Children’s Books Fail to Depict the Reality of Housing and Homelessness

Children's books

Homeless People and Renters Are Not Represented Adequately in Children’s Literature, Even Though Too Many Children Experience Housing Instability

When we think of housing in the United States, the image of a wife and husband, their two children with their single-family house in the background is imprinted within our consciousness. This image is synonymous with another infamous phrase: The American Dream. However, where are the millions of people renting or experiencing homelessness in this dialogue?

According to research from Queensborough Community College, this image of housing and the sense that everyone owns a single-family house is deeply ingrained in children’s literature books.

When Vikki Terrile, author of the research, ran an analysis of 185 children’s literature books published between 1999 and 2019, the study concluded that these books clearly show a skewed picture of housing in America which normalizes single-family homes, material possessions, and related middle-class experiences. However, these books conceal the other side of US housing of people experiencing housing instability and homelessness.

The research demonstrates that literature books attempt to conceal the conversation about social class, especially among children. Some may even claim that children should not be part of these “heavy topics.” 

Unfortunately, that argument has very little merit because many US children come from families with housing instability and are aware of their everyday situation. More importantly, these books ignore these children’s struggles as they do not see their reality reflected in these books.

The main concern in normalizing single-family houses and concealing housing instability is feeding this myth that families don’t have houses because of their “own fault,” which leaves issues related to societal structure untouched.

When children read literature books, if they would get a realistic depiction of housing along with single-family homes, it would not be an issue. However, the main problem here is that the literature books are setting up a direct message to children that single-family houses are normal, which manipulates children into believing that their own family is experiencing housing issues because of their own doing.

The burden of the conversation is moved into the heads of a family experiencing housing issues rather than questioning why housing is out of reach for so many US families in a larger societal context. Suddenly, forces of society such as politics, government, and culture, which play a more significant role in determining housing policies, are given a clean slate.

Loki, one of the writers in Invisible People, has written about the subject of regret that many people experiencing homelessness internalize. Loki writes that homeless people get the message from society that they do not have any worth.

If we closely examine the source of this message, we read images and words in media, such as television, social media, and books, which play a huge part. When literature books normalize single-family homes and ignore homelessness, the direct message that children are getting is that people who own houses have worth, and those who do not meet this standard have no worth.

Most importantly, it puts the entire blame on the homeless person, which is one of the reasons why many people, when discussing homelessness, immediately bring up personal responsibility as the leading cause of homelessness. They wrongly believe that if people could work a bit harder, everything would be magically solved.

While large, private bedrooms and kitchens are the main highlights in children’s books, homeless people have to rely on shopping carts to store essential items.

Two sections of houses that were strongly emphasized in the study’s selection of children’s literature were a private bedroom large in size and a kitchen with a heartwarming atmosphere.

The bedrooms are so prominent in these stories that the description often took two complete pages. The bedrooms consisted of everything: a bookcase, wardrobe, and play table with many toys, books, and clothes.

The kitchen was depicted as a place where the family members in the stories meet and celebrate life. But the description also follows a similar pattern where the kitchen is larger than life with vast counter space, open shelving, and a kitchen island with all the necessary equipment.

However, these stories hide the fact that many people who experience housing instability have very little space in their homes, as renting large spaces is expensive.

In the case of homelessness, the situation is entirely different. One of the most powerful articles written in Invisible People talks of how during Thanksgiving time, people use shopping carts to buy fun items in the store. However, the shopping cart is the only space for homeless people to store their essential items. Losing this shopping cart can be the difference between life and death on the streets!

The initial assumption was that homes were simply in the backdrop and would not be so integral to the stories.

From the beginning, the research was going to analyze children’s books (185 books were eventually chosen) published in the USA between 1999 and 2019 to understand housing representation in general. The author of the research’s initial assumption was that the housing shown in the background is not integral to the story’s plotline. However, that turned out to be far from true. The book list included books that had won major recognition from awards and journals such as Boston Globe-Horn Book, School Library Journal, ALSC’s Notable Books for Younger Readers, etc.

The conversation about housing instability and homelessness among children does not have to be repressive.

Proper representation of housing in literature books can lead to children learning about both the positive and negative aspects of US housing. Writers can try to conceal the negative side of housing, but they cannot hide homelessness and housing instability, which children can clearly see in real life.

Talking about homelessness with children is a challenging task, but this article offers a couple of ways we can facilitate this conversation:

Embrace Children’s Curiosity

When children see homelessness around them, they will have questions such as “What are those tents for?”, “Why is that person asking for money,” etc. Adults should respond honestly about homelessness so that children are not misled, and encourage them to learn more about this issue.

Do Not Perpetuate Negative Stereotypes

Our society has spread negative associations of homeless people, such as they are free riders, they are acting, or they are dangerous. As adults, we must reverse this trend and encourage children to see homeless people as neighbors who deserve compassion.

Nishan Ghimire

Nishan Ghimire

Nishan is a writer and columnist based in Vancouver, focusing on offering a unique insight into contemporary issues through news, essays and storytelling.

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