As you may be aware, we’ve been running a series of community partnerships with local nonprofits to support vulnerable members of the Portland community during the pandemic. We’ve been blown away by the generosity of our customers and fellow Portlanders, and wanted to share with you some of the books that have influenced our partnership decisions or otherwise informed the ways we think about community, humanity, and the small and large ways we can work as citizens and booksellers to make Portland a more equitable place.
The following books have not been endorsed by the below nonprofits, nor do they speak to the specific work they do. Rather, they provide necessary context for understanding the social and economic problems our partner organizations are working hard to solve — and are compulsive reads to boot.
Evicted is a superbly written, often harrowing case study of eviction in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that also shines a light on the income inequality and housing crises occurring in cities across the U.S. Matthew Desmond combines sobering research with fascinating portraits of the families and landlords trapped in a cycle of poverty and eviction, paying special attention to the plight of children. Given Portland's growing homeless population and housing shortage, which has been intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic, Evicted qualifies as a must-read. Written in 2016, it remains an essential, topical resource: sad, maddening, beautiful, and galvanizing.
Education expert Kozol’s groundbreaking 1988 book on homelessness remains an excellent introduction to the causes, realities, and faces of homelessness in America, particularly as it affects children. While the information is dated, it’s worth noting that today, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness, 1 out of every 30 kids in America is homeless; and as we know from the 2008 financial crisis and the ongoing economic impact of COVID-19, our financial institutions and lapses in government oversight, plus an emphasis on high-end residential development in many cities, are still contributing to high rates of housing insecurity and eviction. With its focus on interviews with homeless individuals and families, Rachel and Her Children is an absorbing and humanizing book that illuminates the difficulties of a dishearteningly large percentage of the U.S. population.
Edin and Shaefer’s eye-opening book is predicated on an incredible statistic: Well over a million American households survive off just $2 worth of groceries per person, per day. By embedding with families in very economically depressed areas of Chicago, Appalachia, and Mississippi, among others, Edin and Shaefer explore how insufficient welfare assistance, health, low wage jobs, and domestic violence impact families living on the edge, or help push them there. Like Desmond’s and Kozol’s books above, probably the most valuable aspect of $2.00 a Day is the way it makes more financially secure readers take a second look at how and why people are struggling to survive, and examine the things we do and don’t do as citizens and community members to ease their burdens.
A lot of booksellers at Powell’s, myself included, own and love this smart cookbook. Food policy expert Leanne Brown takes a food stamp budget and explores all of the fun, healthy recipes that can be made with a little kitchen skill and inexpensive pantry staples, seasonal produce, and cheap cuts of meat. Brown lists the total cost and cost per serving for each recipe, which vary from extremely low-cost meals based on pulses and grains to slightly more celebratory dishes like pulled pork and broiled fish. Brown also draws on diverse food cultures for inspiration, providing recipes and recipe ideas for curries, stir-fries, dumplings, casseroles, and more. Perhaps the very best part about this book is that you can download the free PDF or, if a physical copy is in your budget, the publisher will match your purchase by donating a copy to a person in need.
A fast, absorbing book, Maid uses a riveting personal story — Land’s struggle to leave an abusive relationship and support her young daughter on a housecleaning salary — to emphasize that people living on the margins are not lazy, stupid, or otherwise 100% responsible for our country’s absence of a comprehensive social safety net. Land’s discussions of how government benefits helped her family survive, but not thrive, are especially thought-provoking.
This beautiful dual-voiced memoir by acclaimed novelist James McBride chronicles his childhood and his white, Jewish mother’s successful efforts to raise 12 interracial children in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The twice-widowed Ruth McBride never admitted her whiteness to her children, insisting that “God is the color of water” and race an empty construct; she also rarely opened up about her past, choosing instead to focus on her children’s futures. Once grown, McBride convinces his mother to share her autobiography, a painful and astonishing story of immigration, abuse, loss, and accomplishment, and The Color of Water alternates between Ruth’s narrative and McBride’s reflections on growing up. The Color of Water doesn’t romanticize Ruth’s struggles or the parallels between her own childhood poverty and that of her children, but it is very much a love letter, in McBride’s indelible mix of gentleness and comedy, and not to be missed.
Well, obviously we think reading is magical, but it’s always nice to have research to back up our biases. Celebrated children’s author and emeritus education professor Mem Fox’s Reading Magic explores the benefits children receive from being read to. Start reading to children beginning in babyhood, Fox demonstrates, and watch their vocabulary, early reading skills, and imaginations flourish.
The gorgeously illustrated Planting Stories shares the biography of Pura Belpré, the first Puerto Rican librarian in New York City, who became famous for her children’s story hours, puppeteering, Spanish outreach, and writing. One note based on my own experience: this is the rare picture book that’s better suited for elementary students, as older children will have the patience for a longer story and can be engaged in a lively discussion about Belpré’s background, accomplishments, and the importance of public libraries and multilingual education.