In discussing not only the Justice For Janitors Campaign of 2000 but also the need for strong unions in America today, this book is both informative and interesting. It joins such equally important unionization children’s books as Harvesting Hope and Bud Not Buddy. What makes it remarkable, however, is the fact that the problems discussed in the story are taking place all over the country today.
Carlitos loves his mother, but he feels bad for her. Every night she tucks him into bed, then trudges downtown to mop up the glass office buildings downtown. The job isn’t bad, but Mama doesn’t get paid much and can’t afford to spend more time with her family. She even has to take on extra jobs on the week-ends. It isn’t too surprising to Carlitos then when she informs him that she’s going to join other janitors around town in a massive Los Angeles strike. The strike is well-coordinated and the people in the community are supportive. Little Carlitos wonders what he could possibly do to support his mother. The answer comes in the form of a painted sign reading, “I Love My Mama. She Is A Janitor!”. This display of pride joins others and, in the end, the strikers win a living wage and Mama is available to take Carlitos to the park on week-ends. This hardly marks the end of Mama’s new work, though. Hotel staff members need Mama’s help with their own strike, so Carlitos grabs his sign and the two head off shouting a triumphant, “Si, se puede!”.
There is an argument in children’s literary theory that propaganda never makes for a good children’s book. Certainly this is often true (books like, Help! Mom! There Are Liberals Under My Bed! aren’t exactly vying for artistic merit). Unfortunately, it all depends on what you think is “propaganda”. Cynthia Zolotow’s remarkable William’s Doll for example, would probably fall under strict scrutiny. In the case of this particular book, I guess it all boils down to whether or not you consider unions a “hot topic” To me, they’re just a necessity in life. And since they exist, it makes all the sense in the world to try to explain what they are to kids. It’s true, I suppose, that author Diana Cohn has limited her scope a little. The story is about a single historical moment and the framing sequence involving Carlitos and his mother give an otherwise factual incident a human face. So this isn’t exactly going to be nightly reading for every child you know. On the other hand, there are LOTS of children out there who can relate positively to this book. Children of hardworking blue-collar parents will instantly recognize the importance of the strike in this book. And those kids from middle to upper middle class fams will understand that for Carlitos, winning this strike means seeing more of his own mother.
Flaws, you ask? Just one major one. Though illustrator Francisco Delgado received an MFA from the Yale School of Art in Painting, Drawing and Printmaking and has produced many beautiful works in his lifetime, he’s fallen victim of a common problem in children’s publishing. For reasons that continue to escape me, when commercial or practicing artists try their hand at picture books, they tend to dumb down their images. I have no idea why this is. The result, however, is that a painter like Delgado, who could create a book every bit as lovely as those illustrated by Ana Juan if he wanted to, instead gives the story a hokey comic strip feel. All sense of proportion and balance is thrown out the window. Carlitos’ mother comes off as heavy-lidded and somewhat frightening while the story’s children look like mildly miniaturized adults. All this combines to turn an otherwise great story into something amateurish and cheap. This is NOT to say that the book isn’t worth reading. It’s just unfortunate that instead of being a book where the reader is simultaneously lured into the story by both the words and the images, now the reader has to consciously fight against the grotesque illustrations and pay sole attention to the tale. Why Delgado chose to cheapen his art in this way, we may never know. I can only hope that perhaps he’ll consent to redo some of these pictures if future printings demand it.
The book ends with a very interesting two-page essay written by author Luis J. Rodriguez. In this section we meet a woman very much like Carlitos’ mother and a true-to-life hero. This portion of the book may be of interest to some older children wanting further information (whether for school reports or their own curiosity) on real-life union organizing. Otherwise it’s probably going to go over little ones’ heads and be a draw for parents instead.
Until we start getting more picture books about contemporary everyday heroes like the ones featured here, we’re going to have to rely on the scant that manage to come out. If, as a parent, you’ve any interest at all in giving your children some kind of an understanding about unions, the nickel and dimed amongst us, or positive modern-day heroes, look no further than this book. It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly a rewarding read.
On shelves now.