November 03, 2016

On Our Way to Oyster Bay: Mother Jones and her March for Children’s Rights (A CitizenKid Book)

by Monica Kulling
Illustrated by Felicita Sala
Kids Can Press
32 pp.
Ages 6-9
September 2016

Kids Can Press’ newest title in its CitizenKid series of books that promote children’s global citizenship has at its core the fight for those very rights.  Monica Kulling, who excels at sharing biographies of key individuals from science, engineering, the arts and social justice by partnering with illustrators to convey those stories, focuses this time on a pivotal moment in child labour activism.

From On Our Way to Oyster Bay
by Monica Kulling, illus. by Felicita Sala
Eight-year-olds Aidan and Gussie are fictionalized cotton mill workers in 1903 but they could be any child of the time: working twelve hour days, six days a week to help their families with much-needed earnings, yet yearning to be able to go to school.  The matronly Mother Jones, a labour activist who had helped organize picket lines and strikes and fought for better wages and working conditions, saw a new challenge in ending child labour.  Her plan was to get the message out to President Theodore Roosevelt that child labour was unacceptable and that children should be taken out of the work force and given the opportunity to attend school.  Her plan was to march with a contingent of adults and children from Kensington, Pennsylvania to the President's summer home in Oyster Bay, over a hundred miles away.

The July 1903 march required long days of walking in hot temperatures and camping out at night.  Not surprising that some marchers quit along the way, though Monica Kulling's fictionalized characters Gussie and Aidan stick by Mother Jones to the end.  Even with a partial train ride and local townspeople offering their support with food and shelter, the march took weeks.  Banned by the major of New York City from speaking at Madison Square Gardens and from holding a public parade, Mother Jones still found a way to spread her message and give the remaining thirty marchers the treat of a day at Coney Island.  But, when they finally arrived in Oyster Bay, the President refused to speak with Mother Jones.

Many might feel that Mother Jones and her march for children's rights had been a failure, but not Mother Jones, and she shares this with Gussie and Aidan on the train ride back home.  She had drawn attention to the problem of child labour in their country and that small step would become a massive step in getting children out of the mills and factories and into schools.

The story of Mother Jones a.k.a. Mary Harris Jones is an important one in the fight for children's rights and, though her march for children's rights took place in the United States, her cause was a just and global one, still being fought in some countries today.  Not only does Monica Kulling help readers understand the daunting task that Mother Jones took upon herself, she encourages them to take action themselves, providing references of current organizations fighting against child labour, and background information about child labour today and the work of other activists like Craig Kielburger and Kailash Satyarthi.

Though Monica Kulling does provide valuable information about the fight against child labour in her story text and afterword, On Our Way to Oyster Bay: Mother Jones and her March for Children's Rights is still at its heart a picture book, and Australian-born Felicita Sala's bold illustrations support both a lightness and the importance to the story.  Felicita Sala's artwork, which appears to be a mixture of pencil, ink and watercolours, shows the strength of Mother Jones and her supporters' commitment while balancing that against the Herculean nature of their task.  Bold outlined characters and placards give way to expansive landscapes in which the marchers seem insignificant.
From On Our Way to Oyster Bay 
by Monica Kulling, illus. by Felicita Sala
On Our Way to Oyster Bay: Mother Jones and her March for Children's Rights illustrates in text and pictures an important historical event in labour activism while bringing that event into the 21st century and inspiring children to think about what they can do to support children's rights. Mother Jones would be proud.

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