Homelessness in Children's Books

Homelessness in Children’s Books

In creating this list, I noticed that most of these homelessness stories 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 heart breaking 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.”

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.

tiny homes for the homeless

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!


Homelessness in Children’s Books

Homelessness in Picture Books

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 Can Man by Laura E. Williams, illustrated by Craig Orback

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 a 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 that 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 Anne C. Bromley, illustrated by Robert Casilla

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 an 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 a 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 Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu

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 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]

Homelessness in Chapter Books

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 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 mysterious disappears. They are all caught in 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 the 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.  This book club was during the holiday season because the mom wanted to have the kids think about others. [chapter book, ages 8 and up]

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 on the plight of the homeless. For that, I thank him. [chapter book, ages 8 and up]

To examine any book more closely at Amazon, please click on image of book.

Homelessness in Children's Books

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By Mia Wenjen, PragmaticMom


  1. Like some of your choices. I’m always looking for homeless books. Have only read a couple of the ones you mentioned. The Family Under the Bridge sounds like a good read with kids. Don’t know how I’ve missed reading Crenshaw, other than it was so popular.
    Patricia Tilton recently posted…Ebb Tide by Michelle IsenhoffMy Profile

    • Hi Pat,
      I loved Crenshaw. The Family Under the Bridge isn’t as contemporary. My middle daughter had it as a book club selection in 4th grade but she thought it was boring. Crenshaw wasn’t written yet, but I’d substitute it if I were to to do it over.
      Pragmatic Mom recently posted…Phonics Museum AppMy Profile

  2. Thanks for the book recs, Mia. I am unfamiliar with many of these titles. I LOVED How To Steal a Dog–such great voice and heart in that book!!

    I haven’t yet read it, but there’s a new PB by Brenda Reeves Sturgis called Still A Family, which is also about homelessness.

  3. Thanks for sharing these books! I love the tiny homes solution.
    maryanne recently posted…25+ Boy Approved Summer Activity For Kids IdeasMy Profile

  4. I have reviewed “A Shelter In Our Car” but not the others. I want every single one!
    This is a subject that is near and dear to our family!

    Thanks for highlighting an important subject that too often gets ignored.
    I am sharing this and pinning too.

  5. This is a great post! I love the tiny houses and recently read a story of a man building tiny houses for the homeless. Thank you for sharing the book selection as well. I have been wanting to read Paper Things and now I think I will!

  6. This is such an important topic to have dealt with sensitively. Love that you included Paper Things – has sparked some powerful conversations among my 7th graders. #readyourworld
    Katie Logonauts recently posted…It’s Multicultural Children’s Book Day! #ReadYourWorldMy Profile

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