Oh, you can’t scare me I’m sticking to the union… I’m sticking to the union… I’m sticking to the union…
Yep. It’s Labor Day and you know what that means. Time to roll out the awesome Labor Day books and give three cheers to our unions. More specifically, those children’s books that refer to them in some way. At the moment I’m reading the rather charming Billy Creekmore, which contains some great history on the unions and the coal mines of early 20th century America, but I won’t be finishing it in time to review today. Instead, here are some books you may not immediately associate with Labor Day, but that certainly fit the bill.
Understatement is not lost on children. Neither is subtlety (though you probably wouldn’t know it when a 2-year old has decided to tell you “the funniest knock knock joke ever”). The creation of an effective picture book for small children has a variety of different tacks it can take, subtle being the most difficult. But Click, Clack, Moo, is beyond sublime, and it gets away with it too. In it, author Doreen Cronin and illustrator Betsy Lewin have penned a delightful story about some dexterous cows with simple demands. In this tale, Farmer Brown’s cows have gotten ahold of a typewriter. Now equipped with the means with which they can express themselves, the cows demand electric blankets forthwith. Farmer Brown demurs (by throwing a small fit) so the cows join up with the chickens in demanding blankets for the chickens as well. In the end, a solution is reached and all parties are satisfied with the outcome. Management and labor have come to a compromise.
There is a single moment in this book that was, to me, the height of sophistication. After hearing the cows demands, Farmer Brown types up a letter of refusal. We next see a two-page spread of the long road to the barn. A white duck, oversized letter in beak and a left foot poised in the air, walks alone. The text reads, “Duck was a neutral party, so he brought the ultimatum to the cows”. I love using the term neutral party in a picture book. I love that extravagant and elaborate word “ultimatum” bandied about a barnyard tale. Every children’s book should be so lucky as to have a moment such as this.
In her author’s note, Kathleen Krull points out that Cesar Chavez continues to remain a controversial figure in the United States today. The fact of the matter is, he followed perfectly in the footsteps of the men he admired; St. Francis of Assisi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and Gandhi. Helping to lead migrant workers in the first successful agricultural strike the U.S. had ever known, he is best remembered worldwide as a hero. In her book, Krull follows Chavez from a happy early childhood in Arizona to an unpleasant shift to the fields of California. As we watch, Cesar grows from a boy forced to endure the humiliations of the fields (and the poor schooling as well) to a man capable to leading workers in a non-violent protest against the grape growers of Southern California. Especially impressive are the ways in which Krull ties in young Cesar’s lessons about life (his mother cautioning him to use one’s head to work through conflicts) with their actual implementation years later. Illustrated by Yuyi Morales, the book looks like nothing so much as Jonah Winter’s fabulous biography of Frida Kahlo. Beautiful surreal images meld with sweeping panoramas of a life of difficulty. You’ll find yourself reading it over and over again just to look at the pretty pictures.The fact of the matter is, there’s not a single misstep in this book. Anyone familiar with the previous Pura Belpre winner, “Esperanza Rising” will see that this book succeeds where “Esperanza” was apt to fail. But, quite frankly, it’s unfair to compare the two. Fiction will always pale in comparison to well-written non-fiction. In this book you have an honest story told simply with an elegance all its own.