The Great Depression is a vital piece of American history, and understanding the importance of the Great Depression helps students to understand current politics and the economy. Stories that take place during the Great Depression often share similar themes that are fairly universal and easy to understand: inventiveness, overcoming difficulties, perseverance, independence, and so on. If you have a class of history-minded ESL students, they may enjoy reading and learning about the Great Depression. These are all middle-grade books and would be appropriate for low-intermediate to high-intermediate students (or advanced students if you have them read a larger volume of pages). They also contain a mix of poetry and prose books.
Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
When Billie Jo is just fourteen she must endure heart-wrenching ordeals that no child should have to face. The quiet strength she displays while dealing with unspeakable loss is as surprising as it is inspiring.
Written in free verse, this award-winning story is set in the heart of the Great Depression. It chronicles Oklahoma’s staggering dust storms, and the environmental–and emotional–turmoil they leave in their path. An unforgettable tribute to hope and inner strength.
What the Moon Said by Gayle Rosengren
Thanks to her superstitious mother, Esther knows some tricks for avoiding bad luck: toss salt over your left shoulder, never button your shirt crooked, and avoid black cats. But even luck can’t keep her family safe from the Great Depression. When Pa loses his job, Esther’s family leaves their comfy Chicago life behind for a farm in Wisconsin.
Living on a farm comes with lots of hard work, but that means there are plenty of opportunities for Esther to show her mother how helpful she can be. She loves all of the farm animals (except the mean geese) and even better makes a fast friend in lively Bethany. But then Ma sees a sign that Esther just knows is wrong. If believing a superstition makes you miserable, how can that be good luck?
Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool
Abilene Tucker feels abandoned. Her father has put her on a train, sending her off to live with an old friend for the summer while he works a railroad job. Armed only with a few possessions and her list of universals, Abilene jumps off the train in Manifest, Kansas, aiming to learn about the boy her father once was.
Having heard stories about Manifest, Abilene is disappointed to find that it’s just a dried-up, worn-out old town. But her disappointment quickly turns to excitement when she discovers a hidden cigar box full of mementos, including some old letters that mention a spy known as the Rattler. These mysterious letters send Abilene and her new friends, Lettie and Ruthanne, on an honest-to-goodness spy hunt, even though they are warned to “Leave Well Enough Alone.”
Abilene throws all caution aside when she heads down the mysterious Path to Perdition to pay a debt to the reclusive Miss Sadie, a diviner who only tells stories from the past. It seems that Manifest’s history is full of colorful and shadowy characters—and long-held secrets. The more Abilene hears, the more determined she is to learn just what role her father played in that history. And as Manifest’s secrets are laid bare one by one, Abilene begins to weave her own story into the fabric of the town.
Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
It’s 1936, in Flint, Michigan. Times may be hard, and ten-year-old Bud may be a motherless boy on the run, but Bud’s got a few things going for him:1. He has his own suitcase filled with his own important, secret things.2. He’s the author of Bud Caldwell’s Rules and Things for Having a Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself.3. His momma never told him who his father was, but she left a clue: flyers of Herman E. Calloway and his famous band, the Dusky Devastators of the Depression!!!!!!Bud’s got an idea that those flyers will lead him to his father. Once he decides to hit the road and find this mystery man, nothing can stop him–not hunger, not fear, not vampires, not even Herman E. Calloway himself.Bud, Not Buddy is full of laugh-out-loud humor and wonderful characters, hitting the high notes of jazz and sounding the deeper tones of the Great Depression.
The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis
“We are a family on a journey to a place called wonderful” is the motto of Deza Malone’s family.
Deza is the smartest girl in her class in Gary, Indiana, singled out by teachers for a special path in life. But the Great Depression hit Gary hard, and there are no jobs for black men. When her beloved father leaves to find work, Deza, Mother, and her older brother Jimmie go in search of him, and end up in a Hooverville outside Flint, Michigan. Jimmie’s beautiful voice inspires him to leave the camp to be a performer, while Deza and Mother find a new home, and cling to the hope that they will find Father.
The twists and turns of their story reveal the devastation of the Depression and prove that Deza truly is the Mighty Miss Malone.
Stella by Starlight by Sharon M. Draper
When the Ku Klux Klan’s unwelcome reappearance rattles Stella’s segregated southern town, bravery battles prejudice in this Depression-era tour de force from Sharon Draper, the New York Times bestselling author of Out of My Mind.
Stella lives in the segregated South; in Bumblebee, North Carolina, to be exact about it. Some stores she can go into. Some stores she can’t. Some folks are right pleasant. Others are a lot less so. To Stella, it sort of evens out, and heck, the Klan hasn’t bothered them for years. But one late night, later than she should ever be up, much less wandering around outside, Stella and her little brother see something they’re never supposed to see, something that is the first flicker of change to come, unwelcome change by any stretch of the imagination. As Stella’s community – her world – is upended, she decides to fight fire with fire. And she learns that ashes don’t necessarily signify an end.
Looking for Me by Betsy Rosenthal
One of 12 siblings growing up in depression-era Baltimore, Edith isn’t quite sure of who she is. Between working at her father’s diner, taking care of her younger siblings, and living in the shadow of her more mature sisters, Edith feels lost in a sea of siblings. When a kind teacher encourages Edith to be a teacher herself one day, Edith sees prospects for a future all her own. Full of joy, pain, humor, and sadness, this novel in verse is a wonderful look at the life of Edith Paul, the author’s mother, and is an enduring portrait (complete with family photos and an author’s note at the end) of one family’s pursuit of the American dream.
Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm
In Jennifer L. Holm’s New York Times bestselling, Newbery Honor winning middle grade historical fiction novel, life isn’t like the movies. But then again, 11-year-old Turtle is no Shirley Temple. She’s smart and tough and has seen enough of the world not to expect a Hollywood ending. After all, it’s 1935 and jobs and money and sometimes even dreams are scarce. So when Turtle’s mama gets a job housekeeping for a lady who doesn’t like kids, Turtle says goodbye without a tear and heads off to Key West, Florida to live with relatives she’s never met. Florida’s like nothing Turtle’s ever seen before though. It’s hot and strange, full of rag tag boy cousins, family secrets, scams, and even buried pirate treasure! Before she knows what’s happened, Turtle finds herself coming out of the shell she’s spent her life building, and as she does, her world opens up in the most unexpected ways. Filled with adventure, humor and heart, Turtle in Paradise is an instant classic both boys and girls with love.