Review of The Only Woman in the Photo, by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Alexandra Bye

The Only Woman in the Photo

Frances Perkins & Her New Deal for America

by Kathleen Krull
illustrated by Alexandra Bye

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2020. 44 pages.
Starred Review
Review written February 3, 2020, from a library book

Did you know that a woman named Frances Perkins was instrumental in designing the New Deal? I didn’t. She was also the first female cabinet member, and it was twenty more years before there was another. This picture book biography tells her story and how she was in the right place at the right time to make a big impact on people’s lives.

The author tells us that young Frances was too shy to speak when she was a child, even to ask for a library book. But she was encouraged by her grandmother, and when she saw injustices around her, she joined the new field of social work and spoke up to help people.

She spoke up for people in poverty and for worker safety. She witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire where 146 people died. That made her all the more determined to be a voice for women being exploited.

Frances first worked in New York State, helping pass laws there to make workplaces safer. And that was where Franklin D. Roosevelt, the governor, appointed Frances the state’s industrial commissioner shortly before the stock market crash and the start of the Great Depression.

So when FDR was elected president, he asked Frances to be his secretary of labor. I like the double-page spread about her decision:

So Frances decided she’d accept the job – if FDR allowed her to do it her way. She had been thinking up ideas for years. Now she wrote all her requests on slips of paper, a to-do list for helping the most vulnerable.

At their meeting, she held them up, and she watched the president’s eyes to make sure he understood what she was planning. The scope of her list was breathtaking. It was nothing less than a restructuring of American society.

Their talk lasted one hour – until he finally said, “I’ll back you.”

The next spread shows Frances cleaning out the desk in her new office in the Department of Labor – the drawers were crawling with cockroaches!

The book goes on to explain – in picture book terms that are easy to understand – how hard Frances worked to help American workers. Her dream come true happened in 1935 when FDR signed the Social Security Act into law.

One interesting thing about the book that I find rather refreshing: It doesn’t talk about her marriage at all, except the note at the back where we learn that she was the sole support of her husband and daughter, both of whom had significant health problems. Since books about great men don’t always mention their families, there’s something I like about this picture book glossing over that. Though I did assume she was single and that’s how she accomplished so much, so part of me which that had gotten some attention in the main part of the book. But it’s a picture book biography of a woman who was far ahead of her time, and it does succeed in presenting the significant details of her life and making the reader want to know more.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

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