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Talking about Poverty

For many of us, the topic of poverty is a difficult one to discuss. It is hard to truly understand it unless you have lived it, but having empathy towards everyone around us makes us better people. Children today need to understand that a child in their classroom might look forward to coming to school because it is a guaranteed meal, that there are kids whose parents work multiple jobs and don’t have as much time to spend with their kids, that being invited over to someone’s house might be something that just can’t be done.

The official definition of poverty is “a condition where people’s basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter are not being met.” There are unfortunately a growing number of people in the United States that fit this description. This year, the Multicultural Children’s Book Day Classroom kit focuses on poverty and how to discuss it with young children. Last year I put together a graphic of books that discussed homelessness and food insecurity, but didn’t actually discuss them. I was recently asked to review a book that fit this category perfectly, so I’m revisiting the idea.

Miss Pinkeltink’s Purse is a charming book told in verse by Patty Brozo about an old woman with an extraordinarily large purse. She wrecked havoc with her purse, but one day managed to apologize saying that “all that I have, I have in my purse.” Even though her bag was unruly, Miss Pinkeltink was kind to everyone around her and always tried to help others. One night, a young girl looked out her window to see Miss Pinkeltink sleeping in the park wondering “why sleep all alone where it’s cold, wet, and dark?” Miss Pinkeltink turned out to be very lucky indeed because the town came together to help her out, but not everyone who is homeless is nearly as lucky. Even if we can’t actually help a person get a home, Miss Pinkeltink’s Purse encourages us to, at the very least, give kindness and understanding. What I really loved about this book was the spread after the story that talked about homelessness, projects that kids have started to help those around them, ideas for young readers, and the wonderful phrase that “Nobody is too small to do something BIG!”

A book that has been around for a while, but whose impact continues to be strong is Those Shoes, by Maribeth Boelts. This is the story of young Jeremy who wants to be like everyone else and wear “those shoes.” Unfortunately, his family doesn’t have the money. As his grandmother explains, “There’s no room for ‘want’ around here – just ‘need.'” But Jeremy isn’t nearly as “in need” as Alberto, the only boy that doesn’t laugh at the fact that his shoes are different. Alberto’s shoes are literally falling apart. Jeremy steps up and does an incredibly good deed. This is a great way to show how important it is to show kindness to others and how little the “in” thing matters.

One of the reasons that I love being a part of a book community online is that I find out about books that I might never have heard of on my own. My latest find is Poverty and Hunger, which is part of the Children in our World Collection. This was brought to my attention in the Facebook group Kids’ Books for a Better World. I’ve only been able to look at the pages that are available on Amazon, but it looks like a very interesting book and series. What is interesting about them is that they try to help children understand what difficult subjects, like poverty and hunger, and how it affects them and those around them. Great for teaching empathy!

Maddi’s Fridge has been a favorite of mine for a long time. It really emphasizes the fact that you never know, your best friend could be suffering from hunger. It shows how one little girl tries to help the other, but it also highlights that problems like food insecurity are not the kind of things to keep from your parents. When Sofia wants to help Maddi, getting her mother involved makes a big difference.

Uncle Willie and the Soup Kitchen shows children one of the ways that people who are hungry get food. It doesn’t make any judgements toward the people who need to utilize soup kitchens, it just opens children who have never visited one to an amazing service provided by churches and other charitable organizations.

A staggering 2.5 million children are homeless in America. Really! That breaks my heart. In Still a Family, Brenda Reeves Sturgis does a remarkable job putting the realities of homelessness into a format that a child can understand. I think Jo-Shin Lee’s illustrations add an amazing amount of impact to this story because they are purposely done to look like a child’s drawings, as this is told from the perspective of a little girl. The reason for calling it Still a Family, is that the family has to be broken into 2 homeless shelters – one for women and children and one for men. But this family makes sure to find times to be together, showing the strength of their bond. There are unfortunately so many reasons a family can wind up homeless, it is important for kids to know that it could happen to anyone.

For older kids, the book No Fixed Address is an amazing look at homelessness from the eyes of a child. I realized that I haven’t given it a full review, so look for that on Monday. Felix’s mother has a hard time holding down a job. As the book progresses, we see that she is most likely clinically depressed and she also doesn’t know how to hold her tongue. Because of this, Felix and his mom wind up living in a van. It is supposed to only be for a month, but the month turns into two and then four. Felix does a good job of hiding it from his friends, but in the end it of course comes out. Susan Nielson did a marvelous job with this book. Kids will find it immensely readable but still get a lesson about homelessness at the same time.

Another wonderful book for older kids is Crenshaw, by Katherine Applegate. She has a great way of telling stories without sugar coating the hard stuff. Jackson and his family have hit hard times, and not for the first time. If things don’t get better, they are going to have to live in their van…again. To help him get through the stresses of his reality, he has an imaginary friend and cat – Crenshaw. My older daughter loved this book.

Homelessness can make anyone feel desperate. But desperate enough to steal someone’s dog in order to get reward money? That’s the concept behind Barbara O’Connor’s How to Steal a Dog. Georgina Hayes wants to do something to help her family. Her father left and she and her mother and brother are living in their car. Mom is already juggling two job, but it isn’t enough. An endearing look at their struggles and the importance of family.

Finally, looking at poverty and the potential for bullying is The Benefits of Being an Octopus, by Ann Braden. Zoey struggles to get her homework done because once she gets home to the trailer she and her siblings are living in, thanks to the mother’s boyfriend, it is her job to look after all of the kids while mom goes to work. At school, she tries to just stay under the radar. There are many issues that Zoey faces and the worst of them is that there is no safe-place for her, she is constantly trying to avoid being hurt, physically and emotionally. One of the amazing parts is that Braden highlights the importance of having loyal friends and a network that you feel you can fall back on. We should all be there for the ones around us, we never know what struggles are going on in their lives.

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