Friday, December 28, 2007

Factory Girl

There were many things that drew me to this book. The author, Barbara Greenwood, was one of course. She writes wonderful books -- primarily on history -- that I've always enjoyed. The cover drew me in too. I'm a sucker for old sepia photos and this cover image of young "factory girls" -- with one of the girls colour-tinted -- was riveting. I found myself staring into the faces of these girls -- close to the age of my own daughters -- and wondering about their lives. And the subject matter, of course, was also a great one. What a fabulous way to learn about and era of our history -- the lives of the working poor in the early 1900s, the reality of factories, unions, strikes, suffragettes,'s all here in Factory Girl.

In Factory Girl, Greenwood alternates the fictional story of Emily Watson, a girl whose family circumstances have driven her to find work in a garment factory, with non-fiction sections. These non-fiction sections give readers the back-story and context to better understand the story. For example, after the first chapter where we meet Emily trying to find work, the non-fiction sections explain the circumstances of life in North American cities in 1912. This gives the much-needed context that young readers will need -- how was life different then? -- to better understand Emily's predicament.

Wonderful historical photos are used throughout the book. Greenwood even weaves the story of photographers, and how important they were to bringing awareness to the plight of the working poor, into the story. Many of the photos are by Lewis Hine, a school teacher who was asked by activists to record the plight of child workers. Since factory owners would never have let Hine in the factories if they knew what he was doing, he told them he was documenting equipment. Cleverly, Hine asked children to stand in the photos under the guise of showing the scale of the machinery. His photos are riveting.

Both the fictional story and the non-fiction narrative in Factory Girl can stand alone, but together they make a stellar book that brings an important era of our history to life. Greenwood masterfully makes the story relevant to young readers, and gives them fodder to imagine how different their lives might have been if they'd lived a century ago. Greenwood adds food-for-thought at the end of the book with a spread on today's young factory worker.

Here are a few other reviews, from Education Oasis, Quill and Quire, and Canadian Materials. And here's a short interview with Barbara from Scholastic's Arrow Book Clubs.

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