Jane Kelley pulls a picture book from a shelf in her office and, flipping through the pages, shows a story of a little girl living in a graffiti- and trash-covered apartment complex. The book, Something Beautiful, tells how the girl takes charge of her own environment and cleans up her home to make it more beautiful.
Such depictions of poverty in realistic children’s fiction are unfortunately rare, says Kelley, an associate professor in the College of Education and a scholar of children’s literature. Despite the historically high prevalence of poverty in the United States, that fact of life for many kids is underrepresented in the books they might read.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than one in five children under 18 lives in poverty. The Census Bureau defines poverty based on household income; for a family of four that threshold was about $23,000 in 2012. The number of people in poverty rose for four consecutive years, likely exacerbated by the financial crisis after 2008.
Not only do few children’s books reflect the reality of poverty, says Kelley, but the messages about poverty are often about fate or luck. “It’s either good luck or bad luck that you’re poor. They say, ‘With a little luck I’ll be able to get out of poverty and everything will be ok.’”
In a two-year project, Kelley and her doctoral student Janine Darragh ’10, now at the University of Idaho, studied children’s realistic fiction picture books that have poverty as a central theme. They analyzed 58 such books printed from 1990 to 2009, identifying the demographics of the characters and the type of action.
They found that many of the books do not accurately show some aspects of poverty, like people who are poor in rural areas. The two researchers were heartened to see more books in recent years featuring main characters in poverty.
“What I have noticed with some of the books coming out recently is showing people in poverty who also have agency,” says Kelley. In Something Beautiful, the main character takes action to improve her environment, a powerful message that even small acts can make a difference.
Opening another book called Those Shoes, Kelley shows an example of a young character taking positive action. A boy who lives with his grandmother discovers his heart’s desire, a pair of popular name brand shoes, at a thrift shop, but they are too small for him. He ends up giving the shoes to his friend whose own shoes are held together with tape.
Children’s books can give kids several ways to understand the world, including differences in wealth, says Kelley. She describes books as mirrors, windows, and doors.
As mirrors, “we can have children’s books that are realistic, that do reflect what’s going on,” she says. “Those books are important because they help kids say, ‘Wow, there’s someone else in the same situation,’ and they can feel there’s a comfort in that.”
Books can also be windows for young readers to see a different experience or culture. Finally, says Kelley, children’s books can be doors to possibilities.
“It might not be what’s happening, but it can be a ‘what if.’ We do it all the time with science fiction. Someone imagines this other world, this other possibility. The same thing could happen in children’s books about poverty,” she says.
Kelley began studying poverty in children’s literature in graduate school, applying critical multicultural analysis to help identify themes. But she also had firsthand experience with poverty in classrooms as an elementary school teacher for ten years.
“The students I worked with in inner city Houston, the first graders, they knew about poverty. It was part of their everyday. When I taught in other schools, they didn’t really know much about it,” she says.
Back then, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Kelley says she can’t think of any books that realistically depicted poverty. Now with more books that show children in poverty, teachers have more options to address the issue.
“I think what’s great about some of those books is that they can help teachers bring up some of those tough subjects without the teacher fumbling through. They can just read the story.
“It also gives kids a chance to talk about the issue, not about themselves, but they can talk about this little girl rather than say ‘This is what’s going on in my neighborhood,’” says Kelley.
In her classes for future teachers, Kelley encourages her students to not just critique children’s books for their topics, though. The books have to grab the reader’s attention.
“Number one, a book has to be engaging,” she says. “It has to have really quality writing. There are a lot of books out there that might be about poverty, but they’re not engaging. So they’re not going to do what we want them to and get kids interested in talking about the topic.”
Kelley also heads up WSU’s Reading Endorsement Program, allowing her to work with teachers to find books that can represent poverty, homelessness, and other touchy topics like assumptions about people who are poor. Then, depending on the context of the class, the teachers can bring those books into their classrooms where the children will find them.
Children’s picture books that show poverty: Jane Kelley recommends a few books that realistically show different experiences of poverty among kids.