WE CAN’T ALL AFFORD GOOD TOILET PAPER: WHY YOU AND YOUR STUDENTS NEED TO READ STORIES ABOUT KIDS WHO STRUGGLE FINANCIALLY by Donna Gephart
Growing up in a tiny row house in Northeast Philadelphia with my single, working mom, my older sister and I couldn’t afford reduced-price lunch tickets at school. They cost 40 cents a piece. So every Friday, we stood in line to be handed a strip of five bright orange tickets, which entitled us to free lunches the following week.
I hid those tickets deep in my pocket.
Nobody told me to feel ashamed, but I did.
Sometimes, to avoid using the tickets, I sold them to other students for 50 cents a piece and went without lunch.
Shame is a powerful motivator.
Except on Fridays, of course – cheesy pizza day. I used my free lunch tickets on those days because apparently, cheesy pizza is an even more powerful motivator.
When it was time for back-to-school shopping, my sister and I were allowed to buy two pair of pants and three tops. Those items had to last the entire school year, even if we outgrew them.
We always outgrew them.
My sister’s jeans were often more patches than jeans.
On the rare occasion we ate dinner out, my sister and I were quietly instructed not to order drinks because they cost too much. Only water.
When speaking to students across the country, I share these parts of my childhood without shame because I know students relate to my stories. I see it in their eyes, in the way they lean forward and nod. If I’ve done my job right, by the end, the students feel more empowered, more capable and more hopeful from my stories.
It’s essential that I do my job right because according to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 19% of children in the U.S. live in families that are considered officially poor. (The threshold for a family of three (an adult and two children) living in poverty in 2018 was earning less than $20,231 per year, according to the United States Census Bureau.) This doesn’t take into account the huge financial hit many families have taken because of the pandemic.
I tell students how I saw myself in Wanda Petronski from Room 13 in the book The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes. Wanda was made fun of for wearing the same faded blue dress to school every day – my biggest fear happened to her! And at the end of the book, Wanda had a creative solution. Creativity enriched her impoverished world.
I write about characters who struggle financially so young people who live in difficult financial circumstances see themselves on the page.
I also write these characters so those who enjoy a level of privilege see kids who struggle financially as fully realized people with a rich family life, friends, community, hobbies, hopes and dreams.
In Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen, twelve-year-old Olivia tries to win $15,000 on Kids’ Week on Jeopardy! to help her mom who was recently laid off from her job at a newspaper. Olivia is smart and savvy. She’s kind to her little brother. And ultimately a good friend to her neighbor and sometimes nemesis, Tucker. Olivia’s life is marked by a lack of money, but is also rich in meaningful ways.
In Death by Toilet Paper, Benjamin Epstein sells candy bars at school and enters contests to help his recently widowed mom pay the rent so they won’t be evicted from their apartment. Benjamin also tries to win the good kind of toilet paper his mom can no longer afford. Things like having to use cheap toilet paper would never enter the consciousness of kids in families of means, so a book can shine a light on those small but important details.
Each member of Cleveland’s family works hard (Mom cleans other people’s houses, Georgia, her sister, works as a cashier at Weezie’s Food Market and Flower Emporium, and Cleveland runs a French-inspired dog-walking business). Still, the family scrambles to afford ballet lessons for Cleveland, like the privileged girls in town have been taking for years.
Cleveland feels shame because of their financial situation and because her father has recently been incarcerated. Guess what having an incarcerated parent does to a family. It makes their financial situation less secure.
Her desire to follow her six-point plan and move to Paris, France is fueled by her shame.
Shame is a powerful motivator.
Young people who live with financial insecurity don’t want pity.
As Cleveland firmly says about pity in The Paris Project:
Miss Delilah stood there, looking at me over the frames of her glasses.
My beret suddenly felt like it weighed as much as the whole stupid town of Sassafras, but I stood there, under the weight of it all, watched by every girl in class and Miss Delilah, with what could only be described as expressions of pity.
The last thing I needed was someone feeling sorry for me. I was Cleveland Rosebud Potts!
Here’s what we can offer young people in challenging financial circumstances that don’t involve pity, shame or even money:
1) Opportunity — in the form of book access and choice.
2) Hope — provided by stories about kids just like them who use their own agency to move toward a more prosperous future.
3) A passport to the wider world — created by a well-stocked library.
I’ll keep writing books about young people who deal with difficult financial circumstances.
I’ll keep sharing my stories with young people.
I’ll do these things so they can feel seen, heard and valued. I’ll do these things so other young people recognize there are many ways to walk through this world, and one way is not better than another – just different. I’ll do these things so young people in challenging financial circumstances will learn that through grit, determination and opportunity, they can reach what might seem to be impossible dreams.
Like becoming an author of books for children that land on the shelves of the same childhood library that sheltered and saved her in the first place.
Shame may be a powerful motivator.
But so is hope!
What are some of your favorite books about kids living in challenging financial circumstances?
Check out Donna’s eight middle grade novels, including THE PARIS PROJECT and her brand new one – ABBY, TRIED AND TRUE – from Simon & Schuster, coming March ‘21. Keep an eye out for Donna’s first picture book from Holiday House, GO BE WONDERFUL. Book Donna for virtual visits at www.donnagephart.com.