by Peg Strobel
It’s sometimes a challenge to find engaging books about work, solidarity or unions that are educational without being didactic. Many of the books listed below have been honored by the Jane Addams Peace Association (JAPA), which, together with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, has presented awards since 1953 to books “that effectively promote the cause of peace, social justice, world community, and the equality of the sexes and all races as well as meeting conventional standards for excellence.”
Click, Clack, Moo is great for reading to young kids, and pbskids.org identifies it as effective for teaching deaf or hard of hearing students as well. It starts when Farmer Brown’s cows find an old typewriter in the barn and send him a note politely requesting electric blankets because the barn is cold. When Farmer Brown replies, “No way,” the cows go on strike. Soon the chickens join them. Broader solidarity is impeded because not all the animals understand Moo. Duck, “a neutral party” enlisted as go-between, delivers a note indicating the cows and chickens are willing to exchange the typewriter for electric blankets. Thinking he had stopped the insurgency, the farmer provides the blankets, only to be met with a note from the ducks, who want a diving board to quell their boredom. Although the author portrays the farmer as a stereotypical old white man, the story effectively uses humor and engaging illustrations to present a nuanced story of solidarity.
The message of solidarity continues in Harvesting Hope, which is a fairly standard, if vividly illustrated, biography of Cesar Chavez, founder of the National Farm Workers Association. It deals with his childhood years and the organizing efforts leading up to and including the historic strike and 1965 march, in the midst of the grape harvest, to the California capital by Latino migrant laborers. I don’t speak Spanish, but I was puzzled by the English translation in the text that renders “sí se puede” into a passive voice, “yes, it can be done.”
In addition to using a more dynamic rallying phrase, Sí Se Puede! Yes, We Can! brings the story up to the recent past, in another historic Latino/a organizing campaign in California, SEIU Local 1877’s successful Justice For Janitors mobilization in Los Angeles. The mother of the fictional Carlitos is a leader in the 2000 effort. Carlitos organizes some of his classmates to show up at their parent’s demonstration. After three weeks, when her strike ends victoriously, Carlitos and his mother join another picket line in support of hotel janitors. A concluding interview with the actual organizer who serves as a model for Carlitos’ mother anchors the story in the actual campaign.
Which Side Are You On? The Story of a Song returns us to an earlier period and different struggle. Published on the eightieth anniversary of its composition, the story chronicles the night when Florence Reese penned the iconic song. Her husband, a union organizer, has left their mining town in Harlan County, Kentucky, when he hears that the sheriff is after him. Interspersed with lyrics, the story is told from the perspective of their young son, who explains in simple terms the difficult and dangerous work and times in 1930s coal country. Ma composes the song as she and the kids are huddled under the bed to avoid the bullets being shot into their home. When Pa returns and hears Ma sing the new song, he says, “We can use that. It’ll bring folks together.” The author’s notes discuss the history of mine union struggles as well as the tradition of folk songs.
Writing for older kids, the author of Ain’t Nothing But a Man tells how he searched for a real John Henry, the steel-driving man who dies challenging a steam-driven drill in another famous folk song. Historian Scott Reynolds Nelson is interested in documenting the work of African American track layers who helped build railroads in the post-Civil War South. His intriguing story of his search for evidence, with its frustrations and dead-ends, reveals the work methods of historians as well as railroad builders. (Full disclosure: I’m a historian, but I think others will find it interesting too!) His surprising conclusion challenges conventional thinking about who John Henry was and how he died.
Grace, in Counting on Grace, is a self-identified “Franco” (French-Canadian) girl who, in the course of the book, leaves school and starts working in the same Vermont textile mill as her family and her friends’ families. We learn about the details of such work along with ethnic prejudices, child labor practices, school experiences, solidarity and its absence. Grace emerges as a distinctive individual, not a type. She is fidgety; she struggles to learn to write (though left-handed, she’s forced to use her right hand); she competes with her older sister. The story turns around the arrival of the historical figure Lewis Hines, who is photographing for a study of child labor. In her conclusion, the author describes being intrigued by the image of a girl in one of Hines’ photographs and tells of her search through census and other records to discover the outcome of that girl’s life.
It’s been many years since I had reason to read children’s books. After sampling these, I plan to hit the children’s section of our local library regularly.
Doreen Cronon; pictures by Betsy Lewin, Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type (Simon & Schuster, 2000), 2001 Caldecott Honor Book, ages 2-5.
Kathleen Krull; illustrated by Yuyi Morales, Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez (Harcourt, 2003), Spanish and English editions, JAPA Winner for Younger Children, 2004, ages 6-9.
Diana Cohn, illustrated by Francisco Delgado, Sí Se Puede! Yes, We Can! Janitor Strike in L.A. (Cinco Puntos Press, 2002), English and Spanish in same edition, 32 pp., JAPA Honor Book, 2003, ages 5 and up.
George Ella Lyon, artwork by Christopher Cardinale, Which Side Are You On? The Story of a Song (Cinco Puntos Press, 2011), 35 pp., grades 2-6.
Scott Reynolds Nelson with Marc Aronson, Ain’t Nothing But a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry (National Geographic, 2008), with photographs and illustrations, 64 pp. JAPA Honor Book for Older Children, 2009.
Elizabeth Winthrop, Counting on Grace (Wendy Lamb Books, 2006), 227 pp. JAPA Honor Book for Older Children, 2007.
Peg Strobel is active in the Chicago and Greater Oak Park DSA and serves on the National Political Committee of Democratic Socialists of America. This post first appeared in New Ground, the newsletter of Chicago Democratic Socialists of America.
Filed under: Book Reviews Tagged: | Ain't Nothing But a Man, Cesar Chavez, children's books, Clack, Click, Counting on Grace, Harvesting Hope, John Henry, Moo: Cows That Type, Sí Se Puede! Yes, We Can! Janitor Strike in L.A., Which Side Are You On? The Story of a Song