Working Cotton

written by Sherley Anne Williams
illustrated by Carole Byard

Sherley Anne Williams's Working Cotton
illustrated by Carole Byard

Children's book review by Steve Barancik

Not for children in this reviewer's opinion

A modern-day black family picks cotton

I'll be frank. I resent this book.

I resent a book that seems to want to get at adults through their children. If you want to talk to me, talk to me.

The decidedly unsmiling face staring out from the cover of this book is narrator Shelan. With woefully inadequate grammar, she tells the story of her family going out for a day working cotton.

It isn't pretty. It isn't pleasant. And it certainly isn't hopeful.

I expected a book about slavery, which surely wasn't pretty, pleasant or hopeful either. But there's important educational value to such a book, and children of all races can take some comfort in knowing that that era is behind us, at least in this country.

This book is about the present day...or at least 1993.

Who is this book aimed at? Surely it's not intended for a family working the fields today. If your young children are out working cotton with you, chances are picture books aren't within your budget.

So what is the point? To make 4 to 8 year olds feel guilty about their relative comfort?

Well, fortunately, I read this book in a professional context, with no children around. And it did have what I suspect was the desired effect on me. I was shocked. American children working the fields at the tender age of the children depicted? I started surfing. And I did find some shocking stuff. (This written as of 2008.)

If you want to know more, and you're motivated to do something, visit the people who really seem to be on top of this issue, The Child Labor Coalition. I found facts like this:

In agriculture there are three exceptions to the normal age 14 minimum age:

  1. A child of ages 12 or 13 may work where a parent or guardian (a) consents to the child’s employment or (b) is employed on the same farm as the child...

In agriculture, the only restriction on hours of employment is that children cannot work during school hours....There is no limit on how early in the day...not even any limit on the number of hours in the day that they may work.

There you have it. Now you don't need the book. You can do something, and your children don't have to suffer with this knowledge. Review continues.

image cropped and enhanced

Illustrator Carole Byard earned a 1993 Caldecott Honor for her acrylic paintings here. The text is drawn largely from poems published by Ms. Williams in her 1975 book, The Peacock Poems, still in print as of this writing and, more importantly, aimed at adults.

Working Cotton.

More picture books about the black experience.

More Caldecott books.

Read more of Steve's reviews.

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