Rosie may seem quiet during the day, but at night she’s a brilliant inventor of gizmos and gadgets who dreams of becoming a great engineer. When her great-great-aunt Rose (Rosie the Riveter) comes for a visit and mentions her one unfinished goal—to fly—Rosie sets to work building a contraption to make her aunt’s dream come true. But when her contraption doesn’t fly but rather hovers for a moment and then crashes, Rosie deems the invention a failure. On the contrary, Aunt Rose insists that Rosie’s contraption was a raging success: you can only truly fail, she explains, if you quit.
When I first discovered Rosie, I honestly didn’t expect much. That sounds harsh, but allow me to explain: the title caught my eye because it seemed to promote the aptitude of girls for STEM subjects, and frankly that was a good enough reason to me for the book to exist. In spite of a growing global awareness of the shortage of women in STEM, pop culture seems to be dragging its heels over it. When Barbie realised she could be a Computer Engineer back in 2010, I expected a deluge of similar titles. But the market remained pretty sparse. Rosie, therefore, is something of a novelty. A book about a girl, doing STEM things, with no degree of irony or thinly veiled sexism. That alone would probably have been sufficient. But lo and behold, it turned out to be thoughtful, imaginative and inspiring.
What struck me on my second reading was that there is more going on between the covers of this book than meets the eye. On the surface, it's a simple, charming tale about a girl called Rosie, who longs to be an inventor but who seems to meet failure at every turn. In that sense, it's a book about perseverance in the face of adversity. Written in rhyme and beautifully illustrated throughout, my first impression was of a perfect bedtime story. But it's so much more than that.
Writer Andrea Beaty and illustrator David Roberts have lavished detail on every page. My favourite part of the whole book is an early double-page illustration in which Rosie sits tinkering with one of her whimsical contraptions, big grin plastered across her face, while all around her is a mountain of random parts: toilet roll tubes, at least two dolls houses, a mis-strung tennis racket, various sized rockets, and a doll of the woman from the old Westinghouse Electric "We Can Do It!" posters. It's these clever little touches - see also the graph paper endsheets - that make this such a glorious book.
What delights me most, however, is the fact that Rosie actually is quite an accomplished engineer. There’s no windmill-lancing misguided self-belief. She isn’t trying to invent things that, because of her incompetence, end up causing hilarious mishaps. It’s not just a catalogue of failed inventions that are played for laughs, although there are laughs aplenty. What we have instead is a girl whose engineering skills are a given. Rosie is an engineer. She just lacks self-confidence. She misreads unanticipated results as failure. Rosie’s journey is about coming to accept her own brilliance, and learning that her mistakes – though disheartening – are all part of that journey. As her aunt surmises, "Life might have its failures, but this was not it. The only true failure can come if you quit."
Just as Chamber of Secrets made assumptions that readers had accepted “wizards and magic exist” as a necessary truth following the first novel - and that this detail therefore required no further justification or clarification - so this book takes the stance that girls doing STEM things is an accepted normality. It expects its young readers to know that girls invent things too, that girls are creative and technically-minded too, that they are able to take abstract ideas and realise them in the physical world too. And, rather than hammering that message home, it focuses instead on Rosie’s own personal journey towards finding self-assurance. Unfortunately, of course, girls doing STEM things will still be something of a novelty for many young readers. But it’s books like this that will help to normalise this premise.
For its attitude towards girls in STEM, and for its message about the necessity of mistakes in the process of human learning, Rosie should be in every classroom, and every home.