November 08, 2018

Dr. Jo: How Sara Josephine Baker Saved the Lives of America's Children

Written by Monica Kulling
Illustrated by Julianna Swaney
Tundra Books
32 pp.
Ages 5-8
October 2018

Sara Josephine Baker (1873-1945) had always been an unconventional person. She didn't hold by conventions that only boys played ball and climbed trees and became doctors. Fortunately, the Women's Medical College of the New York Infirmary had been established in 1868 and accepted her as a student of medicine. But, after setting up a practice with a fellow female physician, Florence Laighton, in 1898 and providing excellent care to her patients, Dr. Jo realized she did not have enough patients to stay in business and instead she became a health inspector for the city of New York.

Working in the neighbourhood of Hell's Kitchen, Dr. Jo was saddened to see so many immigrant families living in harsh conditions and subject to terrible illnesses and health issues, especially the children. She helped establish courses for midwives, nurse visits for new mothers, milk stations, and antiseptic beeswax containers for silver nitrate drops used on newborns. She even designed infant wear that was less restrictive and could regulate temperature–preventing heatstroke from typical swaddling–in babies. Her efforts on behalf of the children helped reduce New York City's infant mortality rate to levels not seen in other major American cities.
From Dr. Jo: How Sara Josephine Baker Saved the Lives of America's Children by Monica Kulling, illus. by Julianna Swaney
Monica Kulling always tells a good story in her illustrated biographies. (Check out all the books in her Great Ideas series including Clean Sweep! Frank Zamboni's Ice Machine and Zap! Nikola Tesla Takes Charge) She knows the right balance of information and text to educate and enlighten. Although she provides a brief page "More about Dr. Jo" with a few more details, Monica Kulling never makes the information read like an encyclopedic notation about the doctor's accomplishments. Instead, it focuses on Dr. Jo's motivations and achievements in terms of service to others, specifically children. Young readers will know about pediatricians, hopefully through their own health care, but will be surprised to learn that Dr. Jo was the first. Moreover, they will learn about a time and place when health was not a given, and the most vulnerable, children such as themselves, needed someone to advocate for them and care enough to help. Personally I appreciated hearing about a woman who broke down barriers in the medical field while managing to do extraordinary things.
From Dr. Jo: How Sara Josephine Baker Saved the Lives of America's Children by Monica Kulling, illus. by Julianna Swaney
Monica Kulling's stories come to life with exceptional illustrators like American artist Julianna Swaney who balance the real with the fictionalized. Images depicting the conditions of Hell's Kitchen would have been tragic yet Julianna Swaney shows the reality with a subtle touch of colour and shape. It is honest without being scary, and bright without being saccharine.

Learning about great people through illustrated biographies is always a winner for children. There's history being told but at a level relevant to them. I'm especially delighted that Monica Kulling has shared one about a female physician who never let societal conventions hold her back and was able to achieve much good by not doing so. It's an important lesson for all of us.

A free educator's guide for Dr. Jo is available from Tundra Books at

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