PPBF – Jacob Riis’s Camera: Bringing Light to Tenement Children

For today’s Perfect Picture Book, I’m happy to share a biography of a man whose name you may not recognize, but whose photographs live on and show how one person’s actions can improve the lives of many.

Title: Jacob Riis’s Camera: Bringing Light to Tenement Children

Written By: Alexis O’Neill

Illustrated By: Gary Kelley

Publisher/Date: Calkins Creek, an imprint of Boyds Mills & Kane/2020

Suitable for Ages: 7-10

Themes/Topics: social justice, immigrants, photojournalism, biography, New York City, tenements, STEAM

Opening:

Twelve-year-old Jacob hated Rag Hall. The rest of Ribe, Denmark, was filled with trim homes, sweet grass meadows, and fresh wind blowing from the sea.

But Rag Hall was a rat-infested, ramshackle dwelling.

As soon as he earned extra money, Jacob donated it to the poor in Rag Hall to help tidy things up.

Brief Synopsis: Jacob Riis, a Danish immigrant and newspaper reporter in late 19th century New York City, used flash photography to shine a light on the poor conditions in tenements crowded with new immigrants.

Links to Resources:

  • Check out the amazing back matter including a timeline, glossary, and much more;
  • Take or find a photograph of your home and compare it to one of Riis’s photographs of the tenements. What’s the same? What’s different? Where would you rather live?
  • Take a photograph of a darkened space without using flash and then with the flash working. How do these photographs differ? Which one more effectively shows the scene?
  • Try these photography activities for kids.

Why I Like this Book:

I first learned about Jacob Riis when I was a university student many, many years ago. His photos of New York City tenements, and the immigrant families who inhabited them, have haunted me ever since.

As readers learn in Jacob Riis’s Camera, though, Riis was a reporter first, and he only began taking photographs when he discovered that words alone were not enough to show people, including policy makers, the awful living conditions in the tenements. Through persistence, Riis mastered the new art of flash photography to shine a light on the filth and overcrowding that impoverished families endured, and he helped change conditions for the better.

As debates about fake news and immigration swirl around us, and as inequality has become more visible during this pandemic, I think the story of Jacob Riis and his desire to clean up the tenements, his persistence to find a way to do that using new technology to combine photographs with words, and his work with Teddy Roosevelt to effect reforms are important to share with children. Whether at home or in a classroom setting, this picture book biography is a wonderful resource to spur conversations about these topics, especially with the rich back matter.

Kelley’s etched ink and pastel illustrations really made me feel like I was there with Jacob in the tenements. In many ways they reminded me of Riis’s photos, a few of which are reproduced in the back matter.

A Note about Craft:

With longer text than the typical picture book, Jacob Riis’s Camera is targeted to a slightly older age group. Given the difficult subject matter, this is understandable.

Given Riis’s status as a founder of photojournalism, the illustrations in this picture book are particularly important. Kelley’s muted palate and renderings of Riis’ photos drew me back to the late 19th century and vividly highlight the conditions Riis was trying to alleviate.

This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Book list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!

5 responses to “PPBF – Jacob Riis’s Camera: Bringing Light to Tenement Children

  1. I am embarrassed to admit I didn’t know about Jacob Riis’s work as a journalist and photographer — and I majored in journalism, studying both. This is such a fascinating story about the difference he made to change minds and how compassionate he was on his own at a young age. Hope you submit this biography to the Cybil’s nominations. Thank you so much for sharing!

  2. This sounds like a great book, Patricia! I’ll see if the SFPL has it. I just finished reading the middle grade, AUDACITY (2015), by Melanie Crowder. You might be interested in reading it. Here’s the publisher’s description: A 2015 National Jewish Book Award finalist. The inspiring story of Clara Lemlich, whose fight for equal rights led to the largest strike by women in American history

    A gorgeously told novel in verse written with intimacy and power, Audacity is inspired by the real-life story of Clara Lemlich, a spirited young woman who emigrated from Russia to New York at the turn of the twentieth century and fought tenaciously for equal rights. Bucking the norms of both her traditional Jewish family and societal conventions, Clara refuses to accept substandard working conditions in the factories on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. For years, Clara devotes herself to the labor fight, speaking up for those who suffer in silence. In time, Clara convinces the women in the factories to strike, organize, and unionize, culminating in the famous Uprising of the 20,000.

    Powerful, breathtaking, and inspiring, Audacity is the story of a remarkable young woman, whose passion and selfless devotion to her cause changed the world.
    Check it out!

  3. This is a very powerful and touching book. I got to look at it earlier. I am so glad you’ve featured it. Alexis & Gary did an amazing job.

  4. This book will be an excellent choice for a classroom or school library collection. I’m so interested to find it and study the illustrations.

  5. It sounds wonderful. Thanks for sharing.

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