There are many influences to peek your anticipation of reading a new book; the professional reviews, bloggers' insightful articles, recommendations from your online professional learning network, and being familiar with the work of either the author or the illustrator or both from previous publications. Yet somehow they can never fully prepare you for the effect the first read will have. Every individual will read a book for the first time with some similar or different reactions depending on their past reading and life experiences.
Knowing all this, yesterday I opened the cover of Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers' Strike of 1909 (Balzer + Bray) written by Michelle Markel with illustrations by Melissa Sweet and found myself instantly transported back in time. At one point I felt a thrill of excitement, a surge of "you-go-girl" encouragement, well up inside of me. At the story's end I experienced a wave of gratitude for my country and women like Clara Lemlich.
A steamship pulls into the harbor, carrying hundreds of immigrants---and a surprise for New York City.
That surprise is Clara Lemlich. She's a girl who knows her own mind and the difference between right and wrong. What does not seem right to her is that her father can't get a job but young girls coming to America are being hired by the thousands to work making women's clothing.
It doesn't take long for Clara to discover, to conclude, (in everyone's opinion but the bosses) that the conditions under which she and these women work are deplorable. From sunup to sundown, hauling their own sewing machines to the factories, locked inside, they stitch, stitch, stitch hour after hour. There are penalties for the slightest infraction and unhealthy sanitary conditions.
But nothing is going to stop this gal from realizing her goals; reading library books into the night. Making friends with the other workers gives Clara the fuel she needs to start her own special brand of fire. Male employees believing woman are not strong enough to strike further fans the flames.
Clara's cries of Strike! are joined with the voices of the other girls. And you know what? They go on strike. Clara keeps at it despite being beaten, arrested and having her ribs broken.
It's at one of the union meetings when no one else will, Clara burns brightest. History is made the next day and in the weeks that follow. Thousands of wrongs are made right thanks to a single young woman knowing her mind and having the courage to give it a voice.
Through the structure of her narrative Michelle Markel adds layers to the personality of Clara Lemlich at the same time she is building the foundation for the largest walkout of women workers in U.S. history. Beneath her matter-of-fact retelling the tension mounts. It's in the details the careful research of Market is revealed; the number of toilets, sink and towels for three hundred girls, Lemlich drinking a single glass of milk for her meals at day's end and the exact words she utters at the fateful union meeting. Readers crave the type of details offered here in their nonfiction making an intrinsic connection with the subject.
As in previous works reviewed here (Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy's Parade and A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin) Melissa Sweet continues to demonstrate not only her masterful use of her particular medium but the fact-finding necessary to recreate the time and place for readers. Her two page spread for the jacket and cover picture a New York City from the 1900s with an authentic wages chart and time card overlaid on the back, Clara front and center leading the women workers in the famous strike. The plain deep pinkish-rose color of the front and back endpapers is used as an accent color throughout the book.
In the illustrations of Sweet each item is selected as a reflection of the volume's focus; in the center of the title page is a dress form, one side showing a finished blouse half with the STRIKE banner draped across. Using watercolor, gouache, and mixed media, a combination of fabric scraps, memorabilia and paintings, her pictures bring the past into the presence of the reader. It's as if we are on the ship arriving in the harbor of New York City with Clara on board, walking with her as she carries her sewing machine to work, enduring the endless days of work in the shop, and championing for the rights of the women workers. All of the visuals with the exception of the first two-page spread feature stitching around or on part of the edges. For interest and emphasis the size of each is altered from the larger two-page expanses to several smaller insets on a page.
The pairing of Michelle Markel's writing with the distinctive artwork of Melissa Sweet in Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers' Strike of 1909 fashions for readers a vivid, lively recreation of Clara Lemlich and her importance in American history; a woman with the mind and spirit to stand up for her beliefs despite the odds. I can guarantee this is the type of nonfiction picture book which will expand readers' appreciation for the past and will peak their interest in wanting to know more. That, to me, is perfection. A two page note at the end explains more about the garment industry. A bibliography of general and primary sources is included also.
Please visit the author and illustrator web sites by following the links embedded in their names above. To browse inside this title visit the HarperCollinsPublishers page linked here. Access to a four-page teaching guide is linked here.