Before all that’s happened in the past month happened, at the top of my mind was something far removed from social distancing and sheltering in place and to-mask-or-not-to-mask, and the devastation that now shadows our days.
Five weeks ago, Women’s History Month was on the horizon. So I sat down and started to write something. And then, well, you know.
By now Women’s History Month–the month of March–is in the rear-view mirror. But as I struggle, like everyone, with isolation and anxiety, I’ve been thinking back on the past year, which was my own personal Women’s History Year. Four nonfiction books published over eleven months about four women, each notable in her distinct ways, yet each expressing a common trait that, for me, is a hallmark of what we honor when we honor women’s history or women who are unknown to history, or, heck, people of any gender who set examples for the rest of us:
There’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Even if she had never become a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, she would belong on the Mount Rushmore of great women for the work she did as a lawyer in the 1970s creating the field of gender discrimination law. Before her efforts, the Supreme Court had never encountered an instance of sex discrimination that it didn’t think was just fine. She changed that. She paved the way for girls and women who want to claim their place in the world outside of the home.
There’s Jo Ann Allen Boyce, who joined with 11 other African American high school students in Clinton, Tennessee, to desegregate the first high school in the South in 1956. Talk about paving the way: Look at that date. It’s a year before Little Rock.
There’s Flory Jagoda. A post-WWII immigrant from Bosnia, Flory preserved and popularized the Sephardic music and Ladino language of her childhood. By leading audiences and students worldwide back to her ancestors’ rich culture, she paved the way for a new generation of musicians and music-lovers to discover it and carry it forward.
And there’s my mother: Jutta Salzberg Levy, my own personal waypaver. When 12-year-old Jutta arrived in this country in 1938, a refugee from Nazi Germany, she carried her poesiealbum—her “poetry album,” akin to an autograph album—filled with her friends’ drawings, wishes, proverbs, and poems. This little artifact paved the way for her friends who didn’t survive the Holocaust—fully half of the tweens and teens who wrote in her album—to be seen and have a voice these 80 years later.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg has repeatedly used this word that I just used—“waypavers”—to described those on whose shoulders she and others in the women’s movement stood. She kind of made it up; that is, it’s a translation of vägmärken, a Swedish word that she likes and that expresses her meaning. (Of course, like most of us, she became fluent in Swedish in her 20s!)
“Waypaver” is not in any English dictionary that I’ve consulted. But I love this word, dictionary or no dictionary. It’s a lens through which we can see that the possibilities of creating change and goodness, connection and support, are close at hand. Waypavers walk among us. They are Ruth Bader Ginsburg, sure, but they are also my mother. They make history, large and small, in ways that I think of as particularly female, laying down markers and reaching out hands. And, if they’re not history-makers, they enhance life in the same way: Remembering, always remembering, who came before—and ever mindful of those who come next. And at this particular moment in our shared history, I think we can all be waypavers by acting with mindfulness of our communities.
If you Google vägmärken, you’ll see it translated—more prosaically than RBG’s take on it—as “road signs.” You might click on links to the Swedish transport agency, to colorful pages with pictures of the vägmärken used in Sweden. How perfect, for those of us who care about children’s books, as the images put me in mind of children’s book covers. During this locked-down time, publishers continue to publish excellent books. Their authors can’t go out into the world as they normally would to do the exciting and fulfilling work of meeting new readers. But *we* can reach out to them by learning about and buying their books.
Here is a tiny sampling of books for young people released in March by my colleagues and friends:
Black Brother, Black Brother, by Jewell Parker Rhodes.
DidiDodo, Future Spy, by Tom Angleberger.
Dragon Hoops, by Gene Luen Yang.
Egg or Eyeball? by Cece Bell.
Girls Rule! 5-Minute Stories, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Green on Green, by Dianne White.
Jane Goodall, by Sarah Albee.
Mañanaland, by Pam Muñoz Ryan.
Most Wanted, by Sarah Jane Marsh.
My Best Friend, by Julie Fogliano.
Prairie Lotus, by Linda Sue Park.
Rover Throws a Party, by Kristin L. Gray.
Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi.
The Great Upending, by Beth Kephart.
The Next President, by Kate Messner.
We Are Water Protectors, by Carole Lindstrom.
When You Need Wings, by Lita Judge.
I hope you’ll check these books out, and be inspired to buy one or more of them—or others! browse!—from your favorite independent bookstore which, I am sure, is either fulfilling online orders or (still in some states) offering curbside pickup. May I suggest some that I like: Greenlight Bookstore, Politics & Prose, One More Page Books, Bards Alley, Scrawl Books, Hooray for Books. Or go to the new online bookstore whose mission is to facilitate selling for local independent bookstores: Bookshop.org.
My own 2019 books, the ones that occasioned my Year of Women’s History are: Becoming RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Journey to Justice, Simon & Schuster; This Promise of Change: One Girl’s Story in the Fight for School Equality (with Jo Ann Allen Boyce), Bloomsbury; The Key from Spain: Flory Jagoda and Her Music, Kar-Ben; and The Year of Goodbyes, Disney-Hyperion Books.
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Today, Veterans Day, I’m thinking of my dad, Harold Levy, who served on the destroyer-escort USS Menges in WWII.
Dad’s rank was that of pharmacist’s mate, a perfect slot for him as he always dreamed of being a doctor. The night the Menges was practically torn in half by a torpedo launched from a German submarine, the ship’s doctor was away, on loan to another vessel in the convoy. So my father was in charge of tending to the many wounded and dying. From his journal:
“Had GQ [General Quarters] at one, surface target astern of the convoy. We went back to investigate—a game of cat and mouse. We were the mouse. We were trapped—hit by an acoustic torpedo aft. Dreadful. . . . Now I know what war is.”
My father received the Legion of Merit for his tireless work that night. He never did make it to medical school. He worked for the federal government. He moonlit in the shoe department at Sears, and as a floorwalker at the late Raleigh’s clothing store. But after that night, his shipmates called him “Doc,” and years later, at reunions of the Menges personnel that he and my mom used to attend, they still called him that.
The photos show him as a new enlistee; the ship underway; and inoculating sailors on board.
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Today is publication day for my graphic novel-style biography, Becoming RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Journey to Justice. Yes, my second book about RBG!
Becoming RBG tells the story of how Ruth Bader Ginsburg evolved to become the pathbreaker that she is. Step by step, a quiet little girl–“Kiki” Bader–became a child who questioned unfairness, who became a student who persisted despite obstacles, who became an advocate who resisted injustice, who became a jurist who reveres the rule of law, who became . . . RBG.
I’m so excited to share this remarkable woman’s story with more readers. Maybe some of them will be graduates of my picture book, I Dissent. Maybe some will be new to RBG, drawn to her story by Whitney Gardner‘s crisp and snazzy art. Maybe some will never have heard of a “graphic novel” (these would be adult readers; the kids all know)–and will be surprised to encounter a 208-page *comic book*!
I’d love to flip through all those pages with you now, but my talent as a videographer is limited. So, instead, I hope you’ll enjoy these excerpted pages. And please check my “Happenings” page to see where I’ll be going with Becoming RBG in the coming months. I do love talking about my RBG books!