Review: Ruth First Never Backed Down

Ruth First Never Backed Down

by Danielle Joseph, illustrated by Gabhor Utomo

Kar-Ben Publishing (imprint of Lerner Publishing Group), 2023

Category: Picture Books
Reviewer: Jeanette Brod

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In this picture book biography, Danielle Joseph tells a seminal story from her own birthplace in South Africa. Ruth First was a South African social justice warrior in the early days of the anti-apartheid movement. She was a journalist, writer, lecturer and professor who used her voice at great personal peril to speak out against racism and injustice.

An illustration depicts a young Ruth eavesdropping on the anti-Black racism meetings that took place in her parents’ home. A teenage Ruth started a secret book club with friends to discuss inequality. In high school, Ruth goes public with her beliefs at protests. At university, she begins to write for the college newspaper and meets others, including Nelson Mandela, who will become leaders in the anti-apartheid movement.

Ruth’s early investigative journalism tells the stories of Black miners and farmers. As government restrictions and laws against resistance to apartheid grow stronger, Ruth’s voice grows louder. She edits and is arrested for publishing a secret anti-apartheid newspaper out of her home. Ruth is held in solitary confinement and cut off from the world, an episode about which she later publishes a book.

Exiled to Great Britain with her husband and three daughters, it is thirteen years before Ruth returns to Mother Africa as the Director of Research at the Center for African Studies at Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique. It is there that Ruth meets her death at the hands of a bomb sent by the South African Security Police. Ruth is 57 years old. Apartheid ends in 1994, twelve years later.

The idea that Mother Africa encourages her children to use their voice to fight against injustice is a refrain that underlies the narrative and reappears throughout the text. The reader is reminded again and again that Ruth would “never back down.” The typewriter and the protest placards are effective recurring motifs in the detailed yet understated illustrations. A comprehensive timeline interweaves the history of apartheid with Ruth’s personal story. These are empowering teaching tools for young students. However, the violence and depictions of a repressive government are uncharacteristically direct for an American picture book. 
Ruth First was Jewish by birth. It is unclear if Judaism played any role in her life, though her life is a tribute to the Jewish value of tikkun olam. The only Jewish reference in the text is that, “Her Jewish grandparents had faced dangers and injustices in Eastern Europe. They escaped by boat to the country of South Africa." With only that minimal nod to Jewish content, Ruth First Never Backed Down would not be a suitable contender for the Sydney Taylor Book Award.
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Reviewer Jeanette Brod is the Children’s and Teen Services Associate at the New Milford, Connecticut, Public Library. She also serves as Educational Consultant for Connecticut’s Voices of Hope HERO Center and speaks locally about her family’s Holocaust experiences. Jeanette is the former Director of Lifelong Learning at Temple Sholom in New Milford and a past Vice-President of the Children’s Book Council in New York City. She holds a Master’s degree in Comparative Literature from Indiana University, Bloomington. Jeanette and her husband, Sasha, are the proud parents of two grown children.