The arrival of our ancestors in the New World at the turn of the 19th and 20th century is an era that now dates back a full century. The ocean voyage to the New World, the lines at Ellis Island, the passenger manifests, the tenements… these images have become an integral part of our collective memory, recalled in black-and-white photographs and sepia tones.
The Jews’ arrival in this country also coincided with dramatic social upheaval, as the rise of workers’ unions and fair labor laws took place during this same time period. The stories of the women who got off the boat and went right to work in the sweatshops of New York and Chicago are becoming a distant memory. Marlene Targ Brill brings those faded memories back to the forefront in her wonderful new book, Annie Shapiro and the Clothing Workers’ Strike.
From the title you probably know what to expect. Poor working conditions, an overbearing foreman, women who can’t speak English being taken advantage of with no ways to air their grievances, and the rise of an unlikely heroine. Sure, it’s predictable, but so were Slumdog Millionaire, Pride and Prejudice, and Cinderella. This book is great: go along for the ride and you’ll be rewarded.
Annie Shapiro, a first-generation immigrant who lives with her large family in Chicago, is our hero. Kind, caring, and hard-working, she is as capable loading coal into her family’s stove as she is stitching pockets for men’s suits at four cents per pocket. She works ten hours a day, in the dark, toiling endlessly to provide for her parents and siblings. When she climbs the stairs to her workplace, you can feel the world closing in around her.
When the foreman cuts the women’s wages yet again, Annie has had enough. She walks out, along with some of her co-workers, and within a few weeks, her act of protest inspires forty thousand other clothing workers to go on strike.
Over the course of the story, Annie goes from a lowly seamstress to the leader of a mass movement, and the text shares the story as matter-of-factly as possible. Not too preachy, not too dramatic, it’s just a tale of a seemingly unimportant worker who inspires real change. In short, it’s a classic American success story.
Children who read the book will find Annie a compelling figure. They will learn about pickets, unions, and paddy wagons, and acquire an understanding of how horrible it used to be to work at a place where you had no voice and no recourse. Children are, if nothing else, keenly perceptive about issues of fairness, and Annie’s story will inspire them.
From a visual standpoint, Jamel Akib’s illustrations literally radiate off of the page. The colors, shading, and warmth of the colors are striking, and when you look at the black-and-white photos that he was basing some of the illustrations off of, it’s obvious that he has done some very special work.
Also unique and interesting about Brill’s book is the variety of additional resources that she includes at the back of the book. There is background on Annie, including photographs, a short “reader’s theater” for kids to act out the events, a pronunciation guide and glossary, and a bibliography that includes other suggested reading. As a teaching resource, this book has it all.
Halfway through the book, Annie is described as wanting to “make trouble” as she advocates for fair wages and better working conditions. In today’s generation, as in generations past, that is exactly the kind of trouble that we should all be making.
Annie Shapiro and the Clothing Workers’ Strike
Marlene Targ Brill
Lerner Publishing Group