Dr. Jo: Information and Inspiration

Dr. Jo: How Sara Josephine Baker Saved the Lives of America’s Children – Monica Kulling and Julianna Swaney, Tundra Books, 2018


We are fortunate to live at a time when children’s books about women who serve as role models for girls are appearing every day. Monica Kulling, the author of several outstanding informational books for children (see my previous posts here and here), and Julianna Swaney, a gifted and versatile artist and illustrator, have given us a new biography of pioneering woman physician and social activist Sara Josephine Baker.  While there have been many books about Elizabeth Blackwell, America’s first woman doctor, Jane Addams, birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, and the courageous and persistent African-American women mathematicians at NASA, the subject of Dr. Jo is less well known.  Sara Josephine Baker was a doctor who, at the turn of the twentieth century, made the commitment to dedicate her life to improving the desperately poor and underserved residents of New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood.  Central to her crusade was faith in the ability of women, doctors, midwives, mothers, to improve lives.

This book is an incredible achievement.  The text is rich in information, carefully selected and presented to elementary and middle grade readers.  Children with little background information will learn that “Diseases such as smallpox and typhoid fever spread like wildfire, especially among the young…Dr. Jo was saddened to think of the many children who died there every week. She was determined to help.”  Both the facts causing the tragedy, and Dr. Jo’s motivation, are clear.  Kulling explains the difficulties of immigrant life in this diverse community, and the realities of home births attended by untrained midwives, women whose important role Dr. Jo does not dismiss; she plans to license them.  Kulling describes other specific health challenges: poor swaddling methods, dirty eye drop containers, and simple hunger.


One of the most memorable features Dr. Jo is its perfect match between words and pictures.  Swaney’s people have simple but expressive faces, round with dots for eyes and a line for a mouth. Subtle differences in these features convey actions and feelings.  In one picture, Dr. Jo looks into a microscope. Her intense focus shows in her one closed eye and one hand delicately moving the slide.  Her desk is covered with carefully placed significant objects, each one meaningful to the story: her eyeglasses, a fountain pen, a Bunsen burner.  She has determined the solution to the problem of contaminated bottles: “The midwife could be confident that the drops were clean and perfectly measured.”  Each word and each element in the picture reflect one another. On the facing page, Dr. Jo is sitting on a bench in Manhattan’s Bowling Green Park, making careful notes in a small book.  Kulling tells us that Dr. Jo “put her mind to the problem of the flawed eye-drop containers…while sitting in Bowling Green Park, she watched bees at work…” Children playing in the background and the bright pink of a circular flower bed emphasize how the doctor is working in the real world, but not distracted when she needs to focus.

Dr. Jo is a book to read and reread with children, and still relevant today.   It will immerse them in a time and place where the immigrant poor were ignored and disadvantaged and where a stubborn, intelligent, and improbably successful women refused to accept the circumstances of their, and her, lives.

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