The Whole Megillah (TWM): What got you interested in Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG)?
Debbie Levy (DL): You mean what got me interested other than that I’m a woman, a lawyer, a Jew, a supporter of progress and equal opportunity, a proponent of stories and books for kids that help them understand and accept the Other . . . ? 🙂
It was really the theme of disagreeing—of sharing a life that showed kids that change happens one disagreement after another, both change for your own individual life and for the world, and that disagreeing doesn’t make you disagreeable. RBG, I think, is such a fine example to hold up for our children. She’s a person who has been a change-maker and path-breaker through her disagreements. As importantly, her example shows that one can disagree and make big change happen without resorting to personal attacks, without insulting your opponents, and without closing yourself off to opposing points of view. I really like that through this book kids can see a person, a leader who says things like, “Sometimes people say unkind or thoughtless things, and when they do, it is best to . . . tune out and not snap back in anger or impatience.” And one of her best quotes is on the book’s back jacket: “Fight for the things that you care about. But do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”
TWM: How did you develop the voice for the book?
DL: Once I decided on the “I dissent” theme, the voice flowed pretty naturally. There is, as you know, a variation on the “I dissent” theme on nearly every spread in the book. “She protested” (as a schoolgirl, to being forced to write with her right hand even though she is left-handed). “Ruth objected” (also in school, to the rule that required girls to take home ec, reserving shop class for boys). “Ruth disapproved right back” (when people disapproved of her decision to go to law school). “She resisted. And persisted” (when, as a young law school graduate at the top of her class, no one would hire her because she was a woman, a mother, and a Jew). And so on. The voice is enhanced—and I love this—by Elizabeth Baddeley’s large and emphatic hand lettering of these “dissenting” refrains.
TWM: Do you have a critique group? How does that help?
DL: I do not have a critique group. I do turn to some of my writer friends for feedback and suggestions on manuscripts. On this book, the thoughtful and talented Beth Kephart gave me valuable comments. Also, I’m a big believer in the editorial process and will revise and revise and revise. On all my manuscripts, my agent, Caryn Wiseman of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, offers helpful, informed feedback. And on this book, my editor at Simon & Schuster, Kristin Ostby, was absolutely relentless—and I’m so grateful she was—in pushing me to make it better, more on point, more succinct, more inviting, more fun. I can’t tell you how many times her emails to me began with the words, “Almost there. . . .” Which, of course, meant that we weren’t there. Every writer needs an editor like that!
TWM: What was your process for researching the book? Vetting it?
DL: I read everything I could about RBG, from news articles to scholarly articles to books to blogs to interviews. I watched endless interviews and tapes of her appearances and speeches. I became addicted to audio recordings of RBG in the Supreme Court—from 40-year-old audio of her arguing before the Court when she was a lawyer for the ACLU, to current audio of her on the bench questioning lawyers at oral arguments. Justice Ginsburg read the manuscript and gave me some comments and changes before we went to press. And I had a veteran Supreme Court reporter and observer, Tony Mauro, vet the manuscript as well.
TWM: Tell us about the reaction to the book. Katie Couric?
DL: I Dissent has been nicely received, with kind reviews and notices in The Washington Post, USA Today, Time, and The San Francisco Chronicle, for example; in Jewish publications such as Tablet and JW Magazine; as well as in the trade publications (stars in School Library Journal and Booklist). It’s a Junior Library Guild selection and a PJ Library Selection.
You mention Katie Couric: As Yahoo News’ global anchor, Katie recently interviewed Justice Ginsburg. Toward the end of the interview, Katie held up I Dissent and asked RBG about it:
Katie Couric: What do you hope little girls take away from this book? Little boys, too?
Justice Ginsburg: That they can do anything they want to do as long as they’re willing to put in the hard work that it takes to achieve.
To see the interview on Yahoo News, click here. The discussion of I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark starts at about the 25-minute mark . . . and includes RBG musing about being a little girl who would rather go out and climb trees like the boys (instead of sitting around in a pink party dress), and about viewing Nancy Drew as an early feminist icon. I’m sure you can imagine how much I love this!
TWM: What’s next for you?
DL: My next book comes out in February 2017. Called Soldier Song, A True Story of the Civil War (Disney-Hyperon), it’s an 80- page picture book for older children about a remarkable event that occurred after the Battle of Fredericksburg. It’s about how music—and one song in particular—brought the two sides, North and South, together for one night, enabling the soldiers to see the other side—the enemy—as fellow human beings. Illustrated by the wonderful Gilbert Ford, with lots of excerpts from soldier’s letters and diaries. I hope your readers will check it out.