Book Review: Brave Girl by Markel & Sweet

Today I present yet another knock-out book from last year that has fantastic art by the (previously admired) collage-illustration fiend, Melissa Sweet. This is a surprisingly intriguing work of non-fiction that tells a powerful tale about a five-foot tall young lady and her fight for the rights of workers. Here is Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel, pictures by Melissa Sweet, 2012.

The story begins with a steamship pulling into the harbor of New York City. Stepping off the boat and hopeful about the American opportunities before her is Clara Lemlich – a short, dirt poor, immigrant youth who quickly meets the unfair factory world of 1909.

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Clara’s father is unable to find work, but all factories are hiring young women to work for little pay and in wretched conditions. Full of determination and grit, Clara sews in cramped, dark quarters by day and studies all night. She quickly becomes furious with the slave-like treatment and becomes a steady voice pushing the women to strike. Arrests, beatings and other dangers pursue Clara; but she stands firm in her efforts and eventually helps change the course of the workers in America.

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This is a powerful book full of determination and stamina. Some of my favorite things about the storyline is the averageness of the heroine, the slow build and eventual victory, and the honesty about the difficulties of fighting for what is right. Not many people would choose to tell children a story about a young girl who worked unfairly; was beaten when she spoke up; and endured cold and hunger before there was a glimmer of change – but it is a story worth telling. It is inspiring, honest, and full of attainable character traits to emulate. Author Michelle Markel has crafted a great story that doesn’t shy from the truth but is sensitive in its presentation.

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Adding to that is the marvelous combination of collage and paintings in Melissa Sweet’s illustrations. This is a story that would be easy to either swing too far towards boring or too far towards cartoons. Ms. Sweet strikes a good balance with her stylistic painted characters and backgrounds accented by real images, textures, and sewing. Yes, sewing! Using a technique that I’ve never seen before, Melissa Sweet took her illustrations and actually sewed directly onto them creating borders, lines, and all sorts of interesting patterns that enhance—not only the illustrations—but also the depth of the story. Knowing that there was real sewing involved with the pictures somehow took the story to a whole new level for me. It is probably a detail that many will overlook or care little about, but I love when an artist really does her research and puts those extra special touches into the art.

Kids’ battles might look quite different than Clara Lemlich’s these days, but it is stories like hers that inspire and challenge each generation to stand firm for what is right and speak up even when it puts you in danger or takes a long time to win.

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