Review by Lisa Mathewson
Kids Can Press, April 2020
256 pages, hardcover, $18.99 CAD, 978-1-5253-0035-6
Ages 14-18, Grades 9-12
Young Adult, Non-fiction, Biography
What does Jacinda [Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand] see for the immediate future? “My hope is that across the world, we continue to make progress, so that all women and young girls can learn, prosper and grow, and live with dignity, equality and basic human rights. But hope alone isn’t acceptable or any answer, nor is carving a path that is left to grow over. There is no room for complacency.”
Quick, how many female politicians can you name?
One intelligent, engaged young woman I posed this question to managed to think of five names before beginning to struggle. For those like In Good Hands’s author and journalist, Stephanie MacKendrick, who believe that “[t]he world needs the full participation of just over half its population,” this is clearly not enough. Not only are there too few female leaders in the world, we don’t know enough about the ones that exist.
MacKendrick’s fascinating, highly readable book In Good Hands: Remarkable Female Politicians from Around the World Who Showed Up, Spoke Out and Made Change takes aim at both these problems. Its goals are to introduce readers to role model female leaders, and to encourage and advise young women who might be considering entering politics.
The first, longer section of the book presents 19 profiles of female politicians. The politicians come from a range of countries and cover all levels of government, from a board member of a village to leaders of nations. Each profile is based in part on a personal interview, and contains not only biographical and career information, but also each politician’s life lessons and advice for young women.
The profiles are without exception inspirational. We learn about women who have navigated major challenges in their lives and careers, including homelessness, racism, violence, or living with serious disabilities. We also learn that even women from more privileged backgrounds have needed to overcome obstacles—including, not surprisingly, sexism—on their route to achieving political success. While many of the politicians discussed are from the U.S. and Canada, we also learn about women from countries such as Israel, Jordan, Malawi, and Afghanistan. Thanks to this diversity, young women from any walk of life can find role models here.
The advice portions of each profile are not only interesting in themselves, but the recurring themes are illuminating. Common themes to every woman’s experience include self-doubt and having to ignore people who told her she wouldn’t succeed. Repeated threads of advice include that you should never take attacks personally or let other people define you, that running for office is a valuable experience even if you lose, that a passion to improve the world is the best reason to get into politics, and that if you have that passion, you should do it in spite of self-doubts.
The final portion of the book is designed to offer guidance for budding future politicians, and to help young readers decide whether a political role is right for them. It contains tips about how to identify the right level of government for them, gain necessary experience, and even plan and run a campaign. While perhaps less original than the earlier section, this portion is engagingly written. It employs several enjoyable formats including self-quizzes, checklists, and to-do lists that are partially tailored to readers’ different goals and personality-types.
The profiles section of In Good Hands is like a more mature, in-depth, and politics-focused version of Goodnight Stories For Rebel Girls, by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo. It shares with that collection the ability to educate and inspire girls and young women, providing remarkable examples of what it is possible for them to achieve. My only regret when it comes to these spectacular books that shine a light on female leaders, is that boys and young men are probably unlikely to be drawn to reading them. The world might be a better place if we all read books about brilliant, strong female leaders.
Lisa Matthewson is a sixth-generation New Zealander and a first-generation Canadian. She teaches Linguistics at the University of British Columbia. She is taking creative writing courses in the hope of one day writing historical fiction for middle-grade readers.