Which Side Are You On? The Story of a Song

Which Side Are You OnWhich Side Are You On? The Story of a Song. Written by George Ella Lyon. Illustrated by Christopher Cardinale. Cinco Puntos Press, 2011. 40 pages. Recommended for ages 9-11. ISBN: 9781933693965.

Omie, the oldest child, tells this story.  It’s the story of how her mother wrote the song “Which Side Are You On” while the family home was blasted by bullets and all seven children were huddled under the bed. This is 1931 in Harlan County, Kentucky, and there’s a union strike at a coal mine. The children’s father, Sam Reece, is a union organizer. The bullets are meant for him, but the children’s mother, Florence Reece, has warned him to stay away from home, so he’s headed towards the mountains to hide. In the middle of this barrage of bullets, Florence decides the union movement needs a song. She grabs the month of May off the calendar and writes the song. When Sam comes home, he says the song will help bring the union members together.

The miners are striking because working conditions at the mine are bad and living conditions are bad as well. The mine owners own the houses the miners live in, they own the land under the house, and they pay the miners with scrip that’s only good at the mine company store.

The words to the song are on ribbons incorporated into the illustrations. The song brings the miners together. It’s brought together many other groups of people fighting for their rights.

The illustrations, which look almost like woodcuts, add a great deal to the story. In fact, the story couldn’t stand on its own. It needs the illustrations.

At the end of the book there’s an author’s note. The author addresses the history of labor relations among mine workers in the early part of the 20th century. She also addresses folk music. She talks about how songs change to fit specific situations or specific needs.

I ordered this book from Amazon. It arrived without a jacket. I assumed the book didn’t have a jacket. When I began looking at blog reviews, I found that multiple reviewers mentioned key information that was printed on the front flap of the jacket. I went looking for the text of the front flap. I found it on Amazon. It’s easy for books to get separated from their jackets. I wish the publisher had included the key information in the book itself.

I’ve heard Pete Seeger sing the song for most of my life. As I read the book, I can hear his banjo and his voice.

Pete Seeger sings the song:


Florence Reece sings the song:


Blog Reviews:

Book Dragon
Books We Love: From the Park Ridge Public Library Children’s Staff
Paper Tigers
Shelf Awareness
Sing Books with Emily, the Blog
Teaching a People’s History: Zinn Education Project


Esperanza Rising

Esperanza RisingEsperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan. Scholastic, 2000.  262 pages. Publisher recommends for grades 6-8. ISBN: 9780439120425.

Pura Belpre Award, 2002.

Esperanza Rising is the story of a 13-year-old young woman who must leave the fairytale life she’s lived in Mexico and go to work in the farm lands of the San Joaquin Valley of California. The book gives a gentle but clear introduction to issues surrounding immigration in this country.

Esperanza’s father owns a large ranch in Mexico. She lives in a big house with her parents and her grandmother. The ranch foreman, Alfonso and his wife, Hortensia, the maid, live close by with their son Miguel. Esperanza and Miguel had been childhood playmates. Esperanza has beautiful clothes and beautiful dolls and beautiful gardens to enjoy. She felt like a princess. But when her father is killed and her uncles try to take over the ranch, she and her mother, along with Miguel and his parents, must escape to the United States.

Alfonso’s brother Juan arranges for the five immigrants to live and work on the same ranch where he and his family work. Two women and two girls live in a shack the size of a horse stall. Esperanza still thinks of herself as a princess. The harshness of this new life is hard to comprehend. Soon Esperanza must work sorting whatever crop is being picked at the time.

The story is set in 1930. A group of farm workers in the local area talk about striking for better living and working conditions. Esperanza can’t risk losing her job by striking. Nor can the other members of her new extended family. But there’s pressure to strike, and finally the strike comes to pass. It isn’t successful, and those who were striking are deported to Mexico, regardless of whether or not they are Mexican or US citizens.

Esperanza is aware of painful discrimination against Mexicans. One camp, built for the people from Oklahoma, will have a swimming pool. Mexicans will be able to swim in it on Saturday afternoons, immediately before it is cleaned on Sunday.

At the end of the book there is a fascinating Authors Note in which Pam Munoz Ryan discusses the parallels between her grandmother’s life and Esperanza’s life.

Esperanza means hope in Spanish, and despite the difficulties associated with being a farm worker, plus the heartbreak of losing one’s home and way of life, Esperanza Rising is a hopeful book.

Blog Review: Anita Silvey’s Children’s Book-A-Day Almanac

Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909

Brave GirlBrave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909.  Written by Michelle Markel.  Illustrated by Melissa Sweet.  Balzar and Bray, 2013.  32 pages.  Publisher recommends for ages 4 to 8.  ISBN: 9780061804427.

Clara Lemlich and her family arrived in this country in the early part of the 20th century. She came with a strong sense of right and wrong. Once here, she found that she’d need to go to work making women’s clothing in order to earn money to support her family.  However, the conditions in the garment industry factories were poor. Clara knew it was wrong to treat people as the women in the garment industry were being treated. She actively encouraged her friends to strike. It soon became clear, however, that a strike here and strike there wasn’t going to make the garment industry take notice. It also became clear that the men involved in the garment industry weren’t going to call for a massive strike, so Clara called for one. It was the largest strike of female workers in United States history.  By the time it was over many of the company owners had agreed to allow female workers to unionize, and had given into union demands for better working conditions.

This is a wonderful story about the power of collective action. It’s also a great story about the power of an individual, in this case Clara, to rally her fellow workers to take collective action. In this way, it’s about the politics of working in this country in the early 20th century. It’s also about taking nonviolent action to do what one thinks is right even if that action isn’t legal. Clara was arrested multiple times, and I think it must have been because the action she was taking wasn’t legal. By 1935 the National Labor Relations Act made it illegal to restrict collective bargaining rights in the private sector, but in 1909 there may have been laws against striking and marching as Clara and the other women were doing.

The illustrations are a beautiful addition to the story. They include elements of sewing in clever ways. There is a striking illustration of a factory floor, showing it crammed full of people and sewing machines.

The back of the book contains more information about garment industry, and also a nice bibliography.

Clara is a great inspiration to all kids who see injustice around them and want to rectify it.

Blog Reviews:

Anita Silvey’s Children’s Book-A-Day Almanac

Check out Nonfiction Monday 4/22/2013 at A Mom’s Spare Time.