By Andrew Stevens
Progressive parents and educators should be excited to learn that the repertoire of social justice texts aimed at children has been growing over the last few years. Hard Ball Press recently published a new addition to this list in 2015 titled Joelito’s Big Decision, authored by Ann Berlak and Daniel Camacho. This playfully illustrated and bilingual (English and Spanish) book follows the experience of a young boy, Joelito, who is pressed to learn about the experiences facing low wage fast food workers employed at his favourite restaurant, Mac Mann’s. At the same time he learns of the importance and meaning behind the growing living wage movement in the United States.
Joelito’s excitement over the commercialized fast food experience will certainly resonate with parents and readers. The prevalence of a twelve-foot tall Smiling Sam, MacMann’s plastic promotional head, across from Joelito’s home is a constant invitation to the boy’s friends and family. Every week they cherish the meals enjoyed at MacMann’s, which provides a sense of comfort and family. But one Friday Joelito encounters a demonstration outside the restaurant, as workers and members of the community walk a picket line demanding better wages and working conditions. This “Strike for 15” movement takes place in the shadow of an ever-smiling Sam.
At the protest, Joelito encounters his friend, Brandon, and his parents. Brandon’s family was forced to take up work at MacMann’s after losing their jobs at a local factory. A life of stability and modest means was replaced by poverty wages and economic uncertainty. It is through these encounters that a young Joelito is forced to think beyond the food he enjoys, and about the conditions of work in which the burgers are made.
The story also tells of how the MacMann’s franchise system functions, and that local establishments are required to maintain the low wage structure that feeds into the corporation’s profits. Joelito innocently wonders why MacMann himself needs so much money in light of the deprivation faced by his workers across the country. The boy’s mother then tells Joelito of the struggles of their family, who fought for better wages and employment standards in California’s fruit picking and agricultural industry.
Although the lesson is serious, children will be able to make sense of the story in this short and nicely illustrated book. Teachers especially are encouraged to pick up a copy for their classrooms as they work to translate our admiration for fast food and other products into a meaningful discussion about workplace justice and social movement organizing. Indeed, as the publisher’s promotional headline reads, “no one is too young to learn that another world is possible.”