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Becoming RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Journey to Justice

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
Becoming RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Journey to Justice Book Poster Image
Legal details, advocacy overwhelm graphic-novel bio.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Becoming RBG is packed with lots of detailed information about social conditions in the 20th century United States, particularly regarding women's rights -- like the difficulties of early women law students finding a women's bathroom, and that state laws kept women from serving on juries. There's detailed examination of legal cases and their implications, which will be of most interest to budding law aficionadas and courtroom-drama fans. Includes source documentation and recommendations for further reading,

Positive Messages

Strong messages of concern for the rights of others and doing the right thing, as well as using the legal system to achieve what you consider to be justice. Also, determination in the face of setbacks, plus hard work, family -- and not letting political disagreements interfere with your friendships. As the book concludes, given liberal Justice Ginsburg's and concervative Justice Antonin Scalia's different views of the Constitution, "If one thing is clear in this debate, it is this: Listening to one another across this divide and engaging with opposing ideas are necessary steps for 'We, the people' to keep and protect that 'more perfect Union' that Ruth Bader Ginsburg worked so hard to achieve."

Positive Role Models & Representations

From her brilliant legal mind to her concern for others, not to mention her hard work and patient tenacity, there's a lot to admire about Justice Ginsburg, including her longtime friendship with the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, with whom she regularly disagreed. Their friendhsip sets an all-too-rare example for polarized times. She balances strong convictions with the recognition that hard work, patience, and strategy are necessary if you want to make your goal of changing things real. Veering as it does toward partisan cheerleading, Becoming RBG has a tendency to push as obvious truth and justice some choices that others may find more ethically complex. For example, there's a scene where young Ruth, in her first job out of law school, decides to rubber-stamp Social Security benefits applications for minority recipients who lacked required birth certificates, on the grounds that Congress couldn't POSSIBLY have been serious about requiring birth certificates -- all while smirking and winking at the recipient.

Violence

Growing up during World War II with her Jewish family in Brooklyn, Ruth's family lived in fear of the Holocaust. Her cousin returns traumatized from the war, which makes a powerful impression on her. A graphic illustration of a mushroom cloud portrays the bombing of Japan. Ruth's mother dies after a long struggle with cancer, and her husband has a life-threatening cancer in their early days before eventually dying from it decades later. 

Sex
Language

Accompanying an illustration of anti-semitic flyer, older women with scary faces are seen sitting on the stoop talking to little boys. The text reads:

"… but anti-Semitism was rearing its ugly head right there in New York City.

"Ruth knew that the two grandmotherly ladies on her block who took in foster children taught their boys that Jews were Christ-killers!"
Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Becoming RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Journey to Justice is a graphic-novel biography of the iconic Supreme Court justice, the second woman appointed to the Court. Many of the issues it presents, particularly involving legal fine points and courtroom strategy, will be way over the heads of much of the middle grade target audience. And between the earnest tone and the sense that the book is preaching to the choir, it may be a bit of a slog for many. But fans of the Notorious RBG will find inspiration here. And some of the everyday obstacles women faced in the mid-20th century (from lack of bathrooms in law school to women not being allowed to serve on juries) will be startling revelations to readers today.

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What's the story?

Born to a strong, loving Jewish family in Brooklyn, New York, young Ruth Bader feels the shadow of World War II and the Holocaust, admires Eleanor Roosevelt, excels in school, then suffers a great loss when her beloved mom dies of cancer -- and another one when, per Jewish custom, she's not counted as an official mourner because she's female. The long path of BECOMING RBG takes her through college and law school at a time when female students were a rarity, then on to a career driven by a quest for justice supported by rigorous legal work, ultimately leading to her appointment as the second woman justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Is it any good?

This middle-grade graphic-novel biography of iconic Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg tries but doesn't entirely succeed at making its complex subject accessible to kids. Becoming RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Journey to Justice, by author Debbie Levy (I Dissent), offers many relatable, thought-provoking moments and historical insights amid a pile-on of fine points of legal issues that will go over the heads of much of the target audience. Readers may also struggle with the relevance of issues like whether to go to college at Cornell or Barnard.

The book has a strong tone of advocacy for causes in line with Ginsburg's positions, but there's also an emphasis on the importance of respecting and working with people who don't share your views. All the quotes are documented, and an extensive appendix offers much for further reading.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how the Supreme Court is shown in Becoming RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Journey to Justice. How do the justices' decisions affect people's lives?

  • Do you think the story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's life was well-suited for a graphic novel? What can graphic novels do that text alone cannot? Did following her story in comics panels help you understand the history, legal issues, and who she is as a person?  

  • Have you ever been told you couldn't do something because of your gender? How did it feel? What did you do?

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