When Girls Are Activists

By Elizabeth Marshall

Illustrator: Melissa Sweet

Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909
By Michelle Markel
Illustrated by Melissa Sweet
(HarperCollins, 2013)

Child and teen activists fighting for social justice often get left out of official histories and curriculum. In their picture book biography, Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909, Michelle Markel and Melissa Sweet fill one of those gaps. The book chronicles the life of Jewish immigrant Clara Lemlich, who led the largest walkout of women workers in the United States. Brave Girl is one of the top 10 titles selected by the American Library Association’s Amelia Bloomer Project, which creates an annual list of the best feminist books for young readers.

When a young Clara arrives in New York, no one will hire her father. Girls, however, are in high demand: “Companies are hiring thousands of immigrant girls to make blouses, coats, nightgowns, and other women’s clothing.” These young women make only a little money each month and “instead of carrying books to school, many girls carry sewing machines to work.”

Brave Girl traces Clara’s growing militance and her leadership during the garment workers’ general strike in 1909 (readers may recall the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which killed 146 workers and happened the following year). Markel calls the strike “a revolt of girls” because some of the participants were as young as 12 years old. An inspiring speaker and organizer, Clara played a major role in unionizing the industry.

Sweet’s watercolor, gouache, and mixed-media illustrations complement Markel’s narrative. The imaginative illustrations include fabric stitched onto pages with thread, backgrounds of squared sewing pattern paper, and fragments of time cards.

Markel and Sweet do not shy away from the risks involved in Clara’s activism. Clara experienced 17 arrests, and beatings that resulted in six broken ribs. On the page where the violence is described, the needlework that frames the border of the page switches from evenly spaced stitches to jagged and uneven ones.

An author’s note at the end offers additional information about the garment industry, including the fact that factory owners “hired girls as young as 6 years old to cut threads from garments.” A selected bibliography of general and primary sources will help teachers place Clara Lemlich within the larger labor movement.  

Elizabeth Marshall (beth_marshall@sfu.ca) a former elementary school teacher is an associate professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia where she teaches courses on children’s and young adult literature.