Inside: Homelessness can be a difficult topic to talk about with your kids. Read these children’s books about homelessness to open discussion.
In creating this list, I noticed that most of these children’s books about homelessness have parents who work part-time jobs, often more than one. Despite shelter uncertainty, they are going about their lives, sending their children to school, and even going to college themselves.
It’s usually a series of setbacks or a tragedy like the death of a breadwinner than sends them spiraling downward. This is not surprising given that most Americans are one paycheck away from the streets.
On a single night in January 2015, 564,708 people were experiencing homelessness — meaning they were sleeping outside or in an emergency shelter or transitional housing program. National Alliance to End Homelessness
Part of this 564,708 homeless number includes women and children. It’s a heartbreaking statistic. Imagine families with children trying to go about their everyday life without a place to sleep. It’s becoming a more common sight in cities like Boston where I live.
With the spike in homelessness, has come the homeless spikes. Yes, it’s as horrible as it sounds. MacDonald‘s is one such company that puts anti-homeless spikes designed to keep the homeless away.
Some artists decided to fight back against the anti-homeless spikes, starting a movement they call “Space, Not Spikes.”
“Space, Not Spikes” reclaimed the spiked area by covering it with bedding, pillows, and a bookshelf stocked with reading material. Upworthy
Hostile design doesn’t solve the issue of homelessness. It just tries to remove the homeless from the line of sight of those who have a place to live. And yet, there are humane solutions to homelessness like these tiny homes the size of garden sheds.
My oldest, Grasshopper and Sensei, is headed for art college. She thinks about social issues from a design perspective. I hope that one day she will work on the issue of homelessness.
Maybe this book list will inspire kids to tackle this problem with solutions that start and end with compassion, not spikes? Here’s hoping!
How about you? What books would you add to this list? Thanks for your help!
Picture books about homelessness
Uncle Willie and the Soup Kitchen by DyAnne DiSalvo-Ryan
Nationally, about one out of every eight people is poor. Many of them are children. The patrons of the soup kitchen include the unemployed, the needy, and the homeless. No one is excluded.
A young boy is nervous to see the Can Man in his neighborhood, but his Uncle Willie who works at the soup kitchen knows him well. The boy notices a woman sleeping on a park bench and decides he wants to learn more about his uncle’s soup kitchen.
On his day off from school, he accompanies his uncle to work. It’s little things that he learns: children who sit in high chairs eat here; not everyone is homeless; somehow there is always enough food for everyone. [picture book, ages 6 and up]
The Old Man by Sarah V. and Claude K. Dubois
A little girl and an old man both get up in the morning. She gets ready for school. He wakes up on the streets. All day, the old man tries to get warm and find something to eat. It’s clear that the old man didn’t use to be homeless.
The reactions to the old man are not surprising. He’s shunned, ignored, and unwelcome where ever he goes. At the end of the day, he goes to a park where the little girl sees him. She offers him her sandwich, and this act of kindness helps him to feel a part of society again. [picture book, ages 5 and up]
The Can Man by
The Can Man in this book, Joe Peters, is not the same person in Uncle Willie and the Soup Kitchen but the books pair well together.
This picture book gives a backstory to how someone ends up as a Can Man. He used to be Tim’s neighbor in their apartment. When the auto body shop closed, he lost his job, and couldn’t find a new one.
Tim wants a new skateboard for his birthday but his parents can’t afford it, even when it goes on sale. The Can Man gives him an idea to save money towards the board, but there aren’t enough cans in their neighborhood to meet both their goals.
Joe Peters could use a new coat. It’s awkward, but together they load Tim’s seven bags of cans to redeem them. With the money in his hand, Tim decides to forgo the skateboard and give the money to Joe Peters instead. On his birthday, Joe has a surprise for him.
What I like about this book is that it humanizes the homeless. It also shows how one individual, even a kid, can make a difference. [picture book, ages 6 and up]
The Lady in the Box by Ann McGovern, illustrated by Marni Backer
There was a lady who slept in a box down our street.
The lady in the box looked hungry.
It was Lizzie’s idea to bring her food.
The lady in the box is one of the homeless people that no wants near their store. She picked that particular spot, though, because warm air came up through the grate, and it’s ten degrees above zero outside. Two children, Lizzie and Ben, decide to help, and then their mother gets involved.
The lady in the box, she learns, is Dorrie. She lost her job, and then her apartment. The shelter for homeless women didn’t work out either.
This is an unflinching but compassionate view of the homeless, and how just recognizing their existence can make a difference. The note from the author points the way for children to get involved if they want to help. [picture book, ages 6 and up]
Shoebox Sam by Mary Brigid Barrett, illustrated by Frank Morrison
Shoebox Sam repairs and shines shoes on the corner of Magnolia and Vine, but he also hands out kindness and dignity to those who need it most. Compare this book with the homeless spikes that some other store owners employ instead. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Fly Away Home by Eve Bunting
My dad and I live in an airport. That’s because we don’t have a home and the airport is better than the streets.
Andrew and his father live in an airport. Even though Andrew’s father works part-time as a janitor in an office, he doesn’t make enough to afford the apartment they had before mom died. This is a sad story about the bleakness of being homeless.
The only bright spot is the bird that Andrew spots is able to escape the airport and fly free. It gives him hope that one day he will do the same. [picture book, ages 6 and up]
A Haitian Story of Hope: Sélavi: That is Life: by Youme Landowne
Sélavi is an orphan in Haiti who is taken in by other street children, who look out for each other, sharing food and companionship. Men in uniform chase them out, and the children need help.
With support from their community, they are able to build a shelter and a children’s radio station, Radyo Timoun, which is still in operation today. This is the true story of some of the homeless children in Haiti. [picture book, ages 6 and up]
The Lunch Thief by
There’s a lunch thief in Rafael’s class and he knows who it is. The new kid, Kevin, with scraggly hair has taken a lunch each day. Rafael decides to take mama’s advice of using his mouth before his fists. He learns that Kevin is from Jacinto Valley where half the houses were burned down.
Instead of turning Kevin in, Rafael finds a different way to handle the problem. I love how this picture book sends a message of compassion. [picture book, ages 8 and up]
I Can Hear the Sun: A Modern Myth by Patricia Polacco
“We could all fly once,” Fondo said as he gazed at the clouds. “We just forgot how. If we’d think hard enough, we’d remember.”
Lake Merritt in Oakland, California is home to animals at the reserve and to the homeless. Stephanie Michele, a keeper of the animals, takes care of everyone, including a small boy named Fondo. Together they take care of the geese.
He takes special care of a small blind goose and seems to have a special understanding of the animals at the park. When his orphanage decides to send him away to a special needs school, he decides to join the geese on their migration.
Can he really fly? Is this a metaphor or a myth? You decide. [picture book, ages 6 and up]
A Shelter in Our Car by Monica Gunning, illustrated by Elaine Pedlar
A mom and her daughter live out of their car. They lost their apartment when the father died. As immigrants from Jamaica, they don’t have a network of support here in the United States. Her mother insists on education for Zettie, the little girl, even though she gets bullied at school for their beat-up car.
The mom herself is attending community college while working part-time jobs. For all the displacement, Zettie feels her mom’s love, determination, and support. Together, they can overcome any challenge. [picture book, ages 5 and up]
December by Eve Bunting
A boy and his mom live in a cardboard box that they’ve carefully decorated for Christmas, including an angel torn out of a calendar from the month of December. On Christmas Eve, an old woman asks for shelter and they let her in.
The boy notices that she’s hungry and offers her the cookie that he worked so hard to earn. The old woman is gone by morning, but the boy and mom witness a Christmas miracle which is a life-changing experience. If you believe in Christmas miracles, you must read this book.
With messages of compassion and sharing, it’s a book for all seasons but especially for Christmas. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Sam and the Lucky Money by Karen Chinn, illustrated by
Sam receives four bright red envelopes, each with one dollar inside, as part of the traditional Chinese New Year celebration. He accompanies his mother through Chinatown and realizes that his “lucky money” won’t buy as much as he had hoped.
His mood is further sobered after he stumbles on a homeless man in the street. He ends up deciding that his four dollars would be best spent on the barefoot stranger. Encounters with the homeless can be scary, as in the case here where Sam is startled and tries to make sense of what he’s seeing.
Seeing the homeless is the first step, recognizing their plight, the second, and deciding to help is that act of human kindness that we all hope to instill in our kids. [picture book, ages 5 and up]
Chapter books about homelessness
Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate
It’s a slow sink into homelessness, but a hard scramble back up. Applegate’s chapter book captures the stresses it puts on a family, especially on the children. Going-into-fifth-grade Jackson’s coping mechanism is an imaginary talking cat that pops up when he’s homeless.
Without pathos, but with a realistic portrayal of homelessness, this is a story that captures opens your heart to those in need. [chapter book, ages 8 and up]
Just Under the Clouds by Melissa Sarno
Teacher and author Caroline Starr Rose wrote about this book in her Classroom Connections blog post:
Just Under the Clouds is a novel for middle grade readers about Cora, a 12 year old girl living in a homeless shelter in Brooklyn with her mother and sister.
When their room at the shelter is ransacked, the family moves in with her mother’s old friend and Cora discovers “the tree of heaven”, a tree that can grow in even the worst conditions. It sets her on a quest to understand the true meaning of home. [chapter book, ages 8 and up]
How To Steal A Dog: A Novel by Barbara O’Connor
Georgina is homeless and living with her mother and brother out of their car after her father leaves them. She cooks up an elaborate scheme to kidnap a dog to then return it for the reward. She kidnaps a dog named Willy but things don’t work out the way she thinks it will.
Will Willy teach her right from wrong? [chapter book, ages 10 and up]
Hold Fast by Blue Balliett
Blue Balliett writes really lyrically which is something that I don’t expect is a tightly wound mystery but it makes this book a pleasure to read. Balliett sets this mystery in Chicago and immerses it with the poetry of Langston Hughes.
Early, her brother and mother have to flee their apartment and live in a homeless shelter when their father mysteriously disappears. They are all caught in a web of violence surrounding an international diamond smuggling ring related to their father’s library job.
It’s up to Early and her family to figure out what happened, and how to help their dad. [chapter book, ages 8 and up]
The Family Under the Bridge by Natalie Savage Carlson
This was a book club for kids book selection for PickyKidPix. The activity was to make a coin purse using fabric and glue guns. The mom then set up a “grocery store” with her week’s shopping and displayed the prices for each item. The kids had $10 to buy food.
The idea was that 2nd graders may not realize that $10 doesn’t buy a lot of food. Another spin would be to have each child bring $10 from home and then go to the grocery store to buy $10 worth of food to donate to a food bank.
Paper Things by Jennifer Richard Jacobson
This is another take on homelessness. I knew a college classmate who lived in a homeless shelter before she went to college but I never was privy to her story. This book might be a version of her story.
Ari and her nineteen-year-old brother, orphaned when their mama died four years ago, move out of their legal guardian’s home to couch surf while in search of their own apartment because he butts heads with her.
Ari is trying to apply to a competitive middle school during this uncertain time but the stresses of homelessness might make her break her promise to mama and that’s the last thing she wants to happen. [chapter book, ages 10 and up]
Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: The Sword of Summer by Rick Riordan
Magnus has been living on the streets of Boston for two years ever since his mother died in a suspicious fire. Evading police officers and truant officers has become his life. Most people don’t notice Magnus lying in a filthy sleeping bag in the middle of winter.
Rick Riordan has a talent for creating characters that define the pulse points of our society. Magnus’ adolescent homelessness doesn’t last long in this chapter book series, but it does shine light upon the plight of the homeless. For that, I thank him. [chapter book, ages 8 and up]
My Jasper June by Laurel Snyder
Review by Randomly Reading:
“Both Jasper and June are such well-defined, sympathetic, believable characters. Coming from very different backgrounds, each finds themselves in circumstances made difficult by the adults who should have been there for them, but weren’t. Their friendship becomes a real godsend, providing them with a secret place to work through their feelings on their own.” [middle grade, ages 10 and up]
No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsen
Review from Ms. Yingling Reads:
“Felix Knuttsen and his single mother Astrid move around a bit in Vancouver because Astrid finds it hard to keep a job after her career teaching art founders. When her latest boyfriend, Abelard, decides to go to India, Felix is glad to see him go, but it means that the only place he has to live is the Westfalia van after briefly landing with a friend, Soleil. Since it’s August, they take a little vacation, and then Astrid tells Felix he can go to any school he wants. Using a fair amount of subterfuge, she gets him into the French Immersion School. Living in the van requires a lot of planning and sacrifices, from showering at a community center and eating meals out of cans to carefully crafted stories about his movements.” Felix enters a game show competition with a prize of $25,000 that he hopes to win to bring them stability but as the competition nears, his life starts falling apart. [chapter book, ages 10 and up]
Roam by C. H. Armstrong
Ms. Yingling Reads has a great review here:
Life can go wrong quickly. For Abby’s family, it starts with stepfather Nick’s hours being cut, her mother having an affair with a coworker and losing her teaching job, Nick losing his job, her mother having a seizure, and hospital bills making the family behind on their rent. Before Abby knows it, her parents and younger sister Amber have left Omaha and are living in their van in Rochester, Minnesota. They park in the Wal-Mart parking lot while they wait to get into a shelter, trying to stay warm and eating at a soup kitchen. Abby goes back to high school to resume her senior year and immediately falls afoul of Trish, the most popular girl in school, especially when Zach, Trish’s ex-boyfriend, starts dating Abby. Still, there are good things. Classes go well, Abby enjoys choir, and she makes a strong core of supportive friends who even loan her clothing to go to the homecoming dance. The family gets into the shelter but has to leave after two weeks. Abby has a job delivering newspapers, and her parents are trying to find employment. Nick gets part time work as a custodian at a church. Things are bearable until Amber and then Abby get very ill and winter becomes colder. Desperate, the family starts sleeping at the church, cleaning up their things at 4:30 a.m. They are eventually found out, but the pastor is helpful and finds some solutions for them. Things are looking up until Trish is part of a performance group that has a show at a soup kitchen… and Abby is in the audience. It gets splashed all over social media that Abby is homeless. How will her friends react? [young adult, ages 12 and up]
Stay by Bobbie Pyron
Review from Ms. Yingling Reads:
“Piper’s family is down on their luck, but still positive and working to make their lives better. The realities of living in a shelter, especially when other kids at school know you do, are unflinchingly portrayed, and reading about Piper’s struggles will hopefully make children more empathetic. Jewel’s journey to living on the streets with her beloved dog is also described in a way that shows how close many people are to being homeless– just a small series of setbacks can be all it takes. The community of homeless dog lovers is especially fascinating. This was just a well-written story with a fantastic combination of ingredients.” [middle grade, ages 8 and up]
Lizzie Flying Solo by Nanci Turner Stevenson
Review from Ms. Yingling Reads:
“When Lizzie’s father is arrested for embezzling from his company, she and her mother are not able to keep their farmhouse. They move to a nearby town where people won’t know them and end up staying in the Good Hope family shelter. Lizzie finds it stressful and challenging to keep people from finding out about her past, and takes great comfort in walking through the woods near the shelter and watching people riding in the fields of the stables there. When her mother gets a job, Lizzie says that she will volunteer at the library, but also uses this as cover to spend time at the stables. The staff there are friendly and understanding, and give her an application to work in the stables in exchange for lessons. When school starts, she meets Bryce, who has just moved from the west to live with his father after his parents’ divorce. Bryce has his own horse and is with his father because he was promised riding lessons, but his well-to-do father doesn’t really approve of Bryce’s desire to learn dressage instead of Western riding. Lizzie understands having difficulty with a parent since her father does not contact her and her mother when he is released on bail, which was paid for by another woman. Lizzie falls in love with Fire, a new horse that is being trained and decides to save up the $1,000 needed to buy him. She babysits, cleans tack, enters contests, and manages to save up enough to purchase the horse, which the caring staff members at the stable warn her will probably not happen. Bryce has some issues in his life, but they manage to work out in the same way that Lizzie’s do– slowly, and not always the way that they imagine to be best.” [middle grade, ages 8 and up]
Parked by Danielle Svetcov
Review by Ms. Yingling Reads:
“This was an interesting book with many levels. The juxtaposition of Cal and Jeanne Ann’s lives was particularly interesting since they lived on the same street. The details of why the family ends up living in a van, and how they manage various activities is important in helping young readers understand how others may face difficulties they may not. Cal’s presence makes the neighborhood initiative to remove the vans more interesting, and the fact that Jeanne Ann loves reading will immediately endear this to librarians and language arts teachers. The San Francisco setting and the different restaurants adds to the appeal of this.” [middle grade, ages 10 and up]
The family’s reasons for moving to the shelter are well explained, but I also liked the mother’s explanation (as well as the author’s notes at the back) that everyone was there because they hit a rough patch of some sort.
We are seeing more middle-grade literature featuring homeless and home insecure families, but since the stories are all different, we can always use more.
Bauer’s Almost Home, Sarno’s Just Under the Clouds, Nielsen’s No Fixed Address, Messner’s The Exact Location of Home, Balliet’s Hold Fast, and the upcoming Cameron’s Maybe a Mermaid, Knowle’s Where the Heart Is, Pyron’s Stay and Armtrong’s Roam are all good depictions of different types of families in transition.
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BEST #OWNVOICES CHILDREN’S BOOKS: My Favorite Diversity Books for Kids Ages 1-12 is a book that I created to highlight books written by authors who share the same marginalized identity as the characters in their books.