catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 8 :: 2009.04.10 — 2009.04.24


Peas from a can

In Judy’s Journey (J.B. Lippincott Company, 1947) author and illustrator Lois Lenski tells the story of Judy Drummond and her family as they travel from Alabama to New Jersey to Florida, following in-season crops as migrant workers. Lenski (1893-1974) was a prolific writer, well known for her regional children’s literature including Strawberry Girl, the 1946 Newberry Medal winner. 

Judy’s Journey begins with Judy’s family leaving their home of three year—a leaky shack surrounded by Alabama cotton fields—to find new agricultural opportunities elsewhere. “We’re a-goin’ where the sun’s a-shinin’ and a man can make a crop of his own,” Judy’s father Jim Drummond tells the overseer for the cotton company. So the family packs the iron bed, sewing machine, a piece of Brussels carpet, and their four children to head down to Florida in Papa’s “new” jalopy and rickety trailer.

The family doesn’t settle in any place long. They stay in Florida where they pick beans, in North Carolina where they pick berries, in Virginia where they dig potatoes, in New Jersey where Mr. Drummond finds work at a plant, and finally back to Florida where Mr. Drummond finally gets his ten acres to farm and the children are able to attend school regularly. Despite her lack of schooling throughout the story, Judy is always learning. In each location the family stays, Judy learns about the crops and meets different kinds of people. As she learns to adapt to various places and people, her Jo March-like temper is transformed into a desire to “be kind to others first” as she enters new experiences.

The main purpose of Judy’s Journey is to introduce the reader to the life of homeless migrant children.  As Lenski states in her introduction, “Whenever you eat beans or peas from a can, remember that a child may have spent long hours in the sun, picking them for you.” Judy’s story is fictional, but the incidents are based on discussions Lenski had with migrant children and research from the National Child Labor Committee.

Reading this text in 2009 presents fewer problems than one would anticipate. The single issue is that of language, including how African-Americans are described (colored) and how an Italian self-describes (“I’m a gypsy!”). However, for her time, Lenski uses respectful language as she is careful to refer to Mexican-Americans and Japanese-Americans as such. Furthermore, though Judy is white, she is not free from the complications of racist language as she is both the user and recipient of pejorative language for Caucasians, the only intentional pejorative language used in the volume. Moreover, Judy’s experience with a variety of races of children demonstrates the significance of friendships between people of different races. This book was ahead of its time, it seems. Judy is willing to learn about others and how they live.

Judy’s Journey is a wonderful historical artifact about mid-twentieth-century migrant life. It could be useful for a later elementary or early middle school social studies unit on migrant labor in the United States or twentieth century food production as long as it was accompanied by a strong historical background and language discussion. Despite the fact that Judy is ten, Lenski may have even intended this book for older readers, since she noted that “when I read the manuscript of this book to a group of Seventh Grade boys and girls . . . they were surprised to learn that there are any poor children in the United States.” Some children may still be surprised.

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