There’s a heartbreaking reality that nobody really wants to talk about. In America, there are more than a million homeless children enrolled in school, according to Ralph da Costa Nunez, president and CEO of the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness.
It’s been a year since “Sesame Street” introduced Lily, the first Muppet living in poverty. There was some controversy about introducing Lily on the beloved show, which typically avoids hard hitting issues. Some believed that the “Sesame Street” audience was too young to grapple with these difficult issues, but after watching the program I came to understand that the “Sesame Street” program was designed to bring families with kids of all ages together to discuss the important issues surrounding poverty, primarily the problem of hunger and food insecurity.
The “Sesame Street” creative team understood that it’s nearly impossible in today’s economic reality to shelter children from the issues of hunger and homelessness. There’s a great likelihood that school children will be introduced to the problem of homelessness by meeting a homeless classmate. A friend or family member could become homeless when their home is foreclosed upon. Then there are the children who are themselves homeless.
Homelessness for children carries an especially heavy emotional burden. For the homeless children, there is deep sadness, fear of being labeled as “different”, and constant worry. These children need to be recognized and brought into the public discourse about the problem of homelessness, which has become a national crisis.
For the children encountering a homeless friend or classmate, there may be confusion, fear and anxiety, concern, and numerous questions.
It’s a tough issue that needs to be addressed, but finding a gentle way to introduce it and have a meaningful conversation with children — just as “Sesame Street” did with issues of hunger — is challenging to say the least. That’s where the new children’s book “Ears Up, Ears Down,” penned by Nunez with Margaret Menghini, comes in. The book was written for children in Kindergarten through second grade (approximately ages five to eight).
I have to admit that my heart was in my throat during certain moments as I read this book. In the book Ears Up is a dog who lives a carefree life at Jim’s Junkyard. He earns his name because his ears are up all the time, meaning he’s happy. But then everything changes. Jim’s Junkyard is foreclosed upon. Ears Up loses everything and must find a new home and a new life. He lowers his ears and earns the new name Ears Down. So begins his story of loss, friendship and hope.
He makes new friends, two young children who also lost their home when their dad lost his job. They live in a car, and Ears Up soon finds himself traveling in that same car with the family to a tent city, where he hears more stories about everyday working people who lost their livelihoods and their homes. Ears Up finds a happy ending and ultimately hope.
Madeline Gerstein Simon’s illustrations are soulful watercolors and little works of art. She uses the unique technique of letting the white paper beneath her painting fill in part of the illustration. It seems to give the illustrations almost a transparent quality, and it somehow captures the transient nature of homeless life. The eyes of the characters in these illustrations capture the essence of the heartbreaking struggle of homelessness. It’s impossible to look away.
The book addresses homelessness compassionately and in language easily comprehendible to children. Ears Up’s story is personalized through a first-person narrative, which gives it a very accessible tone. Ears Up asks lots of questions that are answered in ways that state the reality of the situation, but that are explained gently so that it won’t overwhelm children.
“Ears Up, Ears Down” is only $4.95, a bargain for a heartfelt paperback children’s book with beautiful illustrations (available for purchase here and on Amazon). Children who read this book will deeply feel its impact, and it won’t be soon forgotten. A short companion “Ears Up, Ears Down Activity Book,” featuring practical educational activities such as telling time and matching games,
is available for $1.95. The activity book also provides the opportunity to discuss feelings about Ears Up’s journey.
This past week was National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week 2012. It’s a time when we can reflect on our own good fortune and find ways to reach out and help others in need during these difficult economic times.
Disclosure: The Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness provided me with complimentary copies of “Ears Up, Ears Down” and the companion activity book for my review. I’m very grateful to them. The opinions expressed here are 100% my own.
If you enjoyed this review, check out these other children’s book reviews on ReelMama.com:
And please check out my posts discussing childhood hunger: