Union Maid

There once was a union maid, she never was afraid…

Mother Jones and Her Army of Mill Children – written by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter
Schwartz & Wade Books, 2020

Children don’t know enough about the history of labor unions and activism in this country. One solution is to share with them Jonah Winter and Nancy Carpenter’s resounding call for bravery, Mother Jones and Her Army of Courage. It tells the story of how, in 1903, labor leader Mary Harris “Mother” Jones led an army of exploited child laborers across the country, with the goal of exposing the exploitation and cruelty that ruined their young lives. Narrated in her voice and directly addressing the reader, Winter keeps up the pace on every age.  First, we learn that Mother Jones is enraged at injustice. Then, she explains how the wealthiest Americans live in luxury, their conscience-free existences supported by the grueling labor of others, including children.  Then, she reports how she and her army of kids took matters into their own hands, publicizing their cause from Philadelphia to Oyster Bay Long Island, where they hoped to confront President Theodore Roosevelt. They hoped to gain his empathy or at least provoke some shame.

The book begins with quotes from Mother Jones embedded in iconic drawings on the endpapers.  A hammer, a factory, a restrictive women’s corset, are all filled with the words that defined her cause.  One of the best features of Winter’s approach is the way he unapologetically demands attention. There is certainly a place for picture book biographies that narrate events in the third person and explain, or suggest, their significance. That approach is valuable. Here, instead, readers have an informative, factual and carefully researched story framed with high drama.  Children will not be bored reading, or listening to, this book! Interspersed with quotes from Mother Jones herself are Winter’s words; he captures the essence of Mother Jones’s message without merely paraphrasing her.  Quotes and his text work together to move the story forward.

Carpenter’s pictures evoke the early twentieth century economic boom and its dark side.  Barefoot children with delicate limbs work machinery. Robber barons in pinstripes laugh at the apparently pointless attacks on their greed, assuming that they had all the power of monopoly capitalism.  But Mother Jones reveals their potential weakness: “Money is a powerful thing. But there is power in the people. There is POWER in the UNION – the union of workers marching side by side, demanding better lives.”  Carpenter’s Mother Jones is an older woman wearing glasses and an ankle-length black dress, but fronting an army of revolutionary kids, she is powerful.  As for her unlikely attempt to reach Roosevelt: “Flashbulbs flashed, and before you could say ‘Piscataway,’ we’d gotten our pictures in all the local papers….Why stop at New York? Why not march to the fancy-schmancy Long Island summer home of President Theodore Roosevelt himself?”

This past Sunday there was a long piece of investigative journalism in The New York Times about child labor. If you think there is exaggeration for the sake of effect in this book, read the article.  Most of the companies contacted by journalists either refused to comment or promised to look into the situation.  The most obtuse response came from Ben & Jerry’s “head of values-led sourcing,” who shamelessly justified the company’s exploitation of children with the outrageous logic that “if immigrant children needed to work full time, it was preferable for them to have jobs in a well-monitored workplace.” Mother Jones, in Winter’s text, would reply this way:

          I saw children…tying threads to spinning spools, reaching their hands inside the dangerous

          machines that make the fabric, sometimes getting their skirts caught, sometimes getting

          hair caught,…working for hours and hours, never resting…robbed of their childhoods,

          robbed of their dreams, and all for a measly TWO CENTS AN HOUR, while outside the

          birds sang and the blue sky shone.

Add dairy equipment to textiles and slightly elevate the wage, but the motives are the same.

The two-page spread of Mother Jones parade with her children up Fourth Avenue shows the young workers as determined, patriotic, Americans, holding both flags of their country and signs protesting injustice.  Police stand silently by, and onlookers watch from balconies and windows.  This is real social justice activism, with both noble goals and pragmatic solutions.  Lots of people oppressed those children but many other supported them and worked for change. It’s the same today.  Read this book with your kids and students to learn more.

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