Laboring for Change

Thanks to Frances Perkins: Fighter for Workers’ Rights – by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Kristy Caldwell, Peachtree Publishing, 2020

If you ask many Americans who was the first woman to serve in a president’s cabinet, many may not know.  Deborah Hopkinson and Kristy Caldwell new picture book biography introduces Frances Perkins, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor, to young readers and also to older ones. Even adults who vaguely remember that Perkins served in FDR’s cabinet will gain a new vision of her passionate and persistent advocacy for change, and her deep commitment to a dignified life for American workers.  The “thanks” of the title are indeed in order, today more than ever.

Hopkinson (I’ve reviewed two other books by her about courageous people on this blog and for Jewish Book Council, and she herself blogged about it recently for School Library Journal) invites readers into the story of Perkins’ life by posing “two math questions,” neither one obviously relevant to the uninitiated reader.  This introduction, and the rest of the text, highlight the author’s deep understanding of how to interest children in an unfamiliar topic, emphasizing its relevance to their own lives.  Perhaps they assumed that when people grown older and retire from gainful employment, they simply continue to live their lives unchanged.  Hopkinson explains that this is not so, and that a real person, a pioneering woman, was behind the progress than led to Social Security. Caldwell’s delicately drawn but vibrant pictures portray each person in the book, Perkins herself as well as unknown workers, as distinct individuals. Her story is a compelling combination of American, labor, and women’s history, unfolding against the background of one woman determined to help effect change.

A scene of busy urban life pairs with simple explanations of Perkins’ crusade.  The author defines the term “sweatshop,” and asserts with careful understatement that “Workers had few rights or benefits.”

Men, women, and children in the background are busily engaged in their daily activities, calling to mind classic Japanese painting filled with detailed images of court life.  Through a window, we see women factory workers at their tasks.  The pictures are a quiet and unobtrusive record of what workers endured. Hopkinson records how Perkins’ consciousness was raised by the horrifying Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, and by labor activist Rose Schneiderman’s stirring calls for action. By the time Perkins meets with New York legislator Alfred E. Smith, she has focused on a plan; Hopkinson’s judicious use of direct quotes helps to make Perkins’ ideas accessible.  As Smith and Perkins observe first-hand the trauma of child labor, her conviction seems even more real.  Again, Caldwell’s drawing of young children lugging boxes and operating machinery is almost minimalist.  She does not depict the worse abuses, but rather a barefoot boy slipping in a puddle of water and the crude patch on a girl’s torn blouse.

There is nothing super-human about Perkins.  She keeps track of ideas by scribbling them on small pieces of paper and rejects various other names before deciding on the best one for her visionary Social Security program.  Children follow the process by which change takes place, through both incremental steps and great bravery, “little by little, step by step, using her heart and her mind.” 

The image of weary activists staying awake all night to complete a goal reiterates how difficult and plodding revolutionary work can be, while the tender picture of Perkins bending down to be at eye level with a young child affirms that she is motivated by compassion. The culminating scene offers a cameo appearance by FDR himself, signing the Social Security Act with his signature flourish. In a room full of men in grey and tan suits, Perkins stands modestly in her sharp navy suit and pearls. Sometimes it takes a woman to get the job done!  Hopkinson also includes a useful “Author’s Note” with photos, list of additional sources, and the answer to her original math questions.  Thanks to Frances Perkins is a perfect vehicle for discussing women’s roles in change we can believe in.

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