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. 


  1. Thank you for sharing an honest review. I, too, felt disappointed at the end of this story. As a teacher in a school with 80% of students eligible for free/reduced lunch and breakfast, I had many of the same observations about how poverty, assistance and "being too proud" were handled. I also questioned the storyline regarding Jackson's mother and how she lost her teaching job due to cuts. In most school districts there is a desperate need for substitute teachers (we pay $135 per day). It didn't make sense to me that this college educated mom had to work 3 part time jobs. I am hesitant to share this book with my students, because as you pointed out, it just doesn't do justice to the harsh reality of what poverty is really all about.

    1. The more I thought about the Mom's situation, the more it annoyed me--I hadn't considered substitute teaching--and here that's only $50/day, but I'm sure it's more in California--but I would think anyone with a college degree could go to a temp agency and get a job as a receptionist or some sort of office work. I also thought more about the ending--they're only just being served with a Notice to Evict. From there it's at minimum 4 weeks until they can actually be forced out. They've got four weeks to figure things out--and what they'd do, of course, is use the money from the yard sale, plus whatever else they could scrape together, and pay first month's rent plus the deposit somewhere else, and leave their current landlord hanging for the back rent. It's not pretty--but it's reality, and better than trying to live with two kids and a dog in an aged minivan. The book isn't anything like real poverty.
      The elementary school nearest our social justice center is 100% free lunch. The teachers there move heaven and earth to feed and shelter and teach those kids. They are heros. This year they're letting any kids who want to come to school for one of the traditional two weeks of Christmas break--because two weeks is too long for them to go without the food they get at school.


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