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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Brave Girl, written by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Melissa Sweet. Balzer & Bray, Harper. 2013. $19.99 ages 7 and up

"That's right - Clara. She calls out from the front of the hall. The crowd lifts her to the stage, where she shouts in Yiddish: "I have no further patience for talk - I move that we go on a general strike!" And she starts the largest walkout of women workers in U.S. history. The next morning, New York City is stunned by the sight of thousands of young women streaming from the factories."

Upon their arrival in America, with high hopes of finding work and security, the Lemlich family is distraught when Mr. Lemlich cannot find work. There is none to be had at present. But, girls like Clara? There is a real shortage of young women to work in the garment industry. Clara is a girl with spunk:

"The surprise is dirt poor, just five feet tall, and
hardly speaks a word of English.
Her name is Clare Lemlich.
This girl's got grit, and she's going to prove it.
Look out, New York!"

Clara finds work without any difficulty; but, working in a garment factory is not easy, by any stretch of the imagination. Clara endures terrible conditions, as do the many rows of girls who work by her side:

"From dawn to dusk, she's locked up in a factory. Rows and
rows of young women bend over their tables, stitching collars,
sleeves, and cuffs as fast as they can. "Hurry up, hurry up," the
bosses yell. Ratatatatat, hisses Clara's machine. The sunless
room is stuffy from all the bodies crammed inside. There are
two filthy toilets, one sink and three towels for three hundred
girls to share."

That is only the beginning. The girls are subjected to so much more. There is no escape from the drudgery of the work, or of the conditions under which they work. Clara wants more from read, to learn. She works all day, and goes to school at night. She sleeps little, and becomes angry about the way the workers are treated.

After learning something about unions and workers' rights, Clara is ready to lead the other garment workers on the picket line. Spirited and knowing that she is right to think they deserve better, she endures beatings, and arrests; but, she is strong and determined and her spirit does not waver. When even the most powerful union leader will not call for a general strike, it is Clara who steps forward, stunning New York and encouraging thousands to stand up for themselves!

The illustrations are created in Melissa Sweet's signature delightful style. She uses watercolor, gouache, and mixed media for her art, and certainly entices readers to take time and pay attention to the bright, expressive, telling images she creates so carefully.  Her changing perspectives and use of fabric add interest and attract close perusal of each and every page.

Clare Lemlich is a heroine to be admired and to know better through this excellent picture book biography. The author adds a note about the garment industry following the story's text, and also includes a selected bibliography for those who long to know more about this young, slight immigrant who quickly made her mark in a new land.

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