Review: Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel

brave girl

Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Melissa Sweet

Clara Lemlich and her family came to America planning to find jobs, but no one will hire her father.  The factories did want girls like Clara though, and so she started working in the garment industry.  She worked from dusk to dawn in rows with other young girls, sewing as fast as she could.  If they were late at all, they lost half a day’s wages.  If they pricked their fingers and bled on the cloth they were fined, if it happened again they were fired.  The doors were locked, there was no fresh air, and the girls were inspected when they left to make sure they weren’t stealing anything.  But Clara would not be held down, she went to the library and learned English, teaching the other factory girls on their lunch break.  Then Clara learned about unions and strikes, though some thought the girls were not tough enough to strike.  So began her transformation into a union leader, through beatings and hunger, these girls and Clara are the people we have to thank for fair hours and pay. 

Markel tells the story with a strong heart and a certain thrill.  Readers get to see a quiet girl get off of the boat and steadily transform through self-education and pure tenacity into an amazing person who had strength and energy enough for several people.  Markel manages to tell the story of the times without dedicating much of her brief story to background.  Instead she uses the situation at the mill to speak on their own.  She ends the book with more information about the garment industry, giving facts and figures about how many girls were working there and the abuses they suffered.

Sweet’s illustrations are a treat.  Her paintings are turned into collage with the addition of various textiles and trims.  On one page the buildings of New York are painted and then enriched by trimmings, stitches and swatches of material.  On another the painting is smaller and then framed by material.  Clara herself is often wearing a look of determination on her face, usually with a fist clenched as if ready to do battle at any time. 

This is a wonderful picture book biography about a heroine that children can related directly to, since she is so young.  It is also a very timely read with labor under such pressure right now.  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from library copy.