10 of the Best Books About the
Great Depression for Tweens
by Denise Schipani
I’m old enough to have heard first-hand stories about the Great Depression from my grandparents (and even from my dad, a child in pre-war years). What was always interesting to me, though, was that no one in my objectively poor and struggling family ever described their past with anything like hopelessness or despair. Instead, they spun tales that had to do with pluck and even joy. Often, stories that emerge from difficult times endure because they illustrate universal themes about hope, creativity, family, and the triumph of the human spirit. Maybe that’s the reason books set in the Great Depression (think: Steinbeck’s classic The Grapes of Wrath) show up on school reading lists year after year. We’ve pulled together some great novels set in this rich historical era that, whether or not they show up on your tween’s school reading list, have lessons to impart along with rip-roaring tales to tell.
Full of Beans
Beans (kids had interesting nicknames in the 1930s!) is a Conch, which means he’s a Key West, Florida local, not a summer person. These are hard times, and Beans and his fellow Conch pals have big plans in this new entry into a rich tradition of Depression-era historical fiction. He and his barefoot gang know the adults are lying about something (sorry, grown-ups, the kids can always tell when they’re being fed a lie). But what is it?
Al Capone Does My Shirts
Moose is a 12-year-old with a prison-guard dad, a worried mom, and a sister who needs a special school in San Francisco that can help with her autism (though what ails Natalie is mysterious in this book’s time period). So Moose’s dad gets a job on Alcatraz Island, the notorious island prison in San Francisco Bay known as The Rock, from which no one escapes, and brings his family with him. But will Moose find his own way in this strange new life? Choldenko is a Newbery honoree, and this is part of the Tales of Alcatraz series, which includes Al Capone Does My Homework and Al Capone Shines My Shoes.
Esperanza — “hope” in Spanish — leaves her native Mexico, where she lived a privileged and comfortable life, to work in Southern California labor camps with her mom. The tragedy that forced them to leave wealth and ease at home for a new and harsh life as exploited farm workers on the brink of the Great Depression is an eye-opening bit of history, and a moving exploration of a not-often-told story.
A Long Way from Chicago
Siblings Joey and Mary Alice, who live in Chicago, spend their summers with their eccentric grandmother in rural Illinois. This book of interlocking stories covers their seasonal summer visits from 1929 to 1942. There’s never an “ordinary” sojourn; the kids see a corpse one summer, and help their grandmother do some fairly outrageous things (like run off some vicious kids in a tale that involves a dead mouse) and some heartwarming ones (like feed the hungry).
The Miner’s Daughter
Ever wish your comparatively pampered teens could know — for just long enough to learn a lesson about hard work — what it’s like to toil in an actual coal mine? Hand them this story of 16-year-old Willa who, in Depression-era West Virginia, works underground amid the dust and grime to help her family survive. It’s not all doom and (literal) gloom: Willa’s family gets help from none other than Eleanor Roosevelt.
The Truth About Sparrows
Sadie, who is 12, doesn’t want to leave her home in Missouri, even if the drought is making her family’s life untenable. After all, what child wants to abandon the only life she’s known and leave her friends behind? This story of the Wynn family, who decamp to Texas, reminds readers that while times and circumstances change, families and children remain essentially the same. Sadie finds her new home strange and sometimes cruel, but finds solace in a new and fascinating friend.
Moon Over Manifest
Abilene Tucker has lived an itinerant life. Twelve years old in 1936, her father finds a railroad job, and puts Abilene on a train to go live with relatives. But the curious, intrepid Abilene hops off the rails in Manifest, Kansas — her dad’s hometown — in an effort to find out more about his life. She meets a host of strangers and soon-to-be friends in this strange and downbeat town with a rich and interesting past.
Nothing to Fear
Set in New York City during the Depression, this is the story of Danny, who becomes the man of the house at age 13, trying to help support his pregnant mom and little sister after his father leaves home in search of work. Through it all, Danny remains a regular kid — getting girlfriends, learning to shave — whilst looking for help.
A Time of Troubles
Roy Purdy is 14 when his father is released from a Maryland prison, where he’s spent time for arson. It’s the Great Depression and work is scarce enough for everyone, not least for an ex-con. So Roy’s dad suggests they take off for the promised land: California. When their money runs out, they rely on strangers until they can find jobs as fruit pickers. While his dad keeps his head down, Roy finds himself emboldened, fighting for the rights of his fellow exploited workers.
All that Tate Stonemason has ever wanted is to be a baseball star. That dream ends after he loses most of his family (and badly hurts his leg) in a plane crash. Just 16, Tate is sent to live with his great-grandfather — and his adopted great-aunt, Vidalia. Vidalia just happens to be a former member of a Depression-era women’s Negro baseball team. Her stories offer Tate solace and a slice of history.