NEW YORK — Author Debbie Levy likes to tell stories about history and humanity. Her newest children’s book “I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark” is no different.
The first biographical picture book about the 83-year-old justice, “I Dissent” uses Ginsburg’s famous — and not so famous — dissents to tell her story. Whether protesting home economics class or a teacher’s bias for right-handedness, or dissenting against ever-present sexism and anti-Semitism in 1940s America, Levy portrays Ginsburg as someone who questioned and challenged the status quo to improve people’s lives.
“What interested me is the dissent idea That I shaped this book around. This idea that disagreeing is not disagreeable, that’s how change can happen,” Levy said in a telephone interview with The Times of Israel. “And this is something that parents tell me they want their young girls, and boys, to know — that you don’t have to just say ‘Yes’ to go along. If you see something wrong, you stand up against it.”
The extensively researched book (yes this children’s book has a bibliography and endnotes) explores how Ginsburg used the law to challenge prejudice and inequality for women, immigrants and African Americans. When the Supreme Court ruled in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber that there was nothing unconstitutional about women being paid less than men, her dissenting opinion was so powerful it convinced the US Congress to pass the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
Anecdotes from Ginsburg’s personal life further reveal how she bucked societal convention. With her mother Celia’s encouragement Ginsburg attended college. Her husband Martin, who according to Levy is the cook in the house, supported her as she pursued a law career while mothering two young children.
During the first half of of 2015, while working on the book, Levy wrote to Ginsburg requesting an interview. The justice gamely agreed, Levy said, however she asked the author to wait until summer. Summer came; summer went. No interview.
Levy was not at all chagrined.
“If you saw her summer schedule you’d forgive her too,” said the Maryland resident.
The court might not have been in session, but between opera, lecturing, writing (Ginsburg’s memoir “My Own Words” is due out in January 2017), and travel, the justice keeps a brisk pace.
Instead of the interview, Ginsburg granted Levy access to her papers. Housed in the Library of Congress the papers aren’t open to the public. Additionally, Ginsburg also agreed to Levy’s request that she review the manuscript.
‘If you see something wrong, stand up against it’
Ginsburg offered several editorial suggestions, and Levy said she followed each one.
“The one I loved most was about her parents. In the manuscript I had referred to her parents as Mrs. Bader and Mr. Bader. She [Ginsburg] went through the pages and crossed out those references and instead put in their full names; Celia Ginsburg and Nathan Ginsburg,” Levy said. “She had spoken often of what a great influence her mother and father had over her, and so of course she wants to see their names in full.”
Before Levy made writing her full-time career she worked as a newspaper editor with American Lawyer Media and Legal Times. She also worked as an attorney with Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, now called WilmerHale, in Washington, DC.
Levy earned a bachelor’s degree in government and foreign affairs from the University of Virginia and a law degree and master’s degree in world politics from the University of Michigan, a background she drew upon while writing “I Dissent.”
Levy pored over Ginsburg’s opinions, speeches, and primary and secondary sources to understand the justice. She also became “strangely addicted” to listening to hours of audiotape of Ginsburg arguing before the Supreme Court.
Like Ginsburg’s mother Celia, Levy’s mother Jutta Salzberg Levy was a source of inspiration and encouragement.
The author of “We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song” and “Dozer’s Run: A True Story of a Dog and His Race,” Levy first tried her hand at publishing while still in elementary school. She had penned a handful of books by age 7, and her mother sent one of them, “Little Red Train,” to the Scholastic Book Club. It was rejected. In fact, before her first book was published in 1997, publishers rejected her work 199 times.
Later Levy wrote “The Year of Goodbyes,” about her mother’s 1938 escape from Nazi Germany. Much of Levy’s mother’s family was from a small village near Lodz, Poland and died in the concentration camps. Born in the US, Levy’s father, Harold, was the son of immigrants.
‘While I wasn’t drawn to RBG because she’s Jewish, it’s true that being Jewish and a woman she had both strikes against her’
This history informs her writing.
“I think I have done a number of books about the other, the outsider, the persecuted. ‘The Song: We Shall Overcome’ was about those who were persecuted and worse. And while I wasn’t drawn to RBG because she’s Jewish, it’s true that being Jewish and a woman she had both strikes against her,” Levy said.
Levy’s next book “Home Sweet Home” is about how the Civil War era song of the same name united Union and Confederate soldiers. She was inspired by a Winslow Homer painting of the same name.
“For a Jewish girl with no roots in early America, my husband and I are very taken by and moved by all things Civil War,” she said.
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