By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Marlene Targ Brill mines the true stories of children whose courage and abilities change their world. Her latest picture book features Louise Dunn Yochim, whose skills as a young artist saved her Jewish family from deportation and religious persecution during the Ukrainian pogroms of the early 1920s.
At 73, this Wilmette resident has penned 72 award-winning historical fiction books for young adults and children. In ‘Picture Girl,’ Brill writes a moving immigrant story featuring a Skokie artist who died 15 years ago. As a 12-year-old, Louise, known as Luba, drew constantly in storm shelters hiding from murderous Cossacks and on the SS Estonia on her way from Ukraine to America.
By the time Luba and her family finally saw the Statue of Liberty, they had suffered violence, injuries, illnesses and a storm at sea. The immigration quota for Ukrainians had been filled while Luba’s twin siblings were recovering from measles.
It looked like the family would have to return to Ukraine. But then a guard saw Luba’s drawing of President Woodrow Wilson, and the family’s situation changed by allowing them to stay in the United States. The father had a sponsor in Chicago, his brother, who received Luba’s artwork as a gift. He got a lawyer who pleaded the family’s case and presented Luba’s artwork to the judge.
Of their first meeting, Brill said Yochim, who was in her 90s, “was as active as could be and had written nine books herself, most about art and the Jewish people. She was just delightful. I literally fell in love with this woman.”
Yochim showed Brill her memoir and that’s what got her started interviewing the artist for the children’s book. The book explores themes of immigration, perseverance, family values, religious persecution, life on Ellis Island and using art to overcome adversity.
Yochim attended the Art Institute of Chicago and married a classmate. She eventually became one of two art supervisors for the Chicago Public Schools.
Brill has a bachelor’s degree in special education and a master’s degree in early childhood education. She has worked in the education field as a teacher, consultant and curriculum specialist.
“Writing always came easily to me,” Brill said. “I was a teacher of students with special needs in the olden days when we didn’t have a lot of supplies and I started making materials for myself. I found that I really enjoyed the process.”
Her last full-time job was as a media coordinator when she got bitten by the book bug. “My income’s been coming down ever since unfortunately, but it’s fun.”
She is also the author of ‘Annie Shapiro and the Clothing Worker’s Strike,’ about a 17-year-old seamstress who walked out of work over a pay dispute, sparking a strike in 1915 that grew to include 40,000 workers in Chicago and Milwaukee. She also wrote ‘Allen Jay and the Underground Railroad’ about how a boy helped a passenger on the Underground Railway escape from slavery in 1842.
Born in West Rogers Park and raised Conservative, Brill’s Judaism informs her work, she says “To me it’s more about the story and the person. Of course, I feel more comfortable writing about people who might have a similar history to me.” ‘Annie Shapiro and the Clothing Worker’s Strike,’ published in 2011, was the story of her sister-in-law’s aunt. “It was a lot of fun to research because I had the whole family to draw from. In that sense, I like to write closer to home. It’s more comfortable.”
‘Picture Girl’ is short, easy reading designed for third to six graders. The illustrations were done by the husband of the husband and wife team that owns Golden Alley Press, Brill’s publisher. Brill just put out another upper level book on Deloris Huerta, an American labor leader and civil rights activist.
Brill also wrote the first children’s biography of Barack Obama before he was elected to the Senate and little had been written about him.
‘Picture Girl’ is available on Amazon, at Barnes and Noble and at Women and Children First book store. Brill regularly speaks to groups, young and old, about her books. For more information, visit www.marlenetargbrill.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (847) 251-4448.