Reviewed by Jo Bowers
What is fascinating and remarkable about the life of Sarah Jane Rees, or Cranogwen as she was known when she wrote poetry, is that she defied the boundaries placed on women during the Victorian era not just in one field but multiple ones. In a family where it was assumed she would become a seamstress, instead she persuaded her father to take her on board his ship where she worked as a sailor. She also became a teacher in her village and shared her studies she had taken about sailing to teach young men about sailing and navigation too. Not just this but she wrote poetry and became the first woman to win first prize for poetry at the National Eisteddfod in Wales. She also became the first woman to edit a magazine to inspire and support other women. Her fame led her as far as America, giving talks and lectures around the world. In the final years of her life, she was setting up a refuge for homeless girls, which she never lived to see but it was opened after she died. It’s absolutely jaw-dropping to know all of these achievements came from one woman and even more so that it was nearly two hundred years ago!
We learn all this about Cranogwen in this fantastic English language picture book, translated from the Welsh language publication, a debut translation from both the author, Anni Llŷn, who was the Children’s Bard of Wales for two years (2015-2017) and the illustrator, Rhiannon Parnis. Both are born, living and working in Wales. The simple text makes this a very accessible biography for young readers which is complemented beautifully with illustrations of muted colours throughout.
This picture book will be a fantastic addition to primary classrooms and libraries when looking at biographies. Cranogwen would also support a topic with a history focus on the Victorians in the primary classroom. Within Wales it will also support the curriculum looking at Welsh heritage and culture. It’s a picture book which would appeal to younger children within the early years and KS1 (Foundation Phase in Wales) while also providing interest to older KS2 readers who may then want to do further research and find out more about Cranogwen and her pioneering work. It would also be a good starter to find out about the roles of women during the Victorian era and those who challenged this, such as the suffragette movement.
If there’s one wish I had when I finished this book it’s that I would have loved to have seen some real photographs of Cranogwen and some extra factual information that wasn’t included in story at the end of the book; with photographs of her in the places she lived and worked. Although, I think the book will certainly encourage you to go further to find out more.
The Welsh Wonders series is an exciting new set of publications coming from new Welsh publisher, Broga Books. There are already three published that are translated from the original Welsh language books this Welsh Wonders series: Gwen: The Colourful Life of Gwen John and Shirley: The Dazzling Colourful Life of Shirley Bassey are the other two alongside this one looking at the life of Cranogwen. We are promised more and I look forward to seeing what comes next.