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Which Side Are You On?: The Story of a Song

Which Side Are You On?: The Story of a Song

by George Ella Lyon, Christopher Cardinale (Illustrator)

Come all you poor workers
Good news to you I’ll tell
Of how the good old union
Has come in here to dwell.

Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?


Come all you poor workers
Good news to you I’ll tell
Of how the good old union
Has come in here to dwell.

Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Writing in the folksy voice of the daughter of a Kentucky coal miner, Lyon (All the Water in the World) tells the story of the genesis of a pro-union song written by Florence Reece (the fictionalized narrator’s mother) in 1931. Evoking woodblocks and scratchboard, Cardinale’s (Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush) hard-edged illustrations provide the tale’s momentum and amplify its grittiness. The narrator and her siblings are shown hiding under the bed early on, as bullets zing through the windows and walls of their company home; they are meant for the children’s father, a miner and union organizer. Dodging bullets, their mother tears a page from a calendar and writes the eponymous song, a rallying cry for oppressed workers (“Don’t scab for the bosses./ Don’t listen to their lies”); the lyrics appear in ribboned banners throughout, encircling mining tools and rifles. Lyon’s storytelling jumps between speech-balloon dialogue and the girl’s clipped observations (“This is how the night goes: bullets through the walls, talk under the bed, words on the page”). It’s a high-stakes account of grace under pressure. An afterword provides additional historical context. Ages 7–12. (Oct.)
From the Publisher

"The story is a good and important one, and it is well told for an elementary-school audience...Cardinale’s folksy, woodcut-style paintings include several memorable images."—The New York Times

"What a perfect time for this picture book’s arrival...“Which Side Are You On?" is an old song with new relevance for a generation facing a dubious future."
NY Journal of Books

"The story has real power and so do the best of the illustrations."—Booklist

"Which Side Are You On? is beautiful, lyrical, and important, subtly showing us the importance of music and—even better—how anyone can make a difference, no matter their circumstances, as long as they put their heart and soul into it. A treasure."—Silas House, author of Eli the Good

"It’s a high-stakes account of grace under pressure."—Publisher's Weekly

"Cardinale's digitally colored scratchboard art is dynamic…Given that many of the same [labor] conditions exist today, only changed by mechanization, the music and lyrics included may well find use in the current generation. Lyon has given today's readers a stirring story."—Kirkus Reviews

"Lyon and Cardinale make a perfect match for this picture-book homage to a 1931 rallying cry born under duress in Harlan County, Ky… Although this book describes a historical event, it can open a gateway to understanding terms such as "collective bargaining," what that right has meant, and to consider what it means today."—Shelf Awareness

Children's Literature - Kris Sauer
It is the 1930s. Your dad, Sam, works his fingers to the proverbial bone in a company coal mine. The company owns the house you and your six brothers and sisters live in and pays your father not in dollars but in company scrip good only at the company store. Seeing no other way out, he begins to organize a union of like-minded workers. They go on strike. The local sheriff, in the back pocket of the company, sends thugs to your house. What do you do? Well, if you are Omie, the story's narrator, you hide under the bed with your siblings while your dad escapes over the mountain. Your mother, though, she decides now is the perfect time to write a song, one that rallies workers then and continues to do so now, eighty years later. With illustrations that evoke the gritty reality of Kentucky mountain life, this inspiring true story of the birth of Florence Reece's folk song, "Which Side Are You On?" is sure to inspire readers of all ages. Told from a child's perspective, with the often snarky humor that entails, this book would be a great classroom accompaniment to a discussion about industrialization, unions, social justice, folk music or Appalachian culture. The author's note elaborates on the back story of the song. A brief but excellent bibliography is included, separating primary from secondary sources and including several suggestions for further children's books on related subjects. Reviewer: Kris Sauer
School Library Journal
Gr 3–6—When the coal miners in eastern Kentucky went on strike in the 1930s, the company's hired thugs and the local sheriff united forces to convince strikers to return by shooting at their homes and families. Brave and angry, Florence Reece, the wife of a union organizer, tore the calendar off the wall and began to write each time the bullets stopped. Her determination to combat the violence resulted in words for a song of defiance. "Which Side Are You On?" was a demand for social justice and was written to "bring folks together." A progression of busily detailed, full-bleed block-print illustrations, with almost captionlike brief sentences, follows the attacks and opens the Reece home to readers. The brief story is told through the eyes of one of the children, and it captures the danger as well as the fear the family experienced. Views from varied perspectives reveal the seven children with their mother, from above and hiding under the bed and in portraits sharing conversations marked by speech bubbles. Ribbons of song lyrics weave across scenes of the miners' tools of their trade and the guns of hired company toughs. A thorough author's note follows the text, ending with the song's musical notation and one version of the words on the back cover. The use of music as a protest element makes an interesting addendum to resources on union history or the time period.—Mary Elam, Learning Media Services, Plano ISD, TX
Kirkus Reviews
"Folk songs are alive," states Lyon in her author's note, and none is more so than "Which Side Are You On?" The song, based on a hymn tune and lyrics, rose up from coal miners' strikes in Harlan County, Ky., in the 1930s. Narrated in the first person by a miner's son, this plainspoken account tells of the physical threat to the Reese family when their father is chased from town and the family comes under attack by Sheriff J.H. Blair's hired and armed thugs. Interspersed with the narration are the words of the song. Cardinale's digitally colored scratchboard art is dynamic and presents a visual reality that strengthens the history of the song and the people who sang it. The author's note adds a concise history of unions, laborers' demands for fair wages, safe conditions and an end of servitude to mine owners. Her explanation of the folk process is clear and shows how words and perceptions change over time. The book will be of great use in explaining U.S. labor history and development of workers' rights. Given that many of the same conditions exist today, only changed by mechanization, the music and lyrics included may well find use in the current generation. Lyon has given today's readers a stirring story about yesterdays. (bibliography, websites) (Informational picture book. 4-8)
Pamela Paul
…the story is a good and important one, and it is well told for an elementary-school audience…Which Side Are You On? is styled like a graphic novel rather than a picture book, which makes sense given the sophistication of its message and brutality of some images…
—The New York Times

Product Details

Cinco Puntos Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
8.80(w) x 11.20(h) x 0.40(d)
560L (what's this?)
Age Range:
9 - 11 Years

Meet the Author

George Ella Lyon was born and raised in Harlan County, Kentucky, the daughter of a dry-cleaner and a community worker. She grew up with one older brother in a house full of music, stories, and books. Her first ambition was to be a neon sign maker. Much later, she planned to be a folk singer in Greenwich Village. Finally she realized it was the music in the words she was after, and she has been after it ever since.

Lyon is the author of With a Hammer for My Heart (a novel), Catalpa (poems, winner of the Appalachian Book of the Year Award) and Where I'm From, Where Poems Come From, a primer for young poets. Her books for young readers include five novels (Borrowed Children, The Stranger I Left Behind, and Here and Then), 22 picture books (among them Come a Tide, Together, Who Came Down That Road?, Counting on the Woods and Book), and an an autobiography, A Wordful Child.

Married to musician Steve Lyon, she lives in Lexington, Kentucky, and has two sons.

Christopher Cardinale had a rootless upbringing following his educator parents through five states from Ohio to New Mexico. Independently, he continued his nomadic life in Guatamala and Mexico, finally settling in Brooklyn, New York. Inspired by Mexican muralism and anarchist punk collectives, Christopher works within marginally defined communities, painting murals whose subjects include the anti-globalization and anti-war movements. His large-scale murals can be viewed in New York, Italy, Greece and Mexico.

Publishing credits include a story in the Wobblies, a graphic history of industrial workers of the world; extensive features in the legendary WW3 Illustrated Magazine; and his riveting depiction of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath in New Orleans became the first cover story comic in Punk Planet’s history. He is currently working on a graphic novel celebrating his passion for cycling, which includes poignant graphic memorials about those who’ve been killed by cars while biking.

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