How High Can We Climb?
The Story of Women Explorers

Bank Street College Best Children’s Books of the Year; NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People

I liked reading about Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus when I was young, but it wasn’t until I was grown up that I learned the names of explorers who hadn’t made the textbooks. In the mid 1700’s, when ships sailed in search of unseen continents, Jeanne Baret stowed aboard and became the first woman to circle the globe. About a century later, Florence Baker trekked through Africa to find a source of the Nile River. I’d heard of Robert Peary’s claim to be the first to the North Pole, but I didn’t know that his wife, Jo Peary, had been on expeditions and given birth to their first child above the Arctic Circle. Nicole Maxwell’s decades-long search for medicinal plants in the Amazon and Dr. Sylvia Earle’s ocean quests amazed me.

These women are heroic, but I tried to show ways they’re like the more ordinary among us, too. They didn’t convince me to deep sea dive or hike major peaks, but they kept me at my own chosen work, writing whether I felt like it that day or not. I feel stronger for having known their stories.

Women highlighted in How Wide is the World are:

Women who sailed around the world

Jeanne Baret disguised herself as man in 1766 to join the first French expedition around the world. In November of 1987, Kay Cottee left Australia to become the first woman to circumnavigate the globe without stopping.

Forest Explorers

Florence and Samuel Baker found one of the sources of the Nile River in 1865. Alexandrine Tinne left Holland for Africa during the same period, also in quest of the source of the world’s longest river. Nicole Maxwell spent almost fifty years of the last century searching for healing plants in South America and Central America.

Mountain Climbers

Annie Smith Peck reached the peaks of some of the highest mountains in North and South America. Junko Tabei was the first woman to summit Mt. Everest in 1975. In 1992, she became the first woman to stand on the highest peaks of every continent in the world.

Explorers of Caves and Stone

Elisabeth Casteret explored some of the world’s deepest caves in the 1920’s. Sue Hendrickson hunted for fossils and treasures on land and sea. Her best-known find is the largest, most complete T.Rex ever found.

Polar Explorers

Josephine Peary was the first non-native woman to cross into the Arctic Circle. Arnarulunguaq, an Inuit woman, hiked and mushed dog sleds from Greenland to Alaska in 1924.

Lois Jones and a team of women scientists were the first women to reach the South Pole, after finally being allowed to ride on U.S. Air Force planes in 1969.

Ann Bancroft was the first woman to cross the ice to reach both the North and South Poles.

Deep Sea Explorers

Dr. Eugenie Clark is often called “Shark Lady” because she has studied and swum with over 200 sharks during the past fifty years.

Dr. Sylvia Earle set a record for an un-tethered dive. Like Eugenie Clark, she has led dozens of diving expeditions around the world.


You can research to learn more about these or other explorers. Here are some of the questions I ask when I’m reading and writing. You might ask them, too.

What was her life like as a child?
Did she have a favorite place? A favorite toy, piece of clothing, pet, tree, tool, or book? Did a person, place or event inspire the work she chose as a grownup? Who or what was it?
Did someone encourage her to do what she loved? How?
Did anyone try to stop her? What did they do or say?
As a grownup, did she have a favorite object, tool, piece of clothing, or pet? Is it the same as something she loved as a child?
What parts of her work are hard or boring?
What mistakes did she make? What did she learn from them?
What does she love most about her work?
What is the most amazing thing she ever did
Is there a person, place, or animal named in her honor? What does this memorial say about how her work changed the world?

Books on the back shelf are available in libraries, through dealers of used books, or may be found at Amazon.com.


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