Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Graphic Novel Review: Becoming RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Journey to Justice

BECOMING RBG: RUTH BADER GINSBURG'S JOURNEY TO JUSTICE Debbie Levy, illustrated by Whitney Gardner. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. 208 pages, 2019.

"RBG" has become an icon for twenty-first century Americans. Aside from FDR and JFK, I can't think of many other three-initialed Americans who have the instant name recognition that this celebrity Supreme Court Justice has achieved. You're not there yet, AOC. Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been on the Supreme Court since the Clinton administration, but it's only been in the last decade or so that her reputation and celebrity has grown to the point that there are t-shirts, mugs, action figures, and, well, comic books.

BECOMING RBG: RUTH BADER GINSBURG'S JOURNEY TO JUSTICE is a new graphic novel that delivers her life story with excitement and significance, while explaining how the world was different for women before and after her impact on American society. The book is written by Debbie Levy, who wrote the 2016 picture book I DISSENT: RUTH BADER GINSBURG MAKES HER MARK. I read I Dissent a few years ago, and honestly, that was about all I knew about Justice Ginsburg. And that I should be a fan of her, and that I'm dreading the day she won't be on the Supreme Court anymore, and she goes to the gym every day, and is in an ongoing battle with cancer that she's just staying ahead of. I was hoping Becoming RBG would give me more context for why there were t-shirts and mugs and action figures. And hey, it did.

Becoming RBG does a good job of balancing Ruth's personal life with her professional one -- how she was able to take the cards she'd been dealt as a Jewish woman and overcome the barriers that are still in place in the twenty-first century, but must have felt insurmountable in the 1950s. A thread running throughout the book is the voice of Ruth's mother, who she lost to cancer about the time that Ruth graduated from high school. In the graphic novel, the spirit/ghost of Celia Amster Bader appears with a barely-visible arm around Ruth's shoulder, giving her advice, reminding her of things like "A lady reacts calmly, without anger"...but also sharing moments of pride and accomplishment with Ruth throughout her life.

We read how the support of her husband, who seems to become a kind of stay-at-home-dad for much of their marriage, being the one taking on traditionally female roles like cooking and cleaning, freed up Ruth to pursue her education and legal career. I'm sure those relationships happened in the 1950s, but again, they seem relatively rare by today's standards, let alone decades ago.

About halfway through the book, we see Ruth's steps towards the Supreme Court, as she realized that women were facing real discrimination, similar to the Jim Crow laws that were being replaced with more equitable ones across the country. Page 124 has Ruth pondering "How have people been putting up with such arbitrary distinctions? How have I been putting up with them?" in the midst of quotes from Supreme Court Justices like Berger's "Land, like woman, was meant to be possessed," and "Woman has always been dependent upon man" from a 1908 Supreme Court opinion. RBG embarks on cases that will end gender discrimination, and teaches some of the first law classes about the topic.

Becoming RBG illustrates how the federal court system works, and the role of the Supreme Court. It would be useful for government classes to see how legal precedents help codify laws, and how more abstract ideas like "sex role pigeonholing" need concrete cases to be able to come before the court. Being a graphic novel helps with some of the more complicated aspects of this story--for many students Ruth's personal story will be the hook that brings them to the Supreme Court cases themselves -- Reed v. Reed, Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, Frontiero v. Richardson, Kahn v. Shevin. Even as a US History-teachin' adult, I find these cases can be confusing and (sorry) boring without some kind of hook. Her connection to the cases becomes a powerful one.

By the end of the book, we have RBG as we know her today -- a powerful voice on the Supreme Court, as powerful for her dissenting opinions as for her advocacy of her vision of justice. She advocates for the Constitution as a "living document" that is flexible enough to accommodate twenty-first century needs. It emphasizes her friendship with those that disagree with her, most notably Antonin Scalia -- that she enjoys the intellectual argument with those who are ideologically opposed to her, although it seems there would be few who would be up to that challenge.

Author Debbie Levy includes a substantial appendix, including an epilogue, a timeline, and an extensive bibliography including books, articles, and video interviews. She also makes clear which parts of the book are actual quotes from Ginsburg, and which are paraphrased, by giving twelve pages of footnotes detailing where the quotes in various chapters came from.
I was impressed with the book as a biography of a historically (and...current event-ally?) significant woman and role model. I also enjoyed it as a reader of graphic novels. The sometimes cartoony style doesn't ever undermine the importance of RBG, and sometimes softens her edges in a way that can help readers appreciate the main character. I don't necessarily enjoy teaching civics and government, and the judicial branch can be the hardest to make relevant to students. Becoming RBG does so in a way that's more recent than Marbury v. Madison and other "historic" cases, and in a way that will be easier for students to swallow. I know the judicial system better, and RBG better, for having read it.