When I was a kid in the early 70s I had an unusually good grasp of the Great Depression, at least compared with the average 8-year old. Part of this knowledge came from my parents, who were children during the Depression, but most of it came from the books I read, some of which were set during the Great Depression itself, and others of which took place at other less-prosperous points in history.
Even though the 1970s also featured two big-time recessions in the U.S., it was pretty clear to me growing up that things were much better in my lifetime than they had been during most times in history, that my own family had lots of options compared with the less fortunate, and that there are lots of creative ways to cope with economic stress. The families I read about were cool. They did things together, were both scrappy and loving, and always featured wise characters that helped the doubters focus on positive things. They dealt honestly with problems at hand but were also very clear about our capabilities as individuals (and as Americans) to cope with setbacks.
Here in New York City, where most people are in a lather over the recent upheavals in our financial system, I hear two kinds of worry: (1) worry about how they will fare in the future and (2) worry about protecting their kids from dislocation and stress. Lots of parents don't want their kids to worry about adult things like economic doom and gloom.
I think this is misguided. Not speaking honestly about reality is not a great way to raise kids. Kids have a good sense of what's going on. This doesn't mean that you should just download all your own frustration and fear onto them. An alternative is teaching them about making do, being satisfied with less, adapting to change, taking constructive action, and banding together. And all the books I read during childhood did just this.
Here are some of my favorites:
Cheaper by the Dozen, by Frank Gilbreth. A family of twelve kids growing up in the 20s and 30s. Their father was an operations engineer who was an expert in efficiency, so much of the book describes clever techniques he designs to encourage learning, get things done, and avoid chaos. As I kid I desperately wanted to be part of this family.
All of a Kind Family, by Sydney Taylor. A poor immigrant Jewish family with five girls living in New York during the early part of the 1900s. The kids deal with pedestrian issues (boredom, missing library books) as well as serious ones (scarlet fever, poverty) in the context of an ordinary family that is bound both by love and religious observance.
Little House on the Prairie (and others), by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The Wilder family faces economic ups and down as they move from one home to another; a cabin in the woods of Wisconsin, a house in Indian Territory (Oklahoma), a sod hut on the prairie, a nicer house in town in Minnesota, and so forth. I still remember what Laura Ingalls got for Christmas in the second book (in the chapter, "Mr. Edwards meets Santa Clause"): a tin cup, a penny, an orange, and some white sugar. Their economic position was never stable, but they found ways to be happy.
Little Britches, Ralph Moody. The story of a young boy growing up with his father on a hardscrabble ranch in Colorado in the early 1900s. There is a good balance between the physical adventures he experiences growing up and the ethical lessons he learns from his father, most of all the value of hard work.
The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times And Ideas Of The Great Economic Thinkers, Robert Heilbroner. Okay, this isn't really a children's book. Instead, it is an extremely readable and fun introduction to the shaping of economic theory over time. Read it together with your kids - it's a way to help them assert mastery over their lives through real knowledge instead of feeling victimized by mysterious economic forces. I read it when I was 12 and it empowered me.
Have other suggestions for great books? Please add them!
Michael Melcher is the author of The Creative Lawyer: A Practical Guide to Authentic Professional Satisfaction, a career development and career transition book for lawyers. He also writes the blog, The Creative Lawyer.