The Supreme Court’s fall term begins the first Monday in October. To mark this strange eight-justice time in our nation’s tangled political history, have a sit-down with your kids to read I Dissent! Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark. This new picture book provides a great opportunity to talk with kids about America’s evolving notions about the rights and capabilities of women, the notion of checks and balances, and the power of the judicial branch of government to create change. Of course, if you believe that Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a demon succubus in a jabot, you will hate this book, and I hope your child’s teacher reads it to them just to spite you. Feel free to enjoy Rush Limbaugh’s middle-grade series of patriotic time-travel adventures!
For the rest of us, I Dissent! is a delightful, colorful introduction to the first Jewish woman on the Supreme Court. The text, by lawyer and former journalist Debbie Levy (author of The Year of Goodbyes, which made Tablet’s list of the Best Jewish Children’s Books of 2010) is simple and kid-friendly; the illustrations, by Elizabeth Baddeley (illustrator of Women Who Broke The Rules: Mary Todd Lincoln) are warm but bold. (No gauzy pastels or chirpy pinks and purples here.)
Levy has smartly chosen the notion of dissent as a way to frame Ginsburg’s biography. We learn how, from childhood on, Ginsburg was faced with injustices and objected to them. In the first spread, we see little Ruth, in a double-breasted Peter-Pan-collared blue coat and mary janes, standing back-to-back with grown-up Ruth, in her familiar black robe, lacy collar, and pearl earrings. Both Ruths are pointing upward, calling out objections; Baddeley has surrounded them with painted words: “Ruth has DISAGREED, DISAPPROVED, AND DIFFERED. She has OBJECTED. She has RESISTED. She has DISSENTED. Disagreeable? No. Determined? Yes.” Strong, dark, all-caps words like these swirl throughout the text. Considering how often girls are told to be “nice,” the message that you can be assertive without being nasty is a potent one.
Levy then plunges us into the story of Ginsburg’s life, plunking us down on a busy street in young Ruth’s Brooklyn neighborhood, “vibrant with immigrants—people from Italy, Ireland, England, Poland, and Germany. Jews from Russia, like Ruth’s father, Nathan Bader. People from different cultures with different holidays, foods, and traditions.” They all had something in common, though: “Boys were expected to grow up, go out in the world, and do big things. Girls? Girls were expected to find husbands.”
Ginsburg’s mother, however, believed her daughter could accomplish wonders. She took Ruth to the library (Baddeley draws Ruth curled up in the stacks, smiling, surrounded by the silhouettes of Nancy Drew, Amelia Earhart, and the goddess Athena.) On a family vacation, Ruth saw a sign in front of a Pennsylvania hotel. It receives a full-page illustration: “No Dogs or Jews Allowed.” Ginsburg never forgot her feeling of seeing that sign, and was determined to help others who experienced discrimination.
As she grew up, she won some battles (after getting a D in penmanship—because, like many left-handed kids of her era, she was forced to write with her right hand—she simply refused to continue doing so) and lost others (she wanted to take shop but was forced to take home ec—the big words RUTH OBJECTED arch over her head as she stands next to a blonde girl in a clean white apron holding a beautiful blue-medal-winning pink cake; Ruth is scowling and clutching a lumpen pink monstrosity, most of which appears to be sliding onto the floor). We see her more serious sorrows and joys, too. And we learn about her then-unconventional marriage. Ruth’s husband, Marty, was the primary chef in the family, having “mastered the art of French cooking. Ruth, her family knew, had mastered the art of burnt pot roast.” It was no coincidence that Ginsburg wanted to fight not just for women’s rights, but also for men’s. (“Why shouldn’t a father stay home to care for his children and cook the meals?”)
In her career as a lawyer, law professor, and judge, Ginsburg saw that women were excluded from jobs and earned less than men, and fought to change that. As a Supreme Court Justice, she dissented when her colleagues ruled that the court wouldn’t help immigrants, women, and African-Americans who’d been treated unfairly at work, and she dissented when the court rejected a law protecting all citizens’ voting rights. But Levy makes a point of telling us that though Ginsburg often disagreed most fervently with her fellow Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the two were friends. (Baddeley draws goofy “snapshots” of the duo on vacation together, parasailing in France and riding an elephant in India.)
But my favorite pictures show Ginsburg’s “majority opinion” collar, a gift from her law clerks—it’s a festive bright yellow, with dangling beads—and her “dissenting” collar, dark and heavy, with serious straight rows of multifaceted stones. These feminine accouterments send serious messages. (You can see both collars in an interview Ginsburg did with Katie Couric—Baddeley has captured them perfectly.) And a great strength of this book is its back matter: There are notes on the Supreme Court cases referenced, a selected bibliography, and sources for the quotations used in the book.
I Dissent! is a splendid jumping-off point for discussions with kids about how notions of justice and fairness evolve. You can talk about the current empty seat on the bench. You can ponder why the outcome of the presidential race is important. You can tell kids that for the first 180 years of its existence, the Supreme Court consisted almost exclusively of white male Protestants; Ginsburg was the first Jewish woman to serve, and only the sixth Jew in its history. But now she’s got a shvester in Elena Kagan, and the court consists of three Jews and five Roman Catholics (among them a black man and a Latina). Can you imagine how that would have horrified Justice Joseph P. Bradley, who Levy quotes saying (back in 1873), “The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life”? You know who else would have been scandalized? Chief Justice Roger Taney, who wrote in 1857 that people of African descent were “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
A picture book is a conversation, and this one gives you and your kids so much fodder. I’d like to think that parents who are dismayed by the book’s obvious fangirl-ism will be able to talk with children about why they find it objectionable. After all, the real Ginsburg appreciates a good dissent.
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Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.