Saturday, August 13, 2016

Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers' Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Melissa Sweet

Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers' Strike of 1909 tells of an early strike for fair treatment and better conditions for workers in New York City. From the beginnings to the somewhat successful outcome, the story is told from the perspective of Clara Lemlich, one of the real-life strike leaders. Since Clara arrives in New York as a 17-year-old immigrant with her family and immediately begins working in a garment factory, this is a youth-level book aimed at upper elementary readers and above, even though it is in a picture-book format. Factory conditions, the workers' disgruntlement, the walkouts, the formation of unions, and the arrests of strikers are explained simply but forthrightly. When Clara is beaten while on the picket line, she "hides her bruises from her parents." Clara's courage and growing leadership role are emphasized, as she struggles through the cold winter of 1909 and beyond because she "knows in her bones what is right and what is wrong."

Another strike, at textile mills in Massachusetts three years later, gets a fictional treatment in Bread and Roses, Too.  This chapter book focuses on two children affected by the strike--Rosa, the child of Italian immigrants, and Jake, a "native-born American" who works in the mills. 
Rosa's mother and sister walk out when a strike is called at their mill, and Rosa at first doesn't know how to reconcile their behavior with what her teacher tells her in school. It's a difficult time for the family when there is no income and the strikers are threatened, and it's an even tougher time for Rosa. What Rosa really wants is to understand and she wants her family to be safe. Her community depends on her since she is "the smart one" who does so well in American school; she reads  for them--and even letters their picket signs for them.
As in Brave Girl, we see (in words) the living conditions of  immigrants and treatment of the strikers in Bread and Roses, Too. When Rosa gets to know Jake, she finds out his life is even worse than hers--though he won't admit all of the truth to her.  They eventually throw in their lot together when many children are sent to families outside of the area where they can be cared for while their parents are striking. This is definitely a coming-of-age story about both Rosa and Jake, as they wrestle with what they can't control and the choices they must make.
A youth-level graphic novel depicts The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911--which occurred because the owners did not heed the calls of the strikers in 1909. More materials on this tragedy and other aspects of the labor movement of the early twentieth century are available through your Virginia Beach Public Library, including some in DVD and downloadable audio formats.  Most of the materials are on at least a young-adult level for obvious reasons, but any of these three books could provide an introduction to the history of the American labor movement as Labor Day approaches. 

Review by Lynn K

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