A Place to Call One's OwnChoosing Books about Homelessness

Diane Hoffbauer and Maureen Prenn

The face of the homeless has changed from the image of a drunken man under the bridge to that of families, children, and adolescents, as is illustrated by the title of Jonathan Kozol's book Rachel and her Children: Homeless Families in America (1988). In recent years, large numbers of families with young children have joined the ranks of the homeless (Bassuk, Carman, and Weinreb 1990). An estimated 68,000-100,000 children are homeless on any given night (U.S. General Accounting Office 1989), and nationally it is estimated that there are approximately three hundred thousand adolescents living on the streets who have no positive supervision from a parent or responsible adult (National Coalition for the Homeless 1989). Estimates of the total number of homeless individuals in the United States range from two hundred fifty thousand to over two million (Wiley and Ballard 1993). As school children meet and interact with adults and children who are homeless, teachers and other school personnel must work to help students understand the challenges of growing up without a place to call one's own.
Children's and adolescents' literature can be carefully chosen to help teachers raise students' awareness of homelessness. Stories about people who do not have a place to call their own can provide realistic situations for discussions about needs, emotions, and ethics. One example is Sophie and the Sidewalk Man (Tolan 1992), a well-written and illustrated picture book about homelessness, in which a young girl can't stop worrying about a homeless and hungry man who sits outside a toy store day after day, and struggles to find a solution for this one man's situation. This and similar books can help students understand both the experiences of the growing homeless population and the need for exploring possible solutions. Helping children increase their concern about other community members encourages children to see themselves as potential problem solvers while also helping them to understand the interdependence of all people.

Generally, children's literature can be evaluated by considering such elements as plot, theme, style, and illustrations (Huck, Hepler, and Hickman 1993). For books focusing on homelessness, however, we expanded our evaluation criteria, and based these on a scale developed by Rule and Atkinson (1994). The criteria include (1) appreciation of people, (2) interrelatedness of people in communities, (3) realistic problem, (4) problem solving, (5) positive tone, (6) non-stereotypic portrayals, (7) appropriate illustrations, (8) story appeal, and (9) developmental appropriateness. For the purpose of this article, we have highlighted individual books with strengths related to a particular criterion. The books we have chosen feature children and families as well as other adults who are homeless.

1. Appreciation of People
This criterion examines how well books show the value of all persons, including those who may appear unkempt or eccentric.
In Family Pose (Hughes 1989), eleven year-old David, a runaway from a foster home, finds care and a much needed boost to his self-esteem through a group of people working the night shift at a hotel. Poor people who are a step away from homelessness themselves take responsibility for this child, whose very presence could get them fired from their jobs. The Fastest Friend in the West (Grove 1990) brings the issue of valuing people to the middle school setting. Lori, a girl who is having trouble being respected by the popular girls because of her weight, meets another girl, Vern, who despite her greasy hair and too-small clothes, appears not to care what others think. Vern has taught herself to care little for the opinions of others because she has not been in any one school for long. Her family has been living and traveling about in a station wagon for eighteen months. Both of these books provide insight into respecting and valuing different sorts of people.

2. Interrelatedness of People in Communities
This criterion examines how books show the connectedness of different people within a community and the need for cooperation and caring about one another.
Caring is demonstrated by a boy who develops a network of services to help the urban poor of Philadelphia in a true story, Trevor's Place: The Story of a Boy Who Brings Hope to the Homeless (Ferrell 1990). The Missing Gator of Gumbo Limbo: An Ecological Mystery (George 1992) may seem to be a book better classified under ecology, yet George's portrayal of homeless people camping out in the Everglades shows a group of people very much aware not only of their own quality of life, but also of the life of the entire community. Those better off take care of the others in the group who might not eat without their help. Although our modern society has set up a safety net of services, a frequent theme of books about homelessness is a distrust by homeless people of society and of the social services systems that were set up to help them. Children and adults alike often hide from the police because they are a direct connection to social services. As in The Beggar's Ride (Nelson 1992), in which adolescents on the streets try to look out for one another, people who are poor or homeless themselves are often shown aiding others in similar circumstances.

The issue of how communities should help those in need is an old one. Two historical novels show that the answers were not always there even in "simpler times." In The Bread Sister of Sinking Creek (Moore 1984), orphaned Maggie Callahan bakes her way to independence without the help of others in her frontier community. In contrast, thirteen year-old Henry finds a loving family on a farm where he works as a hired boy in A Place to Claim as Home (Willis 1991).

3. Realistic Problem
This criterion examines whether books present a realistic problem that is neither simplistic nor overstated.
Just as the individuals who are homeless are diverse, so also are the problems they encounter. Problems of unemployment and underemployment, abandonment, bad luck, alcoholism, and mental illness are highlighted. The Paper Bag Prince (Thompson 1992) features a wise old man living in an abandoned train in the town dump. He watches as nature gradually reclaims the polluted land. A street boy in Juarez, Mexico, faces problems of hunger, violence, and potential death as he plans his illegal crossing into the United States in The Crossing (Paulsen 1987). In Come the Morning (Harris 1989), thirteen year-old Ben and his family confront increasingly desperate circumstances as they stay first at a run-down hotel, then double up with a friend, and finally stay in various shelters. Readers learn how good, responsible people can find themselves in situations they never imagined.

4. Problem Solving
This criterion examines how well books suggest a feeling of hope for a long-term solution to the homeless problem.
It examines whether books present actions that help to solve short-term problems in the story as well as the continuing homeless problem. Solutions that show actions by the story characters, including children, and/or steps that could be taken by the reader are presented.

These books illustrate how solutions are everyone's responsibility. Based on a true story, Mr. Bow Tie (Barbour 1991) shows the power of families in solving problems when a homeless man receives friendship and help from a family in finding his relatives. Uncle Willie and the Soup Kitchen (DiSalvo-Ryan 1991) shows the power of individuals. Uncle Willie volunteers in a soup kitchen, preparing meals for those who are hungry. His nephew, fearful at first, finally joins his uncle at the kitchen, learning about making a difference in the neighborhood.

5. Positive Tone
This criterion examines whether books focus on solving the problem rather than assigning blame or looking for the single right solution.
Challenges to inaccurate first impressions and assumptions cause the young people in both December Stillness (Hahn 1989) and Burgoo Stew (Patron 1991) to reevaluate their actions. In December Stillness, fourteen year-old Kelly befriends Mr. Weems, a seemingly disturbed, homeless Vietnam War veteran who spends his days in her suburban library. When the man makes it clear that he likes his life-style and does not want her friendship, Kelly learns a valuable lesson about respect and coexistence. As a middle-class suburban teenager, Kelly begins the relationship believing she could solve Mr. Weems's problems. She soon understands that she does not have all the "right" answers for somebody else's life.

Roughly based on the old fable Stone Soup (Brown 1947), Burgoo Stew (Patron 1991) is a picture book about five neighborhood boys who taunt and torment an older man who lives by the railroad tracks. With assistance from their new acquaintance, Billy Que, the boys discover the value of respect and cooperation while cooking Burgoo Stew over a campfire. Both Kelly of December Stillness and the bad, lanky boys of Burgoo Stew learn the necessity and appropriateness of considerate attitudes and behaviors.

6. Nonstereotypic Portrayals
This criterion examines how well books avoid stereotyping in looking at issues and characters.
Every child wonders what it would be like to live where one wants, do what one wants, and hang out with whomever one wants. Maniac Magee (Spinelli 1990) does all of this and more as he succeeds at feats that make him legendary in his community. Only at the end of the story does the reader realize that this homeless boy meets his biggest challenge by finding a place he could call "home." A Chance to Grow (Powell 1992) tells a story about the changing and growing populations of families and children who are homeless. It is the saga of two children, Joe and Gracey, and their mother, who are evicted from their apartment and live in shelters and on the streets, looking for work and a permanent home where they can once again grow a garden. Another tale of a displaced family, The Leaves in October (Ackerman 1991) tells of a father and his two young children moving to a shelter after the mother leaves them and the father loses his job. The authors of these three books have taken care to provide realistic pictures of struggling families who make difficult decisions during hard times.

7. Appropriate Illustrations
This criterion evaluates the way illustrations enhance or detract from a story.
Both An Angel for Solomon Singer (Rylant 1992) and Fly Away Home (Bunting 1991) use carefully selected pictures to add depth and richness to the stories. Although tales of people who are homeless could cause feelings of sadness, the illustrations of these two books reward the reader with glimpses of both the daily lives and hopes of the characters. A dismal and dreary picture of a transient hotel, which is home for Solomon Singer, furnishes a nice contrast to the cheerful and kind face of Angel, the waiter in the diner where Solomon sometimes eats. Without the rich images of loneliness, friendship, and Solomon's dreams of his childhood farm in Indiana, An Angel for Solomon Singer would simply be a story of an aging man in a big city. Instead, in a gentle and inviting way, children are able to see the importance and value of interdependence between people. Fly Away Home offers children a view of a father and son who live in a community of homeless people in an airport. The associations children frequently have of airports-families meeting or vacationing-may be challenged by the illustrations that show this airport as home to many people.

8. Story Appeal
This criterion examines the way books use characters, plot, pace, style, suspense, and theme to engage the reader.
Strong characters, danger, excitement, and suspense are all present in Monkey Island (Fox 1991), a story about eleven year-old Clay, who is abandoned by his mother in a homeless hotel. He cannot remain alone in the hotel and so moves to the streets and parks of New York City. He continues a vigil for his missing mother with the help of two men who befriend him. Readers will appreciate Clay's struggles, experiences, and discoveries as the story unfolds. Equally engaging is Fly Away Home, where readers are drawn to Andrew as he tries to understand the community he lives with in the airport. While the father works at a day job, a stranded bird captures Andrew's heart and fascination. As he helps the bird find an escape route through an open window, it is as if it is Andrew's heart that is let free to fly away home.

9. Developmental Appropriateness
This criterion evaluates books on the appropriateness of concepts, vocabulary, and sentence structure.
A rereleased classic from 1958, The Family Under the Bridge (Carlson 1986) invites children to put concepts and vocabulary together. This adventure story draws the reader into a faraway life-living under a bridge in a strange place with a strange man named Armand a long time ago. Although details of being homeless may change, the development of the characters and the storyline make this a book for all ages. Sophie and the Sidewalk Man (Tolan 1992) also allows young readers to stop and imagine what they might do in a similar situation. Eight year-old Sophie struggles to decide if she should do what she wants or what is right as she watches a homeless man sit outside her neighborhood toy store. Sophie learns a valuable lesson as she imagines the life of the homeless man and makes her decision. Maurice Sendak shares his view of homelessness in We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (Sendak 1993). Although this is a challenging book to use with children, Sendak's powerful illustrations and haunting use of two Mother Goose nursery rhymes make it worth noting.

The problems of people who are homeless are varied and many, and the solutions are complicated and complex. What is important is that our children understand that these individuals and families have needs and wants like all people. Using literature to help students learn about homelessness is one step toward developing compassion and an understanding that living without a home is something that could happen to anyone.

Professional BibliographyNational Coalition for the Homeless. American Nightmare: A Decade of Homelessness in the United States. Washington, D.C.: National Coalition for the Homeless, 1989.Bassuk, Ellen L., Rebecca W. Carman, and Linda F. Weinreb. Community Care for Homeless Families: A Program Design Manual. Newton Center, Mass.: The Better Homes Foundation, 1990.Huck, Charlotte S., Susan Hepler, and Janet Hickman. Children's Literature in the Elementary School. 5th ed. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993.Kozol, Jonathan. Rachel and her Children: Homeless Families in America. New York: Crown, 1988.Rule, Audrey, and Joan Atkinson. "Choosing Picture Books About Ecology." The Reading Teacher 47 (April 1994): 586-91.U.S. General Accounting Office. Children and Youths: Report to Congressional Committees. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1989.Wiley, David C., and Danny J. Ballard. "How Can Schools Help Children from Homeless Families?" Journal of School Health 63 (September 1993): 291-93.Literature for ChildrenAckerman, Karen. The Leaves in October. New York: Atheneum, 1991.Barbour, Karen. Mr. Bow Tie. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991. Brown, Marcia. Stone Soup. New York, NY: Scribner's Sons, 1947.Bunting, Eve. Fly Away Home. New York: Clarion Books, 1991.Carlson, Natalie. The Family Under the Bridge. 1958. Reprint. New York: HarperCollins, 1986.DiSalvo-Ryan, DyAnne. Uncle Willie and the Soup Kitchen. New York: William Morrow, 1991.Ferrell, Frank. Trevor's Place: The Story of a Boy Who Brings Hope to the Homeless. San Francisco, Calif.: Hazelton Foundations, 1990.Fox, Paula. Monkey Island. New York: Orchard Books, 1991.George, Jean Craighead. The Missing Gator of Gumbo Limbo: An Ecological Mystery. New York: HarperCollins, 1992. Grove, Vicki. The Fastest Friend in the West. New York: Putnam, 1990.Hahn, Mary Downing. December Stillness. New York: Clarion Books, 1988.Harris, Mark Jonathan. Come the Morning. New York: Bradbury Press, 1989.Hughes, Dean. Family Pose. New York: Atheneum, 1989.Moore, Robin. The Bread Sister of Sinking Creek. New York: HarperTrophy, 1984.Nelson, Theresa. The Beggars' Ride. New York: Orchard Books, 1992.Patron, Susan. Burgoo Stew. New York: Orchard Books, 1991.Paulsen, Gary. The Crossing. New York: Orchard Books, 1987.Powell, E. Sandy. A Chance to Grow. Minneapolis, Minn.: Carolrhoda Books, Inc., 1992.Rylant, Cynthia. An Angel for Solomon Singer. New York: Orchard Books, 1992.Sendak, Maurice. We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.Spinelli, Jerry. Maniac Magee. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., Inc., 1990.Thompson, Colin. The Paper Bag Prince. New York: Knopf, 1992.Tolan, Stephanie. Sophie and the Sidewalk Man. New York: Four Winds Press, 1992.Willis, Patricia. A Place To Claim as Home. New York: Clarion Books, 1991.

Diane Hoffbauer is Associate Professor of Education at Alaska Pacific University, Anchorage, where she teaches about children's literature and trends and issues in education.
Maureen Prenn is Associate Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Mancato State University, Minnesota, where she teaches reading and language arts methods courses.