The fictions of poverty: Food insecurity and children’s literature

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Day, Dian
Children's literature , Poverty , Food insecurity , Arts-based research
In this dissertation I examine the ways in which ideas about poverty and poverty-related food insecurity circulate within children's middle grade fiction. Through a variety of approaches, I examine how this literature, as a literature of and for the powerless, creates and supports the socioeconomic and political status quo. I begin by reviewing the existing secondary literature on poverty in children's books before turning to a study of the way food and food insecurity more specifically make an appearance in middle school literature. I explore the ways three common tropes operate with particular strength within stories about food insecurity: that of gender (especially mothering); the association of poverty with ignorance; and the taken-for-granted superiority of middle-class values and knowledge. Overall, these books’ singular focus on individual solutions to overcoming food insecurity renders invisible both the pervasiveness of systemic barriers and the possibilities of collective action to counter inequities. Looking to move beyond a mere recognition and critique of the issues present in extant texts I create a fiction of my own, in an arts-based research project, that strives to address the most taken-for-granted but nonetheless problematic of these stereotypes; the graphic novel script for Stuffing the Bus tells the story of two young protagonists, one of whom is food insecure, who explore the difficult issue of food insecurity without easy answers or individualistic solutions—but I also remain focused, ultimately, on telling a good story. In a subsequent section, I explore the writing process and my writerly decisions in depth as I worked to create a story that provides a critical counterpoint to entrenched economic inequities. I conclude that individually- and charity-focused solutions to food insecurity only serve to support their perpetuation, and that real change towards fewer hungry and food insecure children (and adults) will come only through community-supported efforts toward systemic change. I hope that creating new fictions will contribute to that work.
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