Books Early Readers Features Genre Lifespan of a Reader Middle Grade Non-fiction Wednesday Nonfiction Picture Books Reading Themes Voices From The Fringe: Social Justice

[Nonfiction Wednesday] Shining An Unforgiving Light Into Societal Ills and Poverty

"Jacob Riis's Camera: Bringing Light To Tenement Children" by Alexis O'Neill and Gary Kelley.


Myra here.

We are delighted to join the Nonfiction Picture Book meme 2020 hosted by Alyson Beecher @ Kid Lit Frenzy. We would also be linking our nonfiction choices with our reading themes throughout the year, when we can.

Jacob Riis’s Camera: Bringing Light To Tenement Children (Amazon | Book Depository)

Written by Alexis O’Neill Illustrated by Gary Kelley
Published by Calkins Creek (2020)
ISBN13: 9781629798660 Bought a copy of the book. Book photos taken by me.

Jacob Riis was an immigrant from Denmark in the late 1800s. He arrived in New York in 1870 and was determined to pursue the American dream so that he can marry the love of his life, Elisabeth, a rich mill owner’s daughter, who has turned down his proposal.

However, he soon realized that the American Dream was mostly a myth, and he had difficulties finding and keeping a job – until he was given an opportunity to work for a newspaper, which he later on bought and sold, allowing him to finally marry Elisabeth and send for her so that they can begin a family in the United States of America.

His job as a newspaper man for the New York Tribune brought him close to Mulberry Bend, known at the time as New York city’s worst slum, mainly because the place was only a few blocks from his office.

He despaired at the conditions of the people living in poverty in Mulberry Bend, mostly immigrants like himself who had very little options. He took photographs to illuminate exactly what was going on, ostensibly to make things better. However, his strategies would have been considered unethical at this point in time – I would assume that he did not ask for the people’s consent when he took the photographs – and as can be seen in the image above, he even set fire to dwellings on occasion because he was not very used to using flash powder.

He even used his photographs to deliver lectures around the world to highlight conditions of poverty in America. However, it is to be noted that while Mulberry Bend was demolished to give space for Mulberry Bend Park, a lovely place for children and their families – the Author’s Note revealed that “those who had lived in the Mulberry Bend tenements were faced with finding housing on their own in other parts of the city” which frankly disturbed me a great deal.

Over and above my discomfort at the direction of the narrative, I was impressed with Kelley’s art – the way he was able to make Riis’s photographs come alive through his art was well-executed. The very detailed Author’s Note, complete with sources and references also demonstrate the careful deliberation and thoroughness of the picturebook creators.

There is a lot to discuss in this PBB, and a skilful facilitator in the classroom would be able to effectively open up discussions on ethical reporting, and journalists’ responsibilities to people whose stories they are surfacing, and ultimately what happens to them after the story has been told.

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

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