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Young Adult Nonfiction Literary Criticism & Collections

"Scribbling Women"

True Tales from Astonishing Lives

by (author) Marthe Jocelyn

Initial publish date
Mar 2011
Literary Criticism & Collections, Girls & Women, Sociology
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Mar 2011
    List Price

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Recommended Age, Grade, and Reading Levels

  • Age: 14 to 18
  • Grade: 9 to 12


In 1855, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote to his publisher, complaining about the irritating fad of “scribbling women.” Whether they were written by professionals, by women who simply wanted to connect with others, or by those who wanted to leave a record of their lives, those “scribbles” are fascinating, informative, and instructive.

Margaret Catchpole was a transported prisoner whose eleven letters provide the earliest record of white settlement in Australia. Writing hundreds of years later, Aboriginal writer Doris Pilkington-Garimara wrote a novel about another kind of exile in Australia. Young Isabella Beeton, one of twenty-one children and herself the mother of four, managed to write a groundbreaking cookbook before she died at the age of twenty-eight. World traveler and journalist Nelly Bly used her writing to expose terrible injustices. Sei Shonagan has left us poetry and journal entries that provide a vivid look at the pampered life and intrigues in Japan’s imperial court. Ada Blackjack, sole survivor of a disastrous scientific expedition in the Arctic, fought isolation and fear with her precious Eversharp pencil. Dr. Dang Thuy Tram’s diary, written in a field hospital in the steaming North Vietnamese jungle while American bombs fell, is a heartbreaking record of fear and hope.

Many of the women in “Scribbling Women” had eventful lives. They became friends with cannibals, delivered babies, stole horses, and sailed on whaling ships. Others lived quietly, close to home. But each of them has illuminated the world through her words.

A note from the author: OOPS! On page 197, the credit for the Portrait of Harriet Jacobs on page 43 should read: courtesy of Library of Congress, not Jean Fagan Yellin. On page 197, the credit for the portrait of Isabella Beeton on page 61 should read: National Portrait Gallery, London. On page 198, the credit for page 147 should be Dang Kim Tram, not Kim Tram Dang. We are very sorry about the mix-up in the Photo Credits, they will be updated on any new editions or reprints.

About the author

Marthe Jocelyn is the award-winning author and illustrator of over thirty-five books for babies, kids and teens. Her illustrated books have been shortlisted for both the Governor General’s Literary Award and the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award. In 2009 she was the recipient of the prestigious Vicky Metcalf Award for her body of work. One Red Button and One Piece of String are the result of her lifelong obsession with scraps, and her delight in surprising the reader with unexpected details. Originally from Toronto, Marthe settled in Stratford, Ontario, after a thirtyyear stretch in New York. For more information, visit

Marthe Jocelyn's profile page

Editorial Reviews

“[CBC’s] Children's Book Panel recommends some great summer reading for kids… Scribbling Women by Marthe Jocelyn….”
—Michele Landsberg, CBC Radio
“…Do you have to ask why I think this is the best sort of book for any girl who wants to be a writer, or any grown up female author who wants to know the great company she is now part of?”
“…an astonishing, intriguing biography, sampler and study of writing and character….”
—The Toronto Star
“…eye-opening work….”
“Jocelyn draws on real scholarship to paint novelistic portraits of her subjects’ inner lives. The women here truly live up to their billing as ‘astonishing.’”
–School Library Journal
“This beautifully written text evokes women’s private lives down through history as revealed in their own, often astonishing, words… Well researched, informative and engaging… Jocelyn engages the reader’s imagination through her accessible language, attention to historical detail, creative description and narrative skill.”
—Norma Fleck Award, Jury Comments

Librarian Reviews

“Scribbling Women”: True Tales from Astonishing Lives

The nineteenth century male writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne, once complained about the irritating fad of “scribbling women.” The accomplished and versatile female writer of our century, Marthe Jocelyn, decided to investigate the life and work of some of these so-called “scribbling women,” those women who kept journals, wrote letters, or even published books, and in doing so, illuminated their lives and the world around them.

Jocelyn has selected a fascinating array of women from around the world whose stories spoke to her. The book is arranged in chronological order and each tale moves into the next with a brief connecting piece. She begins with Sei Shonagon, a lady-in-waiting in the tenth century Japanese court. A born gossip who loved life at court, Sei’s observations — in the form of lists, poems and anecdotes that give us much insight into her world — were collected and published in English as The Pillow Book, a book still in print. We read about Margaret Catchpole, a poor farm girl who was banished to Australia for stealing a horse. Her letters home to England give a detailed picture of life in the penal colony. A yearlong letter written by Mary Hayden Russell describes her time on a whaling ship with her husband, the captain. More familiar scribblers, Isabella Beeton and Mary Kingsley, make an appearance, as does Nellie Bly, who practically invented investigative journalism. There is a young Vietnamese doctor, killed during the war, whose poignant journal survived only because of the illegal actions of an American soldier. The book ends with the story of Australian aboriginal, Doris Pilkington, author of Rabbit-Proof Fence, the harrowing tale of her mother’s childhood under repressive government policies.

This book contains a most eclectic cast of characters and Jocelyn’s elegant storytelling creates a complete world for each brief tale. It all comes together beautifully because she never loses sight of her main theme — how these women, often in dire circumstances and under extreme duress, managed to document their lives and experiences with pen and paper.

Following her passion and curiosity, Jocelyn has created a rich, thoughtful and somewhat quirky collection that can be used in English, History or Writer’s Craft classes, as well as being an inspiration to the many scribbling young women out there.

Source: The Canadian Children's Bookcentre. Spring 2011. Volume 34 No. 2.

Scribbling Women: True Tales from Astonishing Lives

Many of the women in this book had eventful lives. They became friends with cannibals, delivered babies, stole horses and sailed on whaling ships. They came from all corners of the Earth and, though they had little in common, they all had the desire to leave something behind — each of them has illuminated the world through her words.

Source: The Canadian Children’s Book Centre. Best Books for Kids & Teens. Fall, 2012.

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