Kid Lit Review of “Jacob Riis’s Camera: Bringing Light to Tenement Children” by Alexis O’Neill

Jacob Riis, who became famous as a “muckraking” journalist advocating social reform, was born in Denmark in 1849. [As Wikipedia explains, the muckrakers were reform-minded investigative journalists in the Progressive Era in the United States (1890s–1920s) who exposed corruption in a variety of businesses and among political leaders.]. This biography for kids aged 7 and up tells his story.

Jacob Riis in 1906

Riis immigrated to America in 1870 when he was 21 years old. He quickly found that, as the author writes, “jobs for immigrants were hard to find, hard to keep.” He was often penniless, and slept on the streets. Eventually he got a job at the “South Brooklyn News” and worked his way up. He was even able to buy the newspaper, but then had to sell it for money for his new family.

A neighbor of Riis, who was the city editor of the “New-York Tribune,” recommended Riis for a short-term contract. Riis did well and was offered the job of a police reporter. He was based in a press office near New York City’s worst slum, called Mulberry Bend. In the 1880s, 334,000 people were crammed into this single square mile of the Lower East Side, making it the most densely populated place on earth. They were packed into filthy, disease-ridden tenements, 10 or 15 to a room. It was nicknamed “Death’s Thoroughfare.”

Riis longed to help the desperate people he saw, but his “muckraking” articles didn’t seem to make a dent. He resolved he would show people what was going on, and began to add photographs to his stories. He was aided by the invention of flash photography, which allowed images to be made of dark interiors.

Now people started paying attention. He also embarked on a tour to present his pictures and deliver lectures about the children and families crammed into the tenements. In 1890, his words and pictures were published in a book, How the Other Half Lives.

His book got the attention of Theodore Roosevelt, then head of the Police Board in New York. Roosevelt promised Riis he would use his power to make changes. As the author writes, “And he did.”

Ten years later, a park opened in Mulberry Bend: “And because of him, the lives of tenement children and their families changed for the better.”

As Jacob Riis notably said, “The power of fact is the mightiest lever of this or of any day.”

Back matter includes the author’s notes on Jacob Riis and the immigrant experience, a glossary, timeline, a list of Jacob Riis’s accomplishments, selected sources, and some of Riis’s actual photographs. (You can see a collection of his photos at the Museum of the City of New York website, here.). At the end of the list of “What Jacob Accomplished,” the author writes: “Seldom is America privileged to benefit by one so fine.”

As usual, Gary Kelley’s ink and pastel illustrations are notable for their simplicity, beauty, and ability to engage the emotions of the viewer. The palette is muted, capturing the despair and bleak hopelessness of what Riis witnessed, as well as Riis’s fierce determination to make a difference.

Evaluation: Kids can be encouraged to think about the causes and effects of poverty and what can be done to help. From Riis’s example, they will learn that if they want to make a difference, they will benefit both from thinking outside the box, and by capitalizing on what skills they have.

Published by Calkins Creek, an imprint of Boyds Mills & Kane, 2020

Children sleeping on Mulberry Street, ca. 1890 by Jacob Riis via Museum of the City of New York

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