Twenty books that explore poverty and hardship in local communities -- and cultivate kids' desire to lend a helping hand to those in need.
For many kids, poverty and hunger are things from long ago or far away, but the truth is that financial hardship exists in our own communities as well: behind closed doors, many families struggle to provide the necessities. Divisions due to class differences can appear any time — after all, when a new “must-have” toy or clothing brand becomes popular, there are always classmates at school who can’t have it. And yet, talking to kids about poverty and class is difficult for many adults because the issues behind these problems seem too complicated or uncomfortable to explain.
Understanding the realities of financial hardship is key to helping kids build empathy for those in need, and thoughtfully written stories can highlight the challenges facing many people in our neighborhoods as well as show how communities can draw together to help. In this blog post, we’re sharing our favorite books for young readers that explore different facets of poverty, hardship, and class in modern society. By sharing these books with kids, you can open their eyes to the financial realities facing other kids just like them and help cultivate a desire to reach out a helping hand to those in need.
You can find more books addressing poverty worldwide and throughout history in our Poverty & Hardship section.
Books for Children and Teens About Financial Hardship
After a fire destroys their home and possessions, Rosa, her mother, and her grandmother save their pennies to buy a big, comfortable chair that all three of them can enjoy. Rosa and her family achieve their goal with perseverance and frugality, and show us that a family is made up of much more than material possessions. Williams’s energetic watercolor illustrations add depth to the endearing characters in this Caldecott Honor Book. The heartwarming story is told through the eyes of the young Rosa and will show kids the real cost, in time and work, of the comforts they enjoy every day.
It's fall in Tennessee, and young Dolly Parton, long before her days as a country music legend, has no coat to wear. Her family can't afford to buy one, but her mother does have a box of rags that was given to the family, so she carefully sews the scraps together, telling Dolly the Biblical story of Joseph's coat of many colors and hoping it brings her daughter good fortune too. But when she wears it to school, her classmates laugh despite all her efforts to explain the value of the coat. Still, she wears it proudly, remembering the love "my momma sewed in every stitch." This uplifting picture book telling Dolly's story, paired with illustrations by Brooke Boynton-Hughes, conveys a powerful message of optimism and resilience in the face of hardship.
Sofia and Maddi are best friends who play together, live near each other, and attend school together -- so Sofia is shocked when she discovers that Maddi’s fridge is nearly empty. At Maddi's request, Sofia promises that she’ll keep the empty fridge a secret, but it’s hard to enjoy a good dinner when she knows that Maddi is hungry. Bringing Maddi food in her backpack might help for a day, but what Sofia really wants is to make sure that Maddi’s whole family has enough food. But how can she do that and still keep her promise? This compassionate story ends with a call to action section with six ways kids can help fight hunger in their community and information about anti-hunger groups.
Everyone wants their neighborhood to be beautiful, but for the young girl in this story, it’s hard to see the beauty around the trash, the graffiti, and the homeless people sleeping on benches. So she asks her friends and neighbors to show her something beautiful and gets a remarkable range of answers, from the feel of a smooth stone to the taste of fried fish to the sound of a laughing baby. And when the girl decides to create her own something beautiful by scrubbing hateful graffiti off her front door, she realizes something: finding — or making — beauty for yourself gives you power. This inspirational story is also a reminder to kids that a person’s circumstances do not define them.
Stella the fox’s trailer home features all sorts of fascinating nooks and crannies — even a sofa that turns into a bed! But when some weasels on their way home from school make fun of the Starliner, calling it a “tin can,” Stella suddenly sees her unique home differently: maybe it’s not as wonderful as she thought it was. When she confides her fears to her mother, though, her mother points out that there’s something special their home does that the weasels’ doesn’t: it moves. Sure enough, the next morning the family is in a new place — one where Stella’s new friends appreciate the wonders of the Starliner. This sweet story is a good reminder that the most important thing about a home is the love inside it.
"I wish I could sleep on the cot in the living room," this Dominican American girl says, "but Mami says it’s for guests" — like Raquel, whose father is working overnight at the hospital; Edgardo, whose mother is a singer; and Lisa, whose grandmother cleans offices late at night. She's resentful: why does she have to stay in a tiny bedroom with her sister, when they get the whole living room with its big view of the George Washington Bridge? But when she gets her chance to sleep in the cot herself, she realizes that sleeping in your own bed is best... and that the children who stay overnight with them do so because their families are struggling. This gentle and empathetic book celebrates a supportive network of neighbors who help one another get through difficult times.
When this little girl's family lost their home, they lost more than a place to sleep: she lost the peace and quiet of her own room, the comfort of her cozy quilt, and even the constant presence of her father, who has to live at a men's shelter because he's not allowed at the women's and children's shelter where she and her mother stay. But, she says, they are still a family: they spend time together every day at parks and they celebrate her birthday together with a cupcake. An estimated 2.5 million children in the U.S. experienced homelessness last year, and this story puts a personal face on the experience of those children; an author's note and list of resources at the end provides suggestions for how kids can help.
Chloe and her classmates love to play together but not with Maya, who wears hand-me-down clothes and plays with old-fashioned toys. Cheerful Maya persists at first, asking to join their games, but in response she gets nicknamed “Never New.” Soon, Maya plays alone, and then one day, she stops coming to school altogether. But when Chloe’s teacher gives the class a lesson about the power of kindness, Chloe is struck to the bone: was she ever kind to Maya, even once? How might things have been different if she’d looked at Maya as a friend? This emotionally powerful picture book is reminiscent of Eleanor Estes' The Hundred Dresses with its focus on the idea that even simple kindnesses can come together to make big change.
Kip Tiernan grew up during the Great Depression, and she often helped her grandmother feed hungry, homeless men who came looking for help. That spirit of selflessness stayed with her as an adult, and she continued volunteering — but she noticed that some of the people she served were women dressed as men. They couldn't officially seek help at the men-only shelters, because people believed that there were no women without homes... even though it didn't take Kip long to find women sleeping in parks. After years of arguing on their behalf, Kip finally opened Rosie's Place, America's first women's shelter — one that asked no questions, just provided food, beds, and safety for women in need. Written by a former educator at Rosie's Place, this compelling picture book biography is a celebration of compassion, determination, and the power of one person to make change.
Georgina's family is in a terrible position: they were evicted from their apartment after her father left, and now she and her brother Toby live in their car while her mother works two jobs trying to make enough money to find a new place to live. Then Georgina sees a sign offering a reward for a lost dog and comes up with a desperate idea: steal a dog, wait for the owner to offer a reward, and then return it. Georgina doesn't feel good about her plan, and feels even worse when it turns out that the dog's owner doesn't have enough money to offer a reward. It will be a struggle to both fix her mistake and find a solution for her family. Although this story begins with a hard premise, the gentle tone and soft humor keep it from feeling bleak, and the final message emphasizes what is right with the world.
Cleveland has a plan to leave her trailer park in the small town of Sassafras, Florida, behind so she can go to The American School of Paris... but nothing is working out as she planned. Her father emptied the Paris fund that she saved up by dogwalking and stole money from his boss to feed his gambling addiction. Now he's in jail, leaving the family struggling and Cleveland torn between being furious at him and wishing he were back home. Plus, her best friend is angry that Cleveland feels "too fancy" for Sassafras. As she starts seventh grade with one friend — Declan, a neighbor who aspires to be a chef but is strangely secretive — Cleveland may have to figure out how to thrive in Sassafras before she sees Paris. This heartwarming novel full of complex characters will speak to tweens with big dreams.
12-year-old Maggie had big plans for this summer, including going to Junior Forest Ranger Camp so she can learn to protect nature like her favorite comic book superhero, the Exceptional Eagirl. Then her dad loses his job: her family has to move to a small apartment; ranger camp gets canceled; and her comic-book hating grandmother comes to stay. At the samee time, her best friend LaTanya's dad gets a big break, and their family moves into a giant new house. Maggie is trying to stay strong, but it's hard... until a trip to Comic Con reminds her that loving friends and family can help you through the biggest of life's changes. This heartfelt look at girl struggling with her family's new financial circumstances — complete with black and white Eagirl comic strips that capture her feelings — is full of warmth and heart.
For fifth grader Maya, the day starts by going without breakfast so her 2-year-old sister, Gabby, can eat. Before a driver hit her dad, leaving him in the hospital awaiting surgery that will (hopefully) help heal his traumatic brain injury, Maya's mother taught at a private school, giving Maya free tuition; now, they have one room in a homeless shelter, and the food pantry where her class volunteers is critical to her family's survival. Maya knows there's plenty to hope for — her mom has a job interview today, and her dad is on a path to recovery — but she's not sure how to tell her classmates about what her day to day reality is. This powerful novel about homelessness and financial hardship, perfect for fans of One for the Murphys and Paper Things , will open kids' eyes to how quickly lives can change.
It's 1977 in small town Maine, and sixth grader Josie Bloom is struggling to hold things together. She's been staying with her grandfather since her single mother died, but Grandpa has stopped paying bills — and when Josie asks him questions, she never knows what he'll blurt out. When she finds wads of money hidden in odd places, she thinks that will get her through... until she discovers the monthly mortgage bill needs to be paid too. With the help of her best friend — and a washed-up major league baseball player who might be her estranged father? — Josie hopes that she can save the day without revealing the secret of her grandfather's odd behavior. At times funny, at times heartwrenching, this book stars a girl in over her head who discovers sometimes, asking for help is the most adult thing to do.
Olivia has a plan to get her family out of Sunny Pines Trailer Park: fourteen sweepstakes entries a day. After all, she may already be a winner! Of course, she also has to take care of the daily chores, stay home from school to watch her little sister Berkeley while her mother works, teach Berkeley (and herself) the important skills they miss out on when they're not in daycare and school, and keep up with writing to her father — even if he's never written back. Olivia thinks of everything... except herself. What she hasn't realized yet, however, is that there are a lot of people who want to look out for her too, including her steadfast friend Bart, a would-be FBI agent, and her Sunny Pines neighbors. Maybe the family you need sometimes is the family you never realized you had all around you.
Piper's life is turned upside down when her family moves into a shelter in a whole new city. She misses her house, her friends, and her privacy — and she hates being labeled the homeless girl at her new school. But the shelter also brings new friendships with other girls in the shelter's Firefly Girls troop and with a sweet street dog owned by an elderly homeless woman named Jewel, who refuses to move into the shelter because she can't bring her beloved Baby. After Jewel is hospitalized and Baby is sent to an animal shelter, Piper decides to rally her new Firefly friends and figure out a way to make sure that Jewel and Baby can stay together and move off the streets for good. Told in alternating perspectives, this heartfelt story explores the many faces of homelessness while speaking to the importance of hope, the power of story, and the true meaning of home.
Harper Morgan is a would-be poet, named after her mother’s favorite author, but it’s hard to focus on poetry when you’re not sure where you’re going to live. When her father leaves the family abruptly, the family is in financial trouble fast. Harper can withstand everything as long as she has the school’s poetry contest to look forward to, but then her mother has to scramble to find work, forcing Harper to skip school to care for her younger brother. But Harper tries to remain hopeful, and never gives up on her dream. This touchingly realistic story will make tweens think twice about the struggles their classmates might be facing.
11-year-old Birdie feels out of place in swanky Lake Valley; her housecleaner single mom moved them there in hopes of making more money, but everyone seems to know how little money they have. Then there are a series of disasters: Birdie's best friend's mom decides Birdie is a "bad influence" because she's poor, and worse, she makes a small mistake that gets her mom fired. After taking a classmate's advice to pray for money, Birdie stumbles across $500,000 in an abandoned house — surely that's an answer to her prayers! But while her discovery takes the financial pressure off, Birdie soon realizes it forces her to lie to both her mother and her friends.... This heartfelt mystery explores class discrimination, honesty, and the moral dilemma that comes from balancing what's right for you and your family with what's the right thing to do.
Mia Tang's family came to America for opportunity, but they've found it hard to come by. To get by, Mia manages the front desk of the motel where she and her family live while her parents clean the rooms — and hide other immigrants who need a safe place to stay. Mia wants to be a writer, but her mother insists that will be impossible when English isn't her first language. But with enough courage, determination, and kindness, Mia might be able to help out her family and the other immigrants and pursue her dreams. This story, which is based on Yang's own experiences in the 1980s and 1990s, illuminates the vulnerability that comes with poverty, but shows it through the optimistic eyes of an appealing main character.
Ivy June Mosley and Catherine Combs are pioneers of a new seventh-grade exchange between schools in Kentucky. But soon the differences between their lives become achingly clear: Catherine’s home is huge and has luxuries Ivy June could only imagine, while Ivy June’s home has no indoor plumbing and is so crowded that she lives with her grandparents. Catherine is shocked to learn that Ivy June’s Pappaw supports four generations of the family with his dangerous, physically demanding work in the coal mine. But as the girls get to know one another, they realize that they’re more alike than different. This book provides an intriguing discussion of class — neither girl ever completely overcomes her class assumptions — and also highlights how differently people can live, even a short distance apart.
11-year-old Early's father Dash finally had an opportunity the whole family had been dreaming of: a job that might lead to being able to own their own home. Then he disappeared. Early is sure something happened to her father, and she's determined to find out what — but it's hard to do that when Early, her mother, and brother have to abandon their apartment and move into a homeless shelter. As Early gets to know other kids at the shelter, she discovers just how tough a place the shelter can be. While solving the mystery of her father's disappearance, maybe Early can also do something to help housing for the homeless become a place of hope and possibility. This powerful story and engaging mystery will open kids' eyes to the struggles that come with homelessness.
Ever since Cora's father died, her family has struggled, with Cora having to provide after school care for her younger sister, Adare, who has intellectual disabilities. When the family finds themselves homeless, an old friend of her mother's offers shelter in her swanky apartment. Cora loves the sense of safety she finds there, but her mother would rather live independently, even if it means a social services housing placement in a dangerous neighborhood. With the help of a new friendship, though, Cora might find a way to create a definition of home that can go wherever she does. This affecting book will get middle grade readers thinking about the need for stability and a sense of home.
Eleven-year-old Brittany would love to dream of a better world...she's just not sure she'll ever find it. Her beloved great-grandmother is slowly fading into dementia, her mother's boyfriend is abusive, and there's never enough money for everything the family needs. One bright spot appears at school, where a new teacher strives to get the whole class to look ahead to better things. That hint of hope might just be enough for Brittany to find ways to reach for a future that's not as far away as she thinks. Poignant details about life in poverty, like the long bus trip to get Thanksgiving dinner ingredients from a food pantry and the deep chill in the apartment as winter deepens, will stick with kids long after this book is done.
12-year-old Lou's mother is sure she's going to be a singing star, even though Lou hates performing — loud noises and high fives physically hurt. But if Lou won't sing, she and her mom will be stuck in poverty, skipping meals and living in their truck. When an accident results in child services getting involved, Lou finds herself living with her Aunt Ginger and Uncle Dan in Nashville. They offer her stability, while a school counselor tests her for sensory processing disorder and helps her understand that SPD doesn't make her "weak" or weird, just different. And when a new friend encourages her to join a theater club, Lou will finally discover her own voice — something that will help both her and her mom. Jamie Sumner, acclaimed author of Roll with It, has created a moving story exploring invisible disability and the contrast between poverty and privilege through the eyes of one extraordinary girl.
Angel Morgan needs help. Daddy is in jail, and Mama has abandoned her and her little brother, leaving them with their great-grandmother. Grandma is aged, poor, and doesn't have the means to really care for the children -- that's left up to Angel, even though she is not yet twelve. The only bright light in her life is the Star Man, a mysterious stranger who appears on clear nights and teaches her all about the stars and planets and constellations. "We're made out of the same stuff as the stars," he tells her. Angel's moving story of cobbling together a new life in the face of tremendous hardship shows the transformative power that even one caring person reaching out to another can have on someone's life.
Seventh-grader Zoey often wishes she could be an octopus: eight arms would make it easier to take care of her younger siblings after school while her mom works, and camouflage would stop the sneers and bullying she deals with at school. The one bright spot, she thinks, is her mother's boyfriend and the clean trailer where he lets them live. But when one of Zoey's teachers forces her to join the debate club, Zoey starts seeing her world in a new way — and realizes she does have a lot to say. Issues of class and poverty will take on new immediacy for middle grade readers as they read about a kid just like them trying to make it through.
When 11-year-old Wavie's mother dies, she is forced to leave the trailer park they called home and live with Aunt Samantha Rose in the poverty-mired Appalachian community of Conley Hollow. Once there, she discovers that Samantha Rose is cruel, verbally abusive, and only wants Wavie there so she can spend her social security checks. Wavie struggles with grief, but she takes comfort in sleeping in her mother's old bed, and even makes a few friends (although Samantha Rose calls them the "neighborhood-no-accounts.") But she hangs on to her mother's final words of wisdom: "You got as much right to a good life as anybody, so find it!" With its nuanced story about grief, poverty, and hanging on to hope, this book will linger with middle-grade readers.
12-year-old Lizzie wants to be invisible, so that nobody finds out that they lost their house after her dad was arrested for embezzlement — or that she's living in a transitional housing shelter. But nearby Birchwood Stables opens Lizzie's eyes to possibility when she unexpectedly connects with a terrified pony named Fire. She starts working at the stable in exchange for lessons, slowly allowing herself to connect more with the people around her — and realizing that she has more strength and determination than she thought. This poignant novel reminds readers of the hidden struggles that exist in their community, but celebrates finding your place and making home wherever you are.
When Ari's mother died four years ago, she had two final wishes: for Ari and her older brother, Gage, to stick together, and for Ari to attend Carter, a middle school for gifted students. But when 19-year-old Gage decides he's not staying with their bossy guardian any more, sticking with him means Ari ends up couch surfing and sneaking into shelters rather than building friendships and focusing on her studies. As it seems increasingly likely that Ari will have to break one of her two promises to Mama, she turns to her "family", pictures cut out of magazines that represent the perfect life she wishes she had. This nuanced and authentic look at homelessness hiding in plain sight will provoke plenty of discussion among tween readers.
Last summer, 13-year-old Leah's brother Sam drowned, and since then, she's felt like a ghost herself, imitating a normal life and lacking support from her parents. Now that it's summer again, all of Leah's friends are away and she has nothing to distract her from her grief. Then she meets 14-year-old Jasper, a gregarious and mysterious redhead who almost seems like she stepped out of a fairy tale, with her overgrown cottage and her chores like doing laundry in the creek. The friendship gives Leah solace, but Jasper is hiding her own painful reality — including homelessness as the result of escaping abuse — and as both girls' truths come out, they have to figure out if they can save one another. This poignant novel tackles difficult issues with gentleness and grace, and recognizes the strength to be found in friendship.
Things have been difficult in Dicey’s family for a while — their mother wrestles with mental illness and Dicey grew up fast to take care of her younger siblings — but when hours pass waiting for her in their car at the mall, Dicey realizes that things are about to get even tougher. If they admit they’ve been abandoned, she knows they’ll be sent to foster care — and what are the chances one home will take all four of them? But Dicey remembers where their rich aunt lives, even if it is far away; if they can get there, maybe they can build a new home. She has $11 in her pocket, three younger kids to take care of, and over 100 miles to travel, but if she makes it, it will all be worth it. A finalist for the National Book Award, readers of this moving book about one girl's courage against impossible odds can continue the story in the Newbery Award-winning sequel, Dicey’s Song.
To escape their abusive father, Lena took her younger sister Deon and ran away. Disguised as boys, they're hitchhiking to Pine Mountain, Kentucky, on the hunt for their mother's relatives in hopes that they can find safety there. They don't know who they can trust on their journey, and when they get there, they don't even know if they'll be welcomed. But along the way, they'll discover the surprising compassion of strangers: a truck driver who gives them money, a waitress who understands the tough choices they've made all too well, and a maternal Miz Lily, who opens her arms and her house to the travelers. Told in Lena's tough but tender voice, this sequel to I Hadn't Meant To Tell You This is both heartwrenching and triumphant.
16-year-old Izzy has never felt like she belonged growing up in an interracial, interreligious family, and after her father died in Iraq six years ago, her mother has had to move her and her brother over and over in search of work that will keep the family afloat. When they move to Virginia, it finally seems like things are going to work out: Izzy successfully conceals that she's a scholarship student at her prestigious school, and even starts dating one of the popular boys. And her mother is working towards a Habitat for Humanity house so they can get out of the mobile home park. But she can't keep all the pieces of her life separate forever; what will happen when they all come together? This is a poignant look at one teen's struggle to find a place to call home,
14-year-old Layla is an aspiring scientist who's desperate for a way out of her home situation. Her mother is unstable and neglectful, so she's mostly in charge of her 6-year-old brother Andy; they live in an apartment that's mold-ridden and filthy; and she's often bullied when she can't clean her clothes or get basic hygiene supplies. When Child Protective Services removes Andy from their home, Layla takes a bold step: she films her apartment for a school project about biomes — capturing all the fungus, mold, and worse on the walls, in the dresser drawers, and even in the dead fridge — and posts it online. Revealing the truth is humiliating, but also liberating: for the first time, everyone knows what she struggles with every single day. This powerful story about neglect and the hidden poverty that surrounds us is a reminder of the courage many teens need just to survive.
18-year-old Ginny is brilliant (if a bit dramatic) extrovert, while her 15-year-old sister Plum is a loner who quietly takes everything forgotten by Ginny and their illustrator mother. But when their mother's royalty payments unexpectedly stop — just as their old Victorian home needs major work — everything gets up-ended. Ginny is frantic about how she'll pay for her dream Ivy League college, while Plum, to her surprise, finds herself growing close to outgoing, popular Tate Kurosawa. And just as it seems like things will pull the sisters apart, the revelation of long-held secrets might bring them closer than they've ever been. This witty and heartfelt story inspired by Sense and Sensibility is a reminder of how quickly a family can go from fine to struggling — and how financial problems can be overcome when we work together.
Kit Sweetly is a self-proclaimed Middle Ages nerd — "Yeah. I have a heraldry book," she says. Her work at a medieval-themed restaurant seems like a way to combine her love of history, helping her mom pay the bills, and holding out hope for a place at her dream college. She wants to be Knight, like her brother — but girls aren't allowed by company policy. So when her brother is late one day, she takes his place and puts in a show-stopping performance before revealing her identity and going viral. Now her management is furious, and her fellow Knights and Wenches are taking sides... This funny feminist story, full of pop-culture references, also takes a realistic look at modern poverty and the challenges facing a girl who wants to climb out of it.
Additional Recommended Resources
- For books addressing issues around poverty, both locally and worldwide, visit our Poverty / Hardship section.
- For books that tackle issues of class, visit our Class Discrimination section.
- For books about the power that education has to lift individuals and families out of poverty, visit our Educational Access section.