Try to guess which group gets forgotten most often when we write kids’ books. This infographic will help you figure it out…
You guessed it: the “have not” kids, the ones who are socioeconomically in that depressed left-hand group. Not enough books, yes, and when they do open up a book, what do they see?
It’s not written for kids like them.
Chances are, the kids in the books have parents who are around to take care of them, living orderly lives in clean houses in good neighbourhoods (why are the neighbourhoods in kids’ books generally squeaky-clean, anyway???).
There are easy ways to open up your books to include these kids.
We care a lot about inclusion these days, and go to great lengths to show kids with disabilities, different skin colours and other differences in our books. Writers are happy to create characters of different genders, who live in countries they’ve never been to, and had experiences they’ve never had. But too often, poor kids are simply not represented.
Bring them inside
Use these five strategies to help your kid include EVERY kid, regardless of economic status!
1) Give it grit
I’m not talking about putting a crack house across the street from your main character. But maybe a mess in the kitchen, or a child going home with a key around his neck to add grit. Poverty doesn’t mean there’s any less love! In the book More, More, More said the Baby (a great one, for sure) by Vera B. Williams, a mother removes the cushions from a sofa to turn it into a bed for a much-loved and sleepy baby. Why is she removing the cushions? Because in poor families, that’s where the baby sleeps – there’s no crib.
2) Disturb the universe
Chances are, the phone or lights never get cut off in your book’s world. Why not? Toss in a little instability to convey to show that not everybody belongs to the cozy upper middle class. Too much instability is scary, but a little – that’s exciting. In Vera B. Williams’ (again!) A Chair for my Mother, a young girl must cope with her memories of a fire that destroyed her old house. “Our cat was safe… But everything else in our house was spoiled.” It’s an extreme example, but the mother holds the child’s hand the whole time and everything comes out okay in the end.
3) Delay gratification
Don’t jump straight from wanting to getting. That’s not interesting fiction, anyway. If they want something badly, make them wait for it! Make them save up. Make their parents (or the universe) say no at first. That’s the way it works in the real world anyway. The real theme of A Chair for My Mother is not the fire at all, but about saving up pennies to buy a comfortable armchair where her mother can relax after a hard day of work.
4) Put mom and dad to work
Show the connection between their jobs and the family’s financial wellbeing. I won’t mention A Chair for My Mother again, but how about Beverly Cleary’s Ramona and her Father? They’re not exactly poor, but when Ramona’s father loses his job, the family must cope with money troubles. “I think we’ll eat at home after all,” says Ramona’s mother at one point, “looking sad and anxious.” Ramona has so many questions about money – and so does every kid. Your story doesn’t have to answer them all, but why not cash in on kids’ natural fascination?
5) Pick on your characters
Remember Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by Judith Viorst? It sure wouldn’t have been interesting if nobody picked on poor Alexander! Test their character by dumping on them just THIS much more than you are naturally inclined. You don’t have to create a constantly-suffering Job or sad sack… just give him or her enough adversity to make life interesting.
What do those “have-not” kids see when they crack open your book? Is it their world, a world they can believe in? Or is it a fairytale realm too shiny and clean to believe? It’s your choice, but choosing right can help create literacy and success for every kid.
Have I left out any tips for writing books that speak to lower-income kids? How do you pump up the adversity, in general, without making your story scary or threatening to kids?