The Statue of Liberty is one of the most hallowed symbols of America’s aspirations to freedom and equality. It is also one of the most easily recognized, but many young readers know little about how this massive symbol of our country came to live in New York Harbor. Chana Stiefel and Chuck Groenik’s Let Liberty Rise! introduces children to the Statue’s surprising story. This is not a story about artistic creativity; sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi does not play a role in the book. Instead, Stiefel focuses on the determination of newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer to raise funds for the Statue’s pedestal and the enthusiastic generosity of the American people that enabled him to achieve this goal. The wealthy and influential Pulitzer depended on ordinary Americans’ small donations, which were ultimately as important as the largesse of the rich in the project’s realization.
Friendship between France and the United States was the initial motivation for Lady Liberty. Groenik’s pictures of her gigantic components, each constructed separately, conveys that this endeavor was huge in every sense of the word. A powerful, robed arm and the unmistakable profile will intrigue readers who may have believed that the monument emerged in one piece and took her place in the harbor fully-formed. While they may also have assumed that the Statue always evoked the reverence that she does today, the book makes it clear that this was not the case. Wealthy Americans are presented as somewhat snide and ignorant as well as stingy. Seeing the crates packed with parts of the Statue stored on Bedloe’s Island, a haughty woman holding a parasol suggests, “Send her home to Paris!” and her male companion agrees with a word of disgust: “Ugh!”
Stiefel introduces Pulitzer as a “Jewish Hungarian immigrant,” who rose from poverty through hard work and persistence. Seated at his desk in an elegant suit and pince-nez eyeglasses balanced on his nose, he seems unapproachable and aristocratic, yet he writes a fervent request for donations based on the crucial role of the working classes: “Let us not wait for the millionaires to give money.” The next illustration shows laborers hard at work at their printing press and newsboys hawking Pulitzer’s papers with his strongly worded editorial. Soon Americans of different races, ages, and economic status are collecting whatever funds they can to make Pulitzer’s dream a reality.
Each donation is personal. A girl knits “Liberty socks” and sells them for five cents and a young boy employed in an office contributes some of his meager wages. The illustrations provide an opportunity to explain historical change through details: a wood burning stove, fountain pen and inkwell, and boxes of files that are paper, not digital. Energetic fundraising brings specific results, as when “Twelve public schools in Trenton, New Jersey, collected $105.07.” Carefully drawn articles from the late nineteenth century and a muted color palette evoke a tangible sense of the past. The Statue is finally assembled and installed amidst cheering crowds and displays of fireworks, but Stiefel and Groenink conclude with the most familiar aspect of Lady Liberty, as the woman who welcomed generations of immigrants to a new home. Let Liberty Rise! supplies the context for a legendary symbol, in a story about America’s strongest values of community and optimism.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.