Sunday, October 23, 2016

Q&A with Debbie Levy

Debbie Levy is the author of the new children's picture book I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark. Her other books include We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song and The Year of Goodbyes. She has worked as a lawyer and a newspaper editor, and she lives in Maryland.

Q: Why did you decide to write a children's book about Ruth Bader Ginsburg?

A: I think RBG is such a great role model for kids! She’s been dissenting from creaky old ideas and objecting to unfairness since she was a kid herself, and she’s been a change-maker and a path-breaker through her disagreements.

Of course, there’s disagreeing and there’s disagreeing, as we’ve been made way too aware in this political season. There’s flailing, insulting, divisive disagreeing. Not to mention willfully uninformed disagreeing.

And there’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose approach to the proper, productive way to disagree and make change in our society is on display in statements she’s made like this one: “Sometimes people says unkind or thoughtless things, and when they do, it is best to . . . tune out and not snap back in anger or impatience.”

She shows that disagreeing doesn’t have to make you disagreeable. Is it any wonder that I think she’s a great person to introduce to young people in a picture book?

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what do you think Ginsburg's dissents (on the Supreme Court and elsewhere) say about her?

A: I wrote the book’s title in the email I sent to my editor at Simon & Schuster last year in which I first proposed the “I dissent” theme for the book, and we never changed it!

I think Justice Ginsburg’s dissents reveal a person who will compromise on some issues but not on core principles; and I think they also show a person who hopes that, in time, more people will come around to a point of view closer to her own.

On this, RBG herself has quoted Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes: “A dissent in a Court of last resort is an appeal . . . to the intelligence of a future day. . . .”

Q: How did you research the book, and has RBG seen it?

A: I read endless articles (scholarly and journalistic), books, interviews, and blogs; I read Supreme Court opinions; I watched lots of interviews with RBG on video, and speeches that were recorded on video.

I also became a little bit addicted to audio recordings of her in the Supreme Court. You can listen online, at, to 40-year-old tapes of her arguments in the gender-discrimination cases she brought before the Court as an advocate!

On the Supreme Court’s website, you can listen to her as a justice from the bench questioning lawyers at oral arguments. Hard for me to tear myself away from this stuff. You know I’m a former lawyer!

And yes, she has seen the book! She was kind enough to review the manuscript last year before it went to press. And now she has the final book!

Q: Why do you think RBG has become such a celebrity, much more so than most Supreme Court justices?

A: Apart from the reasons I mentioned earlier about her being a role model who shows that disagreeing doesn’t make you disagreeable, and who shows that change can happen one disagreement a time?

I think a lot of people simply find this tiny 83-year-old grandmother, whose voice is so small people have to lean in to hear her, who speaks her mind, who helped create the field of gender discrimination law, who works out daily, who has lived and continues to live the fullest life she can . . . admirable. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on another nonfiction book about another remarkable woman who isn’t a celebrity at all—but who has a story that I think deserves to be told and that I really want to share with the world! More . . . another time.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Yes! My next book comes out in February 2017. It’s an 80-page picture book called Soldier Song: A True Story of the Civil War, illustrated by Gilbert Ford, and it’s about how music—and one song in particular—brought the two sides, North and South, together for one night after the bloody Battle of Fredericksburg. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Debbie Levy, please click here.

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