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Life Arts    H2'ed 2/28/11

Marlene Targ Brill on "Anne Shapiro and the Clothing Workers' Strike"

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My guest today is Chicago-based author, Marlene Targ Brill. Welcome to OpEdNews, Marlene. You have a new book out. Can you tell our readers about it?

photo credit: Richard B. Brill 

      Thank you for permitting me to talk about my latest book, Annie Shapiro and the Clothing Workers' Strike.  This true picture book story discusses the role Hannah (Annie) Shapiro and other Chicago immigrants played in the 20th-century labor movement.  The book tells how 17-year-old Annie rebelled against 10-hour workdays, bullying bosses and cuts in already-low wages.  She walked out of a Hart, Schaffner & Marx Chicago sweatshop in 1910 and urged others to join her.  Because of her brave stand, 40,000 other workers walked out, closing down the men's textile industry in Chicago and Milwaukee.  The strike triggered formation of a giant national union now called Workers United and resulted in employees nationwide receiving better treatment and wages.

There was so much going against Annie. She was a young person, an immigrant, who spoke broken English and was embarrassed about it. She was not well-educated; she was 12 when she had dropped out of school to go to work because her mother got sick. And her large family depended on her earnings to get by. Yet she risked everything by not accepting terrible work conditions and being willing to do something about it. Success didn't come easy. Tell our readers what happened when she and the other girls who were her fellow workers approached the United Garment Workers Union for support.  

       The UGWU was male-only, and after all, this was 1910. At first, the men didn't take the women seriously.  So Annie and the twelve original women who followed her out of Shop 5, where they worked, asked the Women's League for assistance.  The League was a group of wealthy women who helped families who came to Hull House, Chicago's settlement house founded by Jane Addams, for assistance.  League women gladly picketed with the strikers and raised funds to help families in distress from the strike.  After a couple thousand workers joined the protest, the UGWU decided the girls not only raised a serious issue but one supported by workers throughout the men's textile industry in Chicago.

Hurray for the Women's League! I hadn't realized that Chicago was the national hub for the men's clothing manufacturers. Is that part of the reason that Annie's walkout could snowball the way it did, once the UGWU came on board?

      I believe so.

     Most people think New York when the textile industry is mentioned, especially considering the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire occurred a few months after Chicago's 1910 strike and early strikes by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union made headlines in 1909.  But Chicago was the hub of the men's textile industry, and Hart, Schaffner & Marx--chief among other well-known brand names--was in its heyday during the early twentieth century.

Guilty as charged. Your book is part of a series called History Speaks: Picture Books Plus Reader's Theater. Why did you choose that format and how does the theater aspect comes into play? 

illustrated by Jamel Akib

        Interesting question.  Initially, my story was to be published as part of another series that offered the book a chance to essentially stand alone.  Then I received a call saying this new series was starting and my book would be part of it.  That series involved a young person from history--and it had a script in the back, what educators now call Reader's Theater.

       I think the idea of a script expands what individuals and teachers can do with the story.  Reluctant readers can take one part and still feel like they read the book.  Being part of a play is fun and helps shy kids participate in the action.  Kids who like to act can give friends parts, and they could pretend they have a theater.  The best part for me is the book looks like a regular illustrated picture book: it just has this bonus in the back.

The script also gives young readers another opportunity to connect with the story, which is a plus. Your bio states that you've written more than 60 books for all ages, among them many for children. Writing was not your first career. How did you get started with it?

         I originally taught children with special needs.  Back then, teachers didn't have the range of materials and books they have now, so I made most of my student's materials.  We wrote books together from their experiences to teach them to read.  I decide I wanted to write more stories to reach a wider audience to fill the holes I saw in catalogs.

       I had the opportunity to enhance my writing skills during my last full-time job in education as a media coordinator for a special education school district.  My  job included writing two newsletters, curriculum, training programs, and press releases.  When my department got cut in a budget crunch (sound familiar), I launched a freelance writing and editing business to continue creating as I had done in that job.

        Working for myself, I tackled a variety of tasks.  After I had finished compiling an index for an educational publishing company, I told the editor what I really do is write.  She gave me a chance to write the biography of John Adams for their new president's series.  I wound up writing eleven books for that company before spreading my wings with other publishers.  I was bit by the book bug and have been focusing on books for readers of all ages ever since.

You write primarily nonfiction, correct? Why did you decide to focus on nonfiction? And how do you decide what to tackle next? Do you determine the next project or does your publisher/agent?

        I write nonfiction for preschoolers through adults, but I also have written several historical fiction books, like Annie's story, for primary- and middle-grade readers.  But I was always start with a true story.  I guess that's how my brain works--start with facts and be creative with those, rather than create an entirely new universe.

       As for what I choose to work on next, I've worked two different ways: I create the topic and send my ideas/manuscript to an editor, or an editor comes to me with an idea.  For several years, I had an agent, but mostly I fly solo, which is getting harder to do these days.

       More recently, I've chosen to write what I want to write, and I've chosen subjects closer to home, which is in the Chicago area.  And I get my ideas from everywhere--trips, news, history, others.  My subjects for historical fiction stories are always about a real young person and a real event that happened in their lives.   
       One of my goals in writing is to empower young readers, so I try to show how a child's everyday acts make a difference--to them, to their family, to others around them--in some cases changing history.  Another goal I have is to write more women and girls into history.  Although times have changed in recognizing female accomplishments, females are still mainly relegated to sidebars in history books, rather than included in the meat of the chapters.  I want to alter the dynamic from mostly featuring men and their wars to learning about females and their actions for peace and culture.  I wrote five books in a recent young adult 20th-century decade series (Twenty-First Century Books), and I made conscious choices to insert women in every chapter, whether they be about politics or sports.

I support all those goals - more females, empowering young people, bringing history to life, showing how individuals can make a difference.  Speaking of coming closer to home, there was a special connection that you had to this particular story. Can you tell us about it, please?

       As an author, I've often had people come to me with ideas they think I should write about.  I usually tell them to write the story themselves.  But when my sister-in-law told me about her aunt and the strike she led when a 17-year-old Russian immigrant to Chicago, I thought I would include her story in lists of topics for editors who I knew.  For years, no one was interested.  In fact, I was so sure no one would become interested, I threw away the articles my sister-in-law had sent to me about her aunt, Hannah (Annie) Shapiro.

        Then, I got the magic email that authors love to read.  A new editor came to my usual publisher, and this person was interested in stories about strong female characters.  She wanted a story about Annie. Needless to say, my sister-in-law was thrilled, and the entire family has been most supportive in my research and sales efforts.

Tell us about your research methods.  How did you go about discovering more about Annie? Was it easier because you're in Chicago and so was she?

        Yes, research was definitely easier--and more interesting--because it occurred closer to home.

        Usually, I start research by checking what's been written about a subject already.  But with Annie, I found no blueprints, so I began with whatever primary resources I could discover.  A couple articles about the strike here.   A few others there.

       My main sources were Annie's family members, who I could interview.  One cousin of my sister-in-law lived with their grandparents and Annie and her husband for a time.  She gave me some idea of the family, how they related to each other, what they might have eaten for breakfast.  My sister-in-law and her brother filled in facts about where the family lived and who was born at the time.

       Then, I set about verifying the story about the strike and trying to recreate what it might have been like living and working on Chicago's near south side in 1910.  I investigated papers from the Women's League that are part of collections from Hull House at the University of Illinois Chicago's archives.  I read old newspaper accounts--both from city papers and from labor journals of the day--and checked old trolley routes.  At the Chicago Historical Society, I found a 50th anniversary commemorative booklet from Hart, Schaffner & Marx that told of Annie's leading role in the strike. I checked with the state archives to prove that Annie spoke before a committee of lawmakers after the strike.  Once I collected all this information, I traveled to where Annie had lived and worked to see buildings that are still around and get some idea of distances between places in the story.

        Every detail had to be verified.  People always seem surprised how much research goes into even the smallest children's books.

Yes, it sounds time-consuming but incredibly interesting. Events which took place almost exactly 100 years ago have relevance today, on many counts. Have you been thinking about that as we've witnessed what's been going on in Wisconsin?

       Yes, I couldn't help think about connections between my book and today's events.  People forget why unions were needed and organized.  They are short-sighted to think all workplace ills have been solved, and now the problem comes down to dollars and cents.

      I still hear how awfully my teacher friends are treated and how decisions from higher-ups damage education for students.  Yup, I also agree union reps have negotiated some over-the-top advantages in the past, but I also know we will always need collective bargaining, a way to give workers a voice that counts.  It was important in 1910, and it's still important now.

Agreed! Anything you'd like to add before we wrap this up, Marlene?

       I just want to thank you for this opportunity to share Annie's story, Annie Shapiro and the Clothing Workers' Strike. To learn more about Annie or my other titles, go to or contact Lerner Publishing at

Through your book, I discovered this important but completely unfamiliar story that is both timely and inspiring. Being from Chicago, the local angle was icing on the cake. Thanks so much for talking with me, Marlene!  Good luck to you and Annie!


Marlene's website

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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