A Picture Book with an Attitude

Debbie Levy's stirring new look at Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a must-read for young girls. 

By Sue Tomchin

Speaking up for what we believe is a life skill that all of us need whether we’re a 40-year old mom fighting for flextime at work so we can be at home when our children return from school, or an eight-year-old girl who needs to tell a school bully to “buzz off.” A stirring new children’s picture book with an attitude, showcases the life of someone whose ability to speak out to challenge injustice has, in the book’s words, “changed her life—and ours.” 

That woman is Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and author Debbie Levy tells her remarkable life story in I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes her Mark (Simon and Schuster). The book’s target audience is 3rd and 4th graders, but will appeal to children ages 6-12. 

Levy, an attorney turned children’s book writer, has written many previous books including the 2010 Parents Choice Award winner, The Year of Goodbyes, which tells in verse the story of 12-year-old Jutta Salzberg, her mother, who saw the Jews of Germany stripped of their rights before her family escaped to the U.S. in 1938. 

Levy is equally passionate about her current subject. “I had plenty of women in my class at the University of Michigan law school and when I graduated I was able to get a job with a big DC law firm,” she told me when we spoke by phone. “It didn’t occur to me that I wouldn’t get a job or wouldn’t be treated well. We stood on the shoulders of a lot of people but especially Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”

One of the few women in her law school class, Ginsburg was a diligent and brilliant student and tied for first place in her class. She went on to become one of the only female law professors in the country.  “She co-founded the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project and became the counsel for important cases on gender equality arguing before the Supreme Court and in lower courts,” says Levy. “She was a pathbreaker for those who came later.”

Debbie Levy (photo courtesy of author)

Debbie Levy (photo courtesy of author)

To research the book, Levy read existing biographies and articles about RBG, as well as scholarly papers and articles in law reviews. She watched videos of her in action and listened to audio tapes of her arguing cases before the Supreme Court and then, as a justice, questioning attorneys who came before the court. Though she wasn’t able to schedule an interview with Ginsburg (the judge’s travel and speaking schedule was jam-packed a year in advance), she did receive permission to delve into her hundreds of boxes of papers housed at the Library of Congress. But how, Levy wondered, was she to transform the vast amount of material at hand into a picture book of only 1,200 words and a mere 40 pages? 

Her goal, she decided, wasn’t to tell the story of Ginsburg’s life from A to Z. “That’s available on Wikipedia,” she says. What she wanted to do was to focus on a theme, to convey the essence of her subject. That theme— dissent—emerged (and went on to become the book’s title) when she read about Ginsburg’s childhood. From early childhood onward, the future Justice disagreed with, objected to and resisted those things she found to be unfair, Levy saw. She objected at school when left-handed children, herself among them, were expected to learn right-handed penmanship. She objected that girls had to take cooking and sewing; she wanted to join the boys in shop class to learn how to use tools. She objected to the signs she saw outside of hotels and restaurants when her family traveled: No Jews or Dogs Allowed; Whites Only. And she disagreed with the belief that a girl’s primary goal in life was to find a husband so that graduating from college or law school wasn’t essential.

Later, when Ginsburg became a lawyer and a professor, she saw that around her, “Women were excluded from jobs. When they did get jobs, they earned less than men,” Levy writes in the book. “They were kept out of important roles in courts and government....Ruth really disagreed with this!”
As Levy told me when we spoke, “She disagreed with what society said a woman could and could not do and she made disagreeing productive for all of us.”

Yet, even though she disagrees, Levy says, she is never disagreeable or obnoxious about it. “I was taken with the way she dissented. She found ways to make objections known without being nasty. I love that she doesn’t seem to assume that the people she disagrees with have bad motives. It’s very different from so many disagreements today where everything becomes personal.”

This was reflected in her deep friendship with the late Justice Antonin Scalia, whose Conservative views were far different from her own. “They listened to each other while disagreeing strongly. Hearing the other side, she said, made it possible to strengthen her own arguments.”  

Enriching Levy’s first-rate text are Elizabeth Baddeley’s compelling illustrations. Levy praises the artist for portraying Ginsburg as serious and intelligent, but not as a “sourpuss,” since, she says, “it might be tempting to assume that someone who disagrees, dissents, and objects” is unpleasant. She also likes that Baddeley incorporates hand lettering into the illustrations so that young readers can see—and become familiar with—such important words as objected, disagreed, protested, dissented, resisted and persisted. 

“I am a big admirer of RBG,” Levy told me. “She is an excellent role model for girls and also for boys. She is someone who has followed her passion and has had achievements, love, and family. She has said that you just can’t have everything all at once, but over time, at different times, you can have everything. It’s a good template for building a life, one step at a time. That’s how she has argued for equality, one step at a time.”