Socioeconomic class and perceptions thereof cast a shadow on American society. Everything we do is in some way related to where we fall on a vast scale of “rich” to “poor.” Whether we like it or not, our students are aware of this as well. Students as young as 10 compare their own family situations with those of their classmates, and are able to articulate their own image of social class complete with reference points (“we’re not so poor that we’re homeless, but not as rich as Bill Gates”) and examples-fancy cars, size of home, parental occupation, etc. (Mishtry et al, 2015). These self-identified classifications can have a significant impact on a student’s individual and social growth throughout their school years. Though my students all live in the same city, no two come from the same personal history. Many live in underserved parts of Philadelphia and share their homes with aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents for whom they often take on caretaking responsibilities. Others live with a mother, father, and sibling in a more traditionally “stable” family structure near Center City. Still others live with a single parent who drives them more than an hour to get to school. All of these backgrounds and more meet in the elementary classroom. Many have not met peers whose home lives vary this greatly from their own until they begin school.
Without a firm base of knowledge and understanding about differences in social class, children can feel threatened or uncomfortable engaging with the realities of economic difference. I have therefore curated a list of books to help students ages 5-10 understand the social structure of our society and the ways it impacts everyday life. I want to find high-quality texts that neither glorify nor belittle a group for their position, but rather help their readers empathize and uncover the humanity in everyone, no matter the size of their home or paycheck.
- Boelts, M. (2007). Those shoes. Candlewick.
Everyone at Jeremy’s school has new shoes–those shoes. Jeremy tells his grandmother that he needs them. His grandmother replies that they don’t have the money for “want”, just “need.” After trips to thrift stores, blistered feet, and a few uncomfortable encounters with his peers, Jeremy realizes the value of what he has is more important than anything any pair of shoes–even those shoes–could provide. Maribeth Boelt’s story, paired with Noah Z. Jones’s illustrations, depict a diverse student body with fully fledged experiences. When Jeremy meets Antonio, he gets to see the world from a new perspective, yet that perspective is not one of pity. Jeremy learns empathy, and discovers the important things in life. This book would be a great addition to a teacher’s back-to-school read-aloud bin, as it helps students understand that the smallest gestures can mean the most to others in our community.
- Brandt, L. (2014). Maddi’s fridge. Brooklyn, NY: Flashlight Press.
Maddi and Sofia are just like any regular kids. They swing on the swings and climb on the climbing wall until they can’t swing or climb anymore. But Sofia doesn’t know that Maddi’s family fridge is never as full as her own. Readers of Lois Brandt’s story follow Sofia as she tries to decide which is more important–keeping a friend’s secret, or helping that friend out. Students will be engaged by the girls’ friendship, entertained by Sofia’s many misguided attempts to bring her friend food, and inspired by Sofia’s compassion. Teachers can use this book to talk about the importance of school lunch, the differences between families in their community, or even the difference between a lighthearted secret and those that can be more serious. Parents and teachers can both benefit from backmatter following the story, which gives advice and ideas to raise awareness about hunger in your community. Accompanying website http://www.MaddisFridge.com provides additional resources for building off of this book in a meaningful way, including author visits coinciding with Maddi’s Fridge Food Drives which have already taken place in elementary schools across the country.
- Bunting, E. (1991). Fly away home. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.
Eve Bunting’s story of a boy and his father who live at the airport tugs at the heartstrings. It is heartfelt and paints a picture of two people who live their lives every day just like the rest of us-trying to get by. A different image of homelessness than one often sees, this story serves as a reminder that everyone we see is going through something difficult, whether or not we can tell right away. This story is equal parts compelling, humbling, and and optimistic. Ronald Himler’s watercolor illustrations make no comment on the events of the story, but rather present them in an honest manner that allows the reader to truly see the emotions of the characters. This book would be a good companion to a discussion about community, neighborhoods, and homelessness. It would also be a good way to discuss family structures.
- Curtis, C.M. (2012). The mighty miss malone. New York, NY: Random House.
Deza Malone is a verbose, humorous, and (as she’ll be quick to tell you) exceedingly modest young girl living in Gary, Indiana with her mother, father, and older brother Jimmie. The year is 1936, and the Depression has hit their small town hard. Deza’s father leaves Gary to find work, and when the family follows him, they find the only place they can stay is a Hooverville near Flint, Michigan. This story of persistence through hard times, political upheaval, the separation of families, and hope superseding all else will inspire students in 2nd-6th grades. Teachers of elementary students can use this book as a read-aloud to teach about the Great Depression from an often forgotten perspective: that of the African-American family. Parents can use this title to discuss the importance of family connections, and the power of persistence and hope. Fans of Bud, Not Buddy may recognize Deza from her brief appearance in that tale, as well.
- De la Pena, M. (2015). Last stop on market street. New York, NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
As CJ leaves church with his grandmother on Sundays, he witnesses the diversity of the city-and becomes curious, as many children are. Why do some people have iPods and he does not? Why does he take the bus while others drive their own cars? Along their travels to the end of the line, CJ’s grandmother helps him appreciate their Sunday routine and its place in the ecosystem that is a bustling city. This book’s non-judgemental depiction of a city that seems to be all cities makes it excellent for use with urban students. CJ and his grandmother encounter fellow travelers from every walk of life on their way out of church, and though the reader does not get to know each person in full, we do get a sense that this city extends far beyond CJ’s Sunday afternoon. Teachers could use this book to discuss community structure, introduce a class service project, or develop written work about each student’s neighborhood paired with artwork that reflects the multimodal pieces that illustrate de la Pena’s pages.
- Disalvo-Ryan, D. (1997). Uncle willie and the soup kitchen. Turtleback Books.
Right from the start, DiSalvo-Ryan provides her readers with important background-About Soup Kitchens on the first page provides background into the services that soup kitchens provide every day across the United States. Uncle Willie explains the role of the soup kitchen well: “at the soup kitchen, you only have to be hungry.” He is matter-of-fact and compassionate, and knows all about the soup kitchen and those who eat there. This attitude inspires his nephew (our narrator) to join his uncle at the kitchen the following week. All walks of life come through the door at Uncle Willie’s soup kitchen, and our narrator learns the value of charity and compassion from each one of them. This book would be helpful for parents who want to inspire their children to volunteer, or for religious organizations to read with youngsters starting community service projects or missions.
- Estes, E. (1944). The hundred dresses. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Though the oldest on this list, The Hundred Dresses gets a lot of things right. A group of girls teases their classmate Wanda, who asserts that she has 100 dresses at home, but always arrives to school wearing the same torn, worn frock. After Wanda stops showing up at school, the girls wonder where she could be. A time-honored classic, this book teaches young girls (and boys) about the power of words, whether kind or mean-spirited. It also reminds children not to judge a person’s character based on their outward appearance. I have seen this book used effectively with 2nd grade girls who are beginning to find their friendship groups splintering along seemingly arbitrary lines. An excellent resource for teachers of young women looking for a compelling book to inspire empathy.
- Fox, M. (2001). Whoever you are. Orlando, FL: Voyager Books.
Mem Fox’s book is geared towards a younger set. Filled with colorful illustrations of children from many different cultures, its language is simple and its message easy to understand. Mem Fox reminds readers that it doesn’t matter what our faces, homes, schools, or written languages look like-we all love the same, laugh the same, and cry the same. This book will allow teachers to have conversations with very young children about the things that set us apart and the things that bring us together. This would be an excellent read-aloud at the start of Pre-K or Kindergarten, to lead into a conversation or activity around classroom expectations.
- Kerley, B. (2009). One world, one day. New York, NY: Scholastic Inc.
Stunning photographs illustrate this volume depicting a day in the life of our planet. From dawn to dusk, watch as families and children go through their daily lives. Kerley assembles imagery that shows unfiltered, honest depictions of the routines of families from South Korea to Thailand. Notes at the back of the book allow teachers and families the opportunity to go more in-depth with students about cultural differences, while beautiful photographs taken by National Geographic professionals will make this book a family favorite.
- Levine, A. A. (2011). Monday is one day. New York, NY: Scholastic Press.
Monday is One Day serves as an essential reminder of family. Children are shown with their families–some with one parent, some with grandparents, one child with two fathers. As the adults go off to work for the day, they are thinking of the children in their life and looking forward to spending time with them when they come home. While Levine’s language is simple, the diversity in representation of family structure will allow many students to relate to the families depicted. One gripe I have with this book is that it does rule out those families in which one or both parents may work on the weekends–or those families where both parents do not live in the same household. This book could be used by teachers to help our youngest set recover from saying goodbye in their first year of school. It could also help children understand the diverse family structures and professions represented in their classroom. In order to accommodate all students including those omitted by Levine, I would recommend that teachers create their own class book or other writing or artwork in response, highlighting the unique family structures represented in their classroom.
- Saunders, C., Priddy, S., & Lennon, K. (2016). Children just like me: A new celebration of children around the world. London: Dorling Kindersley Publishing.
A favorite of many youngsters at my South Philadelphia school, the first edition of Children Just Like Me was born out of a collaboration with UNICEF. Now updated in 2016, this book features large, bright photographs illustrating the life and customs of children from all over the world. Each 2-page spread shows a different child and their siblings or friends with facts about schooling, housing, food, and traditions in their part of the world. Children can relate directly to the different ways in which children across the globe do the same things they do, day in and day out. National Geographic-quality photographs, firsthand accounts of everyday life, and a diverse, honest representation of what childhood looks like across the globe all meet to make an incredibly well-made book. Parents might enjoy using this book to share information about family heritage with their children. Teachers could use it in a similar way, to explore the cultural backgrounds of students from diverse language backgrounds. Children Just Like Me could also be used for background knowledge prior to a social studies unit, or to introduce students to a geographic region or historical era of study in a relatable way.
- Smith, D. J. (2014). If the world were a village: A book about the world’s people. Toronto: Kids Can Press.
If the World Were a Village imagines what our world would look like if there were only 100 people in it. What would the divisions look like, across racial, gender, and socioeconomic lines? How many people would speak the same language as you? How many people would you be able to communicate with via cell phone, or email? Though statistics may be a few years out of date, this book is an incredible resource for discussing the “global village” that we live in today. Beautiful illustrations and simply stated text make this concept of universality accessible to even the youngest children. Also of note is a separate text also from Kids Can Press, titled If America Were a Village. Published in 2009, its statistics may also be skewed, but the message stays the same–our nation (and our world) are more diverse than we may realize. A great companion to a global studies unit, a foreign language class, or even a math lesson about percentage or ratio. The possibilities are endless with this book.
- Stead, R. (2009). When you reach me. New York, NY: Wendy Lamb Books.
A 12-year-old girl, Miranda, starts finding mysterious notes warning her of danger that will soon arise in the life of one of her friends. As Miranda attempts to solve the mystery of the notes, her middle-school life continues to swirl around her at the pace of a New York City game show. Miranda’s first-person narration takes many well-crafted twists and turns, from prose to stream-of-consciousness to bulleted lists of important events. Though tailored towards the middle-school set, upper elementary students would still appreciate many of the descriptions in this book of Miranda and her friends’ social standings. From depictions of many of her friends’ homes to a scene with the in-school dentist, students can examine the ways in which social class impacts the daily life of Miranda and her peers and compare these occurrences with their own lives and experiences.
- Sweet, M. (2013). Brave girl: Clara and the shirtwaist makers’ strike of 1909. New York, NY: Balzer Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins.
Clara Lemlich was a union organizer in New York City around the turn of the century. An immigrant who came to the USA in search of a better life, her struggle and influence might usually be confined to middle- or high school history classrooms. Melissa Sweet has taken her story on, however, and made it accessible to the younger set. This historically rich yet relatable picture book biography would be a great addition to a Womens History Month unit, or as a way of exploring the immigrant experience in the United States. Helpful for reinforcing the importance of hard work and standing up for one’s rights in the face of adversity.
- Williams, V. B. (1993). A chair for my mother. New York: Greenwillow Books.
Vera B. Williams, well-known for her vibrant illustrations, brings a story of familial affection and dedication in A Chair for My Mother. The narrator’s mother works as a waitress at a diner, and every evening when she gets home, the two work together to count out her coins from tips and place them in a jar. That jar holds the promise of something new-a chair. The most perfect, beautiful, comfortable chair to replace those lost in a fire. The community comes together to support this family in a beautiful way, giving what they can to relocate our narrator, her mother, and her grandmother. This book teaches readers the value of community, patience, hard work, and encouragement. Families could use this book to explain the value of an allowance, or to help a child understand new financial situations after a change in employment or a hardship akin to the fire in the story.
- Wyeth, S. D. (1998). Something beautiful. Doubleday Books for Young Readers.
Wyeth’s story follows a young African American girl around her home and neighborhood. Covered in broken glass and graffiti, the girl’s neighborhood seems to lack the “something beautiful” that her mother once told her everyone ought to have. So, armed with the concept of “beautiful”– “something that when you have it, your heart is happy”– she goes in search through her neighborhood. She encounters slivers of beauty everywhere she looks-from the taste of a fish sandwich to the slap of a jump rope to the sound of a baby’s laugh. But when she reaches home, what does she find of her own? Something Beautiful allows students a chance to see the beauty in the everyday world. Each scenario is presented honestly and without comment-as neighbors offer their “something beautiful,” none are shunned or denied. Everyone on this city block has something they hold to be beautiful, and none are more valid or valuable than any others. Wyeth’s story would serve parents well who want to help their children focus on the positives in their day to day lives. This tale will help kids look for the good, and see opportunities to create more beauty, in everything they see.
Many of these books would be an excellent addition to any classroom library, especially considering the ways in which they allow for creative response from the class. I think a certain combination would allow for a class project that brings together all aspects of identity in a unique, creative, engaging manner.
First, a teacher could read One World, One Day and Children Just Like Me to build understanding of differences in cultures around the world. The class could then discuss the similarities and differences between communities depicted in these books and their own. Next, the class could read Something Beautiful to build empathy and appreciation for the small things in life. Students would be able to write about one beautiful thing they’ve encountered in their day to day lives. Maddi’s Fridge would be a good book to follow, in order to allow students to have a conversation about how to find the beautiful moments even in hard times, and how to support a friend in need.
Classes could end by reading If the World Were a Village to see how their experiences mirror or run contrary to others across the globe. This unit could finish with the class creating their own If Room 200 Were a Village book, illustrating the different cultures and communities represented in their classroom. If statistics are not accessible to students participating in this unit, the final book could mirror One World, One Day more closely, and allow students to take a photo set of “a day in the life” and compile them into a class picture book showing each student’s journey through their school day.