|Tundra Books, Canada, 2011|
That's certainly the case with IN THE BAG: Margaret Knight Wraps It Up, written by Monica Kulling and illustrated by David Parkins. This remarkable nonfiction title was a finalist for the Canada Books for the Arts Award, but it is first place winner to me. It addresses the reality of 19th century child labor, gender bias, and early industrial capitalism, but parallels modern issues of environmental concerns, workplace safety, immigrants, marketplace equity, STEM studies, and maker-space innovations.
Margaret was as unknown to me as the book was, but now I'm eager to spread her name with creators of all ages. By the time she was twelve, in the 1850s, she was proficient with an array of tools and spent any spare time inventing, designing, and applying her skills in practical ways. Ideas abounded, potential solutions to problems filled her many notebooks, and she was undefeated by failure, resistance, or injustice.
I won't spoil this for you by revealing too many details, but Margaret's story will connect with modern kids on many levels. Her father died when she was only three. She and her brothers worked long days in a cotton mill to provide enough income to survive. At work and at home, her mind spun as rapidly as the looms in the factory where they worked.
She never stopped studying those machines and imagining ways to improve them. She learned from trial and error until she invented a safety device for looms that quickly made its way into every factory in New England. She never received a penny (or patent) for that invention because she was "only a girl".
Although her success should have earned admiration among locals, instead she was mocked and doubted. It was widely believed that girls don't have the brains for mechanical thinking. Even so, she continued working with her notebooks, tools, trial and error in every spare minute.
As an adult, Margaret spent long working days at the paper bag factory, where "narrow bottom bags" were cut, folded, and glued by hand. A bag that could stand on its own on a counter and hold every sort of thing was much in demand, but it was only Margaret who imagined a better way to make them. After several years of models and refinements, she succeeded! This time, she planned to get a patent and prove she was the inventor.
But men in charge had other ideas and tried to claim her invention as their own.
That was a mistake. Nothing would stop Margaret.
Margaret's life story is inspiring in its individual details and as a model for us all: a creator, an innovator, a "persister", and a resister. Prejudice and societal limitations didn't stop her. She gained financial success and respect for her talents during her own era, and she deserves our attention and respect today.
The text for this remarkable account is reliably readable and engaging, including Kulling's introductory poetry BAG MAGIC, written in the style of William Carlos Williams. Added details in back matter enhance the accurate depiction of Margaret's life. Parker's illustrations are equally detailed and informative while offering a charming window to life nearly two centuries ago. Just as Margaret studied and pored over machinery, readers will want to carefully examine and discuss the intricately detailed elements of each scene.
A book like this will go a long way in encouraging girls to explore maker-spaces and enter STEM fields. The work and resources that go into producing basic paper bags could encourage kids to reuse and recycle paper bags rather than littering plastic.
The importance of trial and error, of analysis and note-taking, of documenting process and patent application are all modeled here, too. Margaret is a historic and admirable icon of knowing your true calling and talents and pursuing them despite hardships and lowered expectations.
Get this book into the hands of someone you know. Sooner rather than later!