She Persisted

Dangerous Jane: The Life and Times of Jane Addams, Crusader for Peace – written by Suzanne Slade, illustrated by Alice Ratterree
Peachtree Publishing, 2017

“Women cooked, cleaned, and cared for children. What could women say to presidents and prime ministers?” They could say plenty, as this picture book biography of pioneering activist and social worker Jane Addams (1860-1935) proved in her persistent and productive life. The subtitle of this engaging book present its challenge; writing a “life and times” for children is not easy. Most young readers will come to the book with little background knowledge of such issues as pacifism, immigration, or the settlement house movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  They might well be aware that women were assumed to play a different and lesser role, if any, in public life.  Suzanne Slade and Alice Ratterree frame Addams’s life as a response both to her own personal obstacles and to the injustice she saw surrounding her.

It’s often popular in children’s books to present the hero as struggling against some adversity.  Jane is born in a middle-American town; although the text does not specify that her family was affluent, the pictures imply a level of financial comfort.  Jane’s vulnerability, a condition which made her “back crooked, her toes point in,” was debilitating, and Slade evokes the reader’s sympathy by extending its reality into a fairy tale metaphor.  Ratterree depicts a sad girl sitting in a window seat quietly reading a book.  Jane “felt like the ugly duckling in her storybook: different, unwanted, hopeless.” Even more devastating was the loss of her mother, leaving her with “deep sadness and pain.” The Dickensian description of anguish on this page sets the stage for Addams’s eventual transformation, like the ugly duckling, into an assertive woman who threatened those in power with her advocacy for the vulnerable.

The book consistently shows Addams’s developing consciousness of inequality by alternating scenes of her comfortable circumstances and her observation of inequality.  She travels the world, visiting theaters and monumental works of art and architecture, but is inevitably dissatisfied.  Observing Toynbee Hall in London, a pioneering settlement house dedicated to empowering the poor through education and job training, Addams determines to bring the concept to her own country.  The full history of the settlement house movement includes criticisms of the patronizing attitude which professional social workers sometimes imposed on immigrants, as well as the underlying assumption that acculturation into specific American values was always positive. This is a children’s book; of necessity, it emphasizes the progressive goals behind Addams’s crusade.  The author is careful to describe her work as bringing “dignity and hope” to those who needed her help.

The lovely illustrations are both dramatic and subtle. Sepia and pastel colors dominate with selected brighter tones.  Facial expressions convey a range of emotions.  Chicago’s famous Hull House is a center of progress, emphasized through a scene of motion and activity.  Working people enter the house and embrace change, some literally ascending the staircase, and all engaged in meaningful pursuits or receiving crucial services.  Slade alludes to possible conflicts, since many different ethnic groups and political persuasions are represented, but Addams “asked them to listen carefully…and peacefully settle their differences.” This type of supervision implies that Addams is still in a position of control and influence over the lives of her clients, yet it reflects the reality of the Progressive era.  Change is sometimes gradual and imperfect and the settlement house movement was an important beginning.

Addams was also a peace activist who helped to organize the Women’s Peace Party in response to the terrible carnage of World War I.  The text is balanced, pointing out both the origin of the war in fights over “land, money, and power,” and the need of countries to defend their citizens.  Parents and educators can use this part of the book to engage children in discussions of war, conflict resolution, and the potential of activism to sometimes effect change. By the time of Addams’s death in 1935, fascist world powers were leading the world towards war again, but this time as a response to genocide and the worst crimes against humanity the modern world had ever seen.  But that’s another children’s book. This one is an accessible and engaging way to introduce children to a powerful woman who used her commitment and influence to move the world forward, towards social justice and away from war.

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