Understanding Poverty: A Book List for Ages 4-12

Understanding Poverty: A Book List for Ages 4-12

For our Multicultural Children’s Book Day Classroom kit this year, we are exploring poverty through a book list, activities, discussion guide and posters. This book list was crowdsourced during our January 27th, 2018 Twitter Party. We hope to expand the list to include more books on rural poverty and intergenerational poverty. Can you please help us build this list? Thank you!

p.s. We also have a Classroom Kindness Kit and a Classroom Empathy Kit that explores Immigration and the Refugee Experience.

Picture Books for Understanding Poverty

A Different Pond by Bao Phi, illustrated by Thi Bui

–> for understanding poverty experienced by some new immigrants

A Vietnamese boy and his father go fishing in the middle of the night. This is not for recreation; it for feeding their family. His father works several jobs. His mother also works. The boy also takes responsibility for his siblings when his parents are at work. This is a dignified portrait of new immigrants and how hard they work to get established in a new country. Despite working around the clock, the family is grateful for what they have and for their time together. [picture book, ages 4 and up]

Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold

–> for understanding structural racism and how this creates a circle of poverty

Cassie Louise Lightfoot, only eight years old and in third grade, dreams of flying as she sleeps on “Tar Beach”, the rooftop of her building. If she can fly, then she can fly over bridges and buildings and claim them for her own. This is important to her because her father, a steel worker, is not allowed in the union because of racism. It makes finding work during the winter difficult for her father, stressing the family financially. But tonight, her family is celebrating with a picnic on the beach with their neighbors. Additional information about artist and author Faith Ringgold is in the back matters page, including her illustration style of the book as a story quilt. [picture book, ages 4 and up]

Maddi’s Fridge by Lois Brandt, illustrated by Vin Vogel

–> for understanding food insecurity and how to help

This is the perfect picture book for understanding food insecurity. Sofia inadvertently discovers that her friend Maddi has a nearly empty fridge. The milk inside must be saved for Maddi’s younger brother. Sofia promises Maddi that she won’t tell anyone, but how can she help her friend? Is it ok to break her promise? The end note lists ways to help friends who have empty refrigerators. [picture book, ages 4 and up]

A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams

–> for understanding the working class and how setbacks like a fire can be derailing

After a fire in their apartment, a multi-generational family of a girl, her mother and her grandmother lose all their possessions, and their community pitches in to help them out. Even with this generous help, they are without a sofa and armchairs. They carefully save coins in a large jar for a new armchair which takes them well over a year. Now, the time has come to pick out the perfect chair and bring it home. It is enjoyed all day by each member of the family. An uplifting story of love and resilience against adversity. [picture book, ages 4 and up]

Uncle Willie and the Soup Kitchen by DyAnne DiSalvo

–> for understanding food insecurity and the growing needs of the hungry in our neighborhoods

Uncle Willie works at the soup kitchen and brings his nephew there to visit on his day off from school. Along the way, they see one of the guests at the soup kitchen; a can man collecting cans for money. The boy notices a woman sleeping on a park bench and feels sad for her. They pick up supplies as they walk to the soup kitchen, and then they both help with the day’s food preparations. It’s busy when it’s time to serve the food, one hundred and twenty-one guests get served that night. Use this book to talk about food insecurity and how not just the homeless experience hunger. [picture book, ages 4 and up]

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

–> for understanding how homelessness happens to those around us

Tim wishes for a skateboard for his birthday but he knows that his parents can’t afford it. Watching a homeless man collecting cans gives him an idea to raise the money himself. While people refer to him as The Can Man, Tim’s parents remember him as their neighbor, Mr. Peters, who is down on his luck. Tim collects cans for week, uneasy in the knowledge of taking the cans away from Mr. Peters. When it’s time to cash in the cans, Tim decides to gift the money to Mr. Peters instead. On this birthday, his kindness is repaid. [picture book, ages 5 and up]

Still a Family: A Story About Homelessness by Brenda Reeves Sturgis, illustrated by Jo-Shin Lee

–> for understanding homelessness experienced by families

For a young girl and her parents who live in different homeless shelters, being a family means more than living under one roof. They still spend time as a family at the park, playing hide-and-seek and playing in the playground. The girl still remembers her room at her old house and it’s this that she wishes for on her birthday. [picture book, ages 4 and up]


Fly Away Home by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Ronald Himler

–> for understanding homelessness experience by families

Andrew and his dad live in an airport because they are homeless and it’s safe and warm. They have to be careful not to be caught though. Eve Bunting is always careful to leave a window of hope open. Andrew spots a bird stuck in the airport and wills it to escape. When Andrew gets upset about not having a home, he remembers the bird.

It took a while, but a door opened. And when the bird left, when it flew free, I know it was singing.

[picture book, ages 4 and up]

Yard Sale by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Lauren Castillo

–> for understanding losing one’s house and having to move away to an apartment

It’s hard to have all your things spread out and for sale in a yard sale, but the new apartment in the city that Callie and her family are moving to is small. Their things won’t fit, like her bicycle which is hard to let go of. When a woman asks jokingly if Callie is for sale, she panics. Is she for sale? Not for a trillion dollars her parents reassure her. After the yard sale, they go back into the house. Callie feels ok now that their things are gone because a home is about those you love, not your possessions. [picture book, ages 4 and up]

Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts, illustrated by Noah Z. Jones

–> for understanding peer pressure when you are the one who can’t afford “cool” shoes

“Want” versus “need” means that Jeremy’s dream of those black high-tops with two white stripes won’t come true since he needs winter boots. But everyone in his class seems to be getting those shoes. And when Jeremy’s shoes fall apart, the guidance counselor gives him a new pair, but it has velcro straps and a cartoon animal on it. A trip to a thrift store scores a pair of those black high tops, though they are a little too small. He buys them anyway with his own money and wears them limping until he has to switch back to the velcro ones. Jeremy notices that Antonio’s shoes are taped up and his feet are smaller, but he just can’t let those shoes go. Or can he? This picture book has themes of peer pressure, friendship, and sacrifice. [picture book, ages 4 and up]

If the Shoe Fits by Gary Soto, illustrated by Terry Widener

–> for teaching gratitude when hand-me-downs come from a place of love

Rigo has a large family with three older brothers and he doesn’t mind the noisy house. It’s the hand-me-downs that he hates. For his ninth birthday, he gets brand new shoes. He gets bullied for putting nickels in his penny loafers which makes him reject his shoes. Still, by the end of summer, he decides to wear them to a party even though they are too small. When he gets home, he notices that his uncle who lives with them, could use them. His uncle doesn’t mind that they are used and fits two centavos into the slots. That’s what Rigo will do if he ever gets loafers again! [picture book, ages 4 and up]

Coat of Many Colors by Dolly Parton, illustrated by Brooke Boynton-Hughes

–> for understanding rural poverty

Now, I know we had no money,

but I was rich as I could be

in my coat of many colors

my mama made for me …

There’s no money to buy a coat and winter is on the way, so a girl’s mother makes her a coat from a box of donated rags. The kids at school make fun of her homemade coat, but the girl feel warmed both by the coat and her mother’s love. This is Dolly Parton’s true story. [picture book, ages 4 and up]

The Hard-Times Jar by Ethel Footman Smothers, illustrated by John Holyfield

–> for understanding migrant workers and how books are a luxury for some children

The hard-times jar is for emergencies not for extras like the real book that Emma longs for. Today, instead of joining her family picking apples, she is going to school. Emma would rather work to earn money for a store bought book. Still, she goes to school. Her teacher shows Emma the class library. There are walls and walls of books! Emma isn’t supposed to bring books home but she slips two into her sweater. Her mother discovers her book stash and makes her apologize to her teacher. All is forgiven. When Emma gets home, her mother has a gift for her from the hard-times jar because what Emma did to own up was hard. This picture book is based on the author’s childhood. [picture book, ages 4 and up]

Miss Maggie by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Thomas DiGrazia

–> for understanding rural poverty

Maggie Ziegler lived in a rotten log house near Nat Crawford’s pasture. Her garden didn’t grow much, but she harvested what little there was. One winter day, Nat noticed that there wasn’t smoke coming out of her chimney and went to check on her. He finds her nearly frozen, clutching a frozen pet bird.  It’s clear that she needs help, so he brings her to his home. In the way that neighbors help out their neighbors in Appalachia, she gets back on her feet. [picture book, ages 7 and up]

A Bike Like Sergio’s by Maribeth Boelts, illustrated by Noah Z. Jones

–> for doing the right thing when finding a large sum of badly needed money

Every kid has a bike except Ruben. He knows he can’t wish for one for his birthday. Money is too tight in his family. When he find a dollar bill at the grocery store, he doesn’t chase down the owner. It’s just a dollar. But when he gets home, he discovers it’s actually a hundred dollar bill! It’s enough to buy a bike! But when he loses the hundred dollar bill before finding it, he realizes how terrible that feeling is. When he sees the lady in the blue coat who lost the bill, he decides to give it back to her. [picture book, ages 4 and up]

Community Soup by Alma Fullerton
–> for learning about community gardens at schools in Kenya

Kioni and her friends are gathering vegetables from their school community garden for soup, when her goats appear. They have followed her to school today! Kioni is annoyed but her classmate has a great idea. Instead of adding the goats to the soup, add their milk instead! Recipe included for pumpkin vegetable soup. [picture book, ages 4 and up]


Early Chapter Books for Understanding Poverty

The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, illustrated by Louis Slobodkin

–> for understanding girl bullying of those who don’t have fashionable clothes

This Newbery Honor book was written in 1944 but it’s still relevant today. The author’s daughter said that her mother, who grew up in West Haven, Connecticut where the story takes place, was Maddie int this story. Maddie was a bystander while her friend, Peggy, bullied a girl in a shabby dress who claimed to have one hundred dresses in her closet. Like the girl in the story (Wanda), this little girl moves to New York City, but the author never gets a chance to tell her how sorry she is. Instead, she writes this book. [early chapter book, ages 8 and up]

The Family Under the Bridge by Natalie Savage Carlson, illustrated by Garth Williams

–> for understanding homelessness in another country

A hobo, Armand, slowly changes his ways when he meets three children and their mother who are newly homeless and join him under the bridge. This book romanticizes homelessness through the depiction of Armand and implies that this is a decision he has chosen though that is balanced by the mother and her three children that are homeless though eviction. It’s suitable for a younger audience, but you may want to pair it with a picture book such as Still a Family: A Story About Homelessness  or Fly Away Home. [chapter book, ages 7 and up]


Chapter Books for Understanding Poverty

Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate

–> for understanding how a family can slip into homelessness and the trauma it wreaks on children

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]

Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes

–> for understanding homelessness and how mental illnesses that can be the root cause of it

Deja is ten and her family of five live in a homeless shelter. She doesn’t understand why her father can’t work. At her new school, the curriculum explores home, community and the two towers that were once visible from the school’s windows. With two new friends, each also hurting in ways that Deja is just beginning to understand, they piece together why the tragedy of 9/11 still affects them deeply and personally today. [chapter book, ages 9 and up]

Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan

–> for understanding the plight of migrant workers as they tried to organize a union during the Great Depression

Many kids read this book in fourth or fifth grade as part of an immigration unit so it can also be revisited as part of a study on poverty, with Esperanza’s story of riches to rags that also ties into the migrant workers in California as they tried to organize into unions to improve their conditions during the Great Depression. Further layers about root causes of poverty can be teased out of this book using the example of her family’s status in Mexico based on who owned large tracts of land and the socio-economic disparities inherently causing multi-generational poverty for those without land. This can then be compared to other countries, including the United States. Ryan’s Newbery winning book is based on her own mother’s story and is a rich reading experience that we highly recommend. [chapter book, ages 8 and up]

Paper Things by Jennifer Richard Jacobson

–> for understanding homelessness when it isn’t obvious

Ari and her older brother have left their guardian Janna’s house, but they don’t have a place to live. While her brother tries to secure an apartment for them, they couch surf and live in homeless shelters. She could have stayed with Janna but that would break the cardinal rule that their mother wanted for them before she died four years ago which was to stay together always. Living out her backpack makes Ari’s goals seem impossible, including getting into the gifted middle school. [chapter book, ages 10 and up]

Seedfolks by Paul Fleishman

–> for understanding the urban working class and how the planting of a community garden can bring a neighborhood together

A young immigrant girl surreptitiously plants a handful of bean seeds in a run-down lot in memory of her father. This simple act sparks a chain of events that turns an neighborhood with the usual inner-city problems into a community. Gardening knits neighbors into friends who help each other out, whether it’s plants that needs water, or a young man that needs a place to stay. [chapter book, ages 10 and up]

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

Understanding Poverty: A Book List for Ages 4-12

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By Mia Wenjen, PragmaticMom


  1. Kathy K.

    Great list–thanks for compiling it.

  2. Great list. Another PB I reviewed recently was “I See You,” by Michael Genhart about a boy observing a homeless person on the street and what he does to help.. Magination Press. It is wordless and powerful. You may want to add it to you list.
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