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blogbrainsmallSeacoast History Blog #142 
September 1, 2012

I was struggling to come up with a topical blog about Labor Day. I mean, it is a history-based holiday and I do write history. It’s a fuzzy holiday for me since it isn’t named after some famous president or a guy like Columbus or Jesus or Martin Luther King. It has been a federal holiday since 1894. But exactly what is “labor?” What are we celebrating? I work my butt off seven days a week, so this might be a holiday honoring me. The official definition doesn’t help much. Labor Day honors “the economic and social contributions of workers.” Huh? The first Monday in September “pays tribute to the contributions and achievements of American workers.” Basically, it’s a get-out-of-work card in the game of life. I was still thrashing around for a topic when I realized – hey – I wrote a whole book about labor! (Continued below)


The book is called STRIKING BACK and it’s about the fight to end child labor exploitation in America. I’ve never mentioned this book on my Web site before because the bulk of the story takes place outside of our region. It’s a slim 64-page hardcover designed in what you might call a postmodern style with wide spacing between lines and lots of pictures. The book is targeted to middle schoolers, but I think it stands as a good quick-read introduction on the topic for anyone. Whenever I start a new book, I begin with a few kids’ books, and having done three of these so far, I know how difficult it can be to condense history into a few lively and accurate pages.

Striking_Back_book _CoverThis is not a lucrative field. The juvenile nonfiction writer gets about 90 days to complete a book and signs away all rights for a one-time flat fee. But I embraced the chance to immerse myself in a new topic and read like a demon for a few weeks before the writing began. The goal was to show modern-day kids how the hiring of children changed as the nation evolved. Most kids worked with their families in the early days, but it was the rise of the machine and the growth of factories hiring immigrant labor that turned “child labor” into a national problem. The worst of it occurred from the end of the Civil War  until the enactment of child labor laws in the mid-twentieth century. Of course, as we know, illegal child labor still goes on in America and is rampant in poorer nations around the globe.

The editors of these little books are tough. The author has to document every detail and defend every sentence. In addition to a few thousand words of carefully constructed text the writer provides a series of brief lively sidebars, a glossary, a timeline, a few pithy quotes, notes for additional reading, Web references, and a concise bibliography. To write the chapter on photographer Lewis Hine and activist Mother Jones I read at least six books.  For my biography of Jesse James, I believe I read 18 books.

The process happens quickly. Eventually a package arrives with a few author copies. There are no parties, kick-offs, media interviews, attaboys, or book signings. If you’re lucky, you get another assignment. If you wrote one every month, you could make a living. In this market, fewer and fewer companies are producing history books for kids. Instead they are cranking out books on skateboarding, pop stars, zombies, and graphic novels.

You can see what it looks like on Google Books and get a used copy cheap on Occasionally I get an email from some teacher or some student who has taken the time to seek the author out. I got one recently and I’ll append part of the email it below. Although I haven’t been a formal classroom teacher for 30 years, letters from kids remind me that I am still a teacher of sorts – minus the retirement checks and healthcare benefits, of course.

Dear J. Dennis Robinson,

Hello! My name is Karley, and I'm a middle-schooler in Washington. I have decided to email you on regards of a school project. I have to study the history of Child Labor and I found your book, Striking Back: The Fight to end Child Labor Exploitation, a fantastic help as to finding information for my project. However, one of the requirements for this project is to contact and have a small interview with someone who is an expert on child labor as a source. I would like to ask you a couple questions, if you don't mind and it'd be absolutely spectacular if you wrote back!

Of course, I did write Karley back. I think my note was as long as the book. Hope she got a good grade. And if you want to read a spectacular book filled with letters from young readers to an author, check out Rodman Philbrick’s e-book masterpiece.LISTENING TO KIDS IN AMERICA


STRIKING BACK: The Fight to End Child Labor Exploitation
by J. Dennis Robinson (2009)

In 1790 the first water-powered mill in America was run by children, some as young as 7 years old. They were paid pennies for a work day that might last more than 10 hours. As America grew, the children's plight grew worse. Exhausted by six-day work weeks and harsh conditions, millions of young workers had no time to play or go outdoors. They had no childhood. In time children and adults fought back, and the children went on strike to protest harsh conditions. Finally, during the last years of the Great Depression, the government took action, passing the Fair Labor Act.


  1. Kids Who Work
  2. Caught in the Machine
  3. Making Child Labor Visible
  4. Mother Jones and Mr. Hine
  5. Strike! Strike!
  6. The Law of the Land




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