Why My Family Reads Books with Working Class Characters

I’m driving down Lexington to drop off my daughter at her morning park and recreation camp. We pass over the railroad, and for the first time she notices the mobile homes to the right. It’s a “trailer court,” I tell her, and then I search for its synonyms: “trailer park…mobile home park.”

“What’s it like to live there?” She asks, and I can inform her from childhood experience. “It’s nice,” I say. “Your neighbors are near you, and when I was a kid, we biked all around the park to hang out with our friends. You just have less storage. No top floor. No basement.”

I realized that when I had read Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo a few months before she hadn’t been able to picture the setting. The main character resides in a mobile home with her pastor father.

I like reading books with low-income settings to my kids. I want them to be aware that not everyone else lives as we do—even in the United States.

My kids live in a home with much more wealth than I had as a child. I notice this especially with my clothing. I savor the ease I have in no longer planning frequent washings so that I always have an outfit for the day. I can afford nicer brands so I don’t feel as awkward about my body when I try on clothing that fits my tall frame better.

As a college student, I was taken out for lunch after church by a dear older couple. We waited in the parking lot for someone else to come. A happy golden shepherd was romping in the lawn in front of us, and we all expressed our admiration.

“Why don’t you go out and play with it?” Asked the man. “I can’t,” I said. “I don’t want to dirty my dress.” My grandma had sewn a blue-green sleeveless dress scattered with tiny white flowers. Underneath I wore a blouse with a batten lace collar that I had saved for and ordered from JCPenney.

“My daughter wouldn’t have cared about her dress. She’d have been out there,” he responded gruffly. My cheeks pricked with shame.

It was the same blouse that I had ironed for an event at a camp where I worked, and when the borrrowed iron spit something dark, I vented in frustration. “It’s just a blouse,” said another coworker.

Except it wasn’t, because I didn’t know when I would be able to afford another one.

Today, I live in a household in which my husband has not only has a bathrobe for winter but a lightweight one for summer. I grew up thinking that not only was a bathrobe a luxury, actual pajamas seemed unnecessary. As a teenager, I wore my dad’s oversized scrub shirts to bed. When I now wear my dark red bathrobe in the summer, it passes through my mind that perhaps I too should find a different one for the season.

My kids have listened repeatedly to recordings of Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Quimby series, and I’m grateful for Ramona. Ramona’s house is one level with an unfinished basement. The house is two bedrooms until they add a room while the mom gets a part-time job. The family shares one bathroom. The dad works at a grocery store, and when he loses his job, they have to buy their cat Picky-Picky generic cat food. She turns her nose at it.

Novels have been shown to lift the hatch on our imagination toward empathy. Other than my husband’s rough go of unemployment, reading novels to my children about working class families may be the closest they’ll get to living in another kid’s shoes. I want my daughters to see that a working class lifestyle is another kind of normal. In the Ramona Quimby series and Because of Winn Dixie, the families thrive when relationships are healthy and life provides simple pleasures.

At the same time, I want my kids to acknowledge their privilege without pitying the other. May they not make assumptions that could shame others in the church for having less wealth, to roll their eyes at the friend who doesn’t want to get her dress dirty.

Even deeper, I think about the future of the church. I hope my daughters someday grow into church members who request when an activity is held for only adults that the church provides childcare in recognition that it’s turning away the parents who cannot afford a babysitter. That if they hear their church is hosting a gathering for the biggest givers (something that happens at a local church where I live), they’ll bring up one of their favorite Bible stories: the widow’s mite. Giving what you have–not how much you give—is what’s important to God.

In I Corinthians 11, the apostle Paul asked, “Do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing?” (NIV) because those who were wealthy were bringing their own rich foods to the communion service and eating it in front of their poorer counterparts. After scolding them for their treatment of the Lord’s Supper, he explains how each member of the body has differing gifts, and ends in chapter 12 with, “yet I will show you the most excellent way.” That way is love. And it is for walking in the way of love that my family reads and listens together to books with settings other than our own.

Heather Walker Peterson

Heather Walker Peterson

Along with being a mother to two young and remarkably different daughters, Heather Walker Peterson is a member of Redbud Writers Guild and Chair of the Department of English and Literature at University of Northwestern-Saint Paul.
Heather Walker Peterson