Recently, I read an article about a 12-year old boy who asked his mail carrier for junk mail in order to have something to read. He would read junk mail in order to have something to read because the family did not have books and could not afford the bus fare to the library. All the child wanted to do was read, and his poverty got in the way. It make me wonder what else poverty made virtually impossible to him. Transportation is something many of us take for granted. We zip around in our cars, not realizing how much our lives would change if we did not have access to reliable transportation.
Growing up, I had to take the public bus to school and I hated it. It meant waking up over an hour earlier than needed to walk two blocks to the bus stop in the heat, cold, rain and snow. My stop was the last on the route, so I say through other high school kids getting on and off the bus for a multitude of public schools. They were usually in groups, while I was often the only kid from my school on my bus. As a nerdy, nervous kid, they scared me. They were loud, they walked like they owned the bus, and they took up as much space as possible. I tried to blend in and be as invisible as possible. It was a relief when someone I knew got on the bus and I had someone to talk to, or at least a friendly set of eyes with whom I could make eye contact. Lucky for me, I only dealt with the bus for getting to and from school. When I needed to get anywhere else, my parents had cars and soon I did, too.
But I think about this little boy who couldn't afford the bus fare to take him to the library. What other places could he not afford to visit? Aside from places of dire necessity, like maybe the doctor, or school, wouldn't he need a way to get to places that might change his future, like perhaps an interview for a summer enrichment program, or to visit a college? Those experiences could change the course of his future, help him break out of poverty. Yet, it is that very poverty that robs him of those chances.
Being poor is a lot of work. It burns me a million ways when I hear privileged people say things that make it sound like the poor are that way because they are lazy, or don't want a different life. It sickens me to no avail when the poor are treated or talked about as less valuable. It is on their backs that most rich people have the lives they lead. Poverty is not a result of laziness or poor planning. It is not lack of education, or will. I have friends with Masters degrees who are poor. I am not going to get into the systemic ways in which our world keeps the divide between the Have and Have-Nots alive so that those in power can remain so. Instead, I want to focus on a small part of the story, the part that most caught my attention - the kid's longing for reading material.
As a reader, this kid is exposed to so much that his financial situation keeps from him. I keenly understand how that feels. Growing up, I would read books set in a suburban oasis of middle-class families where the protagonist's parents worked one job, where they took annual vacations, and picked out lush Christmas trees in December. They didn't worry about wearing the wrong colors outside, and that they could be shot by a rival gang because of it. There was never an instance when they missed their dad because he went from one shift to the other to make ends meet so the kids only caught glimpses of him here and there. The books I chose had none of this. They were my escape into fantasy, and even though I have expanded my reading choices over the years, they remain so to this day.
I was lucky that my mom found ways to fill the house with books. Whether it was the five-cent sale at the local library, hand-me-down books from cousins and friends, garage sale finds, or books from thrift shops, I had lots of them. I took them for granted. I never thought about what it took for my mom to get those books, what she might have sacrificed to make sure the bookshelf was stocked. This little boy wasn't so lucky. His family's poverty was something that he worked around by reading junk mail. That's the kind of dedication that leads to game-changers. This kid has a shot at changing his situation, maybe even that of his family, and yet there is a chance that he won't have the means to make that change happen. His need to survive on a daily basis will outweigh his resolve. He had a need and he found a way to fulfill it that didn't harm or take from anyone else. His reading junk mail was harmless, as was his request for more. That's a determined reader, the kind of reader I hope one day has access to my books.
As an author, I may come across instances where kids with no means of getting books will want to read my book. Unfortunately, even as the author, the supply I get will be limited. Sure, some publishing companies offer free books through various programs, but do they always reach kids like this one? I can only promise to do what I can to make sure that they do. In the meantime, I pass along books as often as I can, especially to kids, and I hope that this example doesn't go unnoticed by the kids in my life.