The United Nations has chosen October 17 as the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. It may seem strange to have a day dedicated to such a lofty goal, but it offers a chance to reflect on the struggle of people living in poverty and for them to make their concerns heard.
The hope is that this reflection can be transformed into action, which can only take place once we all have a better understanding of the root causes of poverty. For parents, this day would be a great time to introduce their children to books that explore the concept of poverty and how it affects people’s lives. Hopefully, children will learn to empathize with those who must live with less and they may even be inspired to help others.
I am a Taxi (Groundwood Books, $9.95) by Deborah Ellis – Ages 9 to 12
Deborah Ellis has carved a niche for herself as a writer bringing young readers the compelling stories of children in developing countries. In this book, she tells the story of Diego, a 12-year-old Bolivian boy who lives in prison with his mother, who has been wrongfully convicted of smuggling drugs. Diego runs errands for the women in the prison since he is permitted to leave the jail. As he gets older, he wants to help his family more with their financial burdens and finds himself working in the jungle, manufacturing cocaine. He is barely paid and treated with brutality. He realizes that he must escape this enslavement but that means risking his life. Once again, Ellis creates a highly empathetic story that reveals the realities of other societies. She touches on the social and political atmosphere that can lead a boy like Diego into such dire and dangerous circumstances. The power of Ellis’ stories is that, although steeped in drama, they are based on the lives of real children. As long as these sad events continue, readers are fortunate to have Ellis to provide a voice for youths like Diego, who deserve to have a better future.
The Betrayal of Africa (Groundwood Books, $18.95) by Gerald Caplan Ages 15 and up
In this short yet loaded tome, author Gerald Caplan points out that Africa is a continent rich in natural resources, full of vibrant and distinct cultures and shaped by highly varied landscapes. Yet many of Africa’s countries linger at the bottom of the United Nations’ Human Development Index (a comparative measure of life expectancy, literacy, education and standards of living for countries worldwide). For instance, life expectancy in Zimbabwe is only 33 years and there are only three doctors for every 100,000 people in Ethiopia.
Caplan explains to readers why the people of Africa face so many hardships. This Canadian social activist and historian quickly tries to encourage readers to set aside their assumptions about Africa as the architect of its own poverty and to show how Western powers have been complicit in keeping the continent poor. He begins by describing the impact of colonialism and from there continues to show how the West, despite a veneer of promises to help Africa rise out of poverty, in many instances actually puts up massive obstacles. This can be by turning a blind eye to the cruel behaviour of dictators or putting in place unrealistic loan programs. The book is complex and challenging and it is recommended for readers who already have an interest in Africa. It provides readers with an analysis that is a shift from traditional non-fiction books for youth, which tend to give more factual accounts. However, teen readers (and even adults) will be rewarded with a portrait that moves away from the images of helpless Africans in tattered clothes to reveal a continent that is full of potential and that could thrive if we in the West give it that opportunity.
Reaching Out (Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, $19.95) by Francisco Jimenez. Ages 14 and up
In this touching memoir, Francisco Jimenez continues the journey he began in two previous books The Circuit and Breaking Through, which traces his youth as an immigrant in the United States. In this third installment, Jimenez takes readers through the years when he first begins university. He describes the struggles he must face trying to get to university, an opportunity he thought he would never have. He feels torn about abandoning his family, who are scraping together barely enough money to pay for their rent and bills.
Francisco is given the opportunity to attend university, something that no one else in his family has been able to do. He desperately wants to accept but is saddled with the guilt of no longer being able to contribute as much to the family income. He works a summer as a janitor to help out and faces the dilemma of continuing with the job or beginning his courses. He chooses university but soon after realizes he feels different from his peers. He finds himself feeling ashamed of his Mexican heritage and his poor circumstances. At school, he begins to see the injustices that new immigrants must confront. But through encounters with people who show him kindness and generosity, he manages to move forward, showing that sometimes one act of kindness can make a real difference in a person’s life. The young Francisco must make some difficult choices, but ones that will ultimately help him come to terms with his conflicting feelings. He shows readers that we all have the power to make a difference in overturning injustices that contribute to poverty in our society.