In the middle of my plumbing dystopian issues in my Margaret Atwood reading / re-reading, I temporarily ran out of book, as I speed-read “The Handmaid’s Tale” TOO speedily and had it done the night before “The Testaments” was due to arrive. What could I read as an antidote to dystopia? Ah, yes. A lovely book about women born in 1816 through to women who are right now daring to dream in my adopted home city of Birmingham (UK).

I bought this book excitedly in November 2018 and it’s been sitting on my desk ever since. It was perfect to pick up at this time in the world and my reading life, giving lots of positivity and hope. Published by local independent publisher Emma Press, you can find a direct link to the book here. Buy it for anyone from a young teen upwards, and especially to share our lovely city at home and further afield.

“Once Upon a Time in Birmingham: Women who Dared to Dream”

(bought direct from the publisher, November 2018)

With text by Louise Palfreyman and illustrations by Jan Bowman, Yasmin Bryan, Amy Louise Evans, Saadia Hipkiss, Farah Osseili, Chein Shyan Lee and Michelle Turton, published by small independent women-run Emma Press and supported by Birmingham City Council, this really did feel like a collective work of love and celebration.

The Birmingham Remembers campaign celebrated and commemorated both the end of World War One and the partial achievement of the vote by women, and it launched a social media drive to source public nominations for this book. The nominations were then whittled down by a jury of young female writers from Writing West Midlands’ Spark Young Writers groups before the book was produced and then launched at the Birmingham Literature Festival (which must be how I heard about it). I’m glad the introduction by three female local councillors explained the process.

We have all sorts of women among the 30 featured, from suffragettes and suffragists to academics, campaigners and leaders of social movements. Hannah Sturge goes furthest back – born in 1816, she founded a group in the anti-slavery movement, one of the first examples of organised female activism. We have examples of both suffragettes with their direct action (Bertha Ryland, who slashed a painting in the Art Gallery) and suffragists with letter-writing campaigns, and plenty of academics, including scientists and mathematicians, with Denise Lewis representing athletes and Kit de Waal writers. Did you know that one of the structural engineers who made the New York 9/11 site safe was Asha Devi, who grew up in Handsworth and works as an ambassador exhorting girls to choose engineering subjects?

Closer to home, I was interested to read about Dame Ellen Pinsent, Birmingham’s first female councillor and pioneer in education provision, after whom a local school is named, and proud to find Imandeep Kaur, who is celebrated for co-founding Impact Hub which puts people at the heart of solving the city’s problems, who I actually know!

The back of the book features ideas on interviewing your own heroes, a list of helplines and support, biographies of the writer and artists and of the young women who chose the selection. I also noted my friend Debbie in the acknowledgements. So a lovely local read which stretches far further.

My latest Shiny New Books review is up and features the rather wonderful “Rough Magic” by Lara Prior-Palmer (yes, she’s Lucinda’s niece and Aunt Luncinda comes into the book). Dismissed as scatter-brained and better at plunging into things than thinking them through first, Lara takes on the Mongolian Derby in this exciting and engaging read. I am grateful to Ebury Press for sending me the proof copy, and you can read my full review here.