Books

How books can help children understand the crushing challenges of poverty

Books enable us to see into lives we have no awareness of, and they also can reflect our own situations back at us, making us feel seen

The Wrong Shoes by Tom Percival is out now

The Wrong Shoes is my first full-length novel for children (ages 8+) and explores the crushing challenges facing children living in poverty today. The story is narrated by the main character, 12-year-old Will, whose father has been injured in an accident and is unable to find a job. Everything seems to be spiralling out of control for Will as his family’s debts pile up and any hope of achieving his dreams, or even just getting by seem to be fading. 

According to the Child Poverty Action Group, 4.2 million children were living in poverty in the UK in 2021/2022. That’s one in three children, like Will, who struggle through no fault of their own, whose options in life will be severely limited. It’s hard to focus when you’re cold, tired and hungry. It’s difficult to build confidence when your peers have all the right clothes, experiences and shoes, and you don’t.

It’s also unlikely that you’ll become the expert footballer you might have the talent to be, or to develop your musical skills to their full potential without additional clubs or training. These things usually involve money and always involve time – two commodities struggling families are unlikely to have.  

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One of the key themes of The Wrong Shoes is the idea of choice. Will is forced to make several decisions; some he makes well, others he doesn’t. I wanted to communicate that when your financial resources are limited, so are your options. Your range of choices can be affected in a more dangerous way too. When you’re desperate, the things you might choose to do to get by stretch out into areas that someone in a more comfortable position would never consider. This is where Will finds himself. Is he willing to compromise to help get his family out of trouble?  

When I was young, there were times when my family didn’t have much money, so I can empathise with Will, but The Wrong Shoes is in no way autobiographical – Will is a fictional character in a very contemporary setting that’s far removed from the time I grew up. When I was young (in the 1980s and ’90s) it  felt like there was more support.

There was a robust youth-care provision in the town where I lived;  classes and workshops were put on at subsidised rates – some were free – so they felt accessible, even to families with less money. I received a grant to help me attend university, there were no tuition fees, libraries weren’t being closed down, and housing and living costs were all proportionally smaller.  

A few years ago, I read a document called We Can Solve Poverty by a charity called The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which outlined the steps that need to be taken and made it clear that with sufficient will (and crucially, financial investment) it CAN be done. That document was part of what inspired me to write this book – you must believe that change is possible to be able to bring it about. You must have hope. And despite its challenging subject matter, there is hope in The Wrong Shoes.

Even though there are subtle threads of something almost approaching magic woven through Will’s story, there is no sudden ‘fairy tale’ ending to the book. Just like in real life, the positive changes to Will’s situation are hard-won and gradual, whereas any negative changes fall as suddenly as an avalanche. 

Books enable us to see into lives we have no awareness of, and they also can reflect our own situations back at us, making us feel seen. I hope that any child who reads this book and is currently struggling will take Will’s resilience, determination and hope to heart and will keep going, keep working as hard as they can to do the best that they can, despite the obvious unfairness of it all.

It’s also my hope that any children who read this book and don’t have experience of Will’s situation might be able to reflect upon the additional challenges that Will faces, and by extension, the situations that some of their peers will be struggling with.  

The Wrong Shoes by Tom Percival is out now (Simon & Schuster, £12.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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