Poverty, Hunger, and Homelessness in Youth Literature

The impacts of rising inflation and concerns about an economic recession have turned national attention towards the number of Americans who are experiencing poverty, hunger, and homelessness. According to the Census Bureau, about 37.9 million Americans, or 11.6% of the population, lived below the federal poverty line in 2021. Children and youth experience poverty at a higher rate than adults, with 16.9% of children under the age of 18 living below the poverty threshold.

What can be done to reduce the harmful impacts of poverty in the United States? There are many actionable steps that anyone can take, such as volunteering with organizations that directly support people experiencing hunger and homelessness as well as advocating for stronger social safety nets at all levels of government. To have a broader societal impact, another thing we can do is to spread awareness about lived experiences of poverty. Although it is an underrepresented topic, youth literature stories about hunger and homelessness can foster empathy and encourage readers to take action. The titles on this list include informational books about poverty, novels that feature nuanced conversations about socioeconomic status, and poignant memoirs about childhood experiences with hunger. Don’t turn away from this important issue.

Binns, Barbara
Courage. 2018 (Middle Grade Fiction).
Ever since T’Shawn’s father passed away, his mother has been struggling to support the family financially. When he’s offered a spot on a diving team at the local private swim club, he knows that joining would only add another bill to the pile. But T is a good student and never gets into trouble, so he thinks his mom might be supportive, until he learns that his older brother, Lamont, is getting released early from prison. Luckily, T’Shawn gets a scholarship, and he can put all his frustration into diving practices. When crime rates ramp up in the neighborhood and people begin to suspect Lamont, T’Shawn worries that maybe his brother hasn’t left his troublesome past behind after all. He tries to hold on to the hope that they can put the broken pieces of their relationship back together. This poignant novel about race, class, and second chances, is perfect for fans of Jason Reynolds.
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Brandt, Lois
Illustrated by: Vin Vogel
Maddi’s Fridge. 2014 (Picture Book).
With a non-judgmental tone, this story raises awareness about poverty and hunger. Best friends Sofia and Maddi live in the same neighborhood, go to the same school, and play in the same park, but while Sofia’s fridge at home is full of nutritious food, the fridge at Maddi’s house is empty. Sofia learns that Maddi’s family doesn’t have enough money to buy food and promises Maddi she’ll keep this knowledge a secret. But Sofia wants to help her friend, so she’s faced with a difficult decision: to keep her promise or tell her parents about Maddi’s empty fridge. Filled with bright illustrations, this story addresses the complex, significant issue of poverty with honesty and sensitivity while instilling important lessons in friendship, empathy, and helping others. Information at the end of the book includes six effective ways for children to help fight hunger and a list of organizations working to decrease food insecurity.
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Glaser, Karina Yan
A Duet for Home. 2022 (Middle Grade Fiction).
This novel is told from the dual perspectives of sixth-graders June and Tyrell, two biracial children living in a homeless shelter. As their friendship grows over a shared love of classical music, June and Tyrell confront a new housing policy that puts homeless families in danger. June is arriving at the shelter Huey House for the first time. As if losing her home weren’t enough, she also isn’t allowed to bring her precious viola inside. Before the accident last year, her dad saved a year’s worth of tip money to buy her viola, and she’s not going to let it go. Tyrell has been at Huey House for three years and gives June a glimpse of the good things about living there: friendship, hot meals, and a classical musician next door. The stakes are high as Tyrell and June try to work together to oppose the harsh policy, because if they can’t, families might be forced out of Huey House before they are ready.
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Gunti, Erin
Illustrated by: Esteli Meza
A Place to Stay: A Shelter Story. 2019 (Picture Book).
This simple, poignant story shows readers a women’s homeless shelter through the perspective of a young girl. Together, the girl and her mother use their imaginations to reduce and transform the young one’s anxiety and discomfort as they acclimate to their new environment. The book includes factual end pages with more information about the many reasons people experience homelessness and the resources available to help. Without glossing over the tough realities of housing instability, this story is encouraging and highlights the bond between mother and child.
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McDonnell, Christine
Illustrated by: Victoria Tentler-Krylov
Sanctuary: Kip Tiernan and Rosie’s Place, the Nation’s First Shelter for Women. 2022 (Picture Book).
When Kip Tiernan was growing up during the Great Depression, she would help her granny cook food for the men who came to their door asking for help. In her adulthood, as Kip continued to serve food to hungry people, she noticed something peculiar: huddled at the back of serving lines were women dressed as men. At the time, most people believed that there were no women experiencing homelessness. Kip knew that wasn’t the case, as she witnessed women sleeping on park benches and searching for food in trash cans. Kip decided to create a place to serve the needs of these women: a shelter with no questions asked, no required chores, just good meals and warm beds. Kip persevered to convince the city government of Boston to allow her to open Rosie’s Place, the nation’s first homeless shelter for women.
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Nielsen-Fernlund, Susin
No Fixed Address. 2018 (Middle Grade Fiction).
Almost thirteen-year-old Felix Knutsson has a knack for trivia. His favorite game show is Who What Where When. Felix’s mom, Astrid, is nurturing but frequently loses jobs and has mounting debt. When they get evicted from their most recent grungy apartment, they have to move into a van. Astrid urges Felix to keep their new living situation a secret. Astrid manages to enroll Felix in a nice new school despite their lack of a fixed address, but she warns him that if he tells anyone about living in a van, even his new school friends, he’ll be put in foster care. As their circumstances go from bad to worse, Felix gets a chance to audition for a junior edition of his favorite game show. He’s determined to make it happen because winning the cash prize could make everything okay again, but things don’t always work out according to plan.
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Ogle, Rex
Free Lunch. 2019 (Middle Grade Graphic Memoir).
Instead of giving him lunch money, Rex’s mom has signed him up for free lunches. As a poor kid in a wealthy school district, the other kids impatiently wait in line behind him as he tries to explain to the cashier that he’s on the free meal program. The lunch lady is hard of hearing, so Rex has to shout. This memoir is the story of Rex’s efforts to navigate the beginning of sixth grade with the added stress of poverty: who to sit with, not being able to join the football team, a handmade Halloween costume, and the persistent pangs of hunger. His mom and her boyfriend are out of work, and life at home is punctuated by outbursts of violence. Halfway through the fall, his family is evicted and ends up in government-subsidized housing right next to the school. Rex lingers at the end of last period every day until the buses have left, so no one will see where he lives. Unsparing and realistic, this memoir is a true, timely, and essential story that illuminates the lived experience of poverty in America.
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Phi, Bao
Illustrated by: Thi Bui
A Different Pond. 2017 (Picture Book).
In this atmospheric picture book, author and poet Bao Phi draws on his memories of growing up as the youngest child of Vietnamese refugees living in America. As a young boy, Bao Phi and his father awoke early, hours before his dad’s long workday began, to fish on the shores of a small pond in Minneapolis. Unlike many other anglers, Bao and his father fished for food, not for fun. Between hope-filled casts, Bao’s father told him stories about a different pond in their homeland of Vietnam. Beautiful illustrations by Bui, who also created the graphic memoir The Best We Could Do, are filled with details and cultural specificity that support the storytelling.
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Roberts, Jillian & Jaime Casap
Illustrated by: Jane Heinrichs
On Our Street: Our First Talk about Poverty. 2018 (Picture Book).
This book is a gentle introduction to the issue of poverty from the World Around Us series of informational picture books and explores the realities of people living with inadequate resources. Using straightforward language, the text covers topics like mental illness, homelessness, and refugee status as they are connected to this issue. The format makes this book easy-to-digest, as each two-page spread addresses a question a young person may ask about poverty, such as “I go to the doctor whenever I get sick. Why doesn’t everyone do that?” Quotes from individuals and organizations such as UNICEF are included throughout to add further perspective on the topic of poverty, and the text emphasizes ways to help solve the problem.
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Yang, Kelly
Front Desk. 2018 (Middle Grade Fiction).
Ten-year-old Mia Tang has a lot of secrets. First, she lives in a motel, not a big house. Every day, while her immigrant parents clean the rooms, Mia works at the front desk of the Calivista Motel on her own and tends to its guests. Second, her parents harbor immigrants in the hotel. If the mean motel owner, Mr. Yao, finds out they’ve been letting the immigrants stay in the empty rooms for free, the Tang family will be doomed. Third, Mia wants to be a writer. But her mom thinks she should stick to math because English is not her first language, meaning she must pursue her dream in secret. It will take all of Mia’s courage, kindness, and hard work to get through this year. Will she be able to hold on to her job, help the immigrants and guests, escape Mr. Yao, and go for her dreams? This is the first book in a series of popular stories.
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References / Resources

American Psychological Association: “Exploring the mental health effects of poverty, hunger, and homelessness on children and teens.”

This story from the APA details relevant statistics about children experiencing poverty and explains in simple terms the research about the lasting mental health effects of the adverse experiences of poverty, hunger, and homelessness in childhood.

U.S. Census Bureau: “Poverty rate of children higher than the national rate, lower for older populations”

This article from the Census Bureau outlines the differences among poverty rates by age in the United States. The story highlights relevant statistics from recent years and includes maps of the varying rates of poverty geographically.