Are there any good books for children about homelessness? – The Guardian

Migrants and homeless people are in the news a lot at the moment. What books can I give my children to help them understand homelessness better?

From picture books onwards, “home” is of great importance in children’s books. Both the place and the relationships that come from within it are frequently central to any children’s book story. Typically, home is the source of fundamental securities, which is why “moving home”, a theme which throws up many emotions that readers can easily identify with, is so relatively common in stories for all ages.

Surprisingly, then, and given also the fact that children in every part of the world will know about homelessness, there are few books about it either published in the UK or about what homelessness might be like in the UK.

But perhaps the specifics of homelessness in terms of either time or place is not the most significant feature. What matters is that the reader can get some sense of the enormous, often terrifying emotions that typically accompany being without a fixed home and, in contrast, understand the resourceful ways in which children can create “home-like” environments for themselves even in the most dangerous of times and places.

Silver Sword

Homelessness can be an individual family matter or it can be the displacement of whole ethnic groups or communities. The Warsaw home of the three children in Ian Serallier’s classic second world war novel The Silver Sword is totally demolished by the Nazis. This renders them homeless; they had also been effectively “orphaned” by the removal of their parents. Without a home to live in – or even a home country to be safe in – the three children embark on a long and dangerous journey with no guarantees that there will ever be a safe outcome. Usually read for its “adventure” and the children’s remarkable spirit of survival, at its core it is also an excellent example of survival during mass displacement.

Set in a more recent conflict, Elizabeth Laird also tells a story of flight from homelessness to safety as refugees in Kiss the Dust. Thirteen-year-old Tara and her Kurdish family have to flee Iraq and everything they know as their lives are at risk. The journey through the mountains is dangerous and, before she finally reaches England and safety, Tara has lived in “homes” of many kinds including a refugee camp. In a story of great poignancy, Elizabeth Laird captures the hardship – and the hope – that keeps Tara and her family going.

Trash film
In Elizabeth Laird’s The Garbage King and Andy Mulligan’s Trash (this is a still from the film version), we understand more about the children’s lives through their friendship with each other. Photograph: PR

Elizabeth Laird writes about homelessness of a quite different kind in The Garbage King, the story of young boys living on the streets of Addis Abba. These homeless children, and those in Andy Mulligan’s Trash who similarly make a living sifting through the rubbish dumps of the city, are not homeless because of a major political upheaval but because of global inequality that has left many around the world without safe homes. In both The Garbage King and Trash, the interactions between the children and they way in which they protect each other make a coherent and emotionally bearable story. And in both there is adventure too. However, neither author flinches from the horrible living conditions of these homeless children and the loss of normal childhood that they suffer as a result.


But homelessness can also happen for an individual or domestic reason, and in a wealthy country. The Tillerman children in Cynthia Voight’s Homecoming, the first in the cycle of novels about the family, are homeless when their mother suddenly leaves them in the car in a supermarket car park and doesn’t came back. Unlike the destitute children living without protective adults, the Tillerman children have up to the start of the story been part of a very normal home life. And they have family who they hope can take them in – if only they can reach them. Their homelessness is a temporary state but their experience is nonetheless very affecting – and frightening. Dicey, the oldest child who leads them on a long, long journey to find a relative who will look after them, knows that finding a new home is critical. There is no sense of excitement about their apparently liberated state. Homelessness, even if it is in the USA and with the promise of somewhere to live in the future, is frightening.

Way Home
Way Home

Gregory Rogers’s illustrations to Libby Hathorn’s Way Home give the closest insider view of what it might feel like to live on the streets. Shane, a homeless boy who befriends an equally homeless kitten and takes it back to his carefully constructed and very well-hidden shelter, is the best picture book on the subject. Shane’s friendship with the kitten, suitably named Spitfire Number One, gives the book a warm feel but the lurking dangers in the background of Shane’s life and his makeshift and ramshackle home make sure that the realities of homelessness are not idealised or glossed over.

Do you have a book about homelessness to recommend? or get in touch on Twitter @GdnchildrensBks(where you can also ask the book doctor a question using #BookDoctor) and we’ll add them to this blog!

Your suggestions

Miriam Halahmy, author of Hidden

Great that Jo Cotterill has flagged up her book, Looking at the Stars, and my book Hidden which was staged in Paris in June 2015. But our books are about refugees. Books set on the streets of the UK about the experiences of vulnerable British teens are still lacking. I would like to recommend The Mark by Rosemary Hayes which deals with homelessness of teens in the UK today, an important subject which has been neglected.

Jo Cotterill, author of Looking at the Stars

I’d like to add my own, Looking at the Stars, for ages 11+, which was published last year and nominated for the Carnegie. It’s the story of a girl and her sister who become separated from their family when their home country is invaded by so-called ‘peace-keeping’ troops. They have to walk to a refugee camp where they find that in some ways, conditions are worse than home. Rwanda, Iraq and Syria were all sources of inspiration. It’s been likened to The Silver Sword in its subject matter of mass emigration due to war and was published by the Bodley Head.

I’d also flag up The Breadwinner and subsequent stories in the series by Deborah Ellis, and for a book set in the UK, Invisible Girl by Kate Maryon (a girl runs away from home). Also Hidden by Miriam Halahmy, about a couple of kids on Hayling Island who find an illegal immigrant washed up on their doorstep and decide to help him. Hidden has been showered with critical praise for its sympathetic portrayal of migrants and I think has just been performed as a play in France.
In comparison with Andy Mulligan’s Trash, I would add The Glass Collector by Ana Perera, about a child who makes a living sifting through recycling.

Rafia, on email

The Thief Lord – Cornelia Funke.