What is activism? How does change get made? What role do children play? How can you get involved?
One might assume that children’s and young adult books about activism would tackle such basic questions accurately and exhaustively, in a way that empowers young readers. Yet despite their evident desire to tackle activism, the three books I review here either sidestep these questions entirely or address them obliquely, contributing to flawed, partial, or disempowering responses.
To identify the biases of texts by Katie Smith Milway, Maxwell Newhouse, and Janet Wilson and to generate the aforementioned list of questions oriented toward youth activism, I rely on the lens of critical literacy, a method that urges readers to encounter texts carefully and critically using questions designed to illuminate assumptions, ideologies, underlying messages, and hidden agendas. Stemming from the social justice framework of Brazilian educator and theorist Paolo Freire, critical literacy is intended as a means to combat oppression and to support empowerment. Applying critical literacy to three texts that purport to relate to activism has led me to conclude that all three examine efforts to impact [End Page 188] community well-being rather than activism. Within this frame, each book characterizes and grapples with the role played specifically by money.
Newhouse’s The Weber Street Wonder Work Crew, a book that is intended for children aged four to seven, depicts young people of a range of backgrounds applying their respective interests and skills to tasks requested by their neighbours. “We can make a difference!” the book’s narrator exclaims on the first page, but the text on the subsequent page articulates the (more modest) purpose of the young people: “Together we can earn money, have fun and make our neighborhood shine.” Rather than demonstrate care for communal resources, this text shows solitary agents (and, in rare cases, pairs) performing specialized labour on private property for discrete individuals. “Neatnik Nancy” washes windows, Barney babysits, and the “Garage Guys” Sam and Len declutter a neighbour’s garage.
Is there anything wrong with performing odd jobs for neighbours? Certainly not, provided that the terms are non-exploitative, an especially crucial consideration given that minors are involved. But the text does not explore the terms of the children’s labour, such as how often they work or whether their compensation is fair. The author would not have had to bog down a picture book in financial details in order to explore such labour issues either: Newhouse could simply have represented how the “crew” operates as a collective, perhaps by featuring a sign emblazoned with a common hourly wage in one of the illustrations or, alternatively, by reviewing the crew’s unified advertising campaign. Newhouse does neither, opting instead for a focus on individualism: the “crew” moniker is not justified in any way and, for the vast majority of the book, we see each child working alone.
Only at the end of the book do we see Weber Street residents setting up for an event, with all members of the Wonder Crew focused on one project. Predictably, whether the youngsters volunteered or hired out their labour is not articulated, but the commercial nature of the event is annotated extensively. At this Weber Street block sale, the youth have “been putting on prices, making change, and packing up purchases all day” (20). This reveals two significant choices in terms of collaboration and currency. First, Weber Street neighbours decided to collaborate for the purpose of commerce (establishing private, curbside businesses), not for the purpose of community service (such as a discussion of communal concerns or an engagement with civic outreach). Second, the neighbourhood decided to trade in...