Joelito is a regular kid who really loves his family’s Friday tradition: He and his mom, dad, and little sister get fast-food hamburgers at Sam McMann’s. But this Friday, they arrive to find the parking lot full of workers protesting for higher wages. The demonstrators include Joelito’s best friend Brandon Thomas, his little sister Kayla, and his parents, who both work at McMann’s.
We learn that the Thomases have been going through hard times—when the factory closed, they had to move to a smaller apartment and give up their dog.
Joelito’s confusion is wonderfully realistic. He struggles to understand why Kayla was so sad when her backpack was stolen that morning; it’s hard for him to see that her family can’t afford a new one. He doesn’t get why Brandon is upset when Joelito still wants his burger, despite the protest. When Mr. Thomas explains that the workers are not earning enough, Joelito’s little sister wants to know why the manager doesn’t just pay the workers more.
These questions set the stage for an informative, if didactic, explanation by Mr. Thomas: The manager doesn’t decide how much to pay the workers, Sam McMann does. McMann is a billionaire because he keeps so much money for himself and pays the workers so little. He could certainly afford to pay higher wages without raising prices.
In the end, Joelito and his sister decide to stay and protest with Brandon and Kayla, and Joelito gives up his burger in favor of take-out from a locally owned restaurant. For Joelito, it is nice resolution. He learns something new about himself and what he believes in. For children who read the story, it leaves some questions unanswered—as Berlak notes in the afterword. What happens with the protest? Does Sam McMann give in?
Joelito’s Big Decision/La gran decisión de Joelito makes a great discussion starter, and there are plenty of real-life examples of fights for fairer wages that students could explore. For example, Joelito’s mom talks about her parents’ struggles as farmworkers and how the movement for better conditions then may have saved their lives. This historical reference could segue into a class discussion of the movement for farmworkers’ rights.
Strangely, the book never references the role of unions, neither in the McMann’s protest nor in reference to the farmworkers’ movement. This puts the responsibility on teachers and parents to bring this important element into the discussion.
Joelito’s Big Decision/La gran decisión de Joelito is a great addition to any classroom library. It is wonderful that it is published bilingually. The Spanish reads naturally and thankfully is not a word-for-word translation of the English. It’s beautifully illustrated. The story is simple enough to use with younger elementary school students to address themes of fairness; older children can discuss the issues more deeply and connect them to real world events, both current and historical. It is also a rarity—a children’s picture book that explicitly discusses economic inequality, activism, and implicitly, the injustices of capitalism. It is a valuable resource for teachers who want to prepare their students for when they face decisions similar to Joelito’s.