Brave Girl: “For workers everywhere”

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Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Maker’s Strike of 1909 is a timely new children’s book about one girl who changed the lives of many.

Our brave heroine is immigrant Clara Lemlich, a child labourer who fought to improve working conditions in New York City’s garment factories more than a century ago.

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Clara Lemlich

Brave Girl is written by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Melissa Sweet and published by HarperCollins (January 2013). Together, they have achieved a difficult feat: To create a children’s book about women’s and worker’s rights that will not bore or terrify your child. That said, the recommended age is listed as 4-9, but I wouldn’t go as young as that…my daughter is 7 and was mildly alarmed by the fact that Clara was beaten and bruised by her employers.

Markel’s plucky prose makes this is a really great read – not a polemic. Sweet’s beautiful illustrations create a character that young readers will cheer for (at least my young reader did!), and paint a detailed picture of this interesting time.

“Clara knows in her bones what is right and what is wrong.”

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Brave Girl cannot help but remind you of the recent tragedy in Bangladesh, where a garment factory collapsed killing 380 500 1127 workers at last count. The conditions faced by garment workers today seem eerily similar to those experienced by workers in turn-of-the-century America: Clara endured long hours, little pay and hazardous conditions.

From dawn to dusk, she’s locked up in a factory…Ratatatatat, hisses Clara’s machine. The sunless room is stuffy from all the bodies crammed inside.”

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Clara was “unstoppable”. She worked all day and studied all night, spending hours learning English. In 1909, Clara organized the largest walkout of women workers in American history. This show of strength led to better working conditions for garment workers throughout the country.

“Her throat is hoarse, her feet are sore, but she has helped thousands of people.”

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The book’s dedication reads: “For workers everywhere.”

How true. Brave Girl is more than the story of one brave girl, one factory, one country, one time: It tells the tale of all workers labouring in exploitive conditions, past and present.

In a sea of princess and fairy books for girls, I applaud a publisher for putting out a beautiful picture book that educates, entertains and inspires.

Learn more:

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Clara Lemlich (March 28, 1886 – July 25, 1982) spent her life fighting for the rights of workers.

She talks about her experiences in this interview with from April 7, 1910: http://labormovement.blogs.brynmawr.edu/1910/04/07/interview-with-clara-lemlich/

Brave Girl has a history of the garment industry and a resource guide at the back of the book.

HarperCollins has a wonderful teaching guide to go with the book, available here

2 comments

    • Thank you for letting me know! Are the days gone when libraries get free copies from publishers? Sad. I got this at my local library, I was looking for something to read my daughter about a teacher’s strike affecting her school. It really helped me explain it to her. And there are so many angles to discuss it with children, women’s history,
      social justice, sweat shops, immigration, self-confidence, strength, girl power, and more.

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