New Ideas For Kids' Books About The Lean Times Ahead

Last week, Slate published a list of children’s books about poverty, unemployment, shoe-eating, dust bowls, depressions, and recessions. From a late-19th century series called The Five Little Peppers through to 2007’s How To Steal a Dog, the list captures over 100 years of poverty-level slice of life–what we might call the Plight of the Raggedy Children.

“If publishing history repeats itself,” Slate writes, “the financial crisis of 2008 will probably produce a new crop of poverty lit for kids.” We agree, and below we offer some ideas for you opportunistic writers out there.

Finger Food
A poor small town banks its future on a severed fingertip that young Elba Franklin finds in a can of beans. Before they can collect the hush money, though, opportunists from all over the country get involved, including newscasters, attorneys, bloggers, and the crotchety old man who wants his finger back no matter what it costs the town.


Rich on Paper
Micah “Crayon” Ponokie says his family is richer than god, and he can prove it by the mounds and mounds of cash they’ve got stashed all over the house. In this delightful picture book, Crayon and his younger brothers use the bills for everything from paper mache ninjas to flower bouquets for their unemployed mom–because it turns out paper money is worthless in Crayon’s world. On the last few pages, Crayon and his brothers moan because they discover mom’s making Dollar Bill Pizza again tonight.

Luv in SuvTown
Shades of S.E. Hinton color this YA novel, where Sara Elizardo and her cousins live with other homeless families in a “suvtown”–a collection of SUVs that have been abandoned because they’re too expensive to drive–at the edge of a former Super Walmart parking lot somewhere in the Midwest. These modern day “stationary gypsies” have wild adventures with the law, usually involving being accused of loitering at the nearby Jack-in-the-Box, and they spend their nights sneaking through the abandoned big box store and pretending to sell each other cheap electronics and household goods. When a strange young man shows up with his unhappy, hostile parents, Sara sees a kindred spirit who might be the one to help her co-sign on a by-the-week apartment. Depressing and pathos-riddled, yes, but don’t you remember those S.E. Hinton books?

Mommy’s Dollhouses
Five-year-old Gertie Prentice loves going to work with her mommy. Her mommy is a cleaner–she goes into recently-foreclosed houses and makes them look good as new so they can be put back on the market, and she sneaks Gertie in with her because daycare is too expensive. Gertie goes through the forgotten toys and left-behind dishware in each house and makes up fantasies about the people who used to live there, and she wonders why the people would leave such nice houses behind. (This could be a tie-in to the YA novel above, if you’re a smart publisher.)

“Mom, What’s a Credit Default Swap?” [Slate]
(Images: Finger Food, Madamoiselle Green; Rich on Paper, labasta, Getty Images; Luv in SuvTown, stephentrepreneur; Mommy’s Doll Houses, lumaxart, Todd Baker << technowannabe)

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  1. junkmail says:

    Heh, not bad. Somebody should definitely scoop these up. :)

  2. cf27 says:

    This is driving me nuts. How does anybody know that there will be “lean times ahead”? Sure, there are a few things that are not going particularly well right now, but unemployment is still fairly low and, even though the housing market has tanked, a lot more people have houses today than they did 10 years ago.

    If anything is going to make a slowdown last, it’s a continuing stream of pessimism like this.

    • no.no.notorious says:

      @cf27: i agree. the idea is humorous, but i like the idea of letting kids me kids. we tend to forget what blessings we have.

    • whinypurist says:

      @cf27: From recent headlines, same topics, considerably less humorous takes -

      SUV-Park Lifestyle
      Hyperinflation in Zimbabwe

    • losiek says:

      @cf27: Exactly, my point. While we all know there were a lot of bad decisions, there is no guarantee what future brings. Actually, even more, trying to push the idea of “bad times ahead” is what my actually cause the bad times ahead – stop investing, pull money from stock market, or – worse yet – pull money from the bank.

      I have this strange feeling that it’s almost like the people who lived responsibly want the recession to happen, so they can feel like there is a justice in the world. Eh. (Ironically, I saved and all, do not have house beyond my means and yet, I would be happy not to see recession!).

    • @cf27: Er, the pessimists include almost all the people who know a lot about economics, you know.

      • cf27 says:

        @Mary Marsala with Fries: No, not really. Many of those people are talking about short-term pain, not long-term pain. No serious economist seems to be talking about another great depression. Yet, to watch TV, you’d think that was already on us. Heck, Wineypurist linked to an article about senior citizens sleeping in their cars. That seems awfully fast to have been caused by the meltdown. Oh, the examples went bankrupt in 2005 after not being able to make a $10K mortgage payment.

        If I see another sensationalist article about “Here’s what to do now that the world is collapsing,” with instructions on how to catch, skin and cook rabbits (because, you know, you won’t be able to afford to BUY meat) or whatever, I’m going to puke.

  3. Shappie says:

    Are we really headed to leaner times? I agree we need to stop being so stupid with credit and whatnot, but these books seem a little bit extreme and sending the wrong message…

    Like how a town is banking on a finger in a can of beans. Isn’t that sending the wrong message?

    …or maybe I’m bitter for it being Monday.

  4. JohnMc says:

    I’ll admit its cute. But I have to also say it is pretty tasteless. Or is this a reality version of ‘do it for the children’? Kids have enough to handle when their parents are stressed out. Why add to it?

    • opsomath says:

      @JohnMc:

      I honestly like the idea. With various articles I have read about families affected by the downturning economy, it seems there’s a common theme of families not wanting their kids to feel the effect of the family having less money. In reality, it’s okay to do so; kids are capable of understanding “We can’t afford that any more.”

      Accordingly, it’s a good thing if their fiction reflects the possibility.

    • @JohnMc: Seriously, as a parent and a former child? Because being in the dark about what’s going on in your life is way more stressful than the truth. Given the facts, children tend to adapt better than adults to most circumstances; but their imaginations are brutal, and if they aren’t told what’s going on, they’ll drive themselves crazy. Finding ways to talk to them about the realities is absolutely important.

      ‘Course, that’s not *why* I’m gonna write one of these….;)

  5. humphrmi says:

    I wonder if future generations will look back on kids from the early 21st century and feel sorry for them having to give up the Cadillac Escalade and yearly vacations to Disneyworld.

  6. GiselleBeardchen says:

    Gold!

  7. opsomath says:

    I really like the SUVtown idea. Props to the author for picking up a nice speculative-fiction plot device.

  8. m1k3g says:

    ht t sy t, bt Cnsmrst s bcmng mr nd mr snstnlst nd ctrng t th lwst cmmn dnmntr vry dy. Ths typs f rtcls dn’t dsrv pblctn.

    Cnsmrst s dfntly ff my fvrts lst s f tdy.

    • Princess Leela says:

      @m1k3g: Uhh … sense of humor FAIL?

    • @m1k3g: Fine, you’re off my favorites list too!

    • Tightlines says:

      @m1k3g: Devoweled!

      I don’t think we have to worry about “lean times” like they used to be. I mean, maybe we’ll shop more for cheaper food–I’ve taken advantage of the 10 for $10 sales on Hamburger Helper many times this past year!–but we won’t be eating shoe leather for sustenance.

      Reminds me of the South Park episode when people lost their Internet and families packed up and moved west to the Silicon Valley in search of good Internet. Our sacrifices today won’t be nearly as hurtful as they used to be.

      • dweebster says:

        @Tightlines: We probably won’t be eating much shoe leather since many shoes nowadays are synthetic and/or rubber.

        This depression, only the RICH will be able to afford to eat quality LEATHER shoe leather.

  9. HogwartsAlum says:

    Funny!

  10. Trai_Dep says:

    I’m quietly hoping that Diablo III will feature a new class of monsters called the Free Market Fundamentalists, who – in concert with the three demons of Hell, led by The Greenspan, ‘natch – destroy Tristam whilst moaning, “Deregulate… Deregulate…” then take half the player’s gold to fix things to a worse state than before.
    …Simply so I can chase after them with a bloodied scimitar and hack them to quivering bits while they cry forlornly for Ann Rynd to save them.

    • Erwos says:

      @Trai_Dep: Funny. I never heard your lot complaining during the good times.

      And Ayn Rand actually predicted what’s going down right now (Atlas Shrugged is almost like the newspaper – uncanny!). So did Galbraith. So did any number of people. The problem here are people who love the free market during the good times, and go insane during the bad times.

      • Red_Flag says:

        @Erwos: People who love the free market during the good times and go insane during the bad times? These “free marketers” on Wall Street that are asking for handouts after begging, cajoling and buying their way into deregulation? That’s not Objectivism. That’s not even capitalism. It’s socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor.

        • Erwos says:

          @Red_Flag: I totally agree. I’m not defending the people getting bailed out, at all. I am attacking people who think that this is a fundamental flaw of our economic system, when it’s actually a fundamental flaw of our _political system_.

          • dweebster says:

            @Erwos: …which is bought, paid for and in the pocket of “our” present economic system.

            The politicians didn’t just wake up one day and decide to deregulate Savings and Loans, Banks, Securities, etc. Remember the motto of all the anti-government politicians: “government can’t do anything right” It took a hell of a lot of bribery, propaganda and years to destroy so many of the protections that we had in place to stabilize this economy. AFAIK, “Joe SixPack” wasn’t chatting up our congressmen – it was the rich guys that paid for them that had the access and wrote all the bills making them even bigger kings than they thought they were.

  11. chiieddy says:

    Anyone remember the Box Car Children?

    [www.amazon.com]

  12. i was pretty sure that “how to steal a dog” had to be something that chris made up, but no: [www.amazon.com]

  13. mzs says:

    “Mommy’s Dollhouses” has an error. The people that left in the night on our block put a ton (literally I am guessing) of stuff from the house out on the curb, including the dish washer. They also left the stove, a few toilets and sinks, some unused hardwood flooring, and a bunch of lighting. I guess they wanted the neighbors to have it instead of the bank, or they did not want people to break in and damage the house.

  14. I am personally waiting for HARRY POTTER AND THE DEVALUED DOLLAR.

  15. mormonunderpants says:

    @JohnMc

    The idea of writing children’s book characters into a specific class whether it’s poverty, lower, middle, or upper isn’t to make them worry about their parents’ economic situation, but to create characters that the children can relate to. I agree children should not have to worry about their parents’ finances, but most children in school can see approximately where they stand in relation to others just by looking at their shoes.

  16. sprocket79 says:

    Mommy’s Dollhouses reminds me of this past week’s episode of ER. A locksmith takes her kid with her to change the locks on foreclosed houses because daycare is too expensive. The kid is playing around the house and falls through the floor and breaks his arm. It turned out that the previous homeowner had booby trapped the house.

  17. DrGirlfriend says:

    Oh man, I read The Five Little Peppers when I was a kid. I think I read it twice, which is a huge seal of approval for me since I rarely re-read books. They were very heroic in their poverty, and the eldest daughter even went blind for a while because she was sewing late into the night in order to help bring in money for the family. It was all very sad and romantic. I think in the end the daughter marries a rich guy and everything is okay in the end.

    • dweebster says:

      @DrGirlfriend: So the moral of these kids books seems to be: tolerate poverty with your chin up, and eventually some rich person will swoop down and sprinkle magic money dust on you and everything will be swell?!?

      Jesus, that’s just ridiculous. What idiot approves THOSE books? Seems these fictitious books have a much greater lesson and grounding in reality to teach children.

  18. TechnoDestructo says:

    All great until they get to the last element which just is too over-the-top.

  19. BytheSea says:

    I always liked Stone Soup, where the fox comes into an impoverished town and says he can magically make a soup out of just a stone. But he needs magical ingredients from everyone, like an onion and a carrot. Soon, the town has shared what they have and put together a great feast.

    • Rectilinear Propagation says:

      @BytheSea: Oh, I loved that book too. We read it in class in elementary school and then we all brought ingredients to class so we could make our own Stone Soup.

  20. ironchef says:

    The Lion. The Witch. And No Wardrobe.

  21. bookluver321 says:

    @ Chiieddy, I remember The Box Car Children. They were my favorite books! Also just wanted to comment. I don’t really like books that make kids think about who is richer/poorer, I just like books that teach my kids values. Something like “Frankie, the Walk ‘N Roll Dog,” by Barbara Techel- a true story about a disabled dog, is more my style of book that I prefer to read to my kids. I want them to learn how to have compassion for other animals/people.