Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Mother Jones and Workers' Rights in Monica Kulling's 'On Our Way'

There aren't too many authors who get to share billing with literary heavyweights like Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens. But versatile and prolific children's author Monica Kulling has done just that, and more. With her Stepping Stones series for Random House, as well as the Great Ideas series with Tundra Books, Monica writes with an eye toward making the complicated more accessible and the adventures real.

Her latest great adventure looks at Mother Jones and her famous march to emancipate children from hard labor. Titled On Our Way to Oyster Bay: Mother Jones and Her March for Children's Rights and illustrated by Felicita Sala, it is a lively look at an inspirational heroine and champion of the working class. It is sure to prompt great discussions around the kitchen table or in the classroom.

Question: What made you want to write about Mother Jones?

Monica Kulling: An astute editor at Kids Can Press came to me with the project. I’m not often asked to put words to someone else’s idea, but when I am, I always find it a fun challenge. The editor thought a book about Mother Jones, specifically her march against child labor in 1903, would fit the publishing house’s Citizen Kid series. As it states on the website:

“The collection aims to make complex global issues accessible for children ages 8 to 12.”

My book illustrates the complex issue of child labor both in the story and in the further discussion in the book’s back pages.

Q: You've clearly been bitten by the research bug. What makes you want to write non-fiction for children?

MK: Research is definitely the fun part. I think I write non-fiction for children so I can learn new and interesting things. It certainly is a beneficial side product. I didn’t know a thing about Mother Jones before beginning the project and now here I am … almost an expert!

As a subject for biography, Mother Jones was a good find. She was a courageous woman who triumphantly rose from the ashes of several disastrous events: the Irish potato famine, the yellow fever epidemic in 1867, and the Chicago fire in 1871. After teaching in Michigan and Tennessee, Mary married George Jones in 1861.

Mr. Jones was an ironworker and union supporter. When the yellow fever epidemic struck in 1867, Mary lost her husband and all four of her children, all under age five.

One has to imagine the torment she must have endured because there isn’t much written about this event, even in her autobiography.

Mary returned to Chicago and opened a dressmaking business. Once more, disaster struck, in the form of fire. Mary lost her home and business to the Chicago fire of 1871. She sought community and comfort in the Knights of Labor, and soon emerged as a labor organizer, fighting tirelessly for better working conditions and more humane wages for coal miners and railroad workers. Her caring manner inspired the coal miners to call her “Mother.”

Mother Jones was only 5-foot tall but what a firecracker! I hope kids will find her an inspiration, as the coal miners did, and as my two fictional characters, Aidan and Gussie, certainly do.

Q: Can you describe your creative process — sometimes it's challenging to make history feel relevant for young readers. How do you decide when to bring in fictional characters to your narrative?

MK: I guess the simplest answer is imagination. I try to imagine what it would have been like to be a particular person living under certain constraints with a personality entirely different from my own. It’s a bit like acting, I guess, since the character must come alive for me as I write or I won’t get the words right. If the person comes alive in my imagination then I can, hopefully, translate that to the page.

As for bringing in fictional characters, I don’t always do that. In my Great Idea series, stories of inventors and their a-ha moments, I stick to the facts, with dollops of imagined dialogue to keep interest high. In the case of On Our Way To Oyster Bay! I introduced the two children, at the suggestion of the editor. That’s why I like working with editors so much. They often hold the key to unlocking the kid friendly in a history.

Q: What do you hope young readers take away from your book?

MK: I’d be gratified if young readers took away similar thoughts and feelings to those I take away when I read biography or historical fiction — that is, to see the world through eyes other than your own and to come to a deeper understanding of the people who live in it. I’m often amazed by how much we are like people who lived hundreds of years ago even though we have amazing technological and scientific developments at our disposal; we are, at base, similar in the hopes, fears and desires we have.

Q: What are you working on next?

MK: I have so many people, places, and events that I’d like to explore, my head is fairly spinning! That said, lately I’ve been researching the Dust Bowl migration with the idea of writing the story of one family’s struggle as they migrate from Oklahoma to the greener fields of California. I’m particularly interested in how the 10 long years of dust, drought, and despair affected the children in the family.


  1. Gilbreth and Jones are too excellent choices for biographies! Definitely ordering these for my library! Thanks for the heads up?

    1. She's got a million of 'em! Clearly a talented biographer!