A review of RBG A to Z by Jo Stewart

Reviewed by Christine Jacques

RBG A to Z
The Life of an Icon from ACLU to Gen Z
Written by Jo Stewart
Illustrated by Chantel De Sousa
Smith Street Books
March 2022, Hardcover, $14.95/CAD $16.95, ISBN 978-1-92-241767-1

RBG A to Z is a brief, charming book. Telling the beloved Supreme Court jurist’s story, letter by letter, each page includes other alphabetical anecdotes depicting scenes from a life worth celebrating. Illustrator Chantel De Sousa pictures her life as Ginsburg Smiling, Ginsburg Serious and even some Ginsburg Glasses-Free. Together the text and the pictures create a portrait of a brilliant woman who didn’t know how to turn on her oven.

Some stories are familiar: her lack of skill or interest in cooking; her enthusiasm for opera; her friendship with judicial opposite Antonin Scalia. Some history here should be better known: Ginsburg named Pauli Murray, the attorney who first examined the 14th Amendment’s relationship to sex discrimination, as an honorary co-author of the authoritative Reed. v. Reed brief. The New York Times overlooked that tidbit when writing Murray’s 1984 obituary. Thanks to Jo Stewart for remembering it here.

Some tidbits are amusing: that serious-faced woman was a high school baton twirler! Her family called her Kiki. She loved a good poppy seed bagel. Ginsburg also stockpiled Notorious RBG shirts, and enjoyed giving them as gifts. One wonders if the Queen of England does the same with tea towels.

Overall, RBG A to Z is an engaging, if sometimes gushy, visual history of both Ginsburg, and her influences. Sandra Day O’Connor gets a turn, as do Reproductive Rights. Vladimir Nabokov, her undergraduate European Literature professor, helped hone her writing to such quality that it won her the inaugural directorship of the Women’s Rights Project with the American Civil Liberties Union. Even hot dogs get their day in court.

Its charms don’t explain some omissions. C is for College, but C is also for Case. RBG argued or judged some of the most critical gender equity cases, starting with her own federal antidiscrimination claim against her employer (and my alma mater), Rutgers University. Because of the afore-mentioned Reed, American women swipe credit cards secured in their own names. In Frontiero and Goldfarb, Ginsburg argued for husbands’ rights to housing and Social Security benefits automatically awarded to wives. A brief nod to these groundbreaking cases, even if a bulleted list, would have been illuminating, without dimming the spotlight on other cases. For that matter, what would Ginsburg have said about the Virginia Military Institute’s alumni, under U is for US vs. Virginia? Jennifer Carroll Foy, VMI 2003 and a contender for the Virginia governorship, didn’t make the cut. Yet Mel Brooks, who is not a graduate, did. And surely Ginsburg, an appellate judge in 1980, didn’t wait til she was on the Supreme Court to return briefs to her law clerks, “their work obliterated by a five-foot octogenarian armed with a red pen.” The Time Lords are just not that good.

(Memo to Design: Even Gen Z wears glasses. Do us a favor: increase the font size on the anecdotes for the next printing. Oh, and up the contrast between the font color and the page color; check the letter N for an example. Thanks. Seriously.) However, RBG isn’t going for legal glory. Reading it was like flipping through a photo album: remember Bryant Johnson’s pushups? Look, there’s her Lego figure! It was a refreshing walk through a remarkable life. When future lawyers look for motivation, or burned-out attorneys need to remember their “why,” RBG provides both. It ends on a hopeful note for meme-loving Gen-Z and its activists, like Malala Yousafazai and Greta Thunberg. The image of little girls swinging on the letter Z brings it home: RBG is for them. Maybe a future jurist will say to an interviewer “RBG A to Z was my first step towards my career.” It would be a compliment to Ginsburg, and to this imperfect but inspiring book.

About the reviewer: Christine Jacques lives in Colorado. Literature is her first love, but her husband is a close second.