Heightening Children’s Social Awareness with Trade Books


Katherine Moore


I recently watched as my fifth graders gleefully dropped their coins one by one into a big glass jar on my desk. They were participating in a schoolwide service project, with the funds going to two charities, the Leukemia Society and a local hospice. Both of these were worthwhile causes, to be sure. As I watched them, I couldn’t help feeling that much of their enthusiasm was caused by the contest itself. The class that donated the most coins at the end of the week would win both the prestige of being first and a special party in their classroom. There was nothing wrong with offering children incentives, and there was a certain spirit of giving and fun, yet I began to wonder if there was a more meaningful way for my students to participate in the needs of their community. As the social studies teacher for the three fifth grade classes at my school, I believed that my subject could be the perfect avenue for the pursuit of this goal.

The tenth strand of the NCSS Standards, “Civic Ideals and Practices,” states that social studies programs should provide for the study of the ideals, principles, and practices of citizenship in a democratic republic.1 The last part of this strand focuses on guiding students to explore strategies designed to strengthen the “common good.” This was the goal I wanted to work toward with my class. Because there were many needs in our community, it seemed best to narrow our focus to two primary issues: homelessness and the elderly. I also decided that the best way to introduce a citizenship unit that could culminate in a service project for my fifth graders would be through children’s literature.


Using Books for Inspiration

“Literature can inspire students to think critically about the human problems it exposes,” suggests Koeller.2 Others have found that as students experienced literature-based activities, they were able to integrate the information and ready themselves for social action.3 Certainly, most proponents of using children’s literature in the classroom maintain that one of its great strengths is to generate emotion. Children are better able to feel and understand a situation when they participate vicariously with the characters in a story.

What follows are some suggested trade books for use with intermediate students to help initiate discussion of homelessness and the elderly.


Books about the Elderly

The first set of books relates to the issue of care for the elderly. Two are picture books and could be shared as read-alouds, or read individually or in small groups. All three would be an excellent introduction to the difficulties that elderly persons face. The study could culminate with a class visit to a local nursing home.

Sunshine Home by Eve Bunting is the touching story of Timmie, whose grandmother has recently been placed in a nursing home. Reluctant to visit her in the home, Timmie finally goes with his family to see her. He discovers that the happy front both his parents and Gram put up is just that: a front. With newfound sensitivity, Timmie is able to encourage everyone to share their feelings and comfort one another in a more open and honest way.

Another simple yet heart-warming picture book is Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox. Young Wilfrid lives next door to an old people’s home. He knows all of the residents and enjoys being with them. His favorite is Miss Nancy, although his parents tell him that at ninety-six, she has lost her memory. Wilfrid proceeds to ask everyone, one by one, what a memory is, and he receives a variety of responses. He then collects a number of items—from seashells to a warm fresh egg—to share with Miss Nancy. As she sees each item with her, she is able to remember something about her life. After reading the book, students could discuss what simple items they might bring to share on a visit to a nursing home.

A truly poignant book by Nancy Hope Wilson, Old People, Frogs, and Albert, deals with common fears children have about the elderly and nursing homes. Albert, a fourth grader, is having some trouble learning to read. He finds a friend in Mr. Spears, a senior citizen who comes to his school each week to read with students. Albert is greatly upset when he hears that Mr. Spears has had a stroke and will no longer be able to visit. He fears that his own beloved Grammy is getting old, too. After experiencing the joy of losing himself in a good book about a frog, Albert runs to share his book with Mr. Spears and the other nursing home residents. His bond with Mr. Spears is restored, and his fears about old age are assuaged.

All of these books deal with the needs of the elderly in a thoughtful and realistic manner. After reading them, the teacher could ask students to explore this issue further, and decide on some sort of service project that would help the elderly.


Books about Homelessness

This set of books deals with the issues of poverty and homelessness. Again, they could be shared as read-alouds, or read by individuals or small groups and shared with the class. All could be used to heighten awareness of these issues and to motivate students to plan a service project related to the specific needs of their community.

The picture book Uncle Willie and the Soup Kitchen by DyAnne DiSalvo-Ryan provides a simple introduction to the function of soup kitchens. Seen through the eyes of a young boy, the soup kitchen appears to be a friendly, busy place where volunteers work hard to help the less fortunate. After reading it, students could investigate local soup kitchens in their community. Volunteering to help at one or supporting it financially are possible class projects.

The stark reality of homelessness is brought to life in Maria Testa’s Someplace to Go. The story, told in the first person, is about a young boy named Davey. Because his family is homeless, Davey is on his own after school until eight o’clock each evening, when he and his family can go to the shelter. Stops at a market to keep warm, at the library to do homework, and at the local soup kitchen for supper help Davey pass the day. Finally, as he approaches the shelter, he is joined by his big brother, who has just gotten a job. They are greeted by their tired but relieved mom. This portrayal of the homeless, which shows Davey’s family as hard workers trying to improve their condition, ends on a hopeful note. It would be an excellent book to foster a discussion of causes and solutions to the problem of homelessness.

Another touching book on this subject is Shelter Folks by Virginia Kroll. The story of Joelle begins with her mother telling her to pack her belongings because they are moving to a shelter. Stuffing their whole life into plastic garbage bags, the family leaves the apartment they can no longer afford. Joelle now must learn how to adjust to shelter life and get over her fear of being stigmatized as one of the “shelter folks.” When her new “folks” all appear at her school play to cheer her on, she realizes that she has people who care about her, and reason to be proud that she is one of them.

Homelessness is viewed from another angle in Sophie and the Sidewalk Man by Stephanie S. Tolan. This story begins with Sophie longing for a stuffed animal she sees in a toy store window. She plots ways to save enough money to buy him, and comes close after many days of skipping lunch to save her lunch money. Nagging at the back of her mind, however, is the sidewalk man, a ragged man who sits each day with a sign saying, “I’m hungry. Please help.” Sophie’s decision to share half of her hard-earned savings with the man and to postpone buying the stuffed animal she longs for is both realistic and heart-warming. This book could certainly be a basis for a discussion on choices that confront all of us. It could also inspire children to respond in a selfless fashion to help others.

Finally, the nonfiction book Homeless tells the story of Mikey and his family. Written and photographed by Bernard Wolf, this story uses Mikey’s own words to tell of his family’s move into a shelter in New York City. Seeing the pictures of a real family may help children realize that homeless people are indeed ordinary people like themselves. At the end of the story, Mikey shares his hope to be somebody who matters when he grows up—a hope that young readers can understand.

Initiating a Service Project

All of these books have the potential for inspiring students to be of service in some capacity. My plan is to share them with the class and then follow-up with research into local community needs and the agencies that deal with them. To help us choose exactly what path to follow for a service project, we will draw upon The Complete Guide to Learning through Community Service, Grades K-9 by Lillian S. Stephens. This book, which includes chapters on service for seniors and on poverty and homelessness, offers a wealth of information on how to organize community service projects. It also has an appendix listing trade books for use with different social themes.

Another good source of service project ideas is What Would We Do Without You? A Guide to Volunteer Activities for Kids. Finally, to discover more children’s books related to social issues, Follett Library Resources 1997-1998 Book Catalog: Grades K-8 lists all current trade books and indicates themes and appropriate grade levels.

Encouraging students to respond to the needs of a community is something I believe all teachers should consider. Whether that community is defined as the class, the school, the neighborhood, the town, the nation, or the world, there is much that students and their teachers can gain from the experience. As Lillian Stephens states in her book, “Planning and implementing a service learning program takes an awful lot of effort. But it permits teachers once again to take control of the curriculum, to be creative, to make a difference in kid’s lives, and to recall why they went into teaching in the first place.”4

Children’s literature offers a viable avenue for introducing social problems and their possible solutions to children. Through the power of literature, young learners should be able to better understand the reality of some social issues and more ready to lend a hand to make a difference.



1. National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, D.C.: NCSS, 1994), 30.

2. Shirley Koeller, “Multicultural Understanding through Literature,” Social Education 60, no. 2 (February 1996): 99-103.

3. Thomas M. McGowan, Lynnette Erickson, and Judith A. Neufeld, “With Reason and Rhetoric: Building the Case for the Literature-Social Studies Connection,” Social Education 60, no. 4 (April/May 1996): 203-207.

4. Lillian Stephens, The Complete Guide to Learning through Community Service, Grades K-9 (Needham Heights, Mass.: Allyn & Bacon, 1995).

Children’s Literature

Bunting, Eve. Sunshine Home. New York: Clarion Books, 1994.

DiSalvo-Ryan, DyAnne. Uncle Willie and the Soup Kitchen. New York: Morrow Junior Books, 1991.

Fox, Mem. Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge. New York: Kane/Miller Book Publishers, 1985.

Kroll, Virginia. Shelter Folks. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995.

Testa, Maria. Someplace to Go. Morton Grove, Ill.: Albert Whitman and Co., 1996.

Tolan, Stephanie S. Sophie and the Sidewalk Man. New York: Four Winds Press, 1992.

Wilson, Nancy Hope. Old People, Frogs, and Albert. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1996.

Wolf, Bernard. Homeless. New York: Orchard Books, 1995.

Teaching Resources

Follett Library Resources 1997-1998 Book Catalog: Grades K-8. McHenry, Ill.: Follett Corp., 1998.

Henderson, K. What Would We Do Without You? A Guide to Volunteer Activities for Kids. Crozet, Va.: Shoe Tree Press, 1990.

Stephens, Lillian. The Complete Guide to Learning Through Community Service, Grades K-9. Needham Heights, Mass.: Allyn & Bacon, 1995.


About the Author

Katherine Moore is a fifth grade language arts and social studies teacher at Sylvan Elementary School in Sylvania, Ohio.