Worker-Friendly Stories

pitpony

25 YEARS OF WORKER-FRIENDLY STORIES FOR YOUNG READERS

Reviews by Janet Nicol

THE YOUNG CHARACTERS inhabiting many stories for youth that have been written by or about people in Canada are often either directly involved in, or indirectly witness, an adult world of social class inequities. In Canadian writer Deborah Ellis’s novel I am a Taxi, for instance, teenage readers are exposed to the wretched conditions of children in Brazil. And the gruelling and historic labour of workers in Canada continues to echo throughout many Canadian elementary school classrooms as children read Pil Pony by Joyce Barkman, the tale of a child’s life a century ago in the Cape Breton coal mines. John Wilson’s new book Red Goodwin introduces a new generation of teenagers to the B.C. labour martyr whose death in 1918 led to a one-day general strike.

Yet, a collection of Canadian writings for youth that have a labour theme regretfully would not fill a very large bookcase. Migrant workers’ stories are absent, a sharp contrast to the numerous American books, such as Cesar Chavez, a biography for children by Lucile Davis. The Winnipeg General Strike and the Great Depression, as well as lesser-known regional labour struggles (especially in Western Canada and the far north), are not well-represented in our juvenile literature. Still, there have been many powerful stories written over the last 25 years aimed at teaching and inspiring young Canadians. Here are just some.

The last underground coal mines in Cape Breton were shut down in 2002 but the legacy of miners and their families live on in two children’s books: Boy of the Deeps, and Pit Pony. Boy of the Deeps is a picture book by Ian Wallace, whose own grandfather began mining as a child in England. In the story, James goes to work underground with his father and is guided through the daily routine of a miner’s life. Wallace also provides beautifully rendered acrylicon-canvas illustrations in hues of blue and black. He writes in the forward, “how privileged I was to be born at a time in history when a boy could be a boy, growing naturally into manhood and free to choose his own destiny.”  

Pit Pony, by Joyce Barkhouse, takes place in Cape Breton in 1903 and tells the story of 11-year-old Willie, who befriends a pit pony named Gem as he enters the dark world of the mines, full of danger, but also dreams. Pit Pony was made into a CBC TV movie (available on DVD) and TV series.

Beginning in 1992, 8,000 people were forced to leave Newfoundland to find work elsewhere as the cod industry closed. This is the setting for Janet McNaughton’s enchanting yarn, The Saltbox Sweater. Nine-year-old Katie Johnson watches her mother and grandmother struggle to stay in their “saltbox” house by searching for other work as many neighbours move away. Through the hardships, Katie and her family prevail. A mining strike in another Newfoundland town compels its residents to take sides in Betty Fitzpatrick Dorions novel Whose Side Are You On? For high school student Ron, this means learning to think for himself while his own father is on strike and dying from exposure to toxic fumes in the fluorspar mine. Dorion creates a teenager’s world with empathy and sensitivity.

The Nova Scotia fishermen’s strike in the 1970s, assisted by B.C. union organizers, is the subject of Silver Donald Cameron’s acclaimed adult non-fiction book, The Education of Everett Richardson. Cameron also produced a teen novel, The Baitcbopper. Thirteen-year-old Andrew Gurney watches his father fight for union rights while he faces down his own bullies, at sea and on land, with the help of comrades. This novel is part of an excellent “Adventures in Canadian History” series for teens, based on working peoples’ histories and includes Bill Freeman’s Trouble at Lachine Mill, set during a textile strike in Montreal in the 1870s and Billy Higgins Rides the Freights by Gloria Montero, which follows Billy on the historic “On-to-Ottawa” trek of 1935.

In contrast, the post-millennium Dear Canada historical fiction series (Scholastic Canada Ltd.) and Our Canadian Girl series (Penguin Group, Canada) only include two labour-themed stories between them: building the railway, and life in Vancouver during the Depression. However, girls and diverse racial groups move from history’s margins to the centre of well-written stories aimed at middle school-age readers. (Both series have excellent website resources: see http://www.scholastic.ca/dearcanada, and http://www.ourcanadiangirl.ca.)

One Proud Summer, by Marsha Hewitt and Claire Mackay, sets the standard for realistic and well-researched labour fiction. Lucie Laplante was only 13 years old in 1946 when she dropped out of school to help her family working in the textile mill in Valleyfield, Quebec. But that “proud summer,” Lucie and her co-workers went on strike, confronting English-Canadian owners, the police and the Catholic Church. Based on an actual strike, the novel shows the strength and courage of the mill workers. Claire Mackay has also written Pay Cheques and Picket Lines: All About Unions in Canada, a book that spells out for young people – in clear and direct language – the history and purpose of unions in Canada.

Strike by Maureen Bayless (illustrations by Yvonne Cathcart) is a picture book story for children with a very big message. Molly’s mom is on strike at the fish cannery leading to desperate times for all until Molly’s beloved teddy bear comes to the rescue and helps the strikers win.

Goodbye Sarah, by Geoffrey Bilson, takes place in Winnipeg “in one of the great class confrontations in North American history,” as the author asserts in the afterward about the Winnipeg General Strike. In the summer of 1919, a battle between strikers and the city establishment broke out and two girls, Mary and Sarah, living on the same street in the North End, find their parents on opposite sides of the 41 -day conflict. Bilson describes a child’s world with great empathy in this haunting trade union classic.

Canadian author Carol Matas adds to the substantial American juvenile literature about textile workers with her novel, Rosie In New York City: Gotcha! Young Rosie joins her spirited mother to fight for workers’ rights in a shirtwaist-makers’ strike in New York in the fall of 1909, through the winter of 1910. This strike actually occurred and was mainly conducted by teenage girls. The author also comments in the afterward on the fire that broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory a year after the strike, leading to the death of 146 workers. A pivotal event in labour history, the Triangle fire is the subject of many American books, including the teen novel Asbes of Roses by Mary Jane Auch.

The murder of Iqbal Masih, a child carpet weaver and union organizer in Pakistan, set off a global reaction to improve children’s rights. Craig Kielburger was 12 years old and living in Toronto with his family in 1995 when he heard of Iqbal’s death. Kielburger’s subsequent activism is recounted in his book, Free the Children. And a compelling novel about the legendary child union organizer, simply entitled Iqbal, could very well lead young readers on their own path of activism. Truly global, it is written by Francesco D’Adamo and translated to English by Ann Leonori.

Jane Springer methodically explores child labour issues in Listen to Is!. The World’s Working Children, taking the reader around the world through photos and interviews with working children. She begins with the question, “What is child labour?” and concludes with an inspiring chapter on child activism and networking entitled, “Kids Helping Kids.”

Compiling stories and drawings from child carpet labourers in Nepal, Tanya Roberts-Davis has written We Need to Go to School. Voices of the Rugmark Children, raising awareness not only of children’s conditions, but also encouraging consumers to buy carpets with a Rugmark label, indicating the product is made without child labour.

While most public and school libraries can be counted on for having these books, anyone doing a general catalogue search is hampered by the fact that juvenile literature concerning Canadian labour does not have its own category. Still, stories about work (and justice) will continue to be passed on regardless, as they have been since the first coal mines in North America opened in Cape Breton in 1720. And more stories promise to follow, including Barbara Greenwood’s Factory Girl (Spring, 2007), a tale about a young girl in the garment industry in the early 20th century, told in alternating fiction and non-fiction.

Canada’s modest collection of books with labour-related themes over the last 25 years continues a vital tradition and, while the list is not huge, reading these books can and will most certainly make a difference in the lives of our youth. It already has to some of the teenagers I teach. Inspired while writing this review, I purchased 35 copies of the book Iqbal, and four classes of students (Grade 10s and English as a second Language) have just finished reading and writing about the novel. They were rivetted by the story, and aghast at the real “Iqbal’s” fate: “murdered by the carpet Mafia.” Next we did some Internet searches and discovered the global village of labour activism. Then we talked about individual and classroom actions we can take.

Whether you’re a teacher or a parent, I hope you are equally inspired to bring labour alive through the books your children or students are reading.

Reprinted from ‘Our Times’ magazine, 2007.

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