Ah, another episode of We Recommend, in which we attempt, by hook or by crook, to find the absolutely perfect book for people who write in. Got a kid in your life who needs a recommendation? Write us with the age, reading tastes, favorite books, and any other relevant (or irrelevant) information, and we'll give it a shot.
Here is this sweet and painful request:
About six months ago, my husband accepted a position as a local director of an organization that provides food and other services to homeless families. Although we live in an affluent area (The OC) there are over 26,000 homeless children in our county. His tasks vary and are most of the time pretty invisible to our children, but one key thing he does every Sunday night is organize a meal for families living in weekly motels. My daughter is 4 1/2–full of questions and she (usually) has the capability to digest pretty frank answers. She knows that Daddy helps homeless people and has peppered him with questions about their situations–everything from "why don't they have homes", to "do they have art supplies", to "why did they lose their homes".
Lurking beneath those questions is the one she works out through playing a now reoccurring pretend game called "Lost in the Cold." She pretends to be a little girl who doesn't have a home, family or even a name–when she comes up to me, I'm supposed to say that this can be her home and I've always wanted a little girl and I will name her Audrey. Supporting characters include the cat, her little brother, and various toys and/or rooms in the house.
It's a little unsettling to say the least, but I'm not worried about her emotional health and I believe it will do her good in the long run to understand the privileged of her situation and to feel compassion for others. So here's my doozy of a request:
Do you know of any picture books that address, answer, or even slightly mention the issue of homelessness in this country or abroad?
Wow. We thought about this one quite a bit. What's tricky, of course, is the age of the kid. We're perfectly happy to offer up all sorts of edifying homilies to kids once they're in elementary school, but before then? It's tricky. As Chestnut said when I hit her up for suggestions, "But picture books are usually about nice stuff. They don't like to talk about bad stuff to really little kids." Agreed, generally.
But this really little kid knows about it, and how do we find a book for her to continue to think about it in a useful way? My first thought was animals. I felt like I even remembered various childhood books that involved forlorn animals going from one place to another in search of somewhere they fit in, but when pushed my memory offered nothing more than this (Where Does the Butterfly Go When It Rains?) which is kinda sorta somehow about homelessness. Except that butterflies aren't supposed to have homes. And people are.
Add to this the fact that we're not exactly offering up a story to a kid who is suffering from homelessness, but rather is looking to comprehend it, which I think is more than what most adults can manage. It's as though she's looking to widen and open her heart, and while we all wish for compassion and understanding in our children, it's terrifying to think of what it would mean if she truly did manage to get her mind around homelessness. It can't have been any picnic to be Mother Teresa's mother.
We thought about a few things. Chestnut brought up "The Happy Prince," the Oscar Wilde story about the golden statue of a prince and the swallow who takes shelter underneath it, and how now that the prince is higher up than he was when he was a boy he sees the suffering of all the people in the city and urges the swallow to remove his jewels and gold leaf to offer them help.
But this is more about poverty, not about being without a home. I thought about A Chair for My Mother, because there has been a fire in their apartment—but they have an apartment.
I even thought about "The Little Match Girl," though there too she has a home, though it is not a good home. Plus she dies at the end which is maybe not the way to talk about it best?
And then I was out of ideas. And I do what those without anywhere else to turn do—I googled. I found this site, which has quite the amazing list, none of which I have ever read, unfortunately. And I found this as well, which looks lovely but alas I can't say because I never read it.
So what does that leave us with? Um, nothing. Except this: I was checking around for a Mr. Rogers book on homelessness (what? I trust him!) and found while not that, instead a note on his foundation's web site, describing their goal of bringing books to homeless youth and families.
So maybe here's the way to go: find some books she loves, and she can donate them and have her dad bring them to other kids. And whatever conversation comes out of that will surely be as instructive about homelessness and life as anything else.
But beyond that: readers? You must have read some of these books. Offer up a suggestion in the comments.