Winthrop, E. (2006). Counting on Grace. New York: Random House Children’s Books, 227 pp.
Genre: Historical Fiction
Awards: Honor Book, Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, an ALA Notable Children’s Book, A Vermont Reads Selection, IRA-CBS Children’s Choice, and an NCSS-CBS Notable Social Studies Trade Book Award for Young People, a Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award Nominee, and a Massachusetts Book Award Honor Book for Children’s Literature
Summary: This story travels back in history to the early 1900’s to the beginning of the industrial age in America. Grace, who is twelve years old, is about to embark on her first job as a doffer in a mill. Though she’s excited to go to work and somewhat relieved to be free of school, she’s too young to understand how this will impact her life forever. She is old enough, though, to understand the importance of money when there isn’t enough and family members are starving. Grace is excited to soon be contributing to the family and its needs. Arthur, her best friend, also must leave school to work in the mills but he does reluctantly as he has no choice.
Once in the mill Grace discovers work is not easy. Long tedious hours are spent standing on her feet worrying about making mistakes with the bobbins on her mother’s frames knowing each mistake will cost her family money and disappoint her mother. She desperately wants to do a good job, but it’s much more challenging than she had imagined. Grace suffers from exhaustion, cuts all over her hands, and swollen legs and feet. Arthur works the frames for his mother, just like Grace, but all the while he’s devising a plan to escape and a means to seek help. Arthur has continued his education by spending Sunday’s with their old teacher, Miss Leslie, and Grace soon joins him. It is with Miss Leslie’s help the plan is hatched and set into motion by writing a letter to the Child Labor Board asking for help.
Arthur’s letter is soon answered when Lewis Hines, a photographer from New York, arrives on a train with all his equipment. Hines goes to the mill and explains he’s there to photograph the machines, but that’s not what he’s doing. Mr. Hines is there to photograph the children in the mill and to expose the child labor law violations. He makes friends with Grace and she becomes his secret assistant. Grace records the names and ages of all the young workers at the mill and she organizes them for the photographs he needs. Grace knows she must be careful about getting caught because it would cost her and maybe other family members their jobs. Though she doesn’t want the mill to close because it would mean losing jobs and losing a means to live, she still assists in the undercover project.
It’s through the help of Mr. Hines and her teacher that Grace is eventually able to quit the mills and work as a teacher, though no child law reformations come about in this story.
Characters: The characters in this book are true to life and easy to identify with, especially the main character, Grace. Grace is like most young girls as she’s full of spirit and hope for the future. She also desperately longs for the approval of her family, especially her mother, and she is always trying to earn it. Sadly, her mother has no time to offer Grace for such trivial concerns, as she is struggling herself to keep her family fed and alive. She is constantly exhausted and mentally drained by the working conditions she endures. There’s no rest for her, though, because if she slows down there’s always someone else to replace her who is more productive. Grace finds solace and comfort in her relationship with her grandfather who is mostly bedridden. Though sickly and partly senile, he does have time for Grace and they share intimate thoughts and dreams as they spend time together. Sadly, his death comes while under Grace’s care and she feels both heartbroken and responsible. Grace’s character grows and changes throughout this story. She learns lessons about the importance of education, life and death, growing up, and the cruelties of the working world in which they all live. Even though there are so many difficulties facing this child, her youthful optimism does not fail her, and she’s able to look to her future with dreams and aspirations. She never succumbs to depression or resigns to a life of dullness. I loved both her youthfulness and her ability to deal with grown up issues. Grace’s character could almost be described as a hero. She embarks on a dangerous secret mission with Mr. Hines and though it is a small part she plays, she does contribute to eventual reformation and enforcement of child labor laws.
This is a great story that could be read by both girls and boys fourth grade and up. It would be good to use in conjunction with Social Studies if you were studying the time period in America’s history when children provided cheap sources of labor. Mr. Hines is a real life character that could be researched as an extension. His photographs speak volumes about how young these children were and how dangerous the conditions were in which they worked. A possible creative writing activity could be done in conjunction with Mr. Hine’s photographs. Students could assume the personality of a child in these pictures, conduct more research about this period of time, and write about their experiences and feelings.