Long before the body positivity movement became common currency, an imaginative Jewish woman named Lena Himmelstein Bryant Malsin (1877 – 1951) saw the commercial possibilities in embracing this idea. Mara Rockliff’s and Juana Martinez Neale’s timely picture book introduces young readers to an underappreciated heroine who struggled in her early life and later achieved success as a leading entrepreneur. Her vision seemed unlikely at the time: the need to design and sell clothes for women who did not fit the standard mold of feminine beauty. With inspiring words and pictures that are both realistic and fanciful, this biography demonstrates that compassion and ambition can go together.
The book begins with Lena’s childhood in Europe. The warmth and loving support of her small family is “a perfect fit,” but as she gets older, Lena becomes aware of her home’s limitations on her future. Antisemitism and poverty threaten her dreams. All the while, her wise grandfather insists that helping others should be her true goal. In his long black coat, broad-brimmed hat, and white beard, this benevolent man is the picture of tradition, yet he also motivates her to push back against the obstacles in her path. He reappears at the story’s conclusion, but in between these two bookends, his presence is implicit on every page.
Martinez-Neal’s illustrations are dazzling. Elegant black sewing machines are historically accurate, facing each other as if in conversation. In another image, the newly widowed Lena, visibly grief-stricken, holds her baby, who by contrast appears calm.
When Lena welcomes a pregnant client to her small sewing business, the woman’s growing belly becomes a professional challenge. Remembering her grandfather’s advice, she sets out to design clothing that is comfortable and accommodating for this time of life. Later, she extends her idea to include not only maternity clothes, but outfits for the many women whose bodies do not conform to rigid norms.
The path to success is not straightforward. Rockliff describes an incident in which Lena’s fear about opening a bank account caused her hand to tremble, such that she accidentally changed her name from Lena to Lane. Martinez-Neal visualizes this moment by showing the normally proud Lena bent slightly in her seat, clutching her pocketbook, as two tall, faceless bankers stand on either side of her. She assumes that her authority and financial power to “rent a bigger shop and hire more people to help her sew” is threatening to these imposing men; but by the next page, Lena stands proudly in front of a sign with her new name and title.
The author takes care to provide accurate information that is nevertheless accessible. Exquisite artwork and a fluent narrative elevate Lena’s story, making it a valuable addition to picture book biographies about Jewish women.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.