Review: Who Was Levi Strauss?

Who Was Levi Strauss?

by Ellen Labrecque

Penguin Workshop (imprint of Penguin Random House)

Category: Middle Grade
Reviewer: Stacy Nockowitz

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Ellen Labrecque’s Who Was Levi Strauss? is a new title in the extensive WHO HQ series. The book is a cradle-to-grave biography of 19th century immigrant entrepreneur Loeb Strauss, who would later change his name to Levi Strauss and build the blue jeans empire that still dominates the fashion industry today. Labrecque’s book follows the formula of the series, laying out Strauss’s humble beginnings in Bavaria as the youngest child of door-to-door sewing supply salesman Hirsch Strauss and his second wife, Rebecca. A few years after two of the Strauss brothers immigrate to America and open a successful sewing supply store in New York City, Loeb, along with his mother and other siblings, follows. Labrecque does not shy away from explaining the Strauss family’s reason for wanting to leave Bavaria. Life for Jews in the German state at that time was difficult and oppressive, and opportunities in America for hard-working European immigrants were booming. Who Was Levi Strauss? continues with Loeb’s story as he changes his name to Levi and heads west to San Francisco to extend his family’s business holdings to the Pacific coast at the time of the California gold rush. Labrecque uses sidebar pages to explain concepts connected to Levi Strauss’s life, such as the Pony Express and the Transcontinental Railroad. The book’s realistic pen and ink illustrations, by Stephen Marchesi, depict 19th century life fairly well. Who Was Levi Strauss? offers upper elementary-grade readers a good, broad introduction to a man whose generous personality and shrewd business sense helped him succeed during the time of America’s westward expansion.

Who Was Levi Strauss? mentions Strauss’s Jewish heritage several times, mainly in relation to how differently Jews were treated in Europe and America in the 19th century. Labrecque points out that while Jews in Bavaria were not allowed to vote and had to pay higher taxes than gentile citizens, religion was not an obstacle to success when Strauss moved to San Francisco. In fact, Strauss became highly involved in the Jewish community out west, helping to build a synagogue and practicing tzedakah to help Jewish widows and orphans. The Jewish content in Who Was Levi Strauss? is not glossed over, but the existing structure of the WHO HQ books doesn’t allow for great depth regarding Strauss’s religious practice. The book is notable because it discusses the life of a Jewish man in a place and time rarely explored in children’s books, adding to young readers’ understanding of diverse Jewish experiences.

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Reviewer Stacy Nockowitz is a middle school librarian and former language arts teacher. Stacy received her Bachelor’s Degree from Brandeis University and holds Master's Degrees from Columbia University Teachers College and Kent State University. She is also an MFA candidate in Writing for Children and Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Stacy is a PJ Library Writer’s Incentive Award recipient, and her debut middle grade novel, THE PRINCE OF STEEL PIER, will be published by Kar-Ben in the fall of 2022.