The Journal of Finn Reardon Discussion Guide
- Grades: 6–8
About this book
To the Discussion Leader
Building on the research she did for her highly praised nonfiction book Kids on Strike!, Susan Campbell Bartoletti tells the fictional story of New York City newsboy Finn Reardon. Finn's journal tells of life in the Bowery district in New York City's Lower East Side in 1899. Unresponsive landlords, dismal living conditions, and rampant crime are part of Finn's everyday experience. To do his part to help the family, Finn, like many other boys, sells newspapers on the city streets. He enjoys selling papers and longs for the day when he sees his own byline as a trusted reporter.
At the center of Finn's story is the circulation war between the two newspaper giants William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. Words like yellow journalism and Tammany Hall mingle with strike, scabs, and compromise. Broken dreams, the joy of friendship, the power of people united, and finally dreams fulfilled are all found in The Journal of Finn Reardon: A Newsie, New York City, 1899.
About writing this addition to the My Name Is America series, Susan Campbell Bartoletti says, "I wanted to tell Finn Reardon's story because it reveals a unique perspective on city kids who lived and worked over one hundred years ago. I was particularly drawn to the newsboy's strike because it shows the spirit, courage, and strength of children who banded together for a common cause. I taught eighth grade for eighteen years, and from that experience, I know that kids today also have a strong sense of justice and fair play. I admire their courage and spirit."
"I'm a newsie you can trust," writes thirteen-year-old Finn Reardon, writing about his job. It is 1899 in New York City, and Finn, who lives with his family in a Bowery tenement, sells papers to earn extra money. (In a good week he earns about $1.20). When Finn isn't working or hanging out with his gang of friends, he's in a sixth grade class taught by Mr. Drinker who is "more stern than a prison guard" and uses the "power of the paddle" to discipline his students. Finn plans to quit school at fourteen and get a job at the newspaper office.
Life is not easy for Finn's family. His father never stays at one job very long, his Grandpa Jiggsy gets odd jobs only now and then, and his older sister Maggie must work at a pants factory, bringing home garments for Ma to finish. Their tenement flat is crumbling and dirty without running water or indoor plumbing. Fleas, cockroaches, and bedbugs plague the family; there is danger of gas explosions, and the fear of eviction if the rent isn't paid. The family tries to save as much money as possible so they can move away to their dream home in Brooklyn.
When Pop gets a well paying job as a painter boss, it seems as if their "someday house" will become a reality. Finn takes his final examination in school and passes with the highest marks in the class. Mr. Drinker tells Finn he "should set his sights on college," so another dream might come true. But, as summer wears on, Pop's workers and Pop himself fall ill with the "painter's sickness," caused by inhaling the fumes while mixing the paint. Determined to finish the work anyway, Pop, dizzy from the sickness, falls off a ladder, breaking an arm and a leg. He is unable to work, and the family's savings are rapidly used up to pay their bills. When Finn tells Ma that it isn't fair, she replies, "So be it. Life isn't always fair."
Meanwhile, the newsies are realizing that they're being shorted, getting fewer papers for what they pay the circulation manager. When their complaints get them nowhere, they decide to go on strike. Finn and his friend Racetrack help organize the newsies into a huge rally attended by "two thousand newsies from uptown, downtown, Brooklyn, Hoboken, and Jersey City. Three thousand more waited outside." The solidarity of the newsies forces the newspaper owners to agree to a compromise, and the boys go back to work.
Finn turns fourteen in August, and decides to stay in school. He's on his way to realizing his dream. As he says, "Someday I'll be a reporter you can trust. All a fellow has to do is watch and listen carefully. And write everything down."
Thinking About the Book
- When Finn writes he's "a newsie you can trust," what does he mean?
- Why do the Newsies decide to strike?
- Finn says he and his four friends, Racetrack, Jimmy, Grin, and Mush, make up a gang. Why does he feel that it's important to belong to a gang? Compare and contrast gangs in 1899 with gangs today.
- Finn believes that people like to read about disasters. Do you think that's still true? What evidence do you have?
- Strikes play an important part in The Journal of Finn Reardon. What happens when Ma and her neighbors decide to have a rent strike and not pay Mr. Underman?
- In a few sentences define each of the following terms and explain what each has to do with Finn's story? *scabs
- How does Finn meet the reporter Jack Watkins? Why does this chance meeting become important in Finn's life?
- What does Finn's teacher, Mr. Drinker, do that causes Ma to cry?
- What is your reaction to Finn's father? Do you think Pop is "…a man of considerable talent?"
- Who said these words, and why are they important in Finn's life? "A paddle cannot beat out stupidity and poverty. Only knowledge can."
- What is the compromise the William Randolph Heart and Joseph Pulitzer agree to that ends the newsboys' strike?
- In discussing the newsboys' strike, reporter Jack Watkins tells Finn it is about time David stood up to Goliath. What is the David and Goliath story and how does it apply to the strike?
- Finn and his classmates have to diagram sentences. Ask an older person or your English-language arts teacher if they've diagrammed sentences, and if they could demonstrate it for you. Share your findings with the discussion group.
- In your discussion group ask members to do some research and find out who was Richard Outcault. What role did he play in the circulation war between Pulitzer and Hearst?
- Ma is particularly fond of reciting popular sayings. Explain what each of the following sayings means.
A penny saved is a penny earned.
If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Trouble has a way of following you.
- In the Epilogue it says that Finn grew up to be a reporter and covered the famous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911. See what you can find out about this event. Why would this have interested Finn?
Discussion Guide written by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Associate Professor, University of Houston, Houston, Texas.