September 20, 2019

Ruby's Hope: A Story of the Girl in the Most Famous Photograph of the Depression

Written by Monica Kulling
Illustrated by Sarah Dvojack
Page Street Kids
40 pp.
Ages 6-10
September 2019

In 1936, photographer Dorothea Lange would take a picture at a pea-pickers' camp in California and capture a time, an existence, a struggle that would become the iconic "Migrant Mother" piece of art. Though it would be decades later that Florence Owens Thompson and her children would become known as the subjects of that photograph, Monica Kulling brings us a fictionalized account of the background of those captured forever as the face of the Great Depression.
From Ruby's Hope, written by Monica Kulling, illus. by Sarah Dvojack
Ruby's Hope begins with the little girl's family leaving Oklahoma after the economic tragedies of the late 1920s and early 1930s. With the stock market crash in 1929, followed by the drought that brought dust storms and the ruin of farms, seven-year-old Ruby's parents decide that, unlike the thistle that persevered in the field, they needed to move on, hopeful of a better life in California.
It sometimes seemed to Ruby that Ma pushed hope to its limits.
First the family–Ma, Pa, older siblings Leroy and Viola and babies Katherine and Norma–took to the lettuce fields. But when they head to the pea fields for the next round of picking, they run out of gas and a frost kills the crop, leaving the family desolate in a camp of migrant workers similarly unsettled. Pa and Leroy head to town to earn any kind of money, while
Days passed and food dwindled.
Ruby's hope dwindled too.
From Ruby's Hope, written by Monica Kulling, illus. by Sarah Dvojack
When a lady photographer comes to the camp to take images of the migrant farm workers for the government, Ruby brings her to see her mother. Though reluctant–"I don't see what good they'll do. We need gas to leave this place. We need food, not photographs"–Ma agrees, swayed that perhaps they might convey to others how hard the migrant workers' lives are. 

Though the story of Florence Owens Thompson and her family may not be as Monica Kulling envisions it–her Author's Note and discussion of How the "Migrant Mother" Came to Be provide more details about the facts as known–it accurately depicts a family on the move for work, eking out a living wherever possible and carrying on through drought, dust storms, frost and more. I like that Monica Kulling gives the story to Ruby who, while quite young, knows the hardship of leaving the only home she'd known and the worries of her parents and still keeps hope in her heart. Though her words are heavy with worry, hunger and poverty, I suspect the story would have been far harsher if written from the perspective of Ma, Pa or an older sibling. 
From Ruby's Hope, written by Monica Kulling, illus. by Sarah Dvojack
Still, the tragedy in the family's story is pervasive in Ruby's Hope. It's like the dust clouds that spread across prairies and plains: oppressive, stifling out air and sun, and crushing.  American artist Sarah Dvojack's pencil drawings coloured digitally extend that feel of hardship. The earthiness of the family's circumstances, environmental and economic, are conveyed in her lines and colours. From the actions of her characters, in the slump of their shoulders, of the dirt of their clothes and bodies, and the landscapes of their situation, Sarah Dvojack embeds the art with the burdens of the time and place.

Ruby's Hope: A Story of the Girl in the Most Famous Photograph of the Depression may be a fictionalized account of that image but its accuracy comes from the awareness of how people like Ruby's family laboured through horrific circumstances and how change can be be inspired with the right attention.
Migrant Mother, Photograph by Dorothea Lange (Retrieved from


  1. I remember that picture. I think it is great that Monica Kulling, a writer I respect, has written a book based on it. Keeping history alive for the next generations.

  2. Thank you very much, Darlene. Such encouraging words!