Addie Card in North Pownal, Vermont, 1910.
One of the photos that inspired Elizabeth Winthrop's
"Counting on Grace." (Lewis Hine)
With kids not learning labor history in school, it's going to have to come from other sources if they're going to really understand that, once upon a time, kids like them worked in factories and mines, that they did this because those factories and mines didn't pay their parents enough to support a family. If they rely on school they won't really learn that it was workers organizing together into unions that led to the 10-hour day and then the eight-hour day, to weekends and overtime and minimum wage. They definitely won't learn the value of solidarity, of coming together around what you have in common and knowing that you share your fate with your coworkers and the people in your community, that you are stronger together than apart, and that struggle—even struggle that is painted as unreasonable or radical at the time—is an integral part of changing the world for the better.
Popular culture isn't exactly in your face with that message these days, either. But if you look around, there are some wonderful books and movies for kids that do convey some of the history and some of the values of worker strength. With the gift-giving holidays coming up, I've compiled a list of suggestions.
Just as the mission of Daily Kos Labor isn't to talk only about unions but to offer a worker-centered perspective on the economy, these books and movies aren't only about unions or specific strikes or even exactly about work. Some of them are—from the Lowell mills to the Los Angeles janitors strike of 2000—but others are about life in a coal town or as a migrant worker; about solidarity, regardless of if that's the name that's used; about the ways that people (and animals) find freedom and dignity in even the most oppressive economic systems.
I'm starting off with some of my personal favorites; below the fold you'll find a longer, but still not comprehensive, list, with less in the way of description.
- Click Clack Moo: Cows That Type, by Doreen Cronin, is for the really little ones. It's about farm animals bargaining collectively and ultimately going on strike, helped by their access to an old typewriter. It's deft and light-handed and funny, but it gets the message across.
- If you were a girl in the 1980s, maybe you came across the Sunfire romances. Each one featured a teenage girl in a specific historical setting—an Irish girl fleeing the potato famine, working as a maid in Boston; a girl heading west with a wagon train—who had to choose between two suitors. They're out of print now, but there are still used copies floating around the internet, and Sunfire's Joanna, by Jane Claypool Miner, is one of my all-time favorite labor books.
In 1836, Joanna Adams goes to Lowell, Massachusetts from her family's Vermont farm to work in the mills. She has no plans to join any labor organizing efforts—she just wants to earn money, help her family make ends meet, and get ahead herself. But oppressive conditions and pay cuts challenge her determination to stay on the good side of the bosses. Though it's a formulaic series romance for teenagers, Joanna really does have politics. And if there was any doubt that its author intended it that way, one of Jane Claypool Miner's other Sunfire books is Jennie. The centerpiece event of Jennie is the Johnstown Flood of 1889, but even before the dam breaks, something for which Jennie unequivocally blames wealthy factory owners, Jennie's view of the world is this:
Her father had died working to defend the property of a rich factory owner named Anthony Wright. Two days after the funeral, Mr. Wright had turned the Brooks out of their home without an extra dollar to pay their moving expenses. Jennie had been ten, but she'd clearly understood that the rich factory owners were the enemies of the poor workers.
So, yeah. Jane Claypool Miner deserves major credit for giving teenage girls a solid class analysis in the (successful) guise of historical romance. Joanna has the more fully drawn characters and romance, and the character's trajectory from wanting the approval of her bosses to ultimately joining a walk-out is perhaps more interesting than Jennie (correctly) disliking and distrusting rich factory owners from start to finish.
- Lassie Come-Home, by Eric Knight. Lassie, really? Yes. Put the execrable "Timmy's down a well" television show out of your mind and for that matter avoid the shortened picture-book versions of the original. Lassie Come-Home is a beautiful story about class and money and pride and love and loyalty.
Sam Carraclough has always refused to sell his collie, Lassie, at any price:
The village knew all about that. And that was why Lassie meant so much to them. She represented some sort of pride that money had not been able to take away from them.
Yet, dogs are owned by men, and men are bludgeoned by fate. And sometimes there comes a time in a man's life when fate has beaten him to the point that he must bow his head and decide to eat his pride so that his family may eat bread.
But Lassie will have none of it, and travels 400 miles to be with the family she loves.
- The Littlest Horse Thieves, a movie, is set in early 20th century England, where the ponies who haul coal within a mine are being replaced by machinery, and three children work to save them from slaughter. It's an affecting story, not without its serious and sad moments, but it is after all Disney, which is more or less a guarantee of appropriateness. The movie does a lovely job capturing the threat of mechanization to human jobs, and the degree to which workers were at the mercy of their employer, through the story of the ponies; the children are clever and resourceful without being all-knowing.
The Littlest Horse Thieves is not the easiest to get ahold of—Netflix doesn't have it, my local library didn't have it, and the DVD is relatively expensive. Amazon does have it on instant video, and of course, you may get lucky elsewhere.
Picture books and early readers
- Si Se Puede/Yes We Can: Janitor Strike in L.A., by Diana Cohn, is set recently enough in the past that the world it depicts should be more familiar to children. This bilingual book tells the story of a little boy whose mother takes part in the Los Angeles Justice for Janitors strike of 2000.
- In The Rag Coat, by Lauren Mills, the women of a coal mining community come together to patch together a coat so that one little girl can go to school in winter.
- Harvest of Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez, by Kathleen Krull, is gorgeously illustrated and does a remarkably good job with the difficult task of relating Chavez' life as an engaging story. It helps that it begins with his childhood, so that a young reader can identify with the young Cesar playing with his siblings and cousins and going to school for the first time before getting to organizing meetings, stand-offs with police, and foot-blistering marches.
- Swimmy, by Leo Lionni. A little fish organizes other little fish to team up against the big fish that would eat them individually. You may perhaps be familiar with this visual concept. A Caldecott Honor book.
- Dr. Seuss's Yertle the Turtle and Horton Hears a Who also have smaller creatures joining together to overturn a dictator or just be heard.
- The Very Silly Mayor, by our own Tom Tomorrow, encourages critical thinking about authority and healthy suspicion of what the media tells you.
- The Bobbin Girl, by Emily Arnold McCully. This is also a beautifully illustrated book, for the old end of the picture-book crowd, about a 10-year-old bobbin girl at a mill in, where else, Lowell, Massachusetts. It's a bit clunky and pedantic, but the illustrations may draw some children in.
- Sitting Ducks, by Michael Bedard. Ducks are hatched to be eaten by alligators, until one alligator helps the duck organize for their freedom.
- Lyddie, by Katherine Paterson, is set in 1843. When Lyddie's family is forced to leave their farm due to debt, she is first a servant in a tavern and then goes to Lowell to work in the mills. Even more than Joanna in the Jane Claypool Miner book, Lyddie is focused on being seen as a good worker and, especially, making the money she needs to get her family's farm back. Paterson does a wonderful job painting a sympathetic portrait of why a worker might not join an organizing effort despite horrible treatment by the bosses—Lyddie is driven to make money to get back to her home, and she's terrified of doing anything to jeopardize that. Which is not to say she doesn't change her mind about a lot of things as the book goes on.
- Which Side Are You On? The Story of a Song, by George Ella Lyon, tells the story of the classic song by Florence Reese. It's illustrated more in the style of a graphic novel and, as the song was written "in a rain of bullets," it definitely confronts the history of anti-worker violence.
- Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor, by Russell Freedman. Not so much a likely holiday gift as a good resource for a kid doing a report or paper on child labor or the Progressive Era, the book pairs Lewis Hines' early twentieth century photos of children at work with the story of how Hines carried out his work, the realities of these children's lives and the industries they worked in, and the anti-child labor movement. The photos are powerful, the writing is clear and informative, and the book covers a good bit of ground without being an overload.
- Counting on Grace, but Elizabeth Winthrop, takes Lewis Hine's pictures of a Vermont mill girl as its inspiration, and Hine is a character in the book, coming to take the photo of Grace, the book's main character, and the other children working in her mill, as Grace struggles to keep learning even though she's had to leave school to work.
- Uprising, by Margaret Peterson Haddix, tells the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire from the perspectives of three girls from different backgrounds.
- Blue Willow, by Doris Gates, is a lovely story about the daughter of a migrant farm worker at the end of the Depression; the focus is on the effects of unstable, poorly-paid work on a family and a child, little on the work itself.
- Bread and Roses, Too, by Katherine Paterson, is set during the 1912 Lawrence mill strike. Rosa, an Italian-American girl, is terrified when her mother and sister go out on strike. Her acquaintance Jake, on the other hand, happily goes out on strike, though not because he's given the issues a lot of thought. Both end up sent to Barre, Vermont, to stay with union supporters during the strike.
- Newsies is a cult favorite with Disney production values, and there's no question it has a strong union storyline; in fact, being about workers who have a lot of similarities with today's many "independent contractors" gives it added relevance. That said, I personally don't enjoy it that much.
- Freddie and Simon the Dictator, by Walter R. Brooks. Political chaos, dictatorship, and, of course, animals organizing.
For slightly older kids, there's a great case to be made that Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy belongs on this list—it's about a giant permanent underclass working ceaselessly so that a small ruling class can live lives of leisure and plenty, and ultimately it's about rebellion against that.