Working Cotton

by Sherley Anne Williams, ill by Carol Byard

read March 2009

working-cottonMy daughter had a bit of trouble with this book. She just didn’t get it.  She doesn’t have enough experience and knowledge of American history to understand slaves working in a cotton field.

She didn’t even understand why they were picking cotton, or that what they were picking was what her shirt was made out of.  I don’t think that many 5 year-olds would know about how cruel life was for slaves picking cotton and how cotton is made into clothing.

The language was also difficult for her.  It was written with period cultural slang.  She asked me why the little girl was talking like that.  While it was a good experience to get the topic open, it was a bit over her head.  I will be interested to see what my 7 year-old thinks of it.  They are studying the Civil War and learning about the lives of slaves.  She also understands the how dialect differs from culture to culture and from different time periods and locations.

With all of those negatives out of the way, did I think it was a bad book?  No.  It was nicely illustrated and a good historical insight into the lives of a family of slaves forced to work long hours picking cotton all day.  It even showed an odd sense of pride from the little girl at how good her papa could pick the cotton and how good her older siblings were.  She also had a desire to be as good as them.

This book received the 1993 Caldecott Honor.



~ by jennifermorrill on March 5, 2009.

6 Responses to “Working Cotton”

  1. I’m going to add this one to my list to read next February for Black History Month. Yeah, a lot of kids don’t understand much but I guess they won’t learn until we teach them.

  2. I kept the book around for my older daughter to read and she totally got it. Her experiences and knowledge gave her the ability to enjoy the book as it was intended.

  3. […] Working Cotton by Sherley Anne Williams […]

  4. First of all, when reviewing a book for all to see, I would think you would do some research on the background of the book. Working Cotton is NOT ABOUT SLAVES working in the cotton fields. You should have understood that the moment you saw the little girl riding in an old yellow school bus. Or maybe Lee and Grant rode in yellow school buses at the end of the civil war!
    The book is a wonderful account of migrant workers who traveled the the states following the harvesting of crops in season…anything from cotton in Texas to apple groves in Washington State!!! They traveled around during the years of the Great Depressions (1930’s) until the invention of large motorized harvesters.
    The portrays the wonderful dialect of a community of black cotton pickers. If you want your children to understand the HARD, PAINFUL work of harvesting cotton, please let them watch the SEGMENT of the movie, “Places in the Heart”.
    Places in the Heart is a 1984 drama film that tells the story of a Texas widow who tries to keep her farm together with the help of a blind white man and an African-American man during the Great Depression (1935).

  5. Please let me continue and clarify from previous reply that was not finished….Let your children ONLY WATCH the SEGMENT in the movie about PICKING COTTON. All parts of the movie, “Places in the Heart” are NOT CHILD APPROPRIATE…but it is a great example of how MANY FARMERS of all cultures (WHITE< BLACK< HISPANIC) worked VERY HARD to make a living from the old times to modern day in the 70's!!! There are still many migrant workers in our work force to this day!!!

  6. @pmensik- This review is over 2 years old. And while I appreciate you pointing out my mistake your post has little to nothing to do with the goal of my review.

    It isn’t a matter of “researching the background of a book” but rather getting ahead of myself while typing. If you see later in the review I speak of my older daughter studying slaves at school and, like I said, I got ahead of myself. I was thinking slaves, for later in the review and then wrote it earlier.

    If you read my full post, you will see that I don’t believe it was a bad book. Just that my then 5 year old didn’t get it. It was over her head. My goal was not to show them the work of migrant farm workers, but to read Caldecott award and Honor books to them. I’ve had this problem with a few of the picture books. Beautiful illustrations, but subject matter and or dialogue that is over the heads of small children. Last time I checked, that is the target audience of picture books. My 7 year old got it. My 5 year old did not.

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