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Cotton in My Sack is a juvenile novel published in 1949, written and illustrated by popular children’s author Lois Lenski. It tells the story of a sharecropping family in eastern Arkansas that grows cotton. Though no years are mentioned, the book seems to be set in the late 1940s. Each chapter represents a narrative episode involving the family as related from the viewpoint of Joanda, the oldest child. Other family members include Joanda’s father and mother, along with Joanda’s siblings: brother Ricky and baby sister Lolly. Chapter titles indicate the key element in the chapter, such as “School,” “Saturday in Town,” “A Merry Christmas,” “The Library Book,” “The Bridge,” and “A New Year.”
Lenski’s depiction of the family and its experiences reflected observations gained when she visited Yarbro School near Blytheville (Mississippi County) in 1947. Yarbro students had written to Lenski asking her to write a book about them after hearing a broadcast of her reading from an earlier book—the 1946 Newbery Medal–winning Strawberry Girl, a book about growing strawberries in Florida—and reading the book themselves.
Lenski admitted that she knew nothing about growing cotton, but she accepted the invitation to visit Mississippi County and learn, saying: “I entered another world. I donned a sunbonnet, pulled a nine-foot sack and picked cotton with the children. I achieved a sun-burned nose, a crick in my back and about half as much cotton as the average ten-year-old picker. Most of my time was not spent picking, however, but studying the actions of the pickers, young and old, making sketches, talking and listening….I learned so many things—the weight of a full sack and the weariness it brings; the desirability of a good row and the satisfaction that comes when the bolls are large and the sack fills fast; the length of a day from sunrise—the sun is hot and bright before six in Arkansas—to sunset.” Lenski also learned the circumstances of sharecropping and the cotton economy: “I heard many conflicting points of view on cotton economy, but my primary concern was human character in action, as controlled by an environment.”
Cotton in My Sack and Strawberry Girl were two volumes in the series Lenski called her Regionals—more than a dozen books that dealt with stories set in different parts of the United States. Earlier in her writing career, she had produced picture books for younger children and written historical novels about children living in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The way of life depicted in Cotton in My Sack is foreign to most twenty-first-century students; not even their grandparents would have experienced sharecropping. However, rural life was the dominant way of life for most Arkansans during the first half of the twentieth century—a rural life that often involved sharecropping, tenant farming, and a split school year that allowed for months of no school in the fall so that the entire family could pick the cotton crop. Some readers today may view Lenski’s books as simplistic or naïve, but the realism in her writing depicting the lives of marginalized people was innovative at the time.
For additional information:
Kirch, Claire. “Lois Lenski Biography Provides Intimate Portrait of an Elusive Author.” Publishers Weekly, July 14, 2016. https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-authors/article/70889-lois-lenski-biography-provides-intimate-portrait-of-an-elusive-author.html (accessed February 23, 2018).
Lenski, Lois. Cotton in My Sack. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1949.
Lois Lenski Collection. Dean B. Ellis Library Archives and Special Collections. Arkansas State University, Jonesboro, Arkansas.
Malone, Bobbie. Lois Lenski: Storycatcher. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016.
Butler Center for Arkansas Studies
Last Updated 2/23/2018
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