At Kirkus, we’ve written frequently about undoing the white default. Over the past few months, I’ve been thinking more and more about another default. Historically, kid lit has often positioned middle-class or wealthy families as the norm. These books didn’t necessarily mention class explicitly but made their protagonists’ socioeconomic status very clear. Think of the protagonist of Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy (1964), whose family lived in a sprawling Upper East Side townhouse and employed both a nanny and a cook, or Judy Blume’s suburban-dwelling characters, whose many worries never included money woes.
But I’m happy to see more tales that offer counternarratives, including several recent picture books that center working-class and lower-income families. Although these books address realities such as not making rent or juggling multiple jobs, they’re nevertheless joyful, warm depictions—mirrors, to adopt the term introduced by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishops, that will speak volumes to children in similar situations.
With Papá’s Magical Water-Jug Clock (Minerva, June 6), illustrated by Eliza Kinkz, comedian and actor Jesús Trejo draws from his own childhood for the story of a boy who accompanies his gardener father to work. Tasked with keeping track of a supposedly magical water jug on this sizzling-hot day (when the jug is empty, it means their job is complete), young Jesús doles out water a bit too freely and soon runs out…but there are still 11 houses left. Papá reveals that the “magical” jug was his attempt at making their work more fun, which spurs Jesús to find other ways to enliven the day. Trejo and Kinkz strike a tricky balance, making it clear that this Latine family works hard while depicting their experiences through the eyes of a child who’s just thrilled to spend time with his dad.
Laura James’ My Mother Was a Nanny (Groundwood, Sept. 5) follows a girl of Caribbean descent whose mother’s many roles—nanny, supportive sister, office cleaner—never keep her from being an attentive parent. Though busy Mummy often shoos the protagonist away, her actions and words make the book’s message clear: “I always have time for you.” Inspired by her own experiences growing up, James brings it all to life with beautifully textured acrylic illustrations. At one point the protagonist takes home discarded pencils and markers from a graphic designer’s office that Mummy cleans—a seemingly small but important moment in the life of a burgeoning young artist.
Jonathan Hillman’s The Wishing Machine (Simon & Schuster, Oct. 17) depicts a bittersweet trip to a laundromat. Sam and Mom, both light-skinned, love seeing their friends each Sunday, but it’s their last visit, since they can’t afford to stay in their own apartment and must move into Grandpa’s trailer. Making a fervent wish on the coins inserted into the washing machines, young Sam runs around asking the other customers about their own desires. Nadia Alam’s soothingly muted artwork depicts the laundromat as a cozy anchor in an uncertain world. The story is a pitch-perfect blend of the real and the fantastical; when Sam believes the wish has come true, Mom gently clarifies that it hasn’t but emphasizes that as long as the two of them are together, they’ll always be happy.
Mahnaz Dar is a young readers’ editor.