This month Celeste and María consider stories that examine issues of hunger, poverty and homelessness. In each of the stories, the characters are represented in a dignified and respectful manner. This week, they discuss The Lunch Thief, written by Anne C. Bromley and illustrated by Robert Casilla.
MARÍA: Rafael is hungry and tells his classmates that he forgot his lunch. The truth is that the new kid Kevin stole Rafael’s lunch. Rafael does not report him to prevent a potential fight. That week, Kevin steels Alfredo’s lunch and Karen Olmsted’s lunch. Rather than fighting, Rafael tries to get to know Kevin better. In this moment, he discovers that Kevin is from Jacinto Valley, a place where recent wildfires destroyed many people’s homes. On Saturday, Rafael and his family see Kevin walking toward Budget Motel with a bundle of laundry. “A lot of people from Jacinto Valley lost their homes, lost everything in those fires,” says his mother. On Monday, Rafael offers Kevin a full lunch bag.
Hunger is an experience affecting diverse populations. However, it is too common to see depictions of Latinx and/or immigrant characters and families as poor and hungry. I’m glad this book offers a different perspective. First, the white character and his family (interpretation based on the text and illustrations) are the ones directly affected by hunger. Second, like Maddi’s Fridge, it is a contemporary story set in an urban area in the United States. Third, the story provides a window into the power of nature to drastically change someone’s life from one day to another. I admire Rafael’s thoughtfulness. He decides to talk to Kevin, get to know him, rather than jumping into conclusions or using his fists to “solve” the problem.
CELESTE: I have been searching lately for books that would be relevant to kids affected by wildfires. This has not been on my radar for that list, and although the mention of wildfires is brief, it is, in a sense, the foundation of this story. The notion that poverty and hunger can be caused from a sudden change in one’s life circumstances is frightening but very real, and has been experienced by many, many children affected by recent wildfires.
MARÍA: Yes, the conversation between Rafael and her mom, although brief, is key in beginning to understand Kevin’s family struggles. While Rafael knows that the wildfires burned many numerous houses in Jacinto Valley, it is his mom who suggests that Kevin and his family might be living in the motel room for a long time. The mother mediating their observation could have supported Rafael in better understanding how real, how serious or how sad, Kevin’s situation might be. I’m not suggesting that Rafael couldn’t have developed those ideas by himself, but his mother can represent a support for him to have this conversation, just like we see in Maddi’s Fridge.
CELESTE: The mother’s comment might be limited, but I can imagine the gravity in her voice helping Rafael understand the difficulty of Kevin’s situation specifically, and the illustration on this page helps me understand this clearly. So often, difficult conversations between parents and children happen in the car because eye contact doesn’t need to occur and because everyone sits together closely, doing little else. I see the thoughtfulness in both characters’ eyes as they sit in the car. This is an especially striking image to me because the image on the previous page is so loud; the girl screams about her lunch being stolen is in stark contrast with the illustration of the car conversation.
When I first picked up The Lunch Thief, I was not attracted to the style of illustrations. However, the more I look at the book, I realize the illustrations add so much depth to the story and add so much to my reading. This is one of the purposes of illustrations in picturebooks. There is one double-page spread with Kevin looking down, looking sad and only one sentence, “Kevin doesn’t want to talk about the fires.” Instead, we are talking about them, talking about his hunger, because The Lunch Thief started the conversation.
Author: Anne C. Bromley
Illustrator: Robert Casilla
Publisher: Tilbury House Publishers
Date Published: June 15, 2010
Throughout June 2019, Celeste and María give their takes on books that look at hunger, poverty and homelessness. Check back each Wednesday to follow the conversation!