March 15 - Today's post contributed by Michelle Markel
Brave Girl: Road to Publication
In 2007, after writing picture book biographies about Marc Chagall and Henri Rousseau, I wanted to work on a story about a remarkable woman. My husband, an anthropology professor who teaches gender studies, suggested I research the early organizers of the garment industries, mostly Russian Jewish immigrants in their teens and early 20’s. The factory girls were underpaid, overworked, and suffered humiliating working conditions. Their bravery and determination during the three month strike of 1909-10, when they withstood cold, hunger, and threats of arrest and bodily harm, were deeply moving. The changes they fought for and won- a shorter workweek, paid overtime and other protections- made the strike leaders legendary in the labor movement, and among scholars of women’s history- but they were largely unrecognized by the general public. I wanted to honor their heroism in a book for young people.
Though none of my relatives were in the needle trades proper (my great grandfather was a tailor), I felt a strong connection to the material. My father worked as an airline mechanic, was president of his local machinist union, and participated in a successful strike. I remember him scrubbing the dark engine grease from his hands, after a day on the tarmac. I grew up with compassion for working class people.
My research immersed me in the world of New York City tenements and factory sweatshops. I learned about Rose Schneiderman, an activist who later befriended Eleanor Roosevelt and advised her on labor reform, and Pauline Newman, who made shirtwaists at the Triangle factory, and became the International Ladies Garment Workers Union’s first full-time woman organizer. I ultimately chose to write about Clara Lemlich because of her valiant actions throughout the strike. She was young, poor, small, and vulnerable- and treated unfairly by those who had power over her. Unlike the Cinderella type heroines of fairy tales, she didn’t need magic to solve her crisis. Her “super power” was courage, and it inspired the largest strike of women workers in US history to that time.
Clara’s story would offer children lessons about moral character- about responsibility, citizenship and fairness. It would illustrate the struggles of women, immigrant workers, and the power of group protest. That said, I didn’t believe it would be easy to find a publisher for this material. There were few picture books about the labor movement, and this one was turbulent. What gave me hope was the growing number of books for young readers about the valiant heroes of the civil rights era, another difficult but productive time in our country’s history.
One of the hardest parts of writing any story is knowing the best moment to begin and end it. Clara was a force of nature throughout her life. In her childhood she defied her father and read books in Russian. When he discovered and burned her secret cache, she found ways of earning money to replace them. After she immigrated to America and got involved in the labor movement, she was black listed by the garment factory owners. Although she had originally wanted to become a doctor, she instead devoted her life to activism, fighting for suffrage, fair rent and food prices, and other issues affecting working class women. In later years Clara was a peace activist, and in her 80s, she organized the orderlies in her nursing home. After a few drafts, I decided to focus on her adjustment in America, and the strike, because it made a forceful and dramatic unit in itself. The disturbing description of factory life would help children understand her motivation. The details about the company thugs and hostile police would prove the extent of her courage. I tried to tell what happened in the fiercest and leanest way possible, to convey Clara’s spark.
Melissa Sweet signed on as an illustrator, and brought her storytelling gifts. From the stitching, fabric, and bits of vintage documents, to the blush in Clara’s cheeks, she gives texture, vitality and color to the proceedings.
The publisher chose to issue the book in time for Women’s History Month. I hope that Brave Girl shows children that warriors can wear skirts and blouses, and that in America, wrongs can be righted through collective action. Most important, I hope Clara’s story inspires future leaders to work for, in the words of the immigrant activists, a shenere un besere velt- a more beautiful and better world.
UCLA Extension’s Writers Program, and is a founding member of the Children’s Authors Network.