Friday, September 29, 2006


COUNTING ON GRACE by Elizabeth Winthrop (Random House)
If you are into American history at all, you know the photograph: a weary young girl standing in front of rows of bobbins, a smock askew, hair pulled up, leaning on one elbow, a child pausing from her twelve hour workday. This moment captured in black and white by artist, social reformer and advocate Lewis Hine was the inspiration for Elizabeth Winthrop's latest historical novel.

Grace and her best friend Arthur are forced to leave school to work in a mill, replacing full bobbins with empty ones. Grace is glad to have the chance to earn some extra pennies for her family, who depend on this contribution for their very survival. When a teacher encourages the children to write a letter of complaint to the National Labor Committee, Grace understands that outcomes of such an action could put her family in terrible jeopardy. Arthur, however, cannot bear the conditions in the mill. He sees opportunity in education and he is willing to do anything to get it, even if it means purposely mangling his hand in a machine. It seems the work of Lewis Hine has come too late for some. The experiences of the people around her, however painful, lead Grace to make a stunning choice about the path of her own life.

There are so many strong points about this novel. One is the tension. We care about all the characters, and every one of their choices reverberates in the lives of those they love. It is a powerful thing to read, as a child, the impact of decisions upon others in ways we don't expect. The situations, though painful, are done realistically, and convey the conflict of child labor so very powerfully in the context of the character's place and time. Which brings us to the research, which lends both believability and flavor to the prose and does just what good historical fiction should do: carry us away, make us feel as if we are there. The inclusion of Lewis Hine as a character in the story will lead children to delve deeper, in books like KIDS AT WORK: LEWIS HINE AND THE HISTORY OF CHILD LABOR by Russell Freedman (Clarion), KIDS ON STRIKE! by Susan Campbell Bartoletti (Houghton Mifflin), and the wonderful picture book KID BLINK BEATS THE WORLD by Don Brown (Roaring Brook). And the last great feat of this book is voice, which she has given to this Vermont farmgirl faced with the need to do the right thing in the face of contradictions. If you enjoyed the bold candor of the period writing in Jennifer Holm's OUR ONLY MAY AMELIA, you will love Grace's genial, colloquial point of view as well.

I'm very excited for author Elizabeth Winthrop, who gained acclaim for her unique mix of fantasy and historical fiction, CASTLE IN THE ATTIC, and has over fifty books under her belt. It just goes to show that the writer's mind is indeed a muscle, because her work is stronger than ever. This is a special contribution to the shelves of children's literature, and offers children a first-person view into their own history. A book deserving of Newbery consideration. (10 and up)

Also of interest:
Read an article in Smithsonian about the real "Grace," Addie Card! (Photo from the Smithsonian collection)

On a personal note:
Book-A-Day will be back Tuesday, October 1st! Have a good weekend.

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.


MotherReader said...

I read this book and also thought it was superb. It really captured the feel for the period and the conditions. I was most impressed by how the families were portrayed. It would be easy for people now to wonder how mothers and fathers could make their kids work in these conditions, but when you read how trapped they were, you have some understanding. Great book.

Michelle G said...

I love this review! I am observing 4th grade and I would love to introduce this book to their teacher! Awesome Job! Keep it up!

Anonymous said...

Wow, what a powerful article. Thanks for these reviews! I will definitely be reading all of the Elizabeth Winthrop that I can get my little paws on!

Michelle said...

There's another middle grade/young adult novel that treats this subject pretty well, though it's older. Lyddie by Katherine Paterson. I read it when I was a kid and I loved it.


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