Lives of Extraordinary Women: Rulers, Rebels (and What the Neighbors Thought)

By Kathleen Krull Illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt Harcourt 96 pp., $20

Throughout history, young girls have had to look hard to find role models who made a significant dent in the world. It isn't so much that they haven't been out there, but they've been so slimly documented.

Kathleen Krull's "Lives of Extraordinary Women" makes an impressive effort to turn the spotlight on 20 of the most influential women in history, from queens to warriors.

However, not all are role-model material. As historian Laurel Ulrich contends, "Well-behaved women rarely make history." This is a lively, colorful account of women both beloved and notorious.

Krull's tactic is not only to illuminate the backgrounds and accomplishments of her subjects, but to put a human face on them. Anecdotes leaven the tragedy and treachery with dark humor and "believe it or not" details, such as who purportedly took only two baths in her lifetime (Isabella I) and who had three thousand boxes of everyday jewels (Tz'u-hsi.)

Cleopatra, arguably the most famous woman ruler in history, is presented in all her passion and diabolism. Eleanor of Aquitaine is portrayed as the ultimate supermom, not letting eight children slow down her political ambition.

In all, 20 vibrant women, from Joan of Arc to Cherokee leader Wilma Mankiller, are presented in vivid snapshots for girls ages 8-12.

The book is a little freewheeling. Its greatest weakness is a lack of straightforward introductions to draw readers in to the intriguing eccentricities that follow. But the "Ever After" summations wrap up these portraits nicely. And perhaps most importantly, "Lives of Extraordinary Women" makes history fun.

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