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Women of the Book

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is awesome. But other Jewish women deserve to have books written about them, too.

Marjorie Ingall
February 25, 2020
Original images: Library of Congress; Wikipedia
Original images: Library of Congress; Wikipedia
Original images: Library of Congress; Wikipedia
Original images: Library of Congress; Wikipedia

People sometimes ask Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “How many women on the Supreme Court will be enough?” She always answers, “When there are nine.”

Obviously we’re not there yet. But there are nine children’s book biographies of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Nine (9). Published in 2019 alone. There are seven more, by my count, published between 2016 and 2018. Plus the four (so far) published in 2020, with at least three more in the pipeline.

While counting up 2019 RBG books, I kept thinking I was missing one: that pink one with the cute little square format and the adorable illustrations. I racked my brains, combed through all my lists, queried librarian friends, but I could not figure it out. What the heck was that book? Then I remembered. It was not a book about RBG at all. It was a book about Anne Frank.

Perhaps you can understand my confusion. All Jewish children’s biographies that are not about RBG seem to be about Anne Frank. I categorically refuse to count the number of children’s books about Anne Frank. But I do know that in 2019 there were four, making it the first year in history that there were fewer Anne Frank books than RBG books. Yay?

Clearly RBG and Anne Frank are the only two women in Jewish history who deserve to be written about. Just as fashion modeling is the only field in which women out-earn men, Jewish children’s book biography is the only arena in which ladies have more representation than dudes. I mean, last year there were no children’s biographies of Albert Einstein! Or Sandy Koufax or Hank Greenberg! And there was only one about Harry Houdini! That said, there are at least four Einstein books coming out in 2020 (curiously, two of them have the word “curious” in the title, which is sort of but not quite like there being two books from the perspective of Anne Frank’s tree and two narrated by Peter’s cat, but I digress). The RBG/Anne Frank industrial complex had better get cracking to stay on top for 2021.

I am sarcastic because I am bitter. Some of the books about RBG (and Anne Frank and Albert Einstein and Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg and Harry Houdini) are spectacular. But remember that time I was supercranky about the sheer number of children’s books about Nazi-loving trollop Coco Chanel? I wasn’t distressed merely about the fact that these books fictionalize her life, overplay her achievements, dismiss her horrid labor practices, ignore her fashion plagiarism, and skip right over the fact that she was an anti-Semitic, Nazi-cuddling skank. I was distressed because every Coco Chanel book published takes up space that could be devoted to a book about Diane von Furstenberg, Pauline Trigère, or Madame Grès (just as our president likes military heroes who weren’t captured, I like WWII-era French fashion designers who weren’t Nazi collaborators).

As I mentioned in that rage-y Coco Chanel piece, there is one excellent, clear-eyed Coco Chanel book for middle-grade readers: Susan Goldman Rubin’s 2018 Coco Chanel: Pearls, Perfume, and the Little Black Dress. And thankfully, there’s way more than one terrific RBG book. (The fact that RBG does not have sex with Nazis probably helps.) In 2019, Dissenter on the Bench: Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Life and Work, a young adult biography by Victoria Ortiz, made my best-Jewish-children’s books list and won a Sydney Taylor Silver Medal. Debbie Levy’s I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark, a spectacular 2016 picture book with illustrations by Elizabeth Baddeley, won a National Jewish Book Award and garnered raves from me, the Sydney Taylor Committee, and pretty much every children’s book award-granting body on the planet. (Alas, Becoming RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Journey to Justice, Levy’s 2019 middle-grade bio in graphic novel form, isn’t as successful, mainly because RBG’s life of the mind doesn’t really lend itself to the graphic novel format. Through no fault of talented illustrator Whitney Gardner’s, the book feels pretty static.)

The remaining gazillion RBG books range from innocuous to quite good, though I can’t recommend the chapter book that fails to mention her Jewishness or the board book whose cheery cartoon cover depicts her holding hands with Martin Luther King Jr. But hey, if you want to buy your kid the two RBG coloring books, the notebook with the furry Notorious P.U.G. on the cover, or the day-planner depicting all the female Supreme Court justices and the legend “SQUAD GOALS,” who am I to stop you? And it’s your call on the numerous RBG board books. I’m personally not 100% certain a baby, even a brilliant Jewish baby, will get all the nuances of Frontiero v. Richardson.

And as with those farshtunkiner Coco Chanel books, all these RBG books are taking up shelf space and publisher attention that could be devoted to great Jewish women who haven’t had a single book written about them. I asked my fave Facebook group, Jewish Kidlit Mavens (tagline: “Let’s Schmooze!”): “Who are some Jewish women (contemporary or historical) who haven’t had a children’s book biography written about them, and should?” Answers flew fast and furious. One librarian also noted that even if it’s all due to RBG and Anne Frank, at least women in Jewish children’s biographies exist. The august grown-up Yale Jewish Lives series has published 45 biographies of Jewish men and five about Jewish women.

Behold, a smattering of Jewish women whose lives are worthy of a children’s book: Barbra Streisand. Bella Abzug. Estee Lauder and Helena Rubinstein. Sixteenth-century Sephardic businesswoman, world traveler, and philanthropist Doña Gracia Nasi. Bette Midler.

There are a couple of terrific books about labor leader Clara Lemlich, but what about her contemporaries Rose Schneiderman and Ernestine Rose? And hey, how about Carole King? I’d be super into a young adult novel about Salome Alexandra (aka Alexandra of Jerusalem, aka Shlom Tzion), the last queen of Judea, a savvy negotiator and diplomat who ruled from 76–67 BCE (and OK, possibly had her brother-in-law assassinated, but no one’s perfect). Multiple people in the Mavens group noted that, impossible as it seems, there’s no picture book about scientist Rosalind Franklin. Neither is there one about TV and radio pioneer (and first best actress Emmy winner) Gertrude Berg. Or Sally Priesand, America’s first female rabbi, or Maria Altmann, who successfully fought for the return of her family’s Klimt paintings, stolen by the Nazis. Then there’s the deeply fabulous, hearty-partying art collector Peggy Guggenheim (lots of sex in that one, so let’s make it young adult). And ooh, we need a picture book about Sulochana (1907–1983), the Baghdadi Jewish silent film star who was one of the highest-paid actresses of her era, opened her own film studio, and was given a lifetime achievement award at India’s Oscars in 1973. And good Lord, how the heck is there not a picture book about Sydney Taylor? (My pal Sylvie Shaffer noted that Emily Jenkins and Paul O. Zelinsky, who created the marvelous All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah picture book in 2018, really ought to take this on.) I want Maira Kalman to do a picture-book memoir. And we all require a middle-grade biography of photographer Ruth Gruber. And what about introducing kids to the black, Jewish, and queer rabbi (and, as Yale’s Slifka Center described her, “sociologist, personal trainer, food activist, weightlifter, vegan, writer and musician”), Sandra Lawson? While there are dated old biographies of diarist and business powerhouse Gluckel of Hameln (1646-1724), American educator Rebecca Gratz, and Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, we need us some up-to-date and snazzy versions of their stories for today’s kids.

Thankfully, later in 2020 we can look forward to picture-book biographies of Beate Sirota Gordon, who grew up in Japan and fought for women’s rights, and Emmy Noether, groundbreaking mathematician and contemporary of Einstein’s. And, one hopes, there will be other books about other women who are not RBG or Anne Frank.

Why are they so vanishingly rare in the first place, though? “I think the main reason for this repetition is familiarity,” said Susan Kusel, librarian at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Virginia, and past chair of the Sydney Taylor Committee. “It’s easier to sell books on topics that buyers—parents, teachers, librarians—have heard of. When biography series are being designed, it’s easy to pick people to include that are already well known and included in a lot of other places. But we need to go deeper than that. Otherwise we are just repeating the same few stories again and again.”

Come on, everyone. Sure, Ruth’s a badass Jewish woman, but our kids—of all genders—deserve to know a lot of badass Jewish women.


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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.