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Find more Hope in Tight Times
Across the nation, from urban centers to small towns, more and more families are experiencing hard times. With the unemployment rate approaching 10 percent and in some regions 15 percent, many families are struggling to make ends meet. In these tight times, children may become confused in spite of their parents’ best efforts.
The books below are for children from preschool through junior high. While many of the selections reflect recent economic downturns, several take place during the Great Depression. All of these titles offer educators, counselors, and children opportunities to talk about this potentially painful and frightening topic. Hope is an important theme in these books. Job loss does not necessarily lead to family breakups or tragedy. Each of these stories offers hope and potential strategies for the main characters and their families to rebuild their lives and make lemonade from the lemons that life has suddenly thrown them.
An extensive search of children’s literature on job loss reveals many books about intact, middle-class, two-parent families with fathers who lose their jobs. There are few books about mothers and job loss, and there is a tremendous scarcity of books that feature the rich mosaic of family constellations, cultural diversity, and range of socioeconomic groups found in the United States. Equally striking is the severe lack of boy characters who confront parental job loss.
The Babe and I. By David A. Adler. Illus. by Terry Widener. 1999. 32p. Harcourt/Gulliver, $17 (9780152013783); paper, $7 (9780152050269). PreS–Gr. 2.
The young narrator of Adler’s story knows he shouldn’t be disappointed with his humble birthday gift because he is quite lucky—his father has a job during the Great Depression. Then he discovers that his father is actually unemployed and sells apples on the street, so the boy decides to contribute to the family’s earnings by selling newspapers outside Yankee Stadium. When Babe Ruth buys a paper from the boy, he leaves a tip big enough to make a dream come true.
Finding a Job for Daddy. By Evelyn Hughes Maslac. Illus. by Kay Life. 1996. 24p. Albert Whitman, $15.99 (9780807524374). PreS–Gr. 2.
Laura’s daddy is looking for a job and Laura helps him by circling the newspaper want ads with her crayons. Her parents help her understand why he does not have a job and how the job-search process works. Watercolor illustrations add warmth to this story about the feelings parents have and the adjustments they must make when one of them is out of work. Laura’s parents reassure her that no matter what her daddy will always be her daddy.
The Gardener. By Sarah Stewart. Illus. by David Small. 1997. 40p. Farrar, $17 (9780374325176); Square Fish, paper, $6.99 (9780312367497). PreS–Gr. 2.
It is 1935 and Uncle Jim’s niece has moved to the big city to help him with his bakery while her unemployed parents look for work. A passionate gardener, Lydia Grace plants flowers and vegetables wherever she can, and after many months, she surprises Uncle Jim with a delightful rooftop garden. In turn, he surprises her with the happy news that her father has found work and she can return home. Illustrations in this Caldecott Honor Book depict the time and setting with the use of subdued watercolors and period details.
Mom Doesn’t Work There Anymore. By Mary Kalifon. Illus. by the author. 1995. 32p. Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, paper, $6.95 (9780964198111). PreS–Gr. 2.
Focusing on the feelings of a child and her family, Kalifon’s story portrays a single mother who has lost her job. The simple black-and-white drawings emphasize the perspective of a young child. Endnotes advise parents on how to talk to children about the loss of a job and offer recommendations for promoting the psychological well-being of all. This book and its companion, My Dad Lost His Job (1995) are available in Spanish and English from the Parent Child Resource Service at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, 8631 W. Third St., Suite 535E, Los Angeles, CA 90048.
Rudy Rides the Rails: A Depression Era Story. By Dandi Daley Mackall. Illus. by Chris Ellison. 2007. 40p. Sleeping Bear, $17.95 (9781585362868). Gr. 3–6.
When his father loses his job and the family struggles to find food, Ruby, 13, decides to help his family by traveling to California where there are supposed to be jobs for everyone. Along the way, Rudy learns that his father’s mantra of “look out for you and yours and nobody else” is not the only philosophy of life. A hobo glossary and a key to the hobo symbols depicted in Ellison’s illustrations append the book.
Tight Times. By Barbara Shook Hazen. Illus. by Trina Schart Hyman. 1979. 32p. Puffin, paper, $5.99 (9780140504422). PreS–Gr. 3.
Black-and-white line drawings offer children of diverse backgrounds the possibility of seeing themselves in this powerful story of a father’s job loss. Told in the first person, this touching story reveals a young child’s confusion over and eventual understanding of his family’s tight times. Scenes reveal parent emotions and struggles. The young child’s wish for a pet and the parents’ refusal eventually lead to a creative, uplifting solution.
Voices in the Park. By Anthony Browne. Illus. by the author. 1998. 32p. DK, paper, $7.99 (9780789481917). Gr. 1–5.
A visit to the park is told from four points of view: a haughty mother, an unemployed father, the woman’s son, and the man’s daughter (all shown as gorillas). The surreal illustrations and simple text hint at the depression felt by many unemployed people and the disdain that some feel toward them. Despite their sensitivity to their respective parents’ feelings, the children enjoy playing together. The joy and support that many children give to an unemployed parent is evident throughout.
Also Known as Harper. By Ann Haywood Leal. 2009. 256p. Holt, $16.95 (9780805088816). Gr. 4–6.
Things are up and down for fifth-grader Harper Lee Morgan. Her father and his drinking are gone, but the rent is past due, and their landlady, Mrs. Early, is out of patience. Harper is focused on readying her poetry for a school contest, but when her mother loses her job and Harper has to stay home with her younger brother, her hopes for the contest fade away.
Candyfloss. By Jacqueline Wilson. Illus. by Nick Sharratt. 2007. 352p. Roaring Brook/Deborah Brodie, $14.95 (9781596432413); paper, $6.99 (9780312384180). Gr. 5–8.
Faced with the choice of staying with her father or relocating with her mother, baby brother, and stepfather to Australia, Floss chooses to stay with her father, not realizing that he faces eviction. As Floss and her father struggle to make ends meet, she turns to her new classmate Susan and their teacher, Mrs. Horsefield, for help and support. The British words and phrases are explained in an appended glossary.
The Christmas Train. By Barbara Bannister. Illus. by Jason Farley. 2007. 64p. Cornerstone, paper, $7.95 (9780940895546). Gr. 2–4.
Set during the Great Depression, this story follows sixth-grader Darlene, who worries that her family “won’t have much Christmas” because her father has lost his job. At school Darlene gets ready for the Christmas program and at home she helps care for her younger siblings, taking them to wave at the train as it goes by each day. The day before Christmas, her family receives a special surprise. Endnotes relate a real-life story about the generosity of railroad personnel during the Depression.
Lucky. By Rachel Vail. 2008. 240p. HarperTeen, $16.99 (9780060890438); HarperTrophy, paper, $8.99 (9780060890452). Gr. 7–10.
Eighth-grader Phoebe’s wealth and popularity are threatened when her mom suddenly loses her job. At first she tries to convince her sisters and friends that everything is “all good,” but after some soul-searching, Phoebe faces the truth and discovers that she’s still rich in friendship and also lucky in love. Vail’s story offers insightful characterizations of teen girls and their shifting loyalties as well as realistic moments, such as when Phoebe’s mom’s credit card is publicly confiscated.
Meet Kit: An American Girl. By Valerie Tripp. Illus. by Walter Rane. 2000. 88p. American Girl, $12.95 (9781584850175); paper, $6.95 (9781584850168). Gr. 3–4.
Although it’s 1934 and the country is in the throes of the Great Depression, Kit Kittredge and her family live a comfortable life. When some friends lose their home, Kit’s mother invites them to stay with the Kittredges. Soon afterward Kit’s father loses his business and the family decides to rent out rooms in their home to make ends meet. At first Kit is upset that she must give up her room, but then she turns the attic into a special place of her own, discovering that “changes can be good.”
My Own Worst Enemy. By Carol Sonenklar. 1999. 160p. Scholastic, paper, $4.50 (9780439175180). Gr. 5–9.
Eve’s dad has been downsized and her mom’s new job requires the family to relocate. Because her mother’s job requires a lot of traveling, Eve’s father is in charge of the house. While the eighth-grader tries to reinvent herself so she can make friends in her new school, her dad becomes involved in unfinished projects, completely neglecting the household chores. Soon Eve feels like she’s the only one doing her part. A story of the many adjustments a family may need to make after a job loss and the importance of communication to help everyone accept the changes.
The Noonday Friends. By Mary Stolz. Illus. by Louis Glanzman. 1965. 192p. HarperTrophy, $5.99 (9780064400091). Gr. 4–7.
In this Newbery Honor Book set in the early 1960s, Franny Davis’ father can’t keep a job. His wife, their 11-year-old twins, and 5-year-old son respond in different ways to his unemployment. Bright, responsible Franny struggles to keep her friendship with Simone Orella. Simone’s cousin, recently arrived from Puerto Rico, has difficulty finding a job because of his accent. The ways in which each family resolves their problems makes for a touching story about tight times, friendship, and fear.
P.S. Longer Letter Later: A Novel in Letters. By Paula Danziger and Ann M. Martin. 1998. 234p. Scholastic, paper, $4.99 (9780590213103). Gr. 5–8.
This collection of chatty yet poignant letters exchanged between best friends Tara*Starr and Elizabeth reveal Elizabeth’s father’s job loss, depression, and descent into alcoholism. The middle-school friends, separated when Tara*Starr’s family moves away, struggle to maintain their friendship through letter writing. The sequel to this epistolary novel, Snail Mail No More (2000), is a series of e-mail exchanges between these two faithful friends.
Ramona and Her Father. By Beverly Cleary. Illus. by Tracy Dockray. 1977; reissued 2006. 192p. HarperCollins, $16.99 (9780688221140); HarperTrophy, paper, $5.99 (9780380709168). Gr. 4–6.
Ramona’s feelings of fear, sadness, and loneliness, resulting from her father’s job loss are clearly depicted in this Newbery Honor Book. Mr. and Mrs. Quimby’s conversations about house and car payments, unemployment insurance, taxes, and shopping make this an extremely realistic portrayal of tight times for this middle-class family. Ramona and Beezus challenge their father’s smoking habit with, “How come Daddy can afford to smoke?” The children’s provocative anti-smoking campaign leads to important conversations about health, savings, and family priorities.
Saving Grace. By Priscilla Cummings. 2003. 256p. Dutton, $17.99 (9780525471233). Gr. 5–8.
Grace’s family is evicted from their apartment just before Christmas in 1932. With no place to go, their older son gravely ill, and a baby on the way, her parents have little alternative but to leave Grace and her two younger brothers at a mission. Invited to spend the holidays with a family who can give her regular meals, new clothes, and other amenities, Grace feels guilty about having so much when her parents have so little. This is a vivid story of the difficult decisions that poor families may be forced to make to survive.
Trading Places. By Claudia Mills. 2006. 144p. Farrar, $16.99 (9780374317980). Gr. 5–7.
Although fifth-graders Amy and Todd are twins, they are very different. Todd is organized and likes to build things; Amy is messy and likes to write poems. Told from their respective points of view, this story chronicles the changes in Todd and Amy’s lives when their stay-at-home mom starts working and their engineer father becomes depressed over his unemployment. Gradually, the entire family pulls itself together and discovers hidden talents that help them through a challenging period.
A Year down Yonder. By Richard Peck. 2000. 144p. Dial, $16.99 (9780803725188); Puffin, paper, $6.99 (9780142300701). Gr. 4–7.
When her father loses his job, Mary Alice, 15, rides the train alone from Chicago to her grandma Dowdel’s small Illinois town. There she attends the local 25-student high school, struggling to make friends, and spends the year learning her grandma’s tricks, including protecting the outside privy from Halloweeners, catching a fox, and baking flaky pie crusts. Filled with one adventure after another and a bit of romance, this sequel to A Long Way from Chicago (1998) is a Newbery Medal winner that gives readers an understanding of small-town life during the Great Depression.
What I Believe. By Norma Fox Mazer. 2005. 176p. Harcourt, $16 (9780152014629); paper, $6.95 (9780152062835). Gr. 5–9.
The dramatic impact of a father’s job loss on an upper-middle-class family, the Marnets, is portrayed through a collection of list, cinquain, free verse, and acrostic poems. Faced with mounting bills and her father’s eventual depression, Vicki and her family move into a small apartment in the city. The middle-school girl’s self-absorbed, adolescent nature is revealed in one poignant poem after another as the plot and eventual resolution of this family crisis is revealed.
Where I Live. By Eileen Spinelli. Illus. by Matt Phelan. 2007. 112p. Dial, $16.99 (9780803731226). PreS–Gr. 3.
This Newbery Honor Book is a collection of poems written by Diana, a precocious, curious girl who loves the night sky, her friend Rosa, and poetry writing. Diana is happy with life until her father loses his job. She wrestles with a variety of emotions that her teacher helps her to identify: sadness, anger, confusion, and, finally, comfort. Eventually Diana and her family relocate six hours away to live with Grandpa, and she soon discovers joys in this new setting that she grows to love.
Kathleen F. Malu is an associate professor in the department of secondary and middle school education and Yvonne R. Roux is a curriculum librarian, both at William Paterson University in Wayne (New Jersey).
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