Review of the Day – Rosie the Riveter: The Legacy of an American Icon by Sarah Dvojack
When people are giving up-and-coming authors of children’s books advice, one thing you’ll often hear is, “Read read read.” You want to write picture books? Read what’s going on the shelves right now. You want to write a fantasy for 10-year-olds? Then find yourself the best fantasies for kids and read them. And if you want to write a picture book biography of someone, there’s no end of wonderful ones out there. Alas, there’s no end of awful ones too. Picture book bios are achingly difficult to do well. For every beauty there are at least ten others that either try too hard or don’t try hard enough. So while I understand why people give this advice to read in the genre they wish to write, surely it gets intimidating, right? I mean, it’s so easy to do it wrong. Now imagine that you not only have decided to write a picture book biography, but ALSO illustrate it. And your subject? Not even a real person. An icon. A symbol. That this is Sarah Dvojack’s first authored/illustrated book is impressive in and of itself, but the fact that she comes out swinging with a history of a woman who was never even born, THAT is interesting. Strong from its subject to its end product. Strong all around.
“Rosie the Riveter was born all grown up in 1942.” An alarming prospect for any woman unless you know the details. America had entered WWII and things were changing in America. Men were shipping out and the women left behind were taking jobs they’d never been allowed before. Some jobs were tough, like riveting ships and airplanes and bridges. As a result, the symbol of Rosie was created, and she inspired everything from magazine covers to movies. But then the men came back home after the war and the women got pushed out of the workplaces. Just the same, Rosie gave hope. She held open doors for women, and as the book says, “Rosie isn’t just a riveter.” She’s a whole wide world of professions and identities and her strength continues. Backmatter to the book gives additional information about the origins of Rosie, with special attention paid not just to whether or not she was a real person but also to her posters, illustrations, and film.
I often think about how difficult it is to write a picture book biography of a person who never lived or breathed. Rosie’s just a symbol, but Dvojack has a keen sense of how to integrate her into both history and, more specifically, women’s rights in America. First, the author has a clever way with words. She says, “It was the middle of the Second World War, and everybody needed her because everything was coming apart. Rosie was a riveter after all.” Later she says that the men couldn’t be at home to do the usual jobs during the war because, “the men were most gone, busy taking the rivets out of the world.” I fear that it would be easy to disregard this book based solely on the subject matter. That would be a mistake. Ms. Dvojack clearly has a keen ear for a turn of phrase and she has a marvelous way of turning what could be a rote project into something bigger than its subject matter alone.
These days, a lot of children’s books have to work hard to weigh the needs and preferences of their child audiences against the heartfelt desires and intentions of the adults producing their content. Grown-ups believe that is very important to instill in children a knowledge and appreciation of good role models. Kids want a good story. So on the older side of things you’ll find a lot of collected biographies where each page is a different person a kid is supposed to know with brief biographical information. Now the good news is that because children encompass a wide swath of different types of learning, some of the more expository learners are more than happy to devour such titles. Other kids, not so much. And on the younger side of things it gets even more murky. Caldecott Award winner Undefeated by Kwame Alexander has spawned an entire cottage industry of imitators, and most of them go about presenting their historical figures in such an off-handed way that it feels like they’re just there to check off an equity box (and one cannot help but wonder what James Baldwin would say if he knew how many times he’s appeared in books for the elementary school set this year alone). There are lot of famous cameos in Rosie the Riveter too, but Dvojack takes a slightly different tack. On the front endpapers, the back endpapers, and pages 16-17, approximately eighty-five women are featured in total. What’s notable about this is that while they are all named on the publication page at the front of the book, you have the option of noticing them or not noticing them as you prefer. I started looking them up for my own understanding (now I know who Bernadette Devlin is!), and Dvojack is good at what she does. These woman are beautifully rendered. I was particularly appreciative too that front and center on page 16 is Marsha P. Johnson, sticking a tiny little fork in TERFS everywhere with that inclusion.
Read this book enough times and you also begin to notice other things Dvojack is doing in the art. For example, as the men walk down the street off to war, a woman in red watches from a house. Soon, she takes on a job she couldn’t have prior to the war effort. When the men come back the last we see of her is as she runs towards a movie house where “Rosie the Riveter” is “Now Playing”. This attention to detail, not simply in the text but in the art as well, gives the reader so much to latch onto during a read. One of my favorite subtle two-page spreads comes when we look at a scene of modern life. We’re told that Rosie is everywhere today. She “is not just one woman. She is every woman.” Look a little closer at the art and you’ll notice that every girl or woman on the pages is wearing some article of clothing or accessory, whether it’s a backpack or a hijab, that is Rosie’s polka-dot red. It’s pretty subtle, and not noticeable on a first read, but for those parents that will be reading this book to their kids repeatedly, they’ll appreciate it. Sharp-eyed kid spotters too!
I watched the movie with my kids for the first time the other day, and in doing so it occurred to me that that classic superhero and Rosie have a lot in common. Both were WWII era symbols created to inspire working Americans. Both starred in 1944 films. Of course, while Cap could go on to exist in the modern era, Rosie never really continued on in the same way. Or so I thought. It’s Rosie the Riveter: The Legacy of an American Icon that proves to all of us that Rosie the symbol opened the door (literally, in one scene in this book) for the women who would come after her. “…parts of Rosie existed a long time before movies and magazines and posters. Parts of her had always existed. Parts of her always will.” This book will help to guarantee as much.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Misc: This is probably just entirely for my own amusement, but I found a site that compares Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter painting to Michelangelo’s prophet Isaiah and (a) I can’t stop looking at it and (b) while no art historian, Rockwell give that Renaissance fellow a run for his money.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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