Reading fiction books about characters going through hard or scary times can increase a reader’s natural sense of empathy, which makes it easier for them to empathize with other people in real life situations. For kids going through hard times themselves, reading about people living in similar situations can give them a sense of hope and belonging.
Here is a list of picture, chapter, middle grade, and young adult books that focus on themes of homelessness, loss, confidence, hope, and empathy.
Dear Librarian - Lydia M. Sigwarth (Picture Book) When Lydia was five years old, she and her family had to leave their home. They hopped from Grandma's house to Aunt Linda's house to Cousin Alice's house, but no place was permanent. Then one day, everything changed. Lydia's mom took her to a new place ― not a house, but a big building with stone columns, and tall, tall steps. The library.
Stay - Bobbie Pyron (Chapter) Piper’s life is turned upside down when her family moves into a shelter in a whole new city. She misses her house, her friends, and her privacy—and she hates being labeled the homeless girl at her new school.
No Fixed Address - Susin Nielsen (Middle Grade) en Español Twelve-and-three-quarter-year-old Felix Knutsson has a knack for trivia. His favorite game show is Who What Where When; he even named his gerbil after the host. Felix's mom, Astrid, is loving but can't seem to hold on to a job. So when they get evicted from their latest shabby apartment, they have to move into a van. Astrid swears him to secrecy; he can't tell anyone about their living arrangement, not even Dylan and Winnie, his best friends at his new school. If he does, she warns him, he'll be taken away from her and put in foster care.
Simon B. Rhymin' - Dwayne Reed (Picture Book) Eleven-year-old Simon Barnes dreams of becoming a world-famous rapper that everyone calls Notorious D.O.G. But for now, he's just a Chicago fifth grader who's small for his age and afraid to use his voice. Simon prefers to lay low at school and at home, even though he's constantly spitting rhymes in his head. But when his new teacher assigns the class an oral presentation on something that affects their community, Simon must face his fears.
Carry Me Home - Janet Fox (Middle Grade) Twelve-year-old Lulu and her younger sister, Serena, have a secret. As Daddy always says, “it’s best if we keep it to ourselves,” and so they have. But hiding your past is one thing. Hiding where you live—and that your Daddy has gone missing—is harder.
Fly Away Home - Eve Bunting (Picture Book) A homeless boy who lives in an airport with his father, moving from terminal to terminal trying not to be noticed, is given hope when a trapped bird finally finds its freedom.
The Old Man - Sarah V. (Picture Book) Day breaks over the town. Get up, everybody! It's time to go to school. For the old man too, it's time to wake up. The night was icy and he's hungry. His name? He doesn't know . . . This is the story of a person with no job, no family, no home―a nobody, who can't even remember what he was once named. But his day changes when he is noticed by a child
Almost Home - Joan Bauer (Middle Grade) When twelve-year-old Sugar's grandfather dies and her gambling father takes off yet again, Sugar and her mother lose their home in Missouri. They head to Chicago for a fresh start, only to discover that fresh starts aren't so easy to come by for the homeless.
A Dog Called Homeless - Sarah Lean (Chapter) en Español Cally Fisher knows she can see her dead mother, but the only other living soul who does is a mysterious wolfhound who always seems to be there when her mom appears. How can Cally convince anyone that her mom is still with the family, or persuade her dad that the huge silver-gray dog belongs with them?
The Exact Location of Home - Kate Messner (Middle Grade) Kirby "Zig" Zigonski lives for the world of simple circuits, light bulbs, buzzers, and motors. Electronics are, after all, much more predictable than most people--especially his father, who he hasn't seen in over a year. When his dad's latest visit is canceled with no explanation and his mom seems to be hiding something, Zig turns to his best friend Gianna and a new gizmo--a garage sale GPS unit--for help.
Lily and the Paper Man - Rebecca Upjohn (Picture Book) Walking home with her mother one day, Lily runs into a gruff and untidy-looking man selling papers on the street. Lily is afraid of the man, but when the weather turns cold, she sees the Paper Man differently.
Paper Things - Jennifer Jacobson (Middle Grade) When forced to choose between staying with her guardian and being with her big brother, Ari chose her big brother. There’s just one problem — Gage didn’t actually have a place to live. How can Ari keep up with school, her best friend, and middle-school applications when she’s “couch surfing” — a night here with Gage’s friend in a tiny apartment, a night there with Gage’s girlfriend and her two roommates — and even, when necessary, sneaking into a juvenile shelter?
Parked - Danielle Svetcov (Middle Grade/YA) Jeanne Ann is smart, stubborn, living in an orange van, and determined to find a permanent address before the start of seventh grade. Cal is awkward, sensitive, living in a humongous house across the street, and determined to save her. Jeanne Ann wants Cal's help just about as much as she wants to live in a van.
Still a Family - Brenda Reeves Sturgis (Picture Book) A little girl and her parents have lost their home and must live in a homeless shelter. Even worse, due to a common shelter policy, her dad must live in a men's shelter, separated from her and her mom. Despite these circumstances, the family still finds time to be together. They meet at the park to play hide-and-seek, slide on slides, and pet puppies. While the young girl wishes for better days when her family is together again under a roof of their very own, she continues to remind herself that they're still a family even in times of separation.
The Great Jeff - Tony Abbot (Young Adult) Life hasn't been great for Jeff Hicks. After years at his beloved St. Catherine's, he's forced to spend eighth grade in the public middle school, which he hates. He's no longer speaking to his former best friend, Tom Bender, because of "that burned girl" Jessica Feeney. But worst of all, his family is changing, and it's not for the better. When his mom comes home announcing that she's lost her job, Jeff begins to worry about things far beyond his years: How will they pay the rent? Will his absentee dad step up and save the day? Is his mom drinking too much? And ultimately, where will they live?
The Can Man - Laura E. Williams (Picture Book) Tim's birthday is just a week away, and more than anything he wants a skateboard. But money is tight, and Tim knows his family cannot afford to buy him a board. As Tim ponders how he might earn money for a skateboard, he hears The Can Man down the street collecting empty soft drink cans. The clang of the cans in the homeless man's cart gives Tim an idea. He will collect cans too, and cash them in for the redemption money. By the end of the week, Tim has almost reached his goal--until a couple of chance encounters with The Can Man change everything.
Crenshaw - Katherine Applegate (Middle Grade) en Español Jackson and his family have fallen on hard times. There's no more money for rent. And not much for food, either. His parents, his little sister, and their dog may have to live in their minivan. Again. Crenshaw is a cat. He's large, he's outspoken, and he's imaginary. He has come back into Jackson's life to help him. But is an imaginary friend enough to save this family from losing everything?
The Family Under the Bridge - Natalie Savage Carlson (Picture Book) Armand, an old man living on the streets of Paris, relishes his solitary life in the beautiful city. He is happy with his carefree existence, begging and doing odd jobs to keep himself warm and fed. With simple pleasures and no cares, what more could he need, Then one day just before Christmas, Armand returns to his favorite spot beneath the bridge to find three cold and hungry children. Although he has no interest in children, Armand soon finds himself caring for the small family. It does not take Armand very long to realize that he must do whatever it takes to get them a real home.
How to Steal a Dog - Barbara O'Connor (Chapter/Middle Grade) en Español Georgina Hayes is desperate. Ever since her father left and they were evicted from their apartment, her family has been living in their car. With her mama juggling two jobs and trying to make enough money to find a place to live, Georgina is stuck looking after her younger brother, Toby. And she has her heart set on improving their situation. When Georgina spots a missing-dog poster with a reward of five hundred dollars, the solution to all her problems suddenly seems within reach. All she has to do is "borrow" the right dog and its owners are sure to offer a reward. What happens next is the last thing she expected.
A Place to Stay: A Shelter Story - Erin Gunti (Picture Book) This simple, touching picture book shows readers a women's shelter through the eyes of a young girl, who with her mother's help, uses her imagination to overcome her anxiety and adjust. Includes factual endnotes detailing various reasons people experience homelessness and the resources available to help.
Just Under the Clouds - Melissa Sarno (Middle Grade) To climb a tree, always think in threes and you'll never fall. "Two feet, one hand. Two hands, one foot," Cora's father told her when she was a little girl. Now Cora is in middle school, her father is gone, her family is homeless, and Cora has to look after her younger sister, Adare, who needs a lot of looking after. When their room at the shelter is ransacked, Cora's mother brings them to an old friend's apartment, and Cora hopes this will be a place she can finally call home. When doubt seeps in, Cora makes an escape of her own and discovers something that will change how she sees her family and her place within it.
Sorta Like a Rock Star/All Together Now! - Matthew Quick (Middle Grade/YA) Amber Appleton lives in a bus. Ever since her mom's boyfriend kicked them out, Amber, her mom, and her totally loyal dog, Bobby Big Boy (aka Thrice B) have been camped out in the back of Hello Yellow (the school bus her mom drives). Still, Amber, the self-proclaimed princess of hope and girl of unyielding optimism, refuses to sweat the bad stuff. But when a fatal tragedy threatens Amber's optimism--and her way of life, can Amber continue to be the rock star of hope?
Hold Fast - Blue Balliett (Middle Grade/YA) Where is Early's father? He's not the kind of father who would disappear. But he's gone . . . and he's left a whole lot of trouble behind.As danger closes in, Early, her mom, and her brother have to flee their apartment. With nowhere else to go, they are forced to move into a city shelter. Once there, Early starts asking questions and looking for answers.
The Double Life of Zoe Flynn - Janet Lee Carey (Middle Grade) After her father loses his job and the family is forced to live in their van, Zoe's life is turned upside down and she must work hard to keep her situation a secret from everyone in her life, including her best friend, while also trying to come to terms with the life she must now lead.
No Place - Todd Strasser (Young Adult) It seems like Dan has it all. He’s a baseball star who is part of the popular crowd and dates the hottest girl in school. Then his family loses their home. Forced to move into the town’s Tent City, Dan feels his world shifting. His friends try to pretend that everything’s cool, but they’re not the ones living among the homeless. As Dan struggles to adjust to his new life, he gets involved with the people who are fighting for better conditions and services for the residents of Tent City. But someone wants Tent City gone, and will stop at nothing until it’s destroyed...
The Girl in Between - Sarah Carroll (Young Adult) In an old, abandoned mill, a girl and her ma take shelter from their memories of life on the streets, and watch the busy world go by. The girl calls it the Castle because it's the biggest place they've ever stayed, a home of her own like no other. The windows are boarded up and the floorboards are falling in, but for her neither of those things matter. Then developers show up, and it's clear that their lives are about to change forever. Desperate to save their refuge from the Authorities and her mother from her own personal demons, the girl seeks out the ghosts of the mill. And with only Caretaker—the old man who's slept outside the mill for decades—around to answer her questions, she begins to wonder what kind of ghosts are haunting both the mill and her mother.
Aunt Pearl - Monica Kulling (Picture Book) Aunt Pearl arrives one day pushing a shopping cart full of her worldly goods. Her sister Rose has invited her to come live with her family. Six-year-old Marta is happy to meet her aunt, who takes her out to look for treasure on garbage day, and who shows her camp group how to decorate a coffee table with bottle caps. But almost immediately, Pearl and Rose start to clash ― over Pearl’s belongings crammed into the house, and over Rose’s household rules. As the weeks pass, Pearl grows quieter and more withdrawn, until, one morning, she is gone.
No Parking at the End Times - Bryan Bliss (Young Adult) Abigail's parents never should have made that first donation to that end-of-times preacher. Or the next, or the next. They shouldn't have sold their house. Or packed Abigail and her twin brother, Aaron, into their old van to drive across the country to San Francisco, to be there for the "end of the world." Because now they're living in their van. And Aaron is full of anger, disappearing to who-knows-where every night. Their family is falling apart. All Abigail wants is to hold them together, to get them back to the place where things were right. But maybe it's too big a task for one teenage girl. Bryan Bliss's thoughtful debut novel is about losing everything—and about what you will do for the people you love.
Killing Time in Crystal City - Chris Lynch (Young Adult) Crystal City called for him, and Kevin answered. And why wouldn’t he? His relationship with his father is broken—as is his arm. With barely anyone to miss him or care if he’s gone, it seemed like the perfect time for Kevin to run away to his estranged uncle and create an entirely new identity. New name. New attitude. New friends. Maybe even a new girl. From the first moment of adventure, Kevin’s life takes a turn for the exciting. Making friends seems easy with his new persona, especially when a group of homeless beach bums instantly includes him in their crew. But do they like the real Kevin, or the guy he’s pretending to be? And will this new lifestyle help Kevin escape from the misery of his former life—or will it drag him right back into the reasons he left home?
Have you read any of these books? How do they help convey hope and empathy?