The ability to tell a good story is a gift, and Deborah Hopkinson has it. Her books are meticulously researched and steeped in history, but what really matters is that she can flat-out write a page-turner.
Hopkinson tells a number of stories in her fascinating new nonfiction book Shutting Out the Sky: Life in the Tenements of New York 1880-1924. We join her young characters in the cramped holds of ships as they travel to the land of promise America. But instead of the land of milk and honey, these lonely immigrants find the dirty avenues of New York, with row after row of sun-blocking tenements. To make ends meet, they labor in factories. And they diligently save their precious pennies so that the rest of their families can join them, coming to America from distant places like Italy, Lithuania and Romania.
To discover a book for children that is so well-documented and researched, with hundreds of photographs, is remarkable. Hopkinson makes her facts palatable by adding a human element. She tells the true stories of remarkable people like Leonard Covello, a poor Italian boy who works before and after school and ends up with a scholarship to Columbia, becoming the principal of a school in East Harlem. And then there is tough little Pauline. She grows from a 13-year-old factory girl, horrified by the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, into a union organizer. It would be impossible to read these inspiring stories and not be moved by the courage, initiative and drive of these young immigrants. In a year in which marvelous documentary films have become part of regular theater fare, and biographies and history titles take up a large portion of the adult bestseller lists, it's time for nonfiction to take its rightful place on children's bookshelves.
Along with Susan Bartoletti's Kids on Strike and Russell Friedman's Kids at Work, Shutting Out the Sky will make a fine addition to any library.