What do we talk about when we talk about income disparity with our kids? Yep, it’s Cheery Topic Day over here at A Fuse #8 Production. I have lots of passions when it comes to children’s books and I have a tendency to indulge them one at a time. Today, I’m very interested in how picture books set in contemporary times display class barriers and realities. Generally speaking, if you’re poor in a children’s book then you’re Charlie Bucket Poor a.k.a. so poor that it’s actually silly. For lots of kids in the U.S., children’s books don’t reflect their reality. You want to talk windows and mirrors? When you’re sleeping out of your car or in a shelter, children’s books can look like a sea of windows, not a mirror in sight.
2017 has been interesting in this way. It’s not that I’ve seen a significant uptick in the number of titles willing to breach the subject. Instead, what I have seen are books that are talking about it in a host of new ways.
A Different Pond by Bao Phi, ill. Thi Bui
We’ll start in America with a look at the immigrant experience. At this moment in time many cities, like my own, are hosting Syrian refugees. And while there have been lots of Syrian refugee picture books, none of these titles have been capable of showing what it’s like for these relocated families in the long term. When I mentioned that all the books here today were contemporary, I wasn’t entirely truthful. Bao Phi’s book is technically historical, though there’s nothing dated about the material. In the book a boy goes fishing with his father. That would normally be the kind of thing you’d find in a lot of father-son bonding books, but the difference here is that to get to the water they have to climb over road barriers. The two are in Minneapolis at a spot not specifically designated for fishing. They do it to supplement the parents’ income and refrigerator in a practical manner before the dad goes off to the first of his two jobs. Phi explains that his parents fled Vietnam after the war and faced prejudice and potential poverty when they settled in the States. Reading the book, I wondered how clear it would be to child readers what was going on. For an adult, the moment when they climb over the road barriers and go down the hill to the water is a big clue. For kids, they may or may not pay attention to the economics behind the father’s decision. They might just think it’s cool that a dad would go early morning fishing with his son before his job. Whatever the case, it’s a great book.
I Like, I Don’t Like by Baccelliere and Ale + Ale
This is a fascinating one. The book is basically a treatise on economic privilege. On the one hand you have a kid saying what they like “I like shoes!” and on the other hand you’ll have a different kid living somewhere by their own labor. In the case of the shoes (“I don’t like shoes”) it’s a shoeshine girl. Citing the U.N.’s 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, the book aims to raise awareness of child labor and slavery. It’s tricky territory but is handled remarkably well. I take issue with the Kirkus review that said, “a racially diverse group of children in positions of privilege, but all the exploited child laborers appear to be children of color in different cultural contexts.” Not so. There are a couple white child laborers in there as well. It is, in many ways, diverse on both sides of the spectrum. This book is a conversation starter so don’t go picking it up unless you are ready to have this conversation. And you’d best be ready.
Still a Family by Brenda Reeves Sturgis, ill. Jo-Shin Lee
All right. Someone correct the following statement: The only middle grade children’s book about a kid in the shelter system is Blue Balliett’s Hold Fast. True or false? Follow up statement: The only picture book specifically about a kid in the shelter system is Still a Family by Brenda Reeves Sturgis and Jo-Shin Lee. Now considering the sheer number of books published in a given year, these two statements cannot possibly be true. Yet I have a hard time thinking of any companion titles to go with them. Everyone cites Fly Away Home by Eve Bunting but that’s not a shelter book (and the concept of living in the airport seems positively archaic at this point in time). This book is exceedingly simple, both in text and art. All it does is show what it’s like when a family is separated by living in shelters. Shelters are for men and women separately, after all. So it stands to reason they would be exceedingly painful for children.
Stef Soto, Taco Queen by Jennifer Torres
Shelters and child poverty are the most life-changing events when it comes to economic disparity. Working class issues deserve page time as well, though. Stef Soto isn’t even a picture book, but rather a nice short little middle grade novel. Why include it? Because it’s a very realistic look at a family working hard to make ends meet. There’s no miraculous happy ending to the book. By the story’s finish the parents have the same jobs they had at the start, but there’s a lot to be said about Stef’s own personal growth and journey. The book isn’t specifically about economics, but Stef’s discomfort with her father’s food truck coincides with her growing realization that maybe it’s not cool to have a dad with a food truck. Add in a rich former best friend and that’s a nice smacking of reality there.
Now those are the stories that deal with specific economic effects on children. What about books exploring economic subjects from a different angle? Over at Eerdmans (the same publisher that brought you I Like, I Don’t Like, come to think of it) they’ve introduced this new translated series called the Trade Winds Series. It first caught my eye simply because the series lists the editor’s name (“Joy Cowley”) on the cover of the books. Unheard of! Impossible! And yet there it is. Turns out, Eerdmans is only doing that for these books, but a gal can dream of a future where such books are ubiquitous. Now there are four books in this series so far, but for the purposes of my interest we’re only going to look at two of them.
Lion, King, and Coin by Jeong-hee Nam
In this book we basically learn about the birth of coinage.
Grandfather Whisker’s Table by Eun-jeong Jo, ill. Bimba Landmann, edited by Joy Cowley
And in this book we learn about the birth of the banking system.
Both books are rudimentary introductions for kids to much larger concepts. And believe me, there is a need. Admittedly when I lived in New York the kids who walked up to the desk and asked, “Do you have anything about Wall Street?” were probably NYC kids to the core. But every five years or so a new spate of articles come out talking about how you can talk about economic realities with your children. So for those of you unable to yet engage in discussing subprime mortgages with your toddlers, these books make for a good alternative.
For what it’s worth, if you know of any other books out for kids this year that deal with economic hardships in a realistic contemporary way, I’d love to hear it. Much obliged.