This has been an especially good year for new picture books about important figures in women’s history (check out our roundup here). One of our favorites of this group is Brave Girl, the story of an "uncrushable" young immigrant who led a 1909 strike by New York garment workers. The walkout became the largest strike by women workers in U.S. history.
Former journalist Michelle Markel tells Clara Lemlich’s story in stirring fashion, capturing the girl’s indomitable spirit and determination as she urges her fellow workers to stand together against oppressive working conditions and low pay. Brave Girl is illustrated by Caldecott Honor-winning artist Melissa Sweet, whose brightly colored mixed-media images include pieces of fabric, stitching, ribbons and old sewing patterns.
We contacted Markel at her home in California to ask what drew her to Clara’s story and what she learned during the research process for the book.
Why did you want young readers to learn about Clara and what she accomplished?
I wanted to honor her incredible courage and devotion. Brave Girl demonstrates how the small and vulnerable can triumph over the big and powerful, that wrongs can be righted if people work together for a common goal, and that women can be as lion-hearted as men. Those are all important lessons for children.
Clara was so young at the time of the 1909 strike—only 23 years old! What do you think made her such a fearless and forceful advocate for the garment workers?
It was a combination of her naturally rebellious spirit, (she said “Back then I had fire in my mouth”) and the pro-labor attitudes of the immigrant community. Trade unionism was in the air, and widely discussed in her neighborhood and in the factories.
Can you tell us a little about how you did your research for the book? Were you able to visit any of the old garment factories or other sites involved in the story?
I had been through the area of NYC where the story takes place. But the only way I could get inside the factories of that era—to vividly see all the indignities and humiliations was by reading the accounts of the garment workers. Clara described her experiences in articles for Good Housekeeping and other publications.
What was the single most surprising thing you learned in your research?
Many things surprised me, but some stand out more than others. During the strike, a 10-year-old garment worker was accused of attacking a scab, and without the benefit of a trial or testimony she was sentenced to five days in the workhouse.
What happened to Clara after the strike? What was the rest of her life like?
She became active in the suffrage movement, and later was an advocate for working class women, for consumers, and for peace. In her 80s, while in a nursing home, she encouraged the administrators to join in lettuce and grape boycotts, and helped organize the orderlies.
If Clara was a time-traveler who could travel to the present day, what do you think she would have to say about today's labor movement and working conditions?
I think she’d say that minimum wage isn’t fair. It hasn’t kept pace with inflation, and it’s impossible to live on. She might say that membership in unions has declined, because people aren’t aware how much they protect workers from unscrupulous bosses. But she wouldn’t just talk, she’d go out and start organizing.
If you were a time-traveler who could go back to 1909, what would you like to ask Clara?
I’d ask what her secret was. What makes an effective leader? How did she get those girls to make such sacrifices? And I’d ask for a quick tour of her neighborhood, the theaters and restaurants and other places she visited in her downtime—if she had any!
Melissa Sweet's illustrations add so much to the story. What was your reaction when you first saw the artwork? Is there a drawing you like best?
The first piece of inside art I saw was the title page, showing the strike banner over the dressmaker’s mannequin. I thought it was brilliant. I love Melissa’s exuberant use of color, and the stitching and fabric and vintage documents bring so much visual texture to the story.
Girls today seem to be doing very well, compared to boys, in terms of educational accomplishment and other measures of success. In light of that, why is it still important that we have an event like Women's History Month to recognize female role models?
I think the month gives children a more balanced view of history, and pays tribute to the contribution of remarkable women. Many had to make deep sacrifices to pursue their goals, and prevailed by force of will.
We will always need heroes to inspire us. Though women enjoy more career opportunities than ever, many still face job discrimination and exploitation, and are paid less than men for the same work. They have yet to reach parity in Congress. In the winter of 1909, Clara led the way by giving up her paycheck, spending weeks out in the cold, and facing the company thugs on the picket line. She showed the factory girls what they were capable of in their finest moments—and I hope her story shows young readers, too.
Images from Brave Girl courtesy Balzer + Bray.