I am delighted beyond measure to share this interview with the amazing Debbie Levy about her book, I Dissent – Ruth Bader Ginsberg Makes her Mark. As soon as I head about it, I couldn’t wait to read I Dissent, and I was not disappointed. The text is compelling and the art is bold – a perfect match for the outspoken Ginsberg and her life-long fight for justice. I am not alone in my praise. I Dissent – Ruth Bader Ginsberg Makes her Mark is leaving a heartfelt mark on readers of all ages.
Can you share a bit about your research process for I Dissent? What challenges did you face?
I started by reading many, many newspaper and magazine articles about RBG. That initial immersion led to my “I dissent” theme—the idea that Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been dissenting her whole life, that disagreeing doesn’t make you disagreeable, and that important change happens one disagreement at a time. Then, once I had the theme for the book in mind, the research went deeper and deeper—as well as wider and wider. I read books about RBG, although there aren’t many. I read scholarly articles by and about her. I read more journal and magazine articles and blog pieces. I watched and listened to many, many interviews and speeches she’s given. I listened online to audio of her as a justice questioning lawyers who come before the Supreme Court for oral arguments. I also found audio of her as a lawyer, back in the 1970s, when she was the advocate appearing before the justices for oral argument.
Justice Ginsburg also gave me access to her papers on deposit with the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress, which are indexed and stored in more than 150 cartons. (It helps that I live just outside Washington, D.C., as these are not digitized.) The “Finding Aid” to the documents, published by the Manuscript Division, is 95 pages long! There I saw letters, drafts of legal documents she’s written, speeches, and other things.
And here’s what I found so interesting in all those cartons: the many handwritten items included in the collection. So tidy. Her speeches typed on 4 x 6 cards: impeccable. Her handwritten notes on yellow legal sheets discussing and advocating for the Equal Rights Amendment that never got adopted! This research, by the way, is how I reached the conclusion in the book about her left-handed handwriting. The book has a scene where little Ruth is discouraged—and then PROTESTS!—when, keeping with the practice of the time, her teachers make her try to write with her right hand even though she’s left-handed. RBG’s handwriting is perfectly legible, I discovered in the windowless room at the Library of Congress. It’s better than legible.
As for challenges, well, you asked the next question. . . .
Did you have the opportunity to interview Ruth Bader Ginsburg?
In the spring of 2015, I wrote to Justice Ginsburg to ask for an interview. It was going to have to happen pretty quickly, since my deadline for the manuscript was late summer. She wrote back a note that I found encouraging, putting off a decision on my request until the Supreme Court term wrapped up for the summer. Summer came, summer went, and . . . no interview. If you’ve seen RBG’s summer schedule you will understand. The woman travels!
Then, in the fall, I wrote to Justice Ginsburg again, this time asking her to review the final manuscript—I wanted to make sure there were no errors. She agreed. A few days later I received a nice note from her, as well as the manuscript with a few corrections and suggestions in the margins. You can bet that I took her editorial notes!
Since the book has come out, I’ve met Justice Ginsburg. There may even be an interview with her in my future!
The illustrations capture your text so beautifully. What were your thoughts when you first saw the illustrations by Elizabeth Baddeley?
My first thought was, Yes!—because to me, Elizabeth’s bold illustrations, with their deep colors and their superpower-y vibe, reflect the boldness and strength that I hoped readers would take away from RBG’s story. Now that I’ve talked with kids who’ve seen the book and with parents and educators who have shared the book with kids, I appreciate the art even more because I’ve found that it appeals to boys as well as girls, and I’ve heard that kids come up with the superpower connection on their own.
How have young readers responded to I Dissent?
Here’s one example: I did a bookstore reading the weekend after Thanksgiving; there were boys and girls there with their parents. The kids’ ages ranged from three to ten years old. They were surprised to hear of the old days when only boys were expected to do big things in the world, while girls were expected to find husbands and be homemakers. I found that they, and other children, are quite interested in (and incredulous at) the strict gender roles that used to be in place in our society. It’s heartening to see that they can’t really imagine a world like that!
The other thing I’ll mention about that post-Thanksgiving event is that I live in an area with a sizeable Jewish population, and when the kids learned that RBG is the very first Jewish woman Supreme Court justice, and that I’m Jewish as well—several of them sort of jumped in their seats and shouted out, “We are, too!” That was fun.
And I’ll also share this: I’ve already gushed a little bit (but not enough) about Elizabeth Baddeley’s art—those strong colors, as well as big balloon-y, cartoon-y hand-lettering emphasizing all the great synonyms for disagreeing. As I mentioned already, some have said their young readers are seeing something super-power-y in the art. Then there’s the Elle magazine article titled “How To Build A Feminist Library For Your Baby,” with the subtitle “ ‘I Dissent’ is so much more palatable than ‘No! No! No! No! No’.” In the article, the author shares that her three-year-old daughter, Satya, can’t quite get her arms—I should say her mouth—around the name “Ruth Bader Ginsburg”—but she does say “Ruth Bagel Wonderwoman.” There’s that superpower thing again!
What has been the most unexpected part of your journey with I Dissent?
The most unexpected part is that I’ve had many parents, grandparents, and educators thank me for writing this book. I do realize this is not so much about thanking me as it is about being thankful for a role model like RBG. It’s about wanting young people to know that it’s important to speak up when they see injustice. It’s about wanting to share the story of a person who has held fast to her principles—for equality, against discrimination, for fair treatment of women and men—while also engaging civilly with her ideological opponents. Her relationship with the late Justice Antonin Scalia is a case in point. The book shows that they disagreed deeply and constantly on legal issues, yet managed to be the closest of friends.
I, of course, am thankful to every adult who wants to share RBG’s story with a child.
To learn more about Debbie visit her web site debbielevybooks.com