Nellie vs. Elizabeth by Kate Hannigan, illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon


Nellie vs. Elizabeth: Two Daredevil Journalists’ Breakneck Race Around the World by Kate Hannigan, illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon. Calkins Creek, 2022. 9781684373772

Rating:  1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 4

Format: Hardcover

What did you like about the book? When the famous newspaper “stunt reporter” Nellie Bly set her sights on circling the globe in 75 days, inspired by Jules Verne’s popular book Around the World in Eighty Days, her editors were initially hesitant, but eventually agreed.  Nellie set sail from New York across the Atlantic on November 14, 1889. That same day, also in New York, magazine writer Elizabeth Bisland was asked by her own editor if she would take on the same challenge but begin by heading west.  While less adventurous than her counterpart, Elizabeth knew this was a great opportunity for her; she boarded a train for California that very evening, and the race was on.  Each traveled alternately by boat and train, contended with seasickness and travel delays, as the whole world waited to see who would return to New York first.  At about the halfway point of their journeys, they were both supposed to arrive in Hong Kong on the same day, but Nellie’s ship was delayed; shortly thereafter their ships passed each other in the South China Sea.  It was when Nellie did arrive in Hong Kong that she first learned of Elizabeth Bisland! Ultimately, despite earlier setbacks, Nellie Bly accomplished the trip in just under 73 days, while Elizabeth Bisland came back at almost 77.  Both women had beaten the time of Verne’s story, and in so doing demonstrated that the world is a little smaller than people might think.  They also set an example in their day for aspiring female journalists and career women, and became role models for generations to come.

Kate Hannigan interweaves the timelines of these two concurrent journeys in a very readable and entertaining way.  As the narrative alternates between Nellie and Elizabeth, readers will be able to draw comparisons between the two women as they accomplish their goals.  Nellie Bly had just one outfit for her entire trip, while Elizabeth packed several bags and spent time buying clothes in Hong Kong (where “she was shocked to see women wearing pants”).  The only thing Nellie bought was a monkey in Singapore; she named him McGinty, and he traveled with her from then on.  Every page spread features quotes from the two women as well as from various news media of the day (and even from Jules Verne himself, whom Bly met while passing through France) chronicling their own feelings and impressions and the world’s reactions to their adventure.  The illustrations, done in acrylics and colored pencil, have a folk art aesthetic and depict exterior and interior settings with a high level of detail.  An author’s note details the parallels between their lives and careers – how they each rose to their success, and what they did after their most famous assignment.  A comprehensive timeline of women in journalism begins with the 1889 race around the world and includes such notables as Ida B. Wells, Margaret Bourke-White and Christiane Amanpour.

Anything you did not like about the book?  I’m a little surprised there are no maps, even on the endpapers.  Occasional maps showing their progress would be valuable for readers who are less familiar with global geography.  Also, in the final page spread of the story, Nellie and Elizabeth are seen together, hand in hand, on a balcony overlooking a cheering crowd.  It is unclear from either the narrative or the author’s note that they ever even met (although we do learn that they are buried quite near each other in a New York cemetery).

To whom would you recommend this book? A great read aloud for grade 2 and up, Nellie vs. Elizabeth will enhance women’s history and biography collections in elementary classrooms and libraries. It is a little less detailed than Caroline Starr Rose’s book A Race Around the World but the two would pair well for comparative study.

Who should buy this book? Public and elementary school libraries

Where would you shelve it?  Nonfiction – Dewey #910.4

 Should we (librarians) put this on the top of our “to read” piles?  No

 Reviewer’s Name, Library (or school), City:  Leigh Russell King, Lincoln Street School, Northborough, Massachusetts.

Date of review: August 6, 2022

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