In these pages, we follow the arrival of 19th century immigrants past the Statue of Liberty and into the ghettos of New York City, where some would find employment with the notorious Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Demonstrations to draw attention to poor working conditions failed; protesters were beaten down and then returned to work, only to have their complaints written into the annals of history in a fire where one hundred and forty-six unfortunate workers lost their lives in most terrible ways. A plethora of maps, photographs, primary source materials and related sidelines (such as autobiographical material about Jacob Riis, and "sweatshop steps in making a cotton garment") bring the past to life, offering a steady flow of historical detail that emphasize the humanity of the situation and keep the topic from becoming solely a sensational retelling of a disaster ("the story of the Triangle fire is not the story of one accidental moment in time. It is the story of immigration and the hard work necessary to make it in a new country..."). The text is generous in an amount that may be overwhelming for some readers, but the columnar layout makes it more manageable, and the material is engaging, told in almost a play-by-play fashion that pulls no punches, with conversational, age-appropriate explanations throughout. With the hundredth anniversary of the fire upon us on March 25th (and a PBS program already aired), this book does great honor to the ghosts of that tragedy, and while it is a serious subject for young readers, it is worth keeping in mind that child labor is their history, too. Notes and index are included; the care that went into the book's creation is clearly scholarly. If you know a young reader interested in the subject, this book is the most thorough, and if you know any child interested in the history of the American people, this book is most outstanding. (10 and up)
Also of interest:
No doubt, the kiddies are hearing the word "union" and "strike" bandied about more than usual these days, the news buzzing about Wisconsin state workers' recent demonstrations against Governor Scott Walker. Here's a pick that helps children to understand what a strike and a union are, in the context of children's history!
In 1899, it was not uncommon for boys to work as "newsies," peddling the consignment copies of newspapers published by millionaires Hearst and Pulitzer. When those magnates decided to charge an extra penny against their workers' wages, this was more than the little boys could bear. "I'm trying to figure how ten cents on a hundred papers can mean more to a millionaire than it does to newsboys," Kid Blink tried to figure. "If they can't spare it, how can we?" So begins the wa r between the newsies and the moguls, and a war it is, complete with protests, battles, leaders and ploys, many led by surprisingly articulate and earnest children. Peppery dialects and sobering history help to bring this early union battle to life in sepia tones. You wouldn't go wrong to share every one of Don Brown's wonderful picture book biographies with children, always affecting, but this one packs a special punch. Youths of our day will surely be inspired by Kid Blink's righteous indignation and awed by his bravery…can you imagine a child speaking his heart to a mob of five thousand? It was done. (6 and up)
Also, check out COUNTING ON GRACE by Elizabeth Winthrop (Dell Yearling). 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) and KIDS ON STRIKE! by Susan Campbell Bartoletti (Houghton Mifflin). 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). With over fifty books under her belt, 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 history that could have been them, in another place and time. (10 and up)
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