Children learn about poverty, homelessness, and hunger through picture books, and these books teach them about these things. These books also try to show and give voice to people who aren’t well-off, which includes a lot of kids who need to see themselves in books, too.
People who are poor in these picture books face a wide range of economic problems and insecurity in these books. It’s not easy for some of the families in these books to buy extras. Some families live on the streets, while others are struggling to make ends meet. I didn’t want to make a list of books where the main character is poor. As long as they see their own experiences in the same way, kids will know that they aren’t alone. This is how I’ve broken down the book list: poverty and economic insecurity, hunger, and homelessness. There is a lot of overlap between these topics, though.
Picture Books about Poverty and Economic Insecurity
Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson.
A boy and his grandma ride the bus together. We don’t know where they are going yet, but the boy asks why they don’t have certain things. To him, it’s weird that they don’t have a car or an iPod. There are many benefits to what they already have, and the grandma tells him to think of the good things about not having many material things. It turns out that they were going to a soup kitchen to help out.
Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts, illustrated by Noah Z. Jones.
Good: This book talks about poverty and how important it is to put the needs of others ahead of our own wants, which this book does well. Jeremy wants the most up-to-date pair of trendy shoes. It’s not like his friends have them, but his grandmother can’t buy him a pair. Because she never made him feel bad for wanting something he couldn’t have, I like that she didn’t. Because they are too small, Jeremy buys them even though they are at a thrift store. Makes friends with someone at school who needs them more than he does and gives them to them. I like how this book is honest about how hard it is for Jeremy to give away the shoes. They are things he really wants to keep for himself. In the end, though, he does the right thing on his own. It makes the act of kindness even more powerful because Jeremy is ashamed of the shoes he has to wear.
A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams.
A beautiful book about family love is in it. She is a young girl who talks about how her family lost everything in a fire. They moved into a new house, and their neighbors gave them furniture. What they didn’t have was a chair for her mother to relax in after a long day of work as a waitress. A jar is used by the family to save their money. When all the coins reach the top, they go out and look for a new chair. When you read this heartwarming story, you learn more than just about perseverance and love. You learn that for many families, having a good chair is a treat.
The Table Where Rich People Sit by Byrd Baylor, illustrated by Peter Parnall.
When she is called “Mountain Girl,” her family lives in the desert. They work outside and have few possessions, so her parents have little to show for their time and money. It makes Mountain Girl think about what it would be like to make money so that she could buy things for herself. During a conversation about the value of the natural world with her parents, she learns to be grateful for the things that are around her.
Tía Isa Wants a Car by Meg Medina, illustrated by Claudio Munoz.
Ta Isa wants to drive her shiny green car to the beach. Lack of money will not hold her back! To help pay for her niece to go, the narrator works odd jobs and saves up money. Ta and her niece go to a car dealership together and pick out a new one to buy. People in Ta’s extended family have good relationships and work together to make her dream come true. I like that.
Yard Sale by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Lauren Castillo.
The young narrator talks about the day her family had a yard sale to get rid of some of their things before moving into a smaller apartment. At the loss of the things, Callie is sad. She doesn’t know why, but her family can no longer afford to live in the big house. They show her that they are still a loving family and that moving is the next adventure, even if it means giving up some things.
The Hard Times Jar by Ethel Footman Smothers, illustrated by John Holyfield
When Emma’s parents move to a new country, they don’t have a lot of money. Her job is to help unpack their few belongings in their new home near the apple orchard, where the whole family will work together to pick fruit. In the “hard times jar,” Emma sees how she could make money to buy her dream book. When Emma’s mother wants her to go to school instead of work, she is angry. It turns out that school is the key to her dreams.
Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E.B. Lewis.
Maya, a new girl at school, finds herself alone. Her poverty makes her stand out from the other kids, and they don’t want to be friends with her. Another girl, Chloe, talks about Maya’s actions and how the other kids don’t like her. Maya herself says, “She’s not my friend.” On one day, their teacher shows them how powerful the ripples from one kind act can be. She drops a stone into a bowl of water to show them. “Even small things make a difference,” she says. It turns out that Maya doesn’t come back to school the next day, so Chloe is sorry that she didn’t do the right thing. There is so much that this book could turn into something negative and preachy, but Woodson’s beautiful words make the story a moving reminder to show kindness every chance we get.
Something Beautiful by Sharon Dennis Wyeth, illustrated by Chris K. Soentpiet.
There are trash and run-down sidewalks outside the window in the poor city neighborhood where the girl lives. A teacher’s words on a blackboard inspire her to look for beauty in what she sees. To find happiness and beauty in gestures, her search lets her find them from the friendly gestures of other people. She is “something beautiful,” her mother tells her. While the setting of the story is clearly a poor area, the message is not about the poverty but about how the girl can find hope and optimism.
Picture Books about Hunger
Tight Times by Barbara Shook Hazen, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman.
He wants a dog, but his parents say “times are tight,” so he can’t get one. That means they eat soup for dinner, not roast beef, and don’t go on vacation to a lake. One day, his father loses his job, so the boy goes out to the stoop while his parents talk about what they’re going to do. The cat is outside. Because it isn’t a dog, he was able to keep the thing. In this story, there is not a neat ending. I like that there is not. Her dad doesn’t get a new job by accident. Instead, we see that life goes on in the loving family, and we know that not everything comes to an end quickly.
Uncle Willie and the Soup Kitchen by Dyanne Disalvo-Ryan.
They went to work in a soup kitchen together. There is a lot of text in this book, but I still think it’s worth reading. It is one of the few picture books that show how a soup kitchen works. It will help kids think about how they can help their community.
Maddie’s Fridge by Lois Brandt, illustrated by Vin Vogel.
They play after school. When Sofia goes to Maddi’s apartment, she is surprised to find almost no food in the fridge. Sofia agrees not to tell anyone that her mom doesn’t have enough money for the grocery store. Sofia thinks about what to do, but in the end, she makes the right choice. People should be kind to each other and to their communities, but also to each other. I like this book because it does both.
The Lunch Thief by Anne C. Bromley, illustrated by Robert Casilla.
Rafael likes the lunch his mom makes him, but one day he sees Kevin taking it from him. Once the school starts to lose lunches more and more often, Rafael gets really angry. When Rafael learns the truth about why Kevin was stealing lunches, he decides to help him by being kind and being friends with him instead.