May 9, 2013
Brave Girl by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909
by Michelle Markel
illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Balzer + Bray
“A steamship pulls into the harbor, carrying hundreds of immigrants — and a surprise for New York City.”
Clara may be only a girl but she is the one to get a job to support her family. Instead of carrying books to school every morning, she carries a sewing machine to work. Yes, she had to supply her own sewing machine. As if that wasn’t bad enough, these girls who make only a few dollars a month are locked into the garment factories all day long. Fines, firings and more. The girls suffer great indignities to hold down a job.
But Clara isn’t like the other girls. She goes to school in the evening. She is full of ideas.
The workers know they are being treated badly, but the few men don’t think the many girls and women could hold up in a strike. They simply aren’t tough enough.
When they are overworked, underpaid and punished for speaking out, Clara encourages the girls to strike and the girls at her factory do.
But owners and police strike back with fists and clubs. Clara is arrested 17 times. They break six of her ribs.
The bosses find other young women to do the jobs for the same low pay. A strike at one factory isn’t enough, but the male union leaders are afraid to call a general strike. It is too dangerous. Instead, Clara gets up at the front of the hall and, speaking in Yiddish, she calls for a strike of every single factory.
The next day thousands of women walk of the job. It doesn’t solve every problem, but it is a beginning.
Michelle Markel has boiled down a complicated, tumultuous period in U. S. history to make a tightly knit picture book story. It is complemented by Melissa Sweet’s watercolor and mixed media illustrations which bring a historic feel to the story which, in many ways, could take place today.
With the collapse of a factory in Bangladesh and the struggle of workers worldwide for safe working conditions, this is a particularly timely book. It would make a strong jumping off point for group discussions on history, current events and human rights.