Last night at a book club gathering of sorts, a friend of mine, who is the mother of two girls, was asking for picture book recommendations – picture books with a political bent, that is, which she can read to a five-year-old. More specifically, given that she’s nervous about a Trump administration, she wanted her daughter to see good picture books about resistance. Debbie Levy’s new picture book, I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley, came immediately to mind. I also realized at that point that I had yet to write about this picture book biography of the 83-year-old Supreme Court justice, so I’m fixing that today.
Much is made these days of Ginsburg’s cultural currency in popular culture. She’s even got her own bad-ass nickname, The Notorious R.G.B. We see articles like this all the time in social media. This book for children, however, is ultimately about much more than Ginsburg’s strong spirit, intellect, and steadfast persistence. It’s also a book about the Supreme Court and, best of all, the refusal to adhere to the strict gender roles and restrictions society still, to this day, places upon girls and women. Ginsburg would (and will) have none of that, thanks very much. Resistance, indeed.
This biography begins with Ruth’s girlhood in Brooklyn, New York, and follows her life and career to the present day. The author’s running theme, often emphasized with the repetition of certain words and phrases, is Ginsburg’s determination and her “disagreement” – with “creaky old ideas,” racial discrimination, and gender inequalities. The illustrator often plays with what appears to be hand-lettering to bring us these strong verbs in large type and bold colors: “DISAGREED,” “RESISTED,” “PERSISTED,” “OBJECTED,” etc. (This book’s vocabulary is one of its strong suits.) In the book’s opening, the author pays tribute to Ruth’s mother, Celia Amster Bader, who “thought girls should also have the chance to make their mark on the world. So she took Ruth to the library.” Thank goodness for that.
Having experienced anti-Semitic sentiments in her childhood, Ginsburg experienced “the sting of prejudice” at a young age. And, having been told in school that she needed instruction in sewing and cooking, instead of the shop class the boys took (she longed to handle a saw), she also experienced gender stereotyping. When her handwriting teacher in school tried to make her write with her right hand, left-handed Ruth “PROTESTED” (there’s that large hand-lettering again) by writing with her left hand anyway. Levy does an excellent job of bringing to life these real-life examples of Ginsburg’s early awakenings to injustice. Things take a more somber turn when we read that her beloved mother died the day before Ruth’s high school graduation.
But it was her mother’s belief in her daughter’s abilities that inspired Ruth, who decided to study law during a time (the 1950s) when, as the author notes, not many girls even went to college. Ruth married, studied law, worked as a lawyer, and became a professor – all during a time when the Supreme Court still believed that “the natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life.” As the author and illustrator note in one dramatic illustration here, “RUTH REALLY REALLY DISAGREED WITH THIS!”
There are wonderful examples here of the unconventional (for that time) family structure Ruth and her husband followed. In one spread, we see Ruth as a new mother reading her law book, while her husband Marty rocks the baby at night. Later, when the children are older, we see Marty serving dinner. “Sometimes,” Levy writes, “Ruth and Marty’s children received confused looks when they said that their mother argued cases in the Supreme Court and their father made the family’s dinners. People found this strange. RUTH, MARTY, JANE, AND JAMES DID NOT CONCUR.”
Not only does the book give ample time and attention to her appointment in 1993 as the first Jewish woman on the nation’s highest court (and second female justice), but it also acknowledges her fights against the extensive history of racial discrimination in this country. Another notable spread marks her friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia – how they disagreed often, discussed their conflicting viewpoints, and “pointed out weaknesses in the other’s arguments.” Yet—and herein lies one of the book’s most powerful statements—they “didn’t let disagreements about law get in the way of a long friendship.”
The book’s backmatter—more detailed information about Ginsburg; “Notes on Supreme Court Cases”; a selected bibliography, and quotation sources—is impressive and makes this a superb choice for classroom research projects. That young person fascinated by law, history, women’s rights, and/or the history of racial inequality in this country – hand them this book and watch them light up. It’s a well-crafted account of the life of a remarkable woman and her monumental achievements.
Truly inspiring. I assent.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
I DISSENT: RUTH BADER GINSBURG MAKES HER MARK. Copyright © 2016 by Debbie Levy. Illustrations © 2016 by Elizabeth Baddeley. Spread reproduced by permission of the publisher, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, New York.