Wonders

Since the publication of the first book in the series in 2016, there has been a surge in non-fiction children's books, offering access and opening up a new and real world. So, what makes non-fiction so popular, and why is it important for children to read about real life figures? Kate explains:

When I started work on the first book, there were lots of adults talking about equality, but there was nothing out there to introduce the conversation to younger readers. My book came out at the same time as Elena Favilli’s Rebel Girls – just by chance. I think both series captured a conversation that parents wanted to have with their children. Children’s books open up ways to talk about difficult subjects and learn in a fun way.

Truth is, some children just prefer real-life stories. Well written texts equalled with great illustrations entice children in and can turn reluctant learners into children who read and learn for pleasure. This is particularly important during the pandemic when parents and carers are playing such an important role in home- schooling. 

Of course, with the coming of the internet it appears everything can be learned online – but is that the end of the story and how do books help? 

Reading with parents is so important. Stories spark conversation and sharing them together can be a bonding moment. There is an ease about books too - the information has been pulled together in one place with the young audience in mind. With the internet you have to go looking for it – then find it again. Books are there to come back to – they don’t change, and you can re-visit them. They’re a possession, something to treasure – that’s if you are lucky enough to live in a house with books. My dad was a lifelong library user. As a kid, I loved going to the local library – it was a real treat – and a treat thinking the books I borrowed were mine for a short while.

So, of all the stories you have written about and illustrated, is there a favourite? 

I have a thing for detectives and spies and that genre of book, so I love the stories about the World War II Secret Agents such as Noor Khan – the first female undercover telecoms officer dropped behind enemy lines. She wrote children’s books before the war and her story is very inspiring, as is Agent Fifi’s. The imagery around those stories and the potential to tell them in an engaging way for children really resonated with me. Many people don’t know a lot about these women as their stories have only recently been told due to official secrets act. A film about Noor Khan, A Call to Spy, has only recently come out. It was great to research them and it felt very special to bring their stories out, especially into the children’s world.


Noor Khan,
Fantastically Great Women Who Made History,

So are there new projects afoot for you and what is the latest news in the Fantastically Great Women series

I'm going to be doing some slightly different picture books, different to the Fantastically Great Women series, but still with strong female characters and inspiring stories for boys and girls. And last month saw the publication of Fantastically Great Women Scientists and Their Stories. It’s an older chapter book with black and white illustrations and celebrates women who made some of the most important scientific break-throughs. It’s still shocking the small proportion of women in science. But science is being made more accessible and there are lots of initiatives to encourage girls into STEM subjects and the big questions the world faces.

Cover illustration,
Fantastically Great Women Scientists and their Stories,

Interior illustration,
Fantastically Great Women Scientists and their Stories,

The book's publication ties in neatly not only with International Women's Day but also with this month's British Science Week, a celebration of science and a campaign to smash stereotypes.  Its theme 'innovating for the future' sits perfectly alongside the stories in Kate's book. They're stories about the power, fierceness and realness of women and they need to be told, because whilst it’s easy to think we can’t change things, the truth is individuals do – and women in particular can change the future.

Header photo: Kate with her Dalmatian, Olive, by Jo Crawford Photography


Kate Pankhurst:
Find her on Twitter

Alison Padley-Woods is Words & Pictures' Deputy Illustration Features Editor. Find her on Twitter

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