Turn on the news these days, and you’re likely to see a news report about the increase in homelessness. Unfortunately, the language used in this reporting is often cruel and dehumanizing towards the people who don’t have shelter. I find the way they are spoken about almost places them in a category separate from humans. It’s a troubling, fascistic way of talking about the poor. Empathy is needed, as well as material help in the form of housing, food, education, health care, and so on. We must teach our children that homeless people are people first. Their living conditions result from broken systems that harm us all to varying degrees. We’re also all one bad day away from ending up in that same position; creating a world where no one has to go homeless benefits us all. These books can help begin conversations with your children about the plight of people who have been forced to live on the streets or perpetually live on the edge of losing everything.
Saturday at the Food Pantry (Albert Whitman & Company)
Written by Diane O’Neill
Illustrated by Brizida Magro
For ages: 4-8
There is so much shame in America associated with needing financial assistance. It’s time to squash that shame and help everyone feel dignity regardless of their circumstances. Molly is a little girl whose family is experiencing severe food insecurity. She goes to bed with a grumbling stomach, aching for food. One day, Molly’s mother brings her to the local food pantry. Molly spots a classmate in the line who tries to hide from Molly out of shame. Eventually, drawing pictures helps the little girls find happiness at this moment. This book does an excellent job of never making the need for the food pantry come across as sad. It’s silly to be ashamed for needing what everyone else needs.
What is Given From the Heart (Schwartz & Wade)
Written by Patricia C. McKissack
Illustrated by April Harrison
For ages: 4-8
Patricia McKissack was one of our great Black children’s authors, and this story touches on the importance of empathy & solidarity when we struggle. James and his mother are struggling. His father died, and they don’t even have a suit to bury him in. The bank took their farm, their new house flooded, and the dog ran away. Their local church announces they will put together “love boxes” for Valentine’s, full of things people need and simple gestures to lift their spirits. James learns about a little girl whose family lost their house in a fire, and he can’t think of anything he has that she would want. Eventually, he figures out something that had been in front of him the whole time, and the story concludes on a beautiful note of love & community.
Uncle Willie and the Soup Kitchen (HarperCollins)
Written & Illustrated by Dyanne Disalvo-Ryan
For ages: 4-8
This Reading Rainbow classic tells the story of a boy visiting the soup kitchen where his Uncle Willie regularly volunteers. At first, the boy isn’t sure what the place is and who all these people are. Then, his Uncle explains things in a way that makes it clear they need help. As the nephew gets to know the regulars who come in for a warm meal, he finds immense joy in seeing them get their nutrition and some kind words from the people at the kitchen. By the end, the boy cannot wait to return with Uncle Willie and help pass out food again. This is a great story that once again highlights the fulfillment we feel when helping other people, not simply satisfying ourselves.
Home in the Woods (Nancy Paulsen Books)
Written & Illustrated by Eliza Wheeler
For ages: 4-8
Set during the Great Depression, this book follows six-year-old Marvel and her family as they deal with the loss of their way of life. They carry what they can of their belongings until they find an uninhabited shack in the woods. From there, the family works together to make the house liveable and plant a garden to provide them with food and things to sell. I found Home in the Woods to be a reminder of how poverty & homelessness are things that have been around for a long time. I also think it touches on the critique that homeless people are “lazy” when most of those I’ve encountered would love to work. However, their social status acts as a stumbling block, so they are left struggling despite being willing to work.
Lulu and the Hunger Monster (Free Spirit Publishing)
Written by Erik Talkin
Illustrated by Sheryl Murray
For ages: 4-8
Lulu’s family van breaks down, and now her mother has less money than expected for food. Lulu becomes haunted by the Hunger Monster, the representation of that gnawing feeling in her stomach for nutrition. The Hunger Monster interferes with Lulu’s ability to focus at school and keeps her from sleeping restfully at night. The shame she’s made to feel causes Lulu not to tell anyone about the Monster. Eventually, the girl works up the courage to communicate her needs and is met with love & kindness. This is a fantastic book because it showcases how it feels to go hungry for readers who may have never experienced that. Still, it also speaks to those impoverished children and assures them they have nothing to be ashamed about. Asking for help is good, and it’s terrible how so many have been taught the opposite.
A Place to Stay: A Shelter Story (Barefoot Books)
Written by Erin Gunti
Illustrated by Esteli Meza
For ages: 4-8
A single mother and her child need a place to stay one night and visit a homeless shelter. Told from the child’s perspective, we see this with a lot of wariness and fear. It’s an unfamiliar place with lots of new faces; something children are cautious about. But, through this child’s eyes, we get to explore a homeless shelter, seeing how people live there, how volunteers and employees work to make it as safe & homey as possible, and how there are so many friends to be found. The mother plays imaginative games with her child to help them ease their fears, resulting in illustrations that blend the reality of the shelter with the world of pretend. This is another joyful book that doesn’t try to cloud the lives of homeless people as perpetually bleak. Yes, they need housing, but they are still people who can find happiness in fellowship with others and can play & imagine.
Still a Family: A Story About Homelessness (Albert Whitman & Company)
Written by Brenda Reeves Sturgis
Illustrated by Jo-Shin Lee
For ages: 4-8
This blend of fiction and nonfiction is one of the best ways to begin a conversation with children about homelessness. A young girl and her parents fall on hard times, resulting in the couple being apart and the girl being away from her father. The book points out how men are often separated from women & children with shelters, which while sadly necessary, is still painfully hard for a child to handle when they want their family together to feel safe. She misses her bed and the quiet of her home. Her shoes are getting tighter, but the family can’t get her any immediately. Her parents are looking hard for work and having trouble finding it. Yet woven throughout these sad moments are ones of happiness & contentment when the family can carve out a space to enjoy life, even briefly. The text uses the refrain “We are still a family” to show that the archetypal suburban home with parents and two kids is not the standard. Families can be found everywhere in all conditions. Being homeless doesn’t wipe away those bonds.
Sanctuary: Kip Tiernan and Rosie’s Place, the Nation’s First Shelter for Women (Candlewick)
Written by Christine McDonnell
Illustrated by Victoria Tentler-Krylov
For ages: 7-10
Rose’s Place was the first women’s shelter opened in the United States in 1974. This book tells the story of Mary Jane “Kip” Tiernan, a woman raised by her grandmother during the Great Depression, which led her to see the squalor humans can be forced to live in & the dangers they are forced to endure. Women were often targeted by men in the standard shelters and assaulted there. Kip became determined to change this and create a haven where women could live & sleep without worrying about being violated. Unfortunately, homelessness was often associated with men only, so Kip received much pushback on her plans. However, she kept pushing and finally opened her shelter in Boston, where she devoted much of her life to volunteering to help her fellow human beings. This book will help children see that being determined to help others will always beat passively ignoring their suffering.