- The Experience of Poverty
- Books for Children
- Books for Older Children and Teens
- Other Articles and Information
Experiences of living in poverty can be gritty and heartbreaking yet ultimately hopeful. Explore some stories from near and abroad in this diverse collection of titles for readers of all ages.
Almost Home: Helping kids move from homelessness to hope
Kevin Ryan, 2012 (non-fiction)
Almost Home recounts the stories of six remarkable young people from across the United States and Canada as they live life alone on the streets. They eventually find their way to Covenant House, the largest charity serving homeless and runaway youth in North America. The stories are both heart-wrenching and inspiring as readers follow the struggle to find a place to call home.
The Amazing Absorbing Boy
Rabindranath Maharaj, 2010 (Canadian)
After his mother’s death, Samuel leaves Trinidad, wide-eyed and excited about life in Toronto with his estranged father. From a one-bedroom apartment in Regent Park, with a father that pays little attention to him, Samuel begins to discover the city and its people in his own ways.
Frank McCourt, 1997 (memoir)
This Pulitzer Prize winning memoirs tells Frank McCourt’s story of growing up in Depression-era Brooklyn and Limerick, Ireland. His father rarely works and is an alcoholic. McCourt’s tale is told with humor and compassion, despite his family facing near-starvation and the judgment of others.
As She Grows
Lesley Anne Cowan, 2003 (Canadian)
A young girl comes of age in the Don Mills area, with a drug-addled grandmother and a wayward boyfriend as her means of support during turbulent times.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Junot Diaz, 2007
Things have never been easy for Oscar. A sweet, overweight Dominican-American nerd from the ghetto, Oscar is still waiting for his first kiss. It doesn’t look good for Oscar, particularly as we learn more about a curse that has haunted his family for generations, dooming them all to tragedy.
Brown Girl in the Ring
Nalo Hopkinson, 1998 (Canadian)
When Toronto’s economy collapses in an imagined dark future, the elite flee, leaving inner-city residents left to fend for themselves.
Detroit: an American Autopsy
Charlie LeDuff, 2013 (non-fiction)
Once the richest city in the US, Detroit has become one of the poorest. Journalist LeDuff, a Detroit native himself, sets out to unearth what brought his hometown crumbling down – and his family with it.
Dagoberto Gilb, 2008
Sonny is a tender, precocious fifteen-year-old living with his mother in a large city where status and racial prejudices divide its inhabitants. When his mother marries a building contractor and they are uprooted, Sonny begins to explore his new home and the lives of the people in it.
Getting Mother’s Body: a Novel
Suzan-Lori Parks, 2003
Teenager Billy is pregnant and stuck living in a trailer behind a gas station. When she hears of a chance to claim an unconfirmed stash of jewels belonging to her deceased mother, Billy sets off, hoping to change her luck.
Girl in Translation
Jean Kwok, 2010
When she immigrates to New York City’s slums from Hong Kong with her mother, young Kim Chang soon learns the difficulties of balancing old customs with new expectations.
Girls Fall Down
Maggie Helwig, 2008 (Canadian)
In the midst of a mysterious epidemic in Toronto, a photographer helps a former lover track down her schizophrenic, homeless brother who has gone missing suddenly.
The Glass Castle
Jeanette Walls, 2005 (memoir)
Link to Book
Journalist Jeannette Walls grew up with parents who were nonconformists and chose to live a nomadic life. Jeannette and her siblings must learn to fend for themselves and support each other when they cannot depend on their parents. The children eventually find the resources and strength to leave home and make lives for themselves.
Andrew Vachss, 2009
A band of homeless outcasts seek redemption and answers in unlikely places in this memorable novel.
Safia Fazlul, 2012 (Canadian)
Desperate to escape the constraints of her poor neighbourhood, Farina sets out to make big money by taking even bigger risks. When the glamorous life she imagined turns out to be a lot darker, Farina and her friends must decide what they really want.
Having Faith in the Polar Girls Prison
Cathleen With, 2009 (Canadian)
In the far Canadian North, Inuvialuit teen Trista narrates her life so far: the struggle between traditional and contemporary, and the ultimate crime that lands her in a desolate juvenile facility.
Lullabies for Little Criminals
Heather O’Neill, 2006 (Canadian)
At thirteen, Baby shifts between childhood comforts and adult temptation: still young enough to drag her dolls around in a suitcase yet old enough to know more than she should about Montreal’s urban underbelly. Motherless, she lives with her father, Jules, who takes better care of his heroin habit than he does of his daughter.
The Pursuit of Happyness
Chris Gardner, 2006 (memoir)
Gardner recounts his early beginnings as a young father trying to break into the world of high finance, all while homeless on the streets of San Francisco. This moving memoir also inspired the film of the same name.
Precious Jones is sixteen, pregnant and living against the odds in a Harlem ghetto. When a determined teacher encourages her to put her struggles onto paper, Precious may be able to finally find her place.
Q & A
Vikas Swarup, 2005
Through a series of tales, young Ram explains how his experiences as an orphaned, homeless street kid led him to correctly answer a dozen questions on an Indian game show. The 2008 hit film, Slumdog Millionaire, was inspired by this novel.
Salvage the Bones
Jesmyn Ward, 2011
Steve Lopez, 2008
After hearing a homeless man playing a battered two-string violin, journalist Steve Lopez was fascinated. He discovers that the man is Nathaniel Ayers, a former Juilliard student who slowly succumbed to schizophrenia. A series of newspaper articles Lopez wrote inspired doctors, mental health professionals and musicians to take a harder look at the plight of the homeless on the streets of Los Angeles. This book inspired the 2009 movie of the same name.
The Space Between Us
Thrity Umrigar, 2005
In modern-day India, a rich housewife and her illiterate servant strike an unlikely alliance, as they discover the experiences they share, despite their vastly different backgrounds.
The Street Lawyer
John Grisham, 1998
Michael, a well-to-do lawyer at a giant D.C. law firm takes a leave of absence after surviving a violent encounter with a homeless man. Michael survived; his assailant did not. Haunted by the incident and compelled to know more about his assailant, Michael does some digging, and learns that he was a mentally ill veteran who'd been in and out of D.C shelters for many years. Michael becomes involved with advocacy for the D.C. homeless and uncovers a real estate conspiracy that has led to the death of several homeless people.
Stuart: a Life Backwards
Alexander Masters, 2005 (memoir)
Masters met oddly likeable, quick-witted and funny Stuart Shorter and wondered how he came to be homeless, an addict and sometimes criminal. In agreeing to have the author write his biography, Stuart issued him a challenge to find out “what murdered the boy I was.” The truth is sad, but the telling of it is empathetic and often humourous. Once you’ve read this book, you’ll never forget Stuart.
Jo Bannister, 2006
When his teenage daughter vanishes without a trace, a father will go to any lengths to find her. Years later, his search leads to the Tinderbox area in London, where the homeless inhabitants have created their own set of rules.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Betty Smith, 1947
Growing up in the Williamsburg slums in New York at the turn of the century, young Francine navigates her way through a memorable childhood in this classic novel.
Where the Heart is
Billie Letts, 1998
A pregnant teen is left stranded in a Walmart, with less than eight dollars in her pocket. Can a small town help find hope for this young woman?
Picture Books for Younger Children
The Cardboard Shack beneath the Bridge
Tim Huff, 2007 (Canadian)
Many children in Toronto see people who need money and homes. How do you begin to discuss homelessness with a child? Written by an outreach worker to answer his daughter’s questions about homelessness, this picture book presents situations in a matter-of-fact nonjudgmental way with talking points for parents. Less of a story, more of an excellent discussion starter for preschoolers to grade 4.
Edward the “Crazy Man”
Marie Day, 2002 (Canadian)
Edward, a true character, lives on the street, has schizophrenia and is a real artist. After he saves Charlie from an accident, their lives become involved. Set in Toronto, this story could be used for 4-8 year olds to begin discussion on mental illness and people who live on the street.
Lily and the Paper Man
Rebecca Upjohn, 2007
Lily is troubled by the man who is begging on the street. When she asks her mom why he is not wearing socks, Lily begins to wonder what she can do to help. Can she make a difference? A gentle way to broach the subject with preschoolers.
The Lunch Thief
Anne Bromley, 2010
Raphael spots the new kid in class, Kevin, swipe a lunch bag. Soon, multiple lunches go missing, and Raphael is faced with confronting Kevin or understanding what the real problem might be.
Lois Brandt, 2014
Maddi's fridge is almost empty, while Sophia's fridge is full of food. How can Sophia help her friend Maddi without breaking her promise not to tell anyone? This longer picture book, geared to the emotions and humour of children aged 5-8 years, is a strong story of how friends help each other.
Sharon Dennis Wyeth, 1998
A young girl searches for beauty in her impoverished urban neighbourhood and finds it in the most unexpected and heartwarming ways.
Uncle Willie and the Soup Kitchen
DyAnne DiSalvo-Ryan, 1991
Uncle Willie has another job besides babysitting; he volunteers in a soup kitchen. We meet all the people who volunteer and visit the soup kitchen. Good story for older preschoolers with strong plot and dignity for all the characters.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Sherman Alexie, 2007
Audio E-Book (eAUDBK)
When he moves from his troubled town on a native reservation, Junior attends an all-white school where he must deal with issues of identity and status.
Blue Balliett, 2013
Audio Book (AUDBK)
Early’s father has disappeared without a trace, leaving a trail of trouble behind. Desperate, her family flees their home, only to find themselves in a Chicago shelter. Early knows there is more to her father’s disappearance than meets the eye. It is up to her to uncover the truth and save her family.
How to Steal a Dog
Barbara O’Connor, 2007
If your daddy had left you, your family was living in a car and your mama’s two jobs did not cover food and rent, would you ‘borrow’ a dog for the reward money? Is it right and will it work? This story has enough reality to provoke children in grades 3-6 into a discussion of right and wrong.
The Hundred Dresses
Eleanor Estes, 1944
Wanda is a poor immigrant who seems to only own one dress, yet tells the girls she has 100 dresses at home. The other girls make fun of her. The reader identifies with Maddie who struggles with whether she should stop the teasing. “With simplicity and elegance, the book addresses themes of how we treat each other that are still applicable nearly seventy years after publication.” A lovely chapter book to read as a family or alone.
Looking for X
Deborah Ellis, 1991 (Canadian)
Khyber lives in public housing with her autistic twin brothers and mom, Tammy, a former stripper. This is not a feel good story with a happy ending; it reads like a true story of an 11 year old who is poor, gets into trouble often in school and sometimes at home. Set in an actual Toronto neighbourhood, the characters ring true. As ever, author Deborah Ellis plunks the reader right down in the middle.
Sharon Flake, 2007
Money has been a problem for thirteen-year-old Raspberry for a long time. All she can think of is finding a way to make enough to keep her and her mother off the streets. This novel is suitable for teens and older children.
Shelley Tanaka, 2012 (Canadian)
Twelve-year-old Akira Fukushima must care for his three younger siblings after being abandoned by their irresponsible mother in their Tokyo apartment. With little money and heavy responsibility, Akira’s struggles are haunting and thought-provoking.
Todd Strasser, 2014
Strasser tackles unexpected homelessness among the middle class in this affecting novel about Dan, a high school senior and promising baseball pitcher whose family suffers a slow slide from a comfortable life to being taken in by relatives and eventually coming to reside in their town’s tent city.
Sophie and the Sidewalk Man
Stephanie S. Tolan, 1992
Sophie is yearning and saving to buy a stuffed hedgehog for Christmas. She drops by to look at him every day and also sees a man begging for money nearby. Sophie weighs out her compassion for a homeless man against her desire for a small stuffed hedgehog. Simple and realistic. Ideal for grades 2-4.
A book in every home, and then some
Link to Article
Literature for Life – not-for profit that supports single mothers and literacy building
Literature for Life’s Reading Circle framework – how it works
Children’s Book Bank – not-for-profit that supports literacy for children in low-income neighbourhoods
Learn more about growing income inequality in Toronto
The Opportunity Equation. Building opportunity in the face of growing income inequality. A United Way Toronto research publication in partnership with EKOS Research Associates and the Neighbourhood Change Research Partnership, University of Toronto. February 2015 http://www.unitedwaytoronto.com/document.doc?id=285.
This readable report outlines how the concentration of poverty, deteriorating job quality and income inequality are impeding Toronto’s economic progress, health and social fabric, and quality of life.
The Three Cities in Toronto. Income inequality among Toronto’s neighbourhoods 1975-2005. David Hulchanski 2010. http://www.urbancentre.utoronto.ca/pdfs/curp/tnrn/Three-Cities-Within-Toronto-2010-Final.pdf
This influential work clearly shows through maps that Toronto is increasingly divided by income. Middle income areas shrank between 1970 and 2005, high income area increased slightly and the low income areas increased substantially.