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“No One Is Better Than You” launch brings book about Edith Renfrow Smith `37

Several+illustrations+of+Edith+Renfrow+Smith+%6037+now+make+up+the+stands+of+the+Pioneer+Bookshop.
Meilynn Smith
Several illustrations of Edith Renfrow Smith `37 now make up the stands of the Pioneer Bookshop.

“No One is Better than You: Edith Renfrow Smith and the Power of a Mother’s Words,” a children’s book honoring the legacy of the first Black woman to graduate from Grinnell College, has officially been released. The launch event, hosted at the Pioneer Bookshop on Saturday, Jan. 27, was attended by Monique McLay Shore `90, the author of the book and a librarian at Drake Community Library.

The event provided an opportunity for attendees, who were mostly Grinnell residents and friends of McLay Shore, to purchase a copy of the book and get it signed. One visitor told McLay Shore, who was sharing anecdotes both from the writing process and about Edith Renfrow Smith `37, that she should be “tickled pink,” conveying the excitement in the room.

Writer Monique McLay Shore `90 signs local community member Joe Noer’s copy of “No One Is Better Than You.” (Meilynn Smith)

Renfrow Smith — the namesake of Renfrow Hall, the new residence building currently in its construction process at the corner of Sixth Ave. and Broad St. — is the granddaughter of George Craig, an enslaved man who escaped and settled in Grinnell, and the daughter of Lee and Eva Renfrow. Renfrow Smith was born in Grinnell in 1914. Throughout her life, her mother impressed the importance of education on her children. In 1937, Renfrow Smith became the first Black woman to graduate from Grinnell College, where she studied psychology, economics and history.

McLay Shore has been studying Renfrow Smith’s life and sharing her story since the two met in 2015. McLay Shore said that she chose the illustrated children’s book format as it would allow her to complete the book before the opening of Renfrow Hall.

She connected with the book’s illustrator, Erica L. Butler, through an alumni Facebook group after she reached out to ask if anyone knew an illustrator who would be right for the project. Butler had already illustrated both children’s books and books about Black women’s history.

McLay Shore said that after showing her an early draft with illustrations, Renfrow Smith corrected some of the images, including the way her hair looked and the portrayal of her family. She said that a drawing of all her six siblings together was inaccurate, as they were often away working and not in the same room. Additionally, Renfrow Smith took issue with a drawing of her mother and father holding her as a baby, as her father was also usually away working.

Although the whole family supported the siblings’ educations, it was their mother who took on the largest role in encouraging Renfrow Smith, McLay Shore said. “It was a matriarchal household,” the writer said, hence the title of the book.

Tamara Beauboeuf, professor of gender, women’s and sexuality studies and friend of the writer, went to the book launch and said that she believes that the children’s book format is fitting because of the high value that Renfrow Smith and her family placed on education. She described it as “a way of honoring something that she has valued throughout her life.”

Additionally, Beauboeuf said she believes that the book will draw necessary attention to African American history in central Iowa. She said that a book like this contributes to the College’s and the town’s values, cultivating a sense of belonging for all residents.

“We call ourselves the jewel of the prairie, and I think there are a lot of overlooked gems,” Beauboeuf said.

We call ourselves the jewel of the prairie, and I think there are a lot of over-looked gems.

— Tamara Beauboeuf, professor of gender, women's and sexuality studies

Beyond Renfrow Smith’s story, McLay Shore said that she wanted to highlight the fact that the entire Renfrow family, one of the few Black families in the area at the time, are a part of Grinnell history. 

The author said one of her goals is “Making sure that people know the story behind who she is and also the tie to the community. The fact that she’s not just a Grinnell College person. She’s a community person, born and raised here.”

She said that although Grinnell has a valuable, built-in audience, she does want to expand the readership of the book. Since Renfrow Smith has been living in Chicago for many years, McLay Shore said she is trying to reach independent bookstores there. 

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About the Contributors
Evelyn Wilber, Staff Writer
Evelyn is a second year intended English and math double major from Chicago, Illinois. She enjoys reading, watching movies, listening to music, her dog Ted, and the season of winter.
Meilynn Smith, Staff Photographer
Meilynn is a first-year from Vancouver, Washington. She is an intended biology major and wants to go into physical therapy in the future. She enjoys playing soccer, hanging out with friends, going on hikes, and photographing wildlife. 
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