CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 12 . . . . February 2, 2007
Toronto, ON: Kids Can Press, 2007.
136 pp., pbk. & cl., $16.95 (pbk.), $22.95 (cl.).
ISBN 978-1-55337-649-1 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55337-648-4 (cl.).
Child labor-Juvenile fiction.
Child labor-History-20th century-Juvenile literature.
Factory system-History-20th century-Juvenile literature.
Grades 4-9 / Ages 9-14.
Review by Val Ken Lem.
The smells in this place! Cigar smoke, the oily smell of the sewing machines, sharp whiffs of unwashed bodies and dirty clothes. And the air full of fluff. Emily no sooner had the thought than she felt a sneeze coming. A small explosion shook her. Dropping her scissors she snatched her handkerchief from her pocket and clapped it over her mouth to smother the second sneeze. She had just finished blowing the irritating fluff from her nose when she heard the boss’s voice, barely audible above the clatter of sewing machines.
“That new one won’t last. Too persnickety.”
So begins 12-year-old Emily Watson ’s first day of work as a snipper in a shirtwaist (a woman’s blouse) factory. A child of the working poor, Emily is forced to withdraw from school and find a job to support her mother and younger siblings when her father’s letters with his pay stop arriving from the North American west. The year is 1912 and, despite efforts to eliminate child labor, some factories in the growing cities of eastern America, including New York, Chicago and Toronto, employed children. Emily’s story is a fictional account of one girl at work in a garment factory, but Greenwood could easily have chosen a textile mill, biscuit factory or virtually any type of factory to bring to light the social and working conditions of the working poor, and particularly working children early in the twentieth century.
Greenwood skillfully interweaves Emily’s story with historical accounts that elaborate on the situations and conditions described in the fictional part of the work. This hybrid of fact and fiction is a format that Greenwood has excelled at before. Archival photographs, many by American
Lewis Hines, provide a visual narrative that closely parallels that of the text. The nonfiction content includes sections on urban slums, the variety of jobs in a garment factory, jobs that children may have performed inside factories and as domestics or as home workers paid by the piece, the place of new immigrants in the labor force, women as workers, boys as workers, the role of social reformers who sought to improve the working and living conditions of the working poor, the hazards of factory work, and the impact of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 in New York City. Reformers who are given special attention are Chicago Settlement House founders Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr, union activist Clara Lemlich, writer and photographer Jacob Riis, Lewis Hines, and Canadian J.S. Woodsworth.
The book ends with the good news that, in North America, the battle against child labor has been largely won but points out that, in many other parts of the world, children are often forced to go to work to help support their families instead of attending school and growing into educated adults.
Additional features are a brief glossary, an index, photographic credits, acknowledgments on the verso of the title page that can substitute for a bibliography, and a one-page chronology called “The Long Fight” which highlights efforts to end child labor, with emphasis on recent developments including the founding of Free the Children by Canadian Craig Kielburger in 1995, and the Children’s World Congresses held in 2004 and 2005.
Val Ken Lem is a catalogue librarian and collection liaison for English, history and Caribbean studies at Ryerson University in Toronto, ON.
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