Fourteen-year-old Joseph Michtom knows he’s one of the lucky ones in New York during the early 1900s. He’s the son of a successful Russian immigrant. He’s got a warm place to live, enough food so he doesn’t go hungry, and family to love him. Although sometimes he doesn’t feel so lucky, because his parents no longer spend much time with him now that they are consumed with their new venture—sewing and selling as many of the new “Teddy bears” as they can. Joseph’s parents came up with the idea for creating the cuddly animals after President Theodore Roosevelt refused to shoot a cornered bear while on a bear hunt.
Joseph’s family has found new wealth and prestige from their invention, but the boys in the neighborhood treat Joseph differently, as though he’s changed from the same old Joe who has always been a friend. Joe spends a lot of time with his sister Emily and their baby brother Benjamin. Joe and Emily dream of going to Coney Island one day, but it doesn’t seem as though their parents will ever take enough time off to take them there.
Interspersed with Joe’s story are vignettes of homeless children living under the Brooklyn Bridge. They leave home for many reasons, either they are abused or orphaned or crippled in some way, but they find shelter and solace with each other.
Karen Hesse’s novel Brooklyn Bridge is a wonderful portrait of family in its many facets as well as the story of the struggle of immigrants to leave their old lives behind and fit into their new country. It paints a rich picture of Brooklyn in the early 1900s. We get a picture of life in Russia that many of Joseph’s friends and family left, and of his aunt who worked tirelessly so that many could leave their homeland and find opportunity in the U.S. There’s a strong sense of family obligations, helping out your fellow man, and showing respect to adults. Issues to discuss with mother-daughter book clubs include homelessness, historical events in Russia and the U.S., immigration, sibling relationships and family dynamics. Highly recommended for clubs with girls aged 9 to 12.