Children’s books that explore tough topics – poverty, hunger, life & love

Note: Two years ago I posted this quick list of books that help children understand – and discuss – issues of hunger and poverty. Since that time, friends have suggested other titles and new books have been written. Titles that were not included on the original list are appended here. I decided to post the original list, too, as a reminder that there are wonderful reads that can start a discussion of a topic with which children have questions and ideas. If you have suggestions of titles that should be added here, please let me know.

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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.

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More children’s books that can start a discussion about hunger – added 11-14

* Maddi’s Fridge, story by Lois Brandt, illus by Vin Vogel. Fall 2014.

Lilliana Grows It Green, story by Amy Carpenter Leugg, illus by Heather Newman. Trans into Spanish by Ale Siekmeier.

French Toast for Maleek , story by Amy Carpenter Leugg, illus by Healther Trans into Spanish by Ale and Ben Siekmeier.*

* Very Hungry Caterpillar, story and illus by Eric Carle, orig. 1969. Picture book.

* We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy, story by Mother Goose and Maurice Sendak, illus by Maurice Sendak.

 * Bone Button Borscht, story by Aubrey Davis, illus by Dusan Petricic.

 * May’naise Sandwiches & Sunshine Tea, story Sandra Belton, illus. by Gail Gordon Carter.

The Rag Coat, story and illus by Lauren Mills.

A Day’s Work, story by Eve Bunting, illus by Ronald Himler

 * The Little Match Girl, story by Hans Christian Andersen, illus. by Blair Lent.

Faith the Cow, story by Susan Bame Hoover, illus. by Maggie Sykora. 1955.

Tight Times, story by Barbara Shook Hazen, illus by Trina Schart Hyman. Picture book. 1983.

Seedfolks, by Paul Fleischman.

 * The Good Garden: How one family went from hunger to having enough, story by Katie Smith Milway.

One Hen: How one small load made a big difference, story by Katie Smith Milway, illus by Eugenie Fernandes.

Dear Mr. Rosenwald, by Carole Boston Weatherord, illus. by R. Gregory Christie. Story of the Rosenwald Schools, Depression era schools in the South.

The Lady in the Box, by Ann McGovern, illus. by Mami Backer, 1997.

Esperanza Rising, story by Pam Munoz Ryan.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day Event – Sunday, December 7

Most Americans alive today do not remember December 7, 1941 – still, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt predicted, it remains “a date which will live in infamy.” It was on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, that the Imperial Japanese Navy executed the infamous surprise attack on the American Army and Navy stationed at Pearl Harbor. The next day the United States declared war on Japan and thereby entered World War II.

In 1994 the U.S. Congress declared National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day as a day set aside to remember and to honor all those who died in that attack.

Twin Cities storyteller and veteran Larry Johnson, along with members of Veterans for Peace, will honor the tradition with a Remembrance Day program on the theme “From Pearl Harbor to Peace.”   The program is Sunday, December 7, 1:00 p.m. at the Landmark Center, 75 West 5th Street in downtown St. Paul.

There will be music, stories of the Armistice, the 1914 Christmas truce, the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact outlawing war, and more. There will also be a remembrance of military killed at Pearl Harbor, soldiers and civilians killed during the war, including victims of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The program will end with the ringing of the Armistice Bells, crafted by Minnesota veterans and funded by a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board.

The peace-themed event is free and open to the public.

Questions? Contact Larry Johnson at larryjvfp@gmail.com

 

 

Pope Francis Speaks Out on the Right to Food Access

Over the past couple of years I’ve tried to focus on the seminal issue of the human right to access to food, an issue so complex, political and gnarled that I’ve given up the quest to plumb the depths – until Pope Francis brought it up.   Truth to tell, the Pontiff didn’t conjure it up out of the rarified atmosphere of the Vatican – the challenge to unravel the issue has fostered countless efforts, stymied many and challenged human rights activists for a couple of centuries.

The Pope embraced the challenge of hunger last week in a very public declaration at the Second International Conference on Nutrition meeting in his adopted hometown. Representatives of some 170 nations were gathered in Rome under the aegis of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, just one of numerous agencies struggling with the issue of the right to food on a global level.

One of the strongest political statements of the right to food appears in Article 25 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights which recognizes the right to food as part of the right to an adequate standard of living:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

Since that declaration the right to access to food has been the primary or sole focus of countless global and national studies, conferences, agreements, strategic plans, collaborative efforts and think tanks. The extensive Wikipedia entry on Right to Food offers a useful summary of the history of efforts to define and deal with the complexities of the challenge. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Right_to_food

Still, the Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that some 800 million people are hungry and 2 billion are affected by “micronutrient deficiencies” (e.g. not enough vitamins or minerals). Add in obesity, and some form of malnutrition affects half of the world population.

In this challenging environment the Pope faced the issue head-on: “Efforts to reduce hunger and malnutrition are facing obstruction due to the priority of the markets, or preeminence of profits that have reduced food to a commodity subject to speculation, including financial speculation.”

Giving voice to what is common opinion among those for whom the right to access to food has been a priority for decades, Pope Francis spoke of sustainable food systems, improving food distribution and aggressive trade policies on food. The right to food, he averred, can be guaranteed only if we collaborate to focus priorities and policy on “helping the hungry.” “Interest in the production and availability of foodstuffs, climate change, and agricultural trade must certainly inspire rules and technical means, but the primary inspiration must the self-same person, those who do not have adequate access to food.”

Francis made explicit the distinction between availability and accessibility (a distinction long familiar to librarians and information providers….) Just because it’s out there somewhere doesn’t mean it’s accessible! Given that 1) food production is adequate, and 2) people have a right to food, the questions remain: Why is hunger a global, national, local crisis? Why is food available but not accessible?

On the topic of the misinformation, the Pope opined that, in the case of food access, “there are very few themes that are as susceptible to being manipulated by data, by statistics, by the requirements of national security, by corruption, or by the plaintive complaints of economic crisis.”

Clearly the Pope thinks and speaks in a global context. Still his words have local application. Most important, he sets a high standard for systemic thinking about a politically charged, complicated issue. Out of charity we tend to deal with the short-range reality that our neighbors are hungry, that children, the elderly, homebound, jobless and under-employed people need immediate assistance. Still, the challenge remains to tackle hunger with the vigor demanded by a complex issue rife with political, economic, technological and social perspectives that lend themselves to obfuscation, individual and institutional avarice.

In his much-heralded words to conference attendees Pope Francis echoes those of his host, Jacques Diof, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization:  “Hunger is not an issue of charity. It is an issue of justice.”

 

The politics of hunger midst plenty

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed,                             those who are cold and not clothed. Dwight D. Eisenhower

Eisenhower puts to rest any misperceptions of who cares about “combatting” hunger in our neighborhoods, the nation or the world. For the General the choice is real – and it is stark.

It’s a choice that daily faces our Deciders – from elected officials coping with the federal budget, to corporate leaders faced with less transparent choices, to every ordinary hard-working Minnesotan who is able to take time Thanksgiving morning to join the Walk to End Hunger.

On the one hand, the Walk garners much-needed financial resources so that sponsoring organizations can stock their food shelves. At the same time, the reality of thousands of people who care enough walk delivers a powerful message to the Deciders about the public’s reluctance to condone “a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.”

There is more than ever interest these days on food – safe food, fresh food, organic food, food that is healthy, plentiful, nutritious, convenient, affordable, unique, appetizing, distinctive, delectable, epicurean….On Thanksgiving we expect all this and traditional.

Thinking about food is good and healthy – and thinking about good and healthy food must inevitably lead us to thinking about how to deal with the realty of hunger. We need to think about the fact that if, as Ike suggests, there is enough food to go around, what are the decisions that leave so many outside the circle of plenty? Who makes those decisions? What are the options? Who/what influences the Deciders? Are we complicit? What ideas have we not explored?

People who care enough to walk understand that this public action is a desperately needed but stopgap solution to a systemic problem. There’s got to be a better way. Maybe if we think and talk together as well as walk together we can come up with long-term sustainable solutions that favor the needs of hungry people over the never-satisfied demand for guns, warships and rockets.

Please support me and Neighbors, Inc. in the Walk to End Hunger here.

 

 

Giving thanks for food — and food workers!

What image comes to your mind when you think of a “food chain worker?” Is it the efficient functionary at the super store? Or a friendly neighborhood organic grocer? Or do you take a more holistic approach and envision the field worker who plants and harvests your favorite veggies? Or the truck driver who gets the food to market: The packer at the cannery? The street vendor? Or the waiter at a neighborhood restaurant? These and scores of others are all links on the food chain – and members of the Food Chain Workers Alliance. (http://foodchainworkers.org)

And these are the people we have to thank during International Food Workers Week, November 23-29, 2014.

This nation is home to some 20 million people working in the food system, the largest private sector employer in the country. The Food Alliance website features brief profiles with several of food workers, including Martha, a Walmart cashier, Gualberto, a farmer worker, Constantine, a street vendor, and Pedro, a food processor.

During this same week some shoppers will notice a new label indicating “Food Worker Certified”, a campaign spearheaded by the Fair Food Program. (ciw-online.org) This is new program in which participating purveyors pay a small premium when they buy “food produced by ethical farms.” The premium goes to increase wages for farmworkers. Participants commit to a worker-created Code of Conduct to ensure safe working conditions and prevent forced labor, sexual harassment and child labor in the fields.

To learn more about the Fair Food Program take time to watch a brief Huff Post Live interview with Kerry Kennedy, President of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. http://www.msnbc.com/all-in/watch/chris-hayes-and-eva-longoria-talk-tomatoes-361072195847

Just in time for International Food Workers Week the Food Fair Program has released Food Chains, a documentary, produced by Eva Longoria and Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser. The film aims to capitalize Americans’ food fixation by reminding enthusiasts of the plight of the nation’s farmworkers. Focus of the film is on the dispute between Immokalee, Florida, tomato pickers and the Publix supermarket chain, a standoff that led to a six-day hunger strike and public protest by farmworkers, reminiscent of the protests of farm workers led by Cesar Chavez.   The Coalition of Immokalee Workers was a prime mover behind the Fair Food Program.

Food Chains will screened November 28-December 5 at St. Anthony Main Theatre, 115 SE Main Street in Minneapolis. The film was shown at the recent Film Society of Minneapolis St. Paul film festival. Friday and Saturday screenings will include public discussions with leaders of the farm worker movement. http://mspfilm.org/films-and-events/food-chains/

To learn more about Food Chains check out Democracy Now! for an interview with Juan Gonzalez with Food Chains movement leader Gerardo Reyes-Chavez: http://www.democracynow.org/2014/11/21/food_chains_new_film_tracks_howFood Chains is available from iTunes at https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/food-chains/id931672934

One of the most thought provoking of all of these approaches to envisioning the reality of the food workers’ lives is a powerful visual history of artistic depictions of “The Revolution of Food Chain Workers in Art: The Rise of the Working Class in the Modern Era.” Tucked quietly on the Food Chair Worker Alliance website the visual gem is developed by Julia Fernandez, an FWCA intern and UCLA art history major. The illuminating walk through artistic depictions is beautiful, informative and above all, thought provoking. Fernandez begins with an 1830 painting by Delacroix featuring a working-class woman leading the working class rebellion – a total break from the era’s artistic norm.

She discusses Courbet’s “The Stone Breakers”, Millet’s “The Gleaners” and “The Thankful Poor”, by Tanner, a painting that “shows the humility and dignity of people, simply trying to make ends meet. The virtual tour also includes 20th and 21st Century photographs, murals, prints and posters – images of the Great Depression, migrant laborers, farm workers, and a poster calling on Americans to stop buying lettuce and grapes…..The visual images are a perfect incentive to begin a dialogue – if only with one’s self — about the conditions of today’s food chain workers.

While we should surely add food workers of every sort to the circle of benefactors to whom we owe thanks these and other public awareness efforts may tune us in to the human links in the food chain we take so for granted.

 

Indy First Day/Small Business Saturday, November 29

Reading is such a personal thing to me, I’d much rather give someone a

gift certificate to a bookstore, and let that person choose his or her own books.

Writer & journalist, Erik Larson

A gift suggestion to consider as you work your way down this season’s holiday shopping list.  A best path  to the perfect book – – or the gift certificate — starts with a  visit to a favorite indie bookstores on Small Business Saturday, November 29, 2014 – a day now known to bibliophiles as Indies First day!

 The Indies First campaign was the brainchild of Sherman Alexie who proposed last year that authors celebrate Small Business Saturday by lending a hand at their favorite indie bookstore. Gaiman’s “audacious and imaginative” idea caught on – over 100 writers helped out at their favorite indie. Indies First became an instant Tradition!

This year, Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) introduced Upstream, an independent bookstore-author partnership that builds on Alexie’s Indies First idea. (http://www.bookweb.org/news/daniel-handler-launches-upstream-initiative-support-indie-bookstores)

And in anticipation of Small Business Saturday 2014 writers Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer joined the campaign. Earlier this year Gaiman and Palmer penned a delightful letter to their fellow authors in which they describe their personal love affairs with indies…. “Neil wanted to be an author when he grew up. But if he wasn’t an author, he thought, the best possible profession would be working in a bookshop, pointing people at books they might like, ordering books for them, divining with some kind of superhuman ability that the book with the blue cover that their granny needed was actually Forever Amber, and otherwise making people’s lives better while being in bookshops.”

Palmer’s affair began with a more casual encounter: “Before she started working on her first book, Amanda walked into the Trident Bookstore on Newbury Street in Boston. She wasn’t even in there to browse books…she was in there to go to the bathroom, like you do…On her walk through the store, she noticed a book called Daring Greatly, by Brene Brown, sitting on the Staff Picks table. Amanda remembered seeing Brene’s TED talk about fear and vulnerability, and picked up the book, which she started reading and couldn’t put down. She bought it.   Two months later, Amanda wrote Brene a fan letter, and then Brene wrote the introduction for Palmer’s new book.”

Gaiman and Palmer conclude that “the Internet cannot make this magic happen. It cannot suggest books you have no idea you want. There’s nothing like the human, organic serendipity of an independent bookshop, where people who read and love books share their love with others.”

The Indie’s First campaign (http://www.bookweb.org/indiesfirst) features an up-dated listing of bookstore events scheduled for Small Business Saturday. Conveniently arranged by author and bookstore the list offers location site and brief description of events. Minnesota Indie First participants include these – be sure to check the listing for more complete information and for last minute updates:

  • An Open Book – Wadena – Activities and authors: story time and free craft activities
  • Excelsior Bay Books – Author Molly Beth Griffin, illustrator Jennifer A. Bell of Rhoda’s Rock Hunt, 1:00-3:00
  • Magers & Quinn – Minneapolis – Will Alexander, Anders Nilsen and Charlie Quimby will be selling books all afternoon
  • Red Balloon – St. Paul –Personal shopping with William Alexander, Michael Dahl, Brian Farrey, Michael Hall, David LaRochelle, Carrie Mesrobian, Stephen Shaskan, Trisha Speed Shaskan and Anne Ursu.
  • Scout & Morban Books – Cambridge – Stan Tekiela, Holly Harden
  • Valley Bookseller – Stillwater – local authors
  • Wild Rumpus – Minneapolis – William Alexander, Michael Hall, Lauren Stringer

 

 

 

 

Walking – and Thinking – about how to end hunger

 

All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking

- Friedrich Nietzsche

Which is why it seems to me that the Walk to End Hunger offers a chance to conceive some truly great thoughts about hunger – such as What’s wrong with a society that endures a system that tolerates hunger – that allows the albatross of hunger to hang around the neck of the body politic?

In this community thousands of good people, many of them volunteers, are working without stint to manage the crisis, to provide healthy food in a supportive environment, to reach out to seniors, families, children, homebound, immigrants, friends, families and neighbors in need. Corporations, grocers, people of faith, hobby farmers, coops, youth groups, community gardeners and others donate food and raise funds in creative and generous efforts to stem the tide of hunger.

And together we Walk to End Hunger on Thanksgiving Day. Hundreds of hardy walkers will gather near dawn at the Mall of America where the only commercial enterprise doing business will be the coffee shops that offer trekkers a welcome break along the way. I’ll be there walking for Neighbors, Inc. – and I’ll be trying to think “truly great thoughts” about whether this is the only option. I’ll remember a time not long ago when Senators Bob Dole and George McGovern put partisanship aside for the shared purpose of crafting ways to feed the most vulnerable members of our global community.

Truth to tell, the Walk is fun — good people, great kids, healthy exercise, a worthy cause. Soon the walkers go home to a hearty Thanksgiving feast, the exhibits are toted off, the politicians move on, the dust settles and the shoppers descend. Soon the proceeds will be totaled and credited to sponsoring nonprofits.

The Walk to End Hunger matters because people do care and they do make the effort to engage. My hope is that The Walk spurs some “truly great thoughts” about the prevailing conditions that make this display of support necessary. What would happen if each of us took time to think and share some “truly great thoughts” about the issues, the barriers, the possibilities and the countless good reasons we should not only walk but think and talk and act as a society to end hunger in this community, the nation and the world.

Please join me in the Walk or support me with a donation.