Last month, the Library Service to Underserved Children and Their Caregivers Committee (LSUCTC) rolled out its second toolkit page for children’s librarians. This page was devoted to providing programs and services for children facing homelessness and/or financial insecurity.
Author Rex Ogle, who wrote the debut memoir Free Lunch about his experiences with poverty during childhood, offered a few additions to our toolkit. We invited him to chat with us about how librarians can help children in this often overlooked population.
LSUCTC: Free Lunch is such a powerful book. Although it is ultimately hopeful, much of it seems to come from a place of pain and hardship. What compelled you to write Free Lunch?
OGLE: Free Lunch is not a story I ever wanted to tell. Growing up, I was immensely ashamed of my situation, both in regards to my family’s socio-economic status as well as the domestic violence that occurred on a regular basis. But as an adult, I witnessed other kids in similar situations and desperately wanted to tell them that they are not responsible for their parents’ actions or their financial insecurity. The best way I knew to do that was write a book.
LSUCTC: What’s one or two things you think all children’s librarians can do for children who are experiencing homelessness/financial insecurity?
OGLE: My Abuela always told me if I was going to run away, to run away to a library. And I did, quite a few times. I suspect my local librarians were aware of my situation, a kid coming into the library without parents, wearing second-hand clothes, and often looking hungry. They provided me with books, recommendations, kindness, and one volunteer often gave me her lunch apple or banana. If you’re a librarian and you suspect a kid is in a similar situation, offer them something as simple as a smile and a book recommendation. If they’re anything like me, they’ll probably be standoff-ish first, but quickly warm to the positive attention.
LSUCTC: Is there a community resource that you think every children’s librarian should know about? One that maybe you wish you knew about as a child that could have helped?
OGLE: I grew up in the 80’s and early 90’s, so it was a different world. Resources might have existed, but I had no idea where to find them. Now, the internet makes things that much more accessible. Of all the sites I’ve visited, Feeding America seems to be the best national site to help a person find a local food bank.
LSUCTC: What advice do you have for youth feeling overwhelmed by poverty?
OGLE: Life is hard, but there are things you can do to make it easier. Find a food bank. Don’t be too proud to reach out for help. And most importantly: know that you are not alone and this is not your fault. It’ll take some work, but this situation is not forever. Life can get better, especially if you work hard and push yourself to chase after your dreams. Me? I came from welfare and a trailer and times of homelessness. If I can move to New York and work on books, then anybody can.
LSUCTC: What advice do you have for library staff who want to help, but feel inexperienced and ill-equipped to provide outreach and services to youth experiencing homelessness and poverty?
OGLE: Don’t be so hard on yourself. It’s as uncomfortable for you as it is for them. As I mentioned earlier, start with a smile and a conversation about what kind of stories they like. Something as simple and beautiful as a book is the perfect escape for a child.
LSUCTC: One of the resources you recommended we add to our toolkit was the middle grade novel Tune It Out by Jamie Sumner. What was it about this book that resonated with you?
OGLE: I recently read the book, and within pages was locked into the story because it felt so familiar. The fact that Lou and her mother lived in the back of their white truck hit a little too close to home for me, as in 4th grade, we moved several times, and I slept in the back of the truck a few nights. Jamie Sumner has a way of writing that truly accesses the hard feelings and struggle of a home unstable family unit, but also touches on a parent’s love and a child’s resilience. Her book is a treasure, and I highly recommend reading it.
Joe Prince (LSUCTC committee co-chair) is the Curriculum and Outreach Educator at Bowling Green State University. He lives in Bowling Green with his husband and several imaginary cats. Visit his library on Instagram.
Marika Jeffery (LSUCTC committee member) is a Youth Services Librarian with the San Diego Public Library. She can be reached at email@example.com.