Serving Students in Poverty: 12 Recommended Books for Tweens and Teens

A curated booklist with titles that offer an intimate view of poverty and other titles that may provide escapist relief from stress.


These eight titles offer an intimate view of poverty and intersect with experiences of immigration, foster care, domestic violence, and homelessness.

The Great Jeff by Tony Abbott. Little, Brown. 2019.
Gr 6-8–Abbott further develops characters from Firegirl in this stand-alone title. After leaving private St. Catherine’s School to preserve a tight family budget, Jeff distances himself from former friendships and is isolated by his unstable home environment. His mom loses her job, straining an unhealthy codependent relationship that forces Jeff into adult responsibilities. His mother’s drinking interferes with employment, and overdue rent leads to eviction. A visit with Jeff’s father provides no resolution. The fast-paced plot provides an intense view of the denial, resentment, and despair of losing everything.

The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden. Sky Pony. 2018.
Gr 6-8–Charged with caring for three younger siblings and most household responsibilities, seventh grader Zoey Albra can’t join after school activities, doesn’t complete homework, and shoulders the stress of a premature adulthood in her rural community. Zoey’s teacher pushes her to participate in debate, and she uses her skills to take down the weak arguments of Lenny, her mother’s abusive boyfriend. Braden shows how invisible layers of poverty, from childcare and transportation hurdles to domestic violence and physical appearance, halt mobility. Zoey’s strength shines through.

Efrén Divided by Ernesto Cisneros. Quill Tree. 2020.
Gr 6-8–Cisneros highlights the connection between lack of documentation and poverty. Protagonist Efrén reveals incredible resourcefulness as he cares for his twin siblings and fills the role of his recently deported mother. Readers unpack the financial and emotional costs of traveling with a coyote who smuggles people across the border toward a future of uncertainty. Community members sustain one another, sharing resources such as food and childcare. The lack of a happy resolution creates a realistic representation of struggles often faced by those without documentation.

Find Layla by Meg Ellison. Skyscape. 2020.
Gr 8 Up–Fourteen-year-old Layla parents herself and her younger brother, Andy. Her single mother is largely absent, mentally checked out, and subject to abrupt changes in personality. Layla is tormented by peers for her clothing, hygiene, and hair, but her love of science sustains her. When Layla films her apartment for a school project and exposes her living conditions, a chain reaction of events leaves readers with a portrait of family trauma, poverty, and the foster care system. A realistic portrait of young adult life at a turning point.

Millionaires for the Month by Stacy McAnulty. Penguin Random House. 2020.
Gr 6-8–When Felix and Benji find a wallet and take $20 before returning it, they are offered a challenge by billionaire Laura Friendly. The boys must spend the entire sum of money without telling anyone in order to win a real reward. Readers will be entertained by the unbelievable challenges and more aware of the power of financial privilege.

Free Lunch by Rex Ogle. Norton. 2019.
Gr 6-8–This memoir recounts Ogle’s experiences receiving free school lunch and the struggles in his home life. His mother offers love, explosive anger, and abandonment. Ogle often cares for his younger brother, while his compassionate grandmother attempts to provide resources to the household. Ogle paints an uncomfortable portrait of a family moving between love and dysfunction under the pressures of poverty. He also presents an empathetic picture of the constraints his family endured.

Genesis Begins Again by Alicia Williams. Atheneum. 2019.
Gr 7-9–This novel opens as 13-year-old Genesis discovers her possessions on the front lawn. It’s not the family’s first eviction. Genesis struggles with her mother’s enabling behaviors that support her father’s gambling and alcohol addictions. Layering with discussions of poverty, addiction, and colorism, Williams demonstrates a path to coping, through music, and creates dialogue around issues that often go unaddressed.

Front Desk by Kelly Yang. Scholastic. 2018.
Gr 6-8–The Tang family struggles with employment and their new life in America. When the family optimistically accepts a position at the Calvista Motel, 10-year-old Mia finds herself working the front desk. Mr. Yao, their boss, abuses labor rights and manipulates the family. Yang highlights the often unfair treatment of new immigrants who may be highly skilled but forced to accept lower-paying jobs. Readers will develop an understanding of how poverty intersects with immigration.

These four curated selections explore topics outside of poverty and may offer escapist relief from stress.

Maya and the Return of the Godlings by Rena Barron. Clarion. Sept. 2021.
Gr 5-7–In the second installment of Barron’s fantasy adventure, Maya further embraces her role as a guardian of the universe. Even though she rescues her father from the Dark, his strength is vastly weakened because his soul was left behind. Readers will immerse themselves in this all-out battle between good and evil.

Last Gate of the Emperor by Kwame Mbalia and Prince Joel Makonnen. Scholastic. May 2021.
Gr 6-8–Yared lives in Addis Prime and regularly escapes reality through gaming. When he logs into the system with his real name, everything changes: his uncle Moti disappears and Yared embarks on a quest to find him. Students will get lost in this alternate galaxy filled with Ethiopian traditions and stories.

Paola Santiago and the River of Tears by Tehlor Kay Mejia. Rick Riordan Presents. 2020.
Gr 6-8–Paola loves science, but when she visits the mysterious Gila River, unbelievable superstitions ring true. When best friend Emma goes missing, Paola and Dante embark on a journey to find her and encounter supernatural tales come to life. La Llorona and chupacabras take readers on an adventure through Mexican American folklore.

Kiki Kallira Breaks a Kingdom by Sangu Mandanna. Viking. July 2021.
Gr 6-8–Kiki Kallira escapes from anxiety by drawing in her sketchbook. When one of her drawings opens into another world of Hindu mythology, readers are launched into the tale to defeat Mahishasura, also known as the Demon King. Kiki uses her artistic talents to overcome anxiety and fight in the battle against evil.

Monica Cabarcas is a middle school librarian in Charlottesville, VA, and a reviewer for SLJ.

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