Red Diaper Review: Which Side Are You On? A Story of a Song, by George Ella Lyon
It’s tremendously challenging to write good picture books about deeply important historical events. The most well-intentioned picture books about Christopher Columbus, or Rosa Parks, or the Vietnam War are often too vague or too specific, overly didactic or just plain boring. Lyon chose an incredibly difficult subject to explain, labor history and union organizing, and managed to construct an exciting, engaging story that is educational without being heavy-handed.
Like the best picture books, this one has a central structure that the text is built around, in this case the lyrics of the famous labor song “Which Side Are You On.” The illustrations are great; the style is reminiscent of a graphic novel, which enhances the story and adds to the action. The voice is very unique, done in an Appalachian accent that does a great job of setting the scene without being distracting. There are a few important vocabulary words, such as “strike” and “scab,” that are accurately defined in ways that don't derail the central narrative.
Instead of trying to give an entire overview of that pivotal moment in eastern Kentucky, Lyon focuses tightly on one important night, when the father in the story tries to protect his family by hiding out in the hills. Strikebreakers attack the house anyway, shooting bullets through the thin walls. The mother (Florence Reese) writes the lyrics while the children hide under the bed. This single moment, with a bit of background and a glimpse of the future, makes an enormously compelling story that even younger children can begin to understand.
Which Side Are You On? The Story of a Song, by George Ella Lyon. Cinco Puntos Press, 2011.