Putting Out Fires

Send a Girl!: The True Story of How Women Joined the FDNY – written by Jessica M. Rinker, illustrated by Meg Hunt
Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2021

There are still many gaps in books for children about lesser-known heroes of the fight for women’s equality.  Send a Girl! tells the true story of Brenda Berkman, the first woman to break the seemingly indestructible barrier against allowing women to join New York City’s Fire Department.  The book evokes powerful emotions: frustration, anger, pride, and gratitude.  It is also a cautionary tale; there is still a great deal more to be accomplished.  Children reading the straightforward and yet dramatic text, and looking at the powerful pictures, will definitely be drawn to Berkman’s struggle, and will also have productive questions for parents and educators.

The front and back endpapers of the book are a wonderful preview and summary of its themes.  Red drawings against a light-yellow background simulate fire. Icons of the story include flames, city buildings, fire-fighting tools, and a photograph of young Brenda adjacent to a firefighter’s helmet.  The moving dedication page includes a scene, later repeated in the text, of Brenda studying for her firefighter’s exam. She is the totally authentic person we will meet in the book itself. A pencil behind her ear recalling pre-technology days, she points to the lines in a book while making notes with her other hand.  A cup of coffee and a bunch of bananas indicate that Brenda is dedicating her personal time to the pursuit of a goal.

The book narrates Berkman’s life in flashback. At the beginning, she is a busy professional. “She hauled hoses! She climbed ladders! She even broke through walls!” Yet readers soon learn that the achievement of her life’s dream was almost blocked by man-made and malicious obstacles.  First, during her nineteen-fifties childhood, Brenda was discouraged from participating in sports. Later, she attends law school, but just entering any male-dominated profession is not enough. She knows that she wants to be a firefighter, and she is ready to confront the prejudices that deem her incapable of doing so.

Jessica Rinker and Meg Hunt’s depiction of Berkman’s ordeal does not soften the hard facts.  Angry and threatened men bully their colleague. Even tough New Yorkers, portrayed reading The Daily News on the subway, are full of snide skepticism at the possibility that women could be first responders to the city’s needs. Although Berkman passes the competitive exam and is welcomed to the ranks of the FDNY, her triumph is marred by the entrenched hatred of her colleagues and even of the people she is committed to serving.  One two-page spread is truly heartbreaking, reporting that “Some of the other firefighters were cruel. They pulled a lot of pranks. But these pranks were not funny tricks. They were mean and dangerous and sometimes threatened the women’s lives.” There is a lot left unsaid; adults reading with children can fill in the gaps, and also address exactly why so many people opposed the inclusion of women in a department dedicated to public service.

Hunt’s illustrations are unusual. They have a cartoon-like quality, in the sense that they convey action as well as emotion.  Brenda Berkman becomes both a distinct individual and a symbol of women’s bravery.  Her compact frame is physically strong. Her face registers a range of feelings. Watching a group of her colleagues enjoying a spaghetti dinner in the firehouse, she sits on a bench, seeming on the verge of tears. The joviality of the men highlights the grotesque hypocrisy of their actions.  But addressing a group of the United Women Firefighters, she exudes both compassion and confidence.  Suited in her protective gear and wielding a mallet, Brenda Berkman has greater superpowers than any comic book hero.  Send a Girl!, which includes “A Note from the Author,” further background information, and list of sources, is an essential book to share and an inspiration to both children and adults.

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