Book Highlight: Part 6

The final installment of our six part series on the 2014 Jane Addams
Children’s Book Award Ceremony features the introduction given by Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards Committee member Julie Olsen Edward for Brave Girl written by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Melissa Sweet, named the winner in the Books for Younger Children category.

Introduction by Julie Olsen Edward

Imagine: You are 14 years old. You arrive in the U.S. with almost no English. You deeply want to go to school to read, to learn – but your father does not find work, so you pick up your sewing machine and you go to work, making blouses (called shirtwaists) – in an unsafe factory where the doors are padlocked so you cannot leave.

Imagine: In this factory (as in all the factories across the U.S.) you must work ten – twelve hours a day. If you prick your finger on a pin and get blood on the cloth, or if you have to leave your machine to go to the bathroom – you are fined. And for all your hard work you earn just a few dollars a month – while the factory owners grow rich on your labor.

Imagine: You understand how wrong this is. You realize that it’s not just you who is being treated so unfairly, but workers all across the city. Imagine struggling with English, but speaking up, louder and louder – calling for the right to organize. Calling for safe working conditions. Calling for a living wage.

Brave Girl is the true story of that 14 year old immigrant, Clara Lemlich, who became the voice of the 1909 General Strike in which 40,000 women from across New York closed down the shirtwaist factories and led the way for workers across the U.S. to strike for their rights too.

In the book, Brave Girl, author Michelle Markel writes with crisp, compelling power about Clara’s courage and about the importance of what she accomplished. Melissa Sweet’s illustrations vividly show the details (Clara’s hand in handcuffs – she was arrested 19 times! – the padlocks on the factory doors) – and in full page paintings, show the depth and power of Clara’s efforts.

Together Michelle and Melissa have crafted a book that speaks to concerns still alive today: a living wage – worker’s rights to organize – the importance of our immigrant populations – and leave us with the promise that in the U.S. “wrongs can be righted, warriors can wear skirts and blouses, and the bravest hearts may beat in girls only five feet tall.”

Michelle Markel’s Acceptance Speech

I can’t think of a more meaningful honor for Brave Girl. I’m crazy happy thrilled about this award, and thrilled that you’re celebrating a book about the struggle of working people – of immigrants, and of women – in America. This has been an overlooked subject for picture books, but its time has come.

On a personal note, I was thinking about my father on the plane coming out here. He was the son of Russian immigrants, an airline mechanic and president of his machinist’s union. He had a good job, and dignity, and was able to provide well for his family and give us as much culture as he could- bread and roses- and that union is greatly responsible for my being here today.

But there are many other people who made this possible.

I’m indebted to Melissa Sweet, for her exuberant and textured illustrations, to my publisher, Balzer and Bray/Harper Collins for their impeccable taste and vision, to my editor Kristin Rens and the whole team that got the word out about this book.

Brave Girl is only one chapter in the long remarkable life of Clara Lemlich. She
unionized garment workers, she led rent and consumer strikes, she fought for suffrage and worked for peace and in her 90’s at an old age home she organized the orderlies.

For my book, I focused on Clara’s pivotal role in the strike of the 20,000 because it was a dramatic story that could engage young people.

The story takes children to a dark period in our country’s past, when immigrant girls, teens and women were locked in factories, and treated little better than slaves, with long hours, low wages, and other inhumane conditions.

But in these trying times, there were brave souls who believed that in America, people could and should do better. Clara and the other girls refused to be cowed by their bosses or limited by the low expectations of the male garment workers. They battled hunger, violence, and a cold winter but ultimately prevailed. Their fight for the right to unionize helped bring us the five day work week, pay for over time, and other human decencies.

My wish is that this story will spark discussions in classrooms about issues that are as relevant today as ever- our social responsibility to workers, the power of collective action, and misperceptions about the strength of women.

I would love to be able to tell Clara about this award, but failing that, I was able to tell her grandchildren about it. A few months ago I had the privilege of meeting Julie Velson, Joel Schaffer, and David Margules. They’re delighted with the recognition their grandmother is receiving, and were happy to give me a message I could bring back to you.

Julie said that her family’s legacy was that change was possible. She stressed the importance of teaching children about massive social movements. It was those collective movements that brought us 8 hour work days, the war on poverty, and other great pieces of legislation.

Joel said, and I quote, “Clara was just a regular person who did unusual things. But it’s something that everyone can do… What she did was she got up and said ‘Enough! Enough of this! I think its time to fight.’ Everyone is faced with that at some point…”

David wanted children to know that “you too can be a Clara Lemlich.”

The overall message from Clara’s family was, that compassion, and action, should not be extraordinary, they should be ordinary.

I hope Brave Girl is just the beginning. There are so many untold stories about labor history and immigrant workers, and women leaders- that can enlighten and inspire children. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

As Clara’s daughter told her son, about his labor activism,
“it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.”

Now we’re on our way! Thank you for being so supportive of such an important subject, and thank you for this incredible award.


Since 1953, the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award
annually acknowledges books published in the U.S. during the previous
year. Books commended by the Award address themes of topics that engage
children in thinking about peace, justice, world community and/or
equality of the sexes and all races. The books also must meet
conventional standards of literacy and artistic excellence.

A national committee chooses winners and honor books for younger and older children.

Click here to read more about the 2014 Awards.

concludes our sixth installment of the six part series leading up to
the announcement of the 2015 Jane Addams Children’s Book Award Winners
and Honorees.

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