United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 1: NO POVERTY

End poverty in all its forms everywhere

[Eleanor Surridge, International School of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia]

As a librarian, addressing poverty with our communities seems to present as a set of double-doors: one side swings to open the door to literacy and access to education and information which we know to have a direct impact on rates of extreme poverty; the other swings open to create empathy and raise awareness.  In other words, literacy levels rise and poverty levels drop; awareness levels rise and excuses for inaction become more difficult to justify. 

We add to this the current state of the world. While we do not yet know the extent to which the pandemic will affect poverty rates, we know that it will, jeopardizing tremendous strides that have been made in the eradication of extreme poverty over the past three decades. We know that before the COVID-19 crisis struck, 10 percent of the world’s population, including one out of every five children, was living in extreme poverty with much higher rates of poverty in rural areas than in cities.

Acquainting ourselves and our communities with the variety of forms and causes of poverty, some of which are presented in the books listed below, might open new doorways leading to the achievement of the goal to end poverty in all its forms everywhere.

The Old Man by Sarah V.,  illustrated by Claude K. Dubois / Belgium / Translated from French by Daniel Hahn / Suitable for ages 3+

This nearly-wordless picture book tells the story of a day-in-the-life of a homeless man so disoriented by hunger and fatigue that he does not even know his name. The watercolour and charcoal illustrations present a muted view both of the old man and of those who bother to notice him. Among the latter is the young girl who features on the cover. She notices the old man as she passes him in the early morning and then again, later in the day, when she is the first person he encounters who shows him any kindness. Her offering of a meal brings him back to himself, restoring some dignity and allowing him to recall his name.

The message here is one of kindness and generosity and the transformative power of being seen and being treated with dignity.

From My Window, by Otávio Júnior, illustrated by Vinana Starkoff / Brazil / Translated from Portuguese by Beatrice C. Diaz / Suitable for ages 3+

Júnior and Starkoff present a young boy’s vibrant and vivid view of the world from his window, looking out over the Rio de Janeiro favela in which he lives. This is a series of crowded and exuberant snapshots of the boy’s community and the variety of scenes he witnesses throughout the day. There is only one two-page spread of the nightlife that alludes to but does not explicitly address the risk of violence. As Otávio Júnior states in the background information at the end, violence is part of life in the favela but it comprises a small part in the life of this story’s protagonist. Twenty percent of Rio’s population lives in favelas—”a whole world inside the city” in which the author “ can see thousands of stories.”

This is an #ownvoices story that invites us to look out on a distant community and see people living, loving, and growing. The message? Poverty does not necessarily equal misery.

Shelter by Céline Claire, illustrated by Qin Leng / Canada / Suitable for ages 3+

“What if others are still outside?” Little Fox asks as the animals prepare for the coming snowstorm, securing their dens and stocking their pantries. As the animals busy themselves, two Bear Brothers approach other doors, asking for warmth in exchange for tea. They are repeatedly denied until they come to the den of Little Fox and his family and Little Fox offers them lanterns for light and warmth. When Little Fox’s family’s shelter collapses with the weight of the falling snow, they go out in search of shelter and are readily taken in by the Bear Brothers who share their tea and light and warmth.

This is a gentle tale about the importance of sharing even when we have little to spare.

Vanishing Colors by Constance Ørbeck-Nilssen, illustrated by Akin Düzakin / Norway / Translated from Norwegian by Kari Dickson / Suitable for ages 7+

Presented in sepia tones, this story unfolds in a war-ravaged city that may be in Syria. Our young protagonist is calmed by her mother’s  “song about our town, about all the bridges to places we can no longer go.” She also hears the story of the large black bird that then comes to her and brings comfort and hope. “Do you remember how wonderful it was?” the black bird asks.  

Images of the city’s past splendor are presented in full colour and are mirrored by the rainbow that the black bird predicts is the bridge to a hopeful future. The girl and her mother are living in ruin but are not without hope.

How to Bee - Bren MacDibble - 9781760294335 - Allen & Unwin - Australia
How to Bee by Bren Macdibble / Australia / Suitable for ages 8+

Peony and her sister and grandfather live and work in an orchard far from the nearest city. This future world is bereft of bees and young children must be trained to do the pollinating that nature can no longer manage on her own. While this dystopia is premised on the ravages of anthropogenic climate change, it is also a story about class and the disparity of wealth between those who work to produce food and those who consume.

It is also, of course, a story of hope. This makes for an excellent read-aloud as the plot moves quickly and raises many questions about how the choices we are making today may affect children of the not-too-distant future. Children relate to the family dynamics and feel for Peony when she confronts the violence of her mother’s boyfriend and when Peony plots to escape the drudgery of indentured domestic work in the city.

Stormy Seas: Stories of Young Boat Refugees by Mary Beth Leatherdale, illustrated by Eleanor Shakespeare / Canada / Suitable for ages 9+

This nonfiction work tells the true stories of five refugees from five different parts of the world. Starting in 1939 with Ruth’s experience fleeing Nazi Germany and being turned back on the SS St. Louise and ending in 2006 with Mohammed’s account of escaping violence in the Ivory Coast, these personal accounts include a collage of scrapbook entries from primary source documents combined with Shakespeare’s watercolour illustrations.

Readers will understand that a variety of causes are driving people from their homelands, and that poverty is a consequence, if not always a cause, of the refugee experience. All five children have nothing to lose and in each case poverty is a corollary of war, genocide, or political extremism. The teaching guide from Annick Press is available here.

Charcoal Boys by Roger Mello / Brazil / Translated from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn / Suitable for ages 10+

Mello presents a complex tale from the perspective of a survival-focused hornet pointing out the similar challenges faced by the boy he follows who works in Brasil’s charcoal mines.  The paper-cut collage illustrations bring us close-ups of the hornet’s wing and hornet’s-eye views of the boy’s labours. As the epigraph anticipates, the two have a shared “[t]iny, innocent misery!” 

This is a sophisticated picture book suitable for read-alouds to older children or for ages 10+. 

It is a provocative, poetic and indirect presentation.

Caravan to the North: Misael’s Long Walk by Jorge Argueta, illustrated by Manuel Monroy / Author born in El Salvador and a Pipil Nahua Indian / Translated from Spanish by Elizabeth Bell / Suitable for ages 12+

In this sparsely written novel-in-verse, Argueta marks the progress of a young boy and his family in a 4000 kilometre journey from the town square in their home town in El Salvador to the U.S. border at Tijuana, Mexico. They’ve been left with no choice but to migrate north because “[t]here’s no work. / There’s no way to get by.” From the aural snapshots of various migrants we hear each say, “I love El Salvador but….” they despair at the lack of opportunity and the constant threat of gang violence. Although they depart with hope under the El Salvadoran sun, by the time they reach Tijuana they are met with chill air–bringing with it the melancholy of loss and the onset of fear of what awaits them at the border wall.  

Argueta’s verse presents another perspective on poverty. Many are compelled to flee their impoverished circumstances but are not always met with hope and opportunity.

Book List

Eleanor Surridge has been teaching internationally for 23 years. She completed her undergraduate degree in Canada, her home country, and has a Masters in Library Science from a US university. She is currently the PreK-12 Teacher-Librarian at the International School of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Before that she worked as the Secondary Teacher-Librarian at the International School of Tianjin, China. She has also worked in international schools in Morocco, Latvia and Turkey. (Twitter handle @ersurridge)

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