Fuse #8

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Review of the Day: Up Before Daybreak - Cotton and People In America

As a children’s librarian, one of my jobs is to recommend non-fiction to kids that they’ll actually read. Interesting non-fiction. Now when I was a kid you couldn’t have bribed me with all the peanut butter cups in the world to pick up a non-fiction book that didn’t deal with animals in some fashion. So with my twelve-year-old self planted firmly in the back of my mind, I set out to discover whether or not Deborah Hopkinson’s, “Up Before Daybreak: Cotton and People In America”, would be something a child would find themselves voluntarily reading. Ms. Hopkinson had a very good 2006 publishing year, by the way. When she wasn’t creating picture books like “Sky Boys” to celebrate the construction of the Empire State Building she was writing gripping historical fiction like “Into the Firestorm” for the young ‘uns. Of these three 2006 ventures, however, “Up Before Daybreak” is the trickiest. You have to talk about a staple, how it affected the economy, the toll on human lives and do all this in an engaging factual manner. Some parts of this book work better than others and some parts garner more interest as well. “Up Before Daybreak” is a worthy effort to follow cotton and how it changed America. I’m just not entirely convinced that it's the best of Ms. Hopkinson's non-fiction work.

King Cotton. It’s one of those national products that made America what it is today. Tracing the beginning of cotton production from the birth of our nation onwards, the reader comes to understand how this fluffy white flower came to stand at the center of our nation’s economy. We see the birth of the cotton gin and the rise of slavery in the South. We watch as the Civil War neatly dismantles the farms and sharecropping rises. At the same time, the history of the mills that spun the cotton and the birth of the American Industrial Revolution all work together to bring us a well-rounded picture of cotton in all its myriad forms and how it affected the people that came in contact with it.

The book is neatly divided into two sections. The first is all that happened with cotton before the Civil War and the second all that happened after. Not only does Ms. Hopkinson discuss at length the effects that both slavery and sharecropping had on white and black workers, but she answers some questions I myself had about the times. For example, why do we never hear about any black mill workers? Well, that may have something to do with the fact that blacks tended to be barred from mill work (always excepting housekeeping and hard labor). Though the text jumps back in forth in time depending on the subject, the reader never gets the feeling that the story is difficult to follow. And while the effect of all of this on children is certainly a large part of the book’s focus, adults get just as much attention as well.

Which is maybe why I was a little baffled to find that labor unions didn't really get mentioned in the book. Unionism is reduced to a single paragraph on page 78 and a sentence on page 79, and even then it speaks of a unsuccessful attempt in September 1934. Other small mentions are made of unions, but none are more than a sentence or two here and there and a child reader could be forgiven for assuming through this book that all attempts to unionize mills were unsuccessful.

Yet the book is magnificent in its factual information. First of all, the photos in the book are top notch. Spottted regularly throughout the text they show cotton in different eras, to say nothing of different mill workers throughout the decades. I loved the Selected Bibliography which even went so far as to include “Articles, Oral Histories, Narratives, Bulletins, and Pamphlets”. The Notes that go chapter by chapter are copious, and the Index easy to use. But the best part of the book, to my eyes, was the suggested “Further Reading For Young People”. How many times have I gotten through a non-fiction book and found the author skimpy on helping kids find further information on a given subject? Well, Ms. Hopkinson is on the case. She even goes so far as to split this section into the books and websites on cotton in the fields vs. cotton in the mills. Manifique.

Sadly, this isn’t to say that the book doesn’t get a little bogged down in unnecessary facts. Take, for example, the cotton factor John Chrystie. While learning about what a “cotton factor” was is interesting, his story slows significantly when we get a physical description of the warehouse he worked and lived in. Kids reading this book may certainly be interested in the job of factors, but it seems a bit excessive to expect them to keep reading through sentences like, “In the evening we sit in our offices and play whist, or read papers when they come or write letters.” I would have liked a couple diagrams to take their place. We hear that picking cotton was a nasty painful job, but we never see a diagram or picture of what a head of cotton looked like. Visualizing is all well and good but it would be nice to see a single head of cotton, if only to understand what the subject of this book even looked like. When a former picker says of cotton that, “When they open up, there’s a little point on every one of those at the edge of the burs”, you want to see what that means. There is one picture of cotton bolls, but they’re not presented in a way that allows you to understand why picking them would be difficult. Ms. Hopkinson also assumes that we understand the history of the boll weevil, so it comes up casually in the text without any history. What is a “boll weevil”? What does it look like? Why did they suddenly appear en masse during the Great Depression? Kids like pictures and they like evil insects. To not include either in the book reduces the story’s kid-friendly appeal, which is a pity considering the author’s sheer wealth of information.

It would have been nice to hear what the current state of the American cotton industry was. However, it’s difficult to fault how Hopkinson smartly ties in this story of slavery and human pain to the 246 MILLION children who work cotton fields all over the globe today. Kudos to Hopkinson then for the sentence in the book’s final paragraph, “The next time you buy clothes made of cotton, take time to look at the label. Consider doing some research to see what working conditions are like where that cloth was made.” Altogether, the book is a funny mix of good and bad. There were some elements unaddressed and excluded that could have made the title stronger as a whole, and I’m not entirely convinced that many children would read this for pleasure, but it’s a fascinating topic and an interesting time in our nation’s history. A good if slightly flawed book.

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