Which Side Are You On? The Story of a Song

Image of Which Side Are You On? The Story of a Song
Release Date: 
October 4, 2011
Publisher/Imprint: 
Cinco Puntos Press
Pages: 
40
Reviewed by: 

“Which Side Are You On? provides an educational opportunity through a dramatic and enjoyable story. Christopher Cardinale’s blocky artwork, in the style of colored woodcuts, gives the story a historic look with modern appeal.”

Which Side Are You On? tells a slice of labor union history. In 1931 miners in Harlan County, Kentucky, went on strike for better pay, safer working conditions, and better healthcare. The company retaliated by hiring thugs to attack organizers like miner Sam Reese.

When this story starts, Sam’s seven children are hiding under the bed—hiding from bullets. Oldest daughter Omie narrates the story from under the bed. Pa is in hiding, leaving the children home with their mother, Florence. In the midst of flying bullets, she finds a pencil, takes the calendar from the wall for paper, and starts to write a song. And so “Which Side Are You On?” was born.

Many adults may not know the story, and few children have any understanding of the labor movement. This book aims to change that, with a child-friendly look at a brutal episode, told with humor and optimism. The children in the story may not understand why the union is so important, but Ma tries to explain, noting, “This ain’t easy, but sometimes you’ve got to take a stand.”

The story is told with simple, down-home language, helping to make a tough subject accessible, and readers will enjoy Omie’s wry humor—she thinks they need a fort or a trip around the world, not a song. An extensive Author’s Note at the back offers more information, appropriate for older readers or for parents and teachers who want to further discuss the story with younger children.

This song may be 80 years old, but many of the feelings and lessons will resonate today. As the Author’s Note says, “We human beings have a big problem with greed: wanting more than we need, more than our share. . . . and all too often industry puts a higher value on profit than on workers’ lives. . . . Whenever one side has all the power in a relationship something needs to change.” Ideally, an adult will use this book to open up discussion with a child or group of children. This could help children understand how people of the past fought for many of the advantages we have today, and also show kids how they, too, can be part of the solution.

The book Which Side Are You On? offers an accessible overview of the labor movement using the ordinary people who faced danger and poverty in an attempt to make the world a better place. (The Author’s Note acknowledges that unions aren’t perfect and union workers were also sometimes violent.) The Author’s Note also touches on the history of folk songs, and it ends with a call to action, stating, “We are how change happens.”

Overall, Which Side Are You On? provides an educational opportunity through a dramatic and enjoyable story. Christopher Cardinale’s blocky artwork, in the style of colored woodcuts, gives the story a historic look with modern appeal.