Our top picks of books for children and teens about the girls and women who fought for workers' rights.
For many children today, Labor Day is just a holiday marking the end of the summer; what they often don't know is that this special day commemorates the history of the struggle for workers' rights — one in which girls and women played important and too often forgotten roles. Held on the first Monday in September in the U.S. and Canada, Labor Day celebrates the contributions of workers and remembers the hardships they endured in their fight for justice.
To introduce children and youth to the struggles and achievements of working girls and women, the fiction and non-fiction books recommended in this post will open their eyes to the tremendous efforts and sacrifices made by those in the early days of the labor movement who won workers the right to fair wages and safe working conditions. These stories will also give young readers a greater understanding of struggles that continue today, especially in countries where the fight continues for even the most basic worker rights.
This blog post features our favorite Mighty Girl books, from picture books to young adult novels to adult historical fiction, focused on the involvement of girls and women in labor movement struggles. For more books about labor issues, visit our collection of books about Work & Labor in our Social Issues book section.
Mighty Girls and Women of the Labor Movement
Clara Lemlich arrived in the US expecting opportunities for a better future; she didn’t know that future meant long hours of labor, low pay, and no education. But she was undeterred, and spent hours studying English and taking night classes. And when she got fed up with how she and her fellow laborers were treated, she organized the largest walkout of female workers in the country’s history. This inspiring picture book biography of the Ukrainian immigrant who refused to give up on the American dream shows the power of determined people working together for change against entrenched systems.
Ruby's Hope: A Story of How the Famous “Migrant Mother” Photograph Became the Face of the Great Depression
Ruby's Hope: A Story of How the Famous “Migrant Mother” Photograph Became the Face of the Great Depression
Ruby loves her family's farm, but with Oklahoma devastated by a drought, her family doesn't have enough to eat, and they make the tough choice to travel in search of work. As they move from camp to camp, it's hard to sustain hope, even when other migrant workers share what they can to help everyone survive. But when photographer Dorothea Lange arrives and takes several pictures of Ruby's family, her "Migrant Mother" photograph will galvanize the nation to demand social supports for those in need. This powerful picture book highlights the poverty of the Depression and reminds young readers of the important protections for working people today.
“My name is Mother Jones, and I’m MAD" begins this fiery picture book about a groundbreaking American activist! Irish immigrant Mary "Mother" Jones may be in her sixties, but she's sick and tired of watching children being forced to work like adults, with long hours and dangerous conditions. Her protests would earn her the name "the most dangerous woman in America" — and in her most famous one, the Children's Crusade of 1903, she led 100 girls and boys on a march from Philadelphia to Long Island, stopping only when they reached President Theodore Roosevelt's doorstep! Told in the first person, and accented by illustrations that capture the indomitable Mother Jones, this powerful picture book will open kids' eyes to American labor history — and to the fight for rights of child laborers around the world today.
Frances Perkins grew up at a time when girls weren't supposed to speak up, but her grandmother encouraged her to challenge herself: "when somebody opens a door to you, go forward." She discovered her passion in activism, and became a ferocious advocate for working people across America. And when the newly elected President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked her to bring her wisdom to his cabinet — and hopefully pull the country out of the Great Depression — she answered that she would... if she could "do it her way." This empowering picture book biography of the first woman in a presidential cabinet — and the mastermind behind Roosevelt's New Deal — will encourage kids to imagine how their own voices could change the world.
Observant teacher Dolores Huerta wanted to know why her students were so hungry that they couldn’t learn, and why many of them didn’t have shoes to wear to school. She learned that migrant workers picking grapes worked long hours for unlivable wages, but when she confronted their bosses, they ignored her. Huerta refused to let it go: she not only encouraged the workers to strike, but also convinced customers to boycott grapes until the workers were treated fairly. This compelling picture book biography captures the determination and courage of the woman who devoted decades of her life to fighting for workers’ rights. For another excellent picture book about Huerta, check out Side By Side / Lado a lado: The Story of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez / La historia de Dolores Huerta y Cesar Chavez for age 4 to 8.
That's Not Fair! Emma Tenayuca's Struggle for Justice / ¡No Es Justo! La lucha de Emma Tenayuca por la justicia
That's Not Fair! Emma Tenayuca's Struggle for Justice / ¡No Es Justo! La lucha de Emma Tenayuca por la justicia
Emma Tenayuca grew up in a comfortable life in 1920s San Antonio. But she saw first-hand that others were not so fortunate and the degree of poverty experienced by those working for slave wages at the local pecan-shelling factories. When she was 21, the pecan shellers wages were cut even further — from six cents an hour to only three cents an hour — and she decided she had to do more: Tenayuca ended up leading a successful strike by 12,000 pecan shellers. This compelling English and Spanish telling of Tenayuca's story will encourage kids to speak up when they see injustice in their own community.
When Clara Lemlich left Ukraine, she thought New York would be a safer place to live. But in the clothing factories on the Lower East Side, she discovered just how poorly workers were treated: low pay, long hours, and dangerous conditions. And many of the workers were women and girls, who weren't expected to stand up to their bosses. Lemlich refused to let that injustice stand, so she led the factory workers in a strike — winning a major victory for the labor rights movement! Inspired by the #1 New York Times bestselling series She Persisted by Chelsea Clinton and Alexandra Boiger, this chapter book biography introduces young readers to a hero of the American labor rights movement — and even includes a set of tips for kids who want to make a difference today.
After a strike in 1909, many garment factories have improved conditions for their workers — but not the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. There, workers spend long hours each day locked in to prevent theft, making dozens of shirts for pennies. And then, in 1911, tragedy struck: a fire swept through the factory, killing 146 workers who had no hope of escape with so many doors blocked or locked. In this volume from the Graphic Library, young readers will learn about this devastating fire and how it helped propel the movement for labor rights, including many of the safety laws we take for granted today.
14-year-old Lucy Morelli dreams of going to college, but for her Italian immigrant family in 1911 New York, her income from work is critical. Every day she joins her best friend Rosie at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, where the pay is good — but the work is boring and the supervisors regularly lock the workers in to ensure they won't steal. And one Saturday morning, when a fire breaks out, Lucy is faced with a fight for her life. This riveting book from the Girls Survive series tells the story of the notorious Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, one of America's deadliest industrial disasters and the driving force behind several key labor reforms, through the eyes of one of its workers.
In 1910 Vermont, 12-year-old Grace must leave school to work as a “doffer” for her mother’s loom in the mill — never mind that doffing is a right-handed job, while Grace is left-handed, or that underage work is technically illegal. Grace struggles to perform the job, and every mistake costs the family dearly. But with her friend Arthur, she writes a secret letter to the Child Labor Board and when reformer Lewis Hine shows up undercover to document the factory, Grace will develop a new sense of her capabilities and perhaps a better future. This beautifully written novel is an excellent jumping-off point for discussions about underage labor today.
In 1968, after two African American sanitation workers were killed by unsafe equipment, their colleagues throughout Memphis went on strike. Their two-month protest drew so much attention that Dr. Martin Luther King came to help... only to be assassinated in his hotel after giving his famous "I've Been to the Mountaintop" sermon. Through the eyes of a fictional girl (inspired by a real child's experience in the strike), author Alice Faye Duncan captures a key moment in both the labor and civil rights movements. Written in emotional free verse, this picture book for older readers provides an accessible introduction to a challenging and heartbreaking moment in American history.
When Fannie Sellins was born, business owners like the Carnegies and the Morgans lived lives of luxury, while their employees barely had enough to feed themselves and their families. So she became a union activist, first helping to create a chapter of the United Garment Workers of America in St. Louis, then traveling the nation speaking out on behalf of workers' rights. She would give her life for her cause, but her influence lives on today in the laws and unions that protect workers from abuse. This well-researched book includes plenty of additional information for those curious about Sellins and the labor movement.
Rosa’s mother and older sister work long hours at the mill so that she has the chance to go to school. Then the mill workers go on strike, and Rosa is afraid for her family’s safety, but also confused: her teacher says the striking workers are an ungrateful, violent mob. Rosa is sent to Vermont, to union sympathizers who are willing to protect the children of the strikes, and on the way she meets a boy desperate for protection. Through his story, Rosa will gain new perspective on just why the strikes are so important. Set against the Bread and Roses strike of 1912, this remarkable story is full of authentic, touching voices.
Eleven hours a day, Emily snips threads from blouses at the Acme Garment Factory. Go too fast, and she’ll damage the fabric and get docked pay; go too slow, and she’ll be fired. But without the four dollars a week she earns, her family will starve. Then a reporter arrives, seeking to document violations — including underage workers like Emily. Will she dare to reveal the truth, even if it risks everything she and the other children of the factory have? This unique book intermixes Emily’s fictional story with non-fiction sections about life in a slum, working children, and labor reformers.
At the beginning of the 20th century, nearly 2 million children were working — everywhere from coal mines to cotton mills, and often under brutal conditions. Eventually, individual groups of kids started to rally together, demanding safer working conditions, shorter hours, better pay... and eventually, the right not to work so that they could go to school. This award-winning book tells the story of a variety of different children's strikes, some of which were successful and some of which were not. Their stories are a reminder that America's industries were often built by children's hands as much as by adults' — and that children today owe a debt of gratitude to the working kids who stood up and said, "No more."
Thirteen-year-old Kit Donovan is pulled in many directions in her 1905 Nevada mining town... but when her mother dies of a fever, Kit promises to become a "proper lady." Except then she discovers that Mr. Granger, the gold mine's boss, is making extra profit thanks to unsafe working conditions — and when she convinces her dad to speak out, things go from bad to worse. So with the help of some friends, Kit decides to take some lessons from her hero, Huck Finn, as she fights to clear her father's name and expose the mine owner's corruption. Full of twists, turns, and rollicking adventure, this historical fiction novel featuring a daring main character celebrates those who will stop at nothing to bring the truth to light.
It's 1844, and 10-year-old Lyddie’s family farm is so deeply in debt that her parents are forced to hire her and her brother out as servants. Lyddie wants her family to be together again, so when she hears about the money a girl can make in the textile mills, it seems like the perfect solution. The working conditions are horrible, but she needs money too much to sign the workers’ petitions, even when her friends start getting sick. Instead, she escapes from her hardships with her new joy — reading. And when she learns that she can never return home, her love of books and learning may provide a new dream: a life of education. This touching novel illuminates both the conditions faced by workers in the past and the power of education to provide a better future.
On March 25, 1911, 146 workers — nearly all of whom were young women — died when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burst into flames. Soon, the nation learned that the factory was overcrowded, and that the workers had been locked in during working hours. The Triangle Fire became the tipping point for a growing movement of labor reformers and immigrant activists, fighting to ensure that the garment industry’s profits were no longer made at the cost of their blood. This National Book Award finalist will remind readers that the laws we take for granted today came at an enormous cost.
Esperanza grew up in privilege in Mexico, but when her father is killed by bandits shortly before her thirteenth birthday, she and her mother flee to America. In Depression-era California, no one cares about the elegant life Esperanza remembers: she’s just a farm worker, good for nothing but hard labor. But as Esperanza struggles with poverty, racism, and grief, a spirit of labor organization is blossoming around her. Hope is coming both for Esperanza and for the workers around her struggling to get by. This Pura Belpre Award-winning novel stars a courageous girl determined to find a way to rise above her difficult circumstances.
In the early 20th century, the young women who got jobs painting watch and gauge dials with glowing radium paint were considered lucky; they were well-paid, and surrounded by dust that would supposedly make them healthy — and literally made them glow. But the corporations didn't tell them about the dangers of radium exposure. When they started to get sick, the women tried to seek justice, only to be slandered by company management who claimed that they were dying of syphilis and other diseases. With their days numbered, the Radium Girls knew they had to win their case — not for themselves, but to protect generations of workers after them. This young reader adaptation of the best-selling adult book The Radium Girls tells the story of these courageous women and their groundbreaking battle for workers' rights to safety.
In the late 1800s, Ida M. Tarbell became one of the first investigative journalists — and she used her knowledge from growing up in oil country to take on John D. Rockefeller, one of the wealthiest people in the country. Her diligent investigation revealed underhanded and illegal practices that Rockefeller had used to achieve his success. Tarbell denied that journalists were "muckrakers," instead arguing that they ensured that business was conducted fairly and that the wealthy didn't exploit the rest of the country. This biography captures the importance of this trailblazing woman, highlighting the power of the press and of one woman who refused to be silenced.
Bella, Yetta, and Jane make three unlikely friends: Bella and Yetta are immigrant workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, while Jane is a privileged young woman who supports striking garment workers as part of the movement for women’s suffrage. The women’s stories reveal the truths concealed behind the factory’s walls: pay being docked for mistakes, bosses who turn back clocks to delay quitting time, and women being frisked to ensure they’re not stealing. But the friendship also leads to all three women being present for the infamous fire and the tragedy will cost these friends dearly. This deftly crafted novel will give readers a new perspective on the price that has been paid for the rights of workers.
She was the Secretary of Labor in the midst of the Depression — and in a time when women were not supposed to be powerful or outspoken — and yet Frances Perkins refused to back down from the challenges laid before her. With a deft hand, she pushed the nation to make changes including safer working conditions, shorter hours, and fairer wages; she fought for the end of child labor and for unemployment insurance and Social Security. This biography of the dedicated labor reformer proves Perkins’ famous assertion that, to get things done, “You just can't be afraid.”
14-year-old Joan Skraggs adores reading, but once her father forces her to quit school to cook and clean for him and her brothers, they're hard to come by. After her father burns the few precious books she owns, Joan decides to run away and work as a hired girl in a city. She finds herself in Baltimore, working as a maid for a Jewish family who are warm, kind, and appreciative of everything that education has to offer. But even with six dollars a week in wages will Joan be able to build the future that she’s always dreamed of and, most importantly, finally have a chance to continue her education? In this award-winning novel, Laura Amy Schlitz creates a vivid and authentic character who makes a few impetuous mistakes but never stops imagining big things for herself.
16-year-old Rose Nolan and her family consider America the land of opportunity, and they've sacrificed a lot to travel there from Ireland. While part of the family is forced to return home, Rose and her younger sister Maureen stay in New York City, determined to make their fortunes — but their jobs at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory barely allow them to get by. Still, they believe that, with hard work, they can make themselves a success in their new country. The sisters don't think about what being locked onto the work floor might mean — until they're caught in the infamous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, fighting for their lives. This gripping historical fiction novel features vivid detail and vibrant characters as it describes this life-changing disaster.
Clara Lemlich comes to the US looking for a better life and discovers that immigrants — particularly female immigrants — are denied the education and fair pay they need to achieve that life. But Clara refuses to accept her designated place: “Inside I am anything/ but fresh off the boat./ I have been ready for this/ possibility/ all my life,” she declares. She organizes a women’s union, and soon her voice is joined by thousands of others during the Uprising of the 20,000, the largest walkout of female workers in US history. This compelling, gorgeously told novel in verse about a key figure from labor history celebrates those who are audacious enough to say, "No more."
Julie dreamed of attending college with her best friend Lauren, but since she had to sacrifice college savings to save her family home, she finds herself working while Lauren makes plans to leave without her. Then the friends make an unusual discovery: a thrift store painting that glows in the dark, revealing a second image. Julie becomes obsessed with the painting — and the artist, who only signed L.G. — and she drags Lauren along seeking answers. Along the way, she'll learn about the Radium Girls, who used radioactive materials to paint the first glow in the dark paintings... and paid a terrible price. Told in alternating chapters of Julie's perspectives and letters from the Radium Girl artist, this is an engaging mystery based on a little-known and horrifying true piece of history.
"Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living." Mother Jones was a ferocious fighter for labor rights, who assisted and agitated in strikes across the nation, from coal and steel workers to textile factories to leading a march of child workers demanding child labor laws. In this powerful biography of "the most dangerous woman in America," author Elliott J. Gorn highlights the spirit of justice that drove this remarkable woman to stand beside workers in some of the modern American labor movements most important battles. To learn about Jones' work in her own words, you can also check out the Autobiography of Mother Jones.
The Curies' discovery of radium was a scientific landmark, but it also became a marketing frenzy, with beauty products and medicines hawking its benefits. The women who worked in the radium-dial factories of World War I spent their days coated in the glimmering dust, and people thought they were lucky — but then they started to get sick. As the factories denied the connection, and with the women demanding answers, one of the greatest battles for worker's rights of the 20th century would begin. Kate Moore tells the riveting story of how the "radium girls" fought for life-changing regulations, and highlights how their battle still influences our world today.
When Frances Perkins was named Secretary of Labor in 1933, the country was in turmoil — and a woman had never held a cabinet position. Perkins faced a difficult task: help millions of working class Americans, maintain her own family responsibilities, and prove that women were up to the task of doing both. In this extensively researched biography, readers will get a complete picture of the woman behind some of America's most important social welfare initiatives and labor legislation, from child labor laws to the 40-hour work week.
Additional Recommended Resources
- For more books about social issues relating to employment in our Work & Labor section.
- For stories starring girls and women who fought to change the world, visit our Activist Biography section.
- For books that celebrate the power of fighting for what is right, visit our Fairness & Justice section.
- Most labor rights laws would never have come to pass without the unified efforts of protesters and striking workers. For books that honor the power of working towards a common goal, visit our Cooperation section.