Children’s books portray the tough reality of hunger and poverty


For far too many children abject poverty and insatiable hunger are a constant reality. Still, most children are shielded from the facts that sine of their peers know only too well. For children who live in comfort, good books that portray children with whom they can identify can open doors of understanding, even empathy.

Much that is written for children depicts the travesty of global hunger – starving children who struggle against unspeakable conditions in faraway lands. Poignant as these stories are, some are remote, beyond the experience or even the imagination of a child.

In recent times the world of children’s literature has expanded to embrace the plight of children closer to home. My amateur search for children’s books about poverty and hunger is grossly limited by my ignorance of the genre. A good children’s librarian, teacher or bookseller would be a far better resource. My thought has been to explore children’s stories about hunger in our midst. The goal has been to find books that tell a story that will some day have meaning for my grandson whose idea of severe hunger is missing a glass of milk at bedtime.

The unfortunate and statistically inaccurate fact is that ethnicity and family situation play a role in several children’s books that deal with poverty and hunger. Adults sharing these books are cautioned to take this into account by stressing that the characters are not responsible for their condition. For the most part the causes of poverty are not individual but systemic.

Many books that depict causes and conditions of poverty derive from passed from generation to generation; many come from places and people that enjoy an oral rather than written tradition. Though the setting may be unfamiliar, the message transcends geography. These books come to life when they are shared with caring adults who can interpret the underlying factors that shape the lives of individuals and families, especially children, who are not to blame for their situation.

  • A good conversation starter is the classic story of Stone Soup, a familiar tale that has been told in words and pictures by countless writers and artists who know children well.
  • Rosie, the Shopping Cart Lady, by Chia Martin, is a story for children, told by a child, a good introduction to the reality of poverty and homelessness for young book lovers.
  • Another good read, based on a Chinese folktale, is One potato, two potato retold by Cynthia DeFelice. In this story a hungry family learns that doubling their edibles is less important than expanding their circle of friends.
  • In The Roses in my Garden, set in Afghanistan, author Rufshana Kahn tells the story of a young refugee living with terrifying memories. Overcome by thirst, hunger and mud he continues to dream of freedom.
  • Beatrice’s Goat by Page McBrier and Lori Lohstoefer, was first published by Heifer Project International. The book describes how the gift of a goat brought a level of prosperity to a village in Uganda.
  • In The Caged Birds of Phnom Penh Frederick Lipp describes how a young girl saves money to buy a bird for her impoverished extended family.
  • Sounder, by William Armstrong and James Barkley, is the story of a 19th Century African American sharecropper family.
  • In A Shelter in Our Car Monica Gunning writes about a widowed mother and her daughter Zettie who are forced to leave their home in Jamaica. The mother’s strength instills hope and confidence is the little girl.
  • Jane Resh Thomas tells the story of Latino migrant workers far from and lonesome for their homeland during the holiday season in Lights on the River.
  • In Angel City an elderly African man discovers an abandoned baby on a Los Angeles street. With no experience, he rears the child as his own, keeping the child and hope alive with songs and stories.
  • A Handful of Seeds by Monica Hughes recounts the story of Concepcion, a young orphan girl who is forced to move to the barrio when her grandmother dies. When she learns that her new friends must steal for food Concepcion decides to sow the corn and bean seeds left to her by her grandmother. The community garden represents hope and illustrates the impact one person can have on a community.
  • Gowanus Canal is a grubby area in NYC in which a homeless man and a brood of dogs share a common fate. Jonathan Frost shares their story in his first book, Gowanus Dogs.
  • Race and poverty play a role in Lucky Beans, based on the real life memories recounted by author Becky Birtha’s grandmother. It’s the story of a Depression-era African American family who enter a bean-counting contest with high hopes of winning a sewing machine.
  • The Double Life of Zoe Flynn by Janet Lee Carey is the story of a little rich girl with a secret – – that her family is no longer rich but living in a van. Hope and strong family ties help Zoe survive her situation.
  • Uncle Willie and the Soup Kitchen is a realistic story in which a young boy sees first-hand the difficult lives of families who are hungry and the kindness they are shown at the workers at the soup kitchen.
  • Well-known author Eve Bunting recounts the plight of a homeless boy trying to avoid detection in an airport terminal. Fly Away Home describes how a bird in flight gives him hope.
  • In Sam and the Lucky Money by Karen Chinn, Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu, the young boy Sam discovers the true meaning of the “lucky money’ his grandparents have given him to buy “anything he wants.”
  • Mama Panya’s Pancakes by Mary Chamberlin and Richard Chamberlin is about a poor Kenyan mother and son who go to market to shop for the ingredients to make pancakes. The generous boy insists on inviting all people he encounters to join the pancake feast.
  • Predictably the Berenstain Bears have a tale to tell, a story of conspicuous consumption writ large. In The Berenstain Bears Count Their Blessings Mama helps her cubs realize that love trumps worldly goods, even Bearbie dolls.
  • Last on the list, first in my heart, is one of my favorite holiday reads, Always Room for One More by Sorche Nic Leodhas, illustrated by Nonny Hogrogian. Though it’s not strictly about hunger and poverty this book is the perfect holiday read for the whole family and the perfect gift for a young reader with a vivid imagination and a generous heart.

These few titles offer but a quick sample of the treasures on the shelves of libraries and bookstores. In these volumes creative writers and illustrators interpret themes and conditions that are difficult for children to grasp, harsh realities that are nonetheless part of the world in which they live, learn, make friends and come to understand others. A good story well told can reveal deep truths and subtle nuances that children are just learning to comprehend and apply.

A good book is always the ideal gift for any child. In every home, for every child, there is always room for one more…