Labor Day has roots that reach back well over a century ago. However over the past several decades, the holiday has been whitewashed, along with many other American holidays. Now Labor Day is simply another day you may get off from work along with a 40% discount at your local outlet malls. Labor Day’s history is much more important than that. Labor Day is meant to be a celebration of the American Laborer and the progress and achievements born of their hands. Oregon, my home state for now, was the first state to make it a public holiday in 1887, though New York City held annual parades to celebrate as early as 1882. When I was in school most discussion of Labor Day (if there was any at all) centered around exploring different careers and learning what others did for a living. While that’s all well and good, I feel it’s important to emphasize that Labor Day is a celebration of the worker and the movement to make working conditions better for everyone. We currently live in an age of hyper exploitation of workers globally where the three richest families in the U.S. have more wealth than the bottom 50%. It’s more important than ever that we learn about and from our past and push to continue to make changes that benefit many, not only a few. The book selections on our Labor Day book list can help provide a starting point for conversations with your kids or students by providing some historical context as well as some more contemporary examples of the struggle for labor equity.
Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop by Alice Faye Duncan / Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
Many folks know Martin Luther King, Jr. as the powerful and peaceful Civil Rights leader marching for justice for people of color. What often gets glossed over is the fact that MLK was at his heart an organizer, who put just as much emphasis on economic equality as racial ones. This book does a nice job of showing both sides of MLK’s mission, through the lens of the Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968. The book follows a little girl, Lorraine, and her memories of her parents and MLK himself as they fought to raise the working conditions of Black sanitation workers. These workers regularly worked in dangerous and sometimes deadly conditions, were often disrespected, and given meager pay.
Joelito’s Big Decision by Ann Berlak / Illustrated by Jose Antonio Galloso
Joelito’s Big Decision does a good job of introducing children to the actions that we can all take to help support the struggle for labor and pay equity. Joelito is a young boy who enjoys a tradition of going to a burger restaurant with his family every Friday. However, this Friday is different. When the family makes their way to the restaurant, they see a large group of people (including his friends and their parents) standing outside the restaurant chanting and holding signs. Joelito learns that the people are striking for better working conditions. Joelito supports his friends, but doesn’t understand why he shouldn’t still be allowed to get his burger. What follows is a lesson in compassion, sacrifice, and learning alternatives.
Side by Side / Lado a Lado by Monica Brown / Illustrated by Joe Cepeda
If you live in a major city in the U.S. chances are that you may have heard the name Cesar Chavez before if only from your GPS telling you to take a right onto a street named after him. Chavez and Dolores Huerta were the co-founders of the United Farm Workers labor union in 1962. Cesar and Dolores had both seen first hand the struggle that farm workers faced everyday in America including long hours, bad pay, no restrooms, and no housing accommodations. This dynamic duo teamed up to convince and organize farm workers to demand better working conditions for themselves. This bi-lingual book is a beautiful illustration of these labor leaders’ work.
The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt / Illustrated by Oliver Jeffers
This is book is definitely sillier than the others on this list, doesn’t follow all of the themes for a labor day book pick that I would like, but I do think it illustrates (no pun intended) the power in organizing effectively to younger readers. Duncan is a young child who loves coloring and using his crayons to create all sorts of drawings. One day, when Duncan goes to draw, he finds only letters from his crayons informing him that they have all decided to quit due to various grievances. Some are being used too much, some are not being used at all. By quitting the crayons have withheld their own labor and have forced Duncan to make decisions based on the demands on the crayons.
Mother Jones and Her Army of Mill Children by Jonah Winter / Illustrated by Nancy Carpenter
This story follows the courageous story of Mary G. Harris Jones (Mother Jones) and her historic fight for children’s rights. When Mother Jones had seen enough of children toiling away their years in factories, getting paid very little, suffering injuries, and compromising their education and possibility for social mobility, she decided to do something about it. Mother Jones lead a march all the way to the President’s summer home to demand change. This book is beautifully written and illustrated and introduces the historical context of labor conditions for many Americans in the early 19th century. The story also does an excellent job of illustrating the point that you may not achieve your goal in the way that you envisioned it, but sometimes that journey is just as important as the destination.
Brick by Brickby Charles R. Smith / Illustrated by Floyd Cooper
My favorite book in my Labor Day series. Brick by Brick tells the story of the people that helped build the White House. Many people may not know, but the construction of the White House relied heavily on enslaved labor. Charles Smith reinforces the fact that the foundation for the nation that stands today was built by enslaved Black people. The imagery used both in words and pictures, shows the grueling pain and torment Black people were subjected to and the exploitative system that stood over all of it. This book is not for those triggered by images of slavery and bondage or the frequent use of the word slave, but I think it’s a necessary and important read, primarily for older readers that have already been introduced to the dark past of American history.