Friday, September 25, 2015

Problems with Crenshaw (and poverty in children's books)

Yesterday I read Katherine Applegate's new novel Crenshaw. It's about a boy whose family has fallen on hard times, and his large imaginary cat named Crenshaw.

First I want to say that the writing is impeccable. Gorgeously so. The book is clearly intended for the lower age range of middle-grades--probably grades 3 through 5. For an awful lot of children it will be thought-provoking: it will give them access to the idea that some children go to bed hungry, but it won't completely freak them out.

My fear is that for children that do go to bed hungry, it's not realistic.

The main character, Jackson, seems naive for a 10-year-old. His family's been homeless before, and are on the verge of being homeless again to the point where they're selling their furniture to try to make rent--but the children, Jackson and his little sister Robyn, are somewhat detached from it all. Their parents are resolutely making light of the situation--but the children aren't stupid. I would think their worries would be more to the forefront.

Also, they're hungry. The children are hungry. The parents are working several part-time jobs apiece, but can't make ends meet--around here you probably could, but the family lives in California. They go to local food pantries, but they don't sign up for food stamps or attempt to get any other form of assistance.

That's the part I'm having trouble with. First there's a comment that they're too proud for that. They're not too proud for the dad to be panhandling--with help from the kids, and commentary that it might generate more money if the family dog sat beside him--but they're too proud to get real help. At one point one of the parents adds that it's too late, they wouldn't get benefits quickly enough--but they would have, if they'd asked for help before they sold their daughter's bed. I don't know what resources specifically exist in California. Let's say they could have been eligible for $400/month in food stamps. Certainly, though they're not buying much food, they're buying that much. Then the $400 could have gone toward rent. Wouldn't have paid all the rent, but it would have made a difference. They might have sought job placement assistance. They might have gotten commodity food items. The children's day care situation was never mentioned--they could have gone to Boys and Girls Clubs, say, very cheaply and with full meals served. Or, if they're in a low-income area, they might have found a summer program that served meals. There are places serving meals to the poor.

Over and over, in children's fiction, I find middle-class writers who create characters that are "too proud" to accept government assistance. In real life, I've hardly ever met a lower-income family that was "too proud." Maybe it's because I work in a social justice center, where people come because they need help; maybe my experiences are skewed the opposite direction. But there is no virtue in making your children suffer when they don't have to. No virtue in having your children be dizzy from hunger, while you are capable of signing up for food stamps and refuse to do so.

The ending of Crenshaw, too, is deus ex machina. Just when the family is actually going to be evicted--which is treated rather casually, when in fact not having an address to receive mail is going to make a real mess of the parents' ability to continue to hold jobs--someone offers the dad a job and a small apartment.

Nothing has changed, except that the protagonist told his parents they needed to be more honest with him, and they said they would. The parents aren't doing a better job. The kids aren't more secure.

I had such hopes for Crenshaw. It's being lauded as an important book about a rarely-discussed issue. Instead it's a facile book about a rarely-discussed issue. It's Poverty Lite. We need to do better than this.