Deb­bie Levy’s dis­tinc­tive place in children’s lit­er­a­ture has been secure for some time. Her 2017 pic­ture book I Dis­sent: Ruth Bad­er Gins­burg Makes Her Mark won both the Syd­ney Tay­lor Award and a Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award. Levy col­lab­o­rat­ed with artist Vanes­sa Brant­ley-New­ton on We Shall Over­come: The Sto­ry of a Song. She’s writ­ten a hand­ful of books com­ing out in 2019, on top­ics rang­ing from school de-seg­re­ga­tion to Ladi­no music, and a graph­ic biog­ra­phy of RBG.

I recent­ly asked Deb­bie some ques­tions about her writ­ing process, her vision, and her Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. Her answers help explain the appeal of her books and their last­ing impact on readers.

Emi­ly Schnei­der: You’ve writ­ten two books for young read­ers about Ruth Bad­er Gins­burg — the award-win­ning I Dis­sent and the forth­com­ing Becom­ing RBG: Ruth Bad­er Ginsburg’s Jour­ney to Jus­tice. Bad­er Gins­burg is an icon — to women, to Jew­ish Amer­i­cans, and to peo­ple with pro­gres­sive val­ues. How did you approach the process of telling her life sto­ry for young readers?

Deb­bie Levy: When I set out to write the pic­ture book biog­ra­phy, I knew that Ruth Bad­er Gins­burg was the sec­ond woman to serve on the Supreme Court of the Unit­ed States and the first Jew­ish woman on the Court. I knew that, before she was a Supreme Court jus­tice, she was a fed­er­al appeals court judge in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and, before that, a lead­ing lawyer in the field of equal rights for women and girls.

What I didn’t know, until I start­ed research­ing more deeply, is that she has been dis­agree­ing with unfair­ness and with things that are just plain wrong from the time she was a lit­tle girl. I mean, in ele­men­tary school, left-hand­ed lit­tle Kiki” Bad­er object­ed to being required to write with her right hand. She ques­tioned girls’ exclu­sion from shop class. Lat­er, of course, she went on to dis­agree, resist, object, and dis­sent her way into big things.

So, I real­ized, the sto­ry of her life offers this inspir­ing les­son: Dis­agree­ing does not make you dis­agree­able, and impor­tant change hap­pens one dis­agree­ment at a time. And I thought: What fine ideas for a children’s book!

For the forth­com­ing graph­ic nov­el-style biog­ra­phy, Becom­ing RBG, I have the space (two-hun­dred pages) and the old­er read­er­ship to bring an addi­tion­al theme into focus, one inspired by some­thing RBG has said many times: Real change, endur­ing change, hap­pens one step at a time.” Young Ruth Kiki” Bad­er wasn’t born a fire­brand fem­i­nist. She didn’t learn the hard lessons of injus­tice and inequal­i­ty in a day. Rather, step by step she evolved; step by step she became Ruth Bad­er Gins­burg, flam­ing fem­i­nist lit­i­ga­tor” — her words! — who has cre­at­ed endur­ing change.

And so Becom­ing RBG tells the sto­ry of Ruth Bad­er Ginsburg’s evo­lu­tion, from child­hood through young adult­hood, from law stu­dent to pro­fes­sor to lit­i­ga­tor to fed­er­al judge — and final­ly to the Supreme Court. I hope to show read­ers that becom­ing a change­mak­er is some­thing a young per­son can grow into. Through RBG’s sto­ry, read­ers will see that look­ing out­side one­self can make all the dif­fer­ence between being a bystander and being a pathbreaker.

ES: Your book The Year of Good­byes: A True Sto­ry of Friend­ship, Fam­i­ly, and Farewells, a mov­ing account of your mother’s escape from Nazi Ger­many, and the forth­com­ing This Promise of Change: One Girl’s Sto­ry in the Fight for School Equal­i­ty, are both writ­ten in verse. This for­mat seems to be increas­ing­ly pop­u­lar in children’s books — see the works of Jacque­line Wood­son, Kwame Alexan­der, and Karen Hesse, for exam­ple. Giv­en that poet­ry is some­times con­sid­ered to be dif­fi­cult or inac­ces­si­ble, what is the appeal of a sto­ry in verse to today’s young readers?

DL: To quote a hero of mine, I dis­sent from the notion that poet­ry has to be dif­fi­cult or inac­ces­si­ble! In some ways, I think it can be more acces­si­ble than straight prose, because poet­ry is com­pact (plen­ty of white space on the page), with­out wast­ed words, and its lan­guage is vivid. It can make you laugh out loud. It can make you cry. Sure, it can be eso­teric, but it doesn’t have to be. Con­sid­er the three authors you men­tion; their nov­els in verse hook read­ers from the first page.

In The Year of Good­byes, I used entries from my mother’s child­hood poe­sieal­bum—that’s trans­lat­ed as poet­ry album,” and it’s like an auto­graph album or friend­ship book — as the step­ping stones through her last year in Ger­many in 1938. Writ­ing the nar­ra­tive in free verse seemed to flow nat­u­ral­ly from and hon­or the poe­sieal­bum. Also, although peo­ple don’t walk around talk­ing and think­ing in poet­ry, I do think that free verse is good at cap­tur­ing some­thing essen­tial about the way we think and react, espe­cial­ly under stress­ful con­di­tions — and so the for­mat con­veys my mother’s expe­ri­ence faithfully.

This Promise of Change, writ­ten with Jo Ann Allen Boyce, tells the true sto­ry of Jo Ann’s expe­ri­ence in 1956, when she and eleven oth­er African Amer­i­can stu­dents walked into an all-white high school in Clin­ton, Ten­nessee to deseg­re­gate it. This was a year before Lit­tle Rock. What went on in Clin­ton was front-page news all over the coun­try — and yet it’s large­ly lost to his­to­ry today. Jo Ann was a very musi­cal girl and loved poet­ry, so pre­sent­ing her sto­ry in verse (free verse and also some struc­tured forms) reflects her char­ac­ter. Also, this is an emo­tion­al sto­ry, and we think — we hope — the emo­tion is served well by the verse format.

ES: How has your Jew­ish iden­ti­ty framed your work?

DL: Being Jew­ish is inex­tri­ca­bly part of who I am. I am not par­tic­u­lar­ly reli­gious or obser­vant but I was born a Jew — my iden­ti­ty is Jew­ish; my cul­ture and my thoughts and my baked goods are Jew­ish. Who I am can­not help but show up in my books, whether they are on Jew­ish or non-Jew­ish themes. I do have this yearn­ing for Jews to remind our­selves, and those who are look­ing at us, that Judaism stands for, and is about, ethics above all, and that (in my view) being Jew­ish is about treat­ing peo­ple fair­ly and stand­ing up for jus­tice. Also, as Jews, we look up to those who seek knowl­edge, who val­ue facts, and who put knowl­edge and facts in ser­vice of human­i­ty — in a men­sch-like way.

When it comes to books specif­i­cal­ly with Jew­ish themes, of course my par­tic­u­lar Jew­ish iden­ti­ty shapes the sub­jects that call to me. I do have two Jew­ish books” com­ing out in 2019, in addi­tion to the two we’ve men­tioned so far. One is The Key From Spain: Flo­ry Jago­da and Her Music, about a woman who is known as the keep­er of the flame” of Ladi­no and Sephardic music, and whose life expe­ri­ence illu­mi­nates the pos­si­bil­i­ty of cross-cul­tur­al under­stand­ing and accep­tance. The oth­er is Yid­dish Saves the Day!, an utter­ly sil­ly sto­ry about a day gone wrong, but then made right, thanks to the live­ly words of Yid­dish. Let’s not for­get that oth­er hall­mark of Judaism: humor. We die with­out it.

ES: This Promise of Change, like your pre­vi­ous book, We Shall Over­come, presents aspects of the civ­il rights move­ment for a young audi­ence. How did your Jew­ish iden­ti­ty fit into your vision for both of these books?

DL: I seem to return in my books to the theme of the Oth­er or Out­sider; sure­ly this has roots in my Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, for Jews have been and still are so often the Oth­er, the Out­sider. But also, for me, Jew­ish iden­ti­ty is tied to the thirst and quest for jus­tice, and so it is seam­less­ly tied to the themes of We Shall Over­come and This Promise.

ES: How do you see the role of Jew­ish authors with­in the #WeNeed­Di­verse­Books movement?

DL: Jew­ish authors can write books that serve as mir­rors of, and win­dows onto, Jews and the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence, just as authors of oth­er diverse back­grounds can do the same with respect to their own com­mu­ni­ties. So Jew­ish kids can see them­selves mir­rored in dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions in books where Judaism may be front and cen­ter or may be sim­ply a causal char­ac­ter­is­tic; and non-Jew­ish read­ers can look through the win­dow into the var­ied expe­ri­ences of Jews and Jewishness.

Or Jew­ish authors can write books that aren’t mir­rors of, or win­dows onto, the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence. They can just write books about the sub­jects, themes, peo­ple, places, and ideas that call to them. This is also diver­si­ty. I don’t want any group to feel con­strained to write an expect­ed book, and I don’t want read­ers to think of authors as cat­e­gories. Each writer is an indi­vid­ual — each read­er, too.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.