Thursday, January 16, 2014

Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers' Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Melissa Sweet

When Clara Lemlich emigrated to the United States with her family in the early 1900s, she didn't speak much English.  She was a young girl who should have been in school, but instead, she took her sewing machine and went to work as a seamstress in a factory to help out her family when her father couldn't get work.

Clara may have been one of thousands and thousands of young garment workers in New York City and throughout the country, but Clara was also smart and ambitious.  So she signed up for night classes after working a back-breaking day sewing garments.  The work was hard, the pay was low and the punishments for mistakes were harsh.

Some of the male garment workers wanted to become part of a union so they could strike for better conditions, but they thought the girls too weak for that kind of action.  Not Clara!

At one of the union meetings, none of the men called for a strike.  So Clara did - in Yiddish!  The next morning, garment workers in New York City went on strike.  It lasted through the winter.  During the strike, Clara paid dearly at the hands of the police, who beat, handcuffed and jailed her (17 times).  Still, she kept on.  And the strikers got support - from rich women, from college students, even the newspapers wrote about them.  Finally, the 1909 NYC strike ended, the workers unionized, got better wages and a shorter workweek, inspiring garment workers in Philadelphia and Chicago go on strike, too.

These are my two favorite illustrations because they really give you the feeling of the magnitude of
how many workers were impacted by Clara
Written in appealing, upbeat language, Michelle Markel's biography of Clara Lemlich's is an accessible,  inspiring story for young readers.  Her message is clear - you can make a difference, you can bring about change.  It feels like a message that she is basically directing at girls, though boys can certainly benefit from it, too.

And lucky kids of today!  When I learned about unions in school, it was a rather boring, unrelatable unit of social studies.  But in only 32 pages, Markel has managed to change all that.  She put a face on the lesson, personalized it and was lucky enough to have Melissa Sweet illustrate her words.

And Melissa has done, as usual, a superb job of it.  The illustrations are done in watercolor, gouache, and mixed-media, and are based on both her imagination and old photographs of the actual events.  The pictures all look like sewn pieces of fabric, right down to the stitching around the edge.  In the background of both text and fabric swatch, are all kinds of nice touches related to sewing.  It all works so wonderfully well with the text.

There are two pages of backmatter in Brave Girl.  First, there is more information about the garment industry and its unions.  And second, there is a select bibliography along with the primary sources used.

Brave Girl is definitely a book not to be missed.

This book is recommended for readers age 5+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Some of the young girls and women participating in the 1909 strike

This is book 1 of my 2014 Nonfiction Picture Book Reading Challenge hosted by Kid Lit Frenzy


  1. I love this book. I learned so much about this topic that I didn't know. Go girl power!

  2. Melissa Sweet is one of my favorite picture book illustrators. So much color and the details are fabulous.

  3. I just recently read this title and loved it. My eleven year old picked it up and told me that this book should be shared with all girls. Pretty powerful feedback! I completely agree with you - the message of this book is fresh and accessible even though it is talking about a historical event.

  4. I want this one to win a Sibert or a Sibert Honor. Love it that much! Thanks for reviewing it.

  5. This book sounds amazing. Wonderful to show how Clara made a difference but how workers once had to fight for better conditions. On my list. I'm over from the kidlitbloghop.

  6. What a great topic! This book is certainly one that should be read in schools. Thanks for sharing this on the hop.

  7. This sounds like a great book - glad you brought it to attention. I love how non fiction picture books can incite us to learn more! - stopping by from kid lit blog hop :)


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