Review: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Couldn't Drive?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Couldn't Drive? (Wait! What? series)

by Dan Gutman, illustrated by Allison Steinfeld

Norton Young Readers, 2022

Category: Middle Grade
Reviewer: Eva L. Weiss
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This engaging biography of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is told by by fictional siblings Paige and Turner, names which foreshadows the sly and playful tone of the book. The dialogue between the brother and sister is intended to make the young storytellers relatable, and include high-minded quotations ("You can disagree without being disagreeable") to bring to life the sturdy values which characterized the life of RBG. There is a timeline for context. The light-hearted exchanges between the siblings reveal period detail and the inequities of an American era remote from the experiences of twenty-first century middle grade readers. (In 1956, there were only nine women in the Harvard Law School class of 552, and the absence of ladies' bathrooms meant a block-long walk to those facilities). Dan Gutman, a storied children's book author, deftly integrates insight into the twentieth century American landscape, RBG's singular achievements , and anecdotes of family charms and idiosyncracies. He succeeds on all counts. The cartoon illustrations by Allison Steinfeld are an eye-pleasing complement to the text. There are myriad children's books about RBG, but this title's focus on illuminating the mores of her era, and the ways that she challenged them, makes an important contribution to the field.

This book clearly and thoughtfully brings to life Ruth Bader Ginsburg's extraordinary achievements as a Supreme Court justice, feminist, and champion of human rights, but her Jewish identity is addressed only tangentially. There are references to the antisemitism of her era and the notable fact that, after her death, she was the first woman and Jewish person to lie in state in the United States Capitol. RBG was known to be proud of her Jewish identity and she wrote poignantly about the ways in which her Jewish ethos influenced her passion for the law and the pursuit of justice. Yet her Jewish ethos is entirely overlooked in the book. In principle, this should be baffling. Would it not be natural for the biography of an iconic American hero (clearly identified as a member of a minority group) to include her personal reflections on her identity? This is a distressing but all too common omission in the stories told about prominent and influential Jews. It is especially egregious lapse in children's literature. Jewish children deserve to be inspired by the core values of heroes who share their ancestry and legacy. Much is lost when those heroes are identified only by the antisemitism they overcame, or folk details of their culture. This book has significant literary merit, but vital Jewish religious and cultural content is, unfortunately, missing.

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Reviewer Eva Weiss is a writer, editor, and translator. She was born in New York City and worked in the publishing industry there before making her home in Israel many years ago. She is the author of the children's book
I Am Israeli (Mitchell-Lane, 2016).