“The University for the Poor”: Portrayals of Class in Translated Children’s Literature

by Danielle E. E. Forest, Kasey L. Garrison Garrison & Sue C. C. Kimmel - 2015

Background: Scholars of children’s literature have been investigating portrayals of females and racial groups for several decades, yet few have examined depictions of social class. Research on social class depictions in children’s literature is needed in order to identify books that affirm children’s class identities and offer portrayals of socioeconomic diversity.

Focus of the Study: This study investigates portrayals of social class in 35 titles receiving the Batchelder Award or Honor between 2001 and 2013. The Batchelder Award recognizes outstanding translated books with international origins. International books for children were selected in this study because American titles are thought to be middle class in orientation; the researchers hypothesized that the international books might provide a more complex analysis of social class.

Research Design: The inductive approach to qualitative content analysis was utilized. At least two researchers read and coded each book in the sample. The researchers examined passages referencing social class as well as other cultural constructs such as race/ethnicity, gender, religion, and nationality.

Findings: The researchers identified several markers that served as indicators of social class status: living conditions, food, safety and protection, healthcare, leisure, education, occupation, residence, speech and mannerisms, clothing/dress, death rituals, and material possessions. Social class was often associated with other identities such as a character’s religion or ethnicity. Characters from typically marginalized class groups, such as the poor and the working class, were portrayed sensitively and with dignity.

Conclusions: The markers of class identified in this study may serve as a framework for other researchers interested in examining class in children’s literature or media. The findings may help teachers and teacher educators identify and select books that realistically and respectfully portray members of different social classes.

Social class membership “penetrates our lives and shapes our feelings and behaviors as much as any other socio-cultural force” (Storck, 2002, p. 362). This observation is an astute one. Class position affects many facets of daily life: where we live, the mode of transportation we take, what schools our children attend, what schools we attended ourselves, what our school experiences are like (Anyon, 1981), how we speak, what clothes we wear, and our access to goods and services. In addition to class position’s impact on lived experiences, class and class-related issues have permeated the American media in recent years. As Jones and Vagle (2013) noted, media stories about the U.S. economic recession and related events like the Occupy Wall Street movement and the subprime mortgage crisis have demanded our attention. Likewise, according to Savage et al. (2013), “there has been a striking renewal of interest in the analysis of social class inequality” (p. 220), as underscored by the British Broadcasting Corporation’s large-scale Great British Class Survey. A recent issue of Psychological Inquiry was devoted to social class, an aspect of identity that Kraus, Tan, and Tannenbaum (2013) believed “will become a very important part of psychological research in the future” (p. 131). Given this increasing visibility, open discourse about class is as timely as ever, particularly for practitioners and scholars of education.

In this paper, we discuss our investigation of social class depictions in award-winning children’s literature. The field of children’s literature has mostly overlooked social class as a subject of discourse and research (Kelley & Darragh, 2011; McLeod, 2008; Sano, 2009), instead focusing on other cultural constructs. It has been decades since Nancy Larrick’s (1965) landmark piece about racial group representations in books for young people, and many studies since then have examined race as well as gender. Though class is often grouped with race and gender in critical perspectives of education and children’s literature (McLeod, 2008), class has received little attention. A broad review of the literature revealed only a few studies examining social class portrayals in books for young people (e.g., Glenn, 2008; Kelley & Darragh, 2011; Kelley, Rosenberger, & Botelho, 2005; Rawson, 2011; Sano, 2009; Swindler Boutte, Hopkins, & Waklatsi, 2008). None of these studies examined international or translated literature for children.

Depictions of class, like other cultural constructs such as race and gender, deserve attention in children’s literature scholarship. Books for young people are influential and hold potential for shaping their values and ideas about the world as well as their self-perceptions (Apol, 2002; Kohl, 2007; Swindler Boutte et al., 2008). When youth do not see reflections of themselves in the books they read, they may experience feelings of marginalization and a lower sense of self-worth since texts show readers what is ideal or what is “normal” (Apol, 2002; Jones, 2008; Kohl, 2007). Jones, an educational researcher with working class origins, recalled that it was not until fourth grade when she encountered a book with which she could identify:

Turning through pages and reading with extraordinary speed with eyes wide and mind spinning, I found, for the very first time, a slice of a world inside a book that was familiar to me. . . . Though I had lived through four full years of schooling and had surely read and had dozens if not hundreds of stories or books read to me, my memory clearly falls to The Headless Cupid as the “first” book. (2008, p. 47)

Jones did not identify with books or with reading until encountering a working class family like her own in literature. We believe all children should be able to connect with literature by finding people like themselves in it. Apol (2002) even contended literature can not only be powerful, but “life-changing” (p. 59) for readers when they connect with texts. Given the power of literature, understanding the content of the books children read is imperative in order to determine what kind of perspectives and messages are constructed and related to young people.

In terms of social class depictions, children’s literature is a means of showing youth the range of class groups and class-related realities of people throughout the nation and the globe. In a society like the United States with class-based neighborhood segregation (Nietzel & Chafel, 2010) and an educational system stratified by class (Anyon, 1981), children may not see individuals from different class locations other than through literature, especially since the mass media normalize the middle and upper classes and largely ignore the poor and working class (hooks, 2000; Perks, 2007). American books may further normalize American stereotypes about social class. With the ever-widening gap between rich and poor (Hill, 2012; hooks, 2000) and overt class conflicts related to the economic recession (Jones & Vagle, 2013), children’s literature becomes increasingly important as a means for (1) fostering students’ awareness of class differences and (2) developing understanding of and respect toward socioeconomic diversity. Understanding what class groups are portrayed and how they are portrayed in children’s literature merits analysis by educational researchers.

While a few studies have examined depictions of social class in children’s literature, none of this research included award-winning titles translated into English and published in the United States. Translated titles are especially interesting sources for analyzing a social construct such as class since they represent a unique form of global, multicultural literature: They are created and published in another language and country before immigrating to the United States for publication and dissemination to English-speaking U.S. youth. We believed that using international literature in this study might provide a more complex analysis of social class compared to American literature for two reasons. First, the myth of the United States as a “classless” society (Holtzman, 2000; hooks, 2000; Ostrove & Cole, 2003) might be reflected in popular literature. Second, a middle class norm pervades mass media, and some scholars believe children’s literature tends to feature middle class characters and themes (Jones, 2006a, 2008; Kohl, 2007). International literature, we reasoned, may not have these limitations, especially since people in other parts of the world (e.g., Europe) tend to be more open about social class than Americans (Langston, 1988).

Furthermore, the translated titles in this study are by definition books that were originally written in another language in another country. Since 1968, the Mildred L. Batchelder Award has been awarded to the publisher of the most distinguished translated book for children published in the previous year. The award is given by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association. The criteria states the translation should not be “unduly Americanized,” meaning the reader should be able to tell that the book came from another country (ALSC, 1987). In this respect, we reasoned that translated books would offer sufficient contrast to American literature so that readers might be able to view social class and issues related to social class from an outside perspective.

The research presented here addresses three main goals. First, our discussion aims to encourage scholars and teacher educators to give social class and its implications greater consideration in research and practice related to children’s literature. Second, we hope to draw attention to translated literature as a potentially rich resource for examining social class and other cultural constructs in a context that is not “unduly Americanized.” Finally, through this research, we begin building a framework for examining social class in books for young readers. With the glaring visibility of social class differences in these economic times and increasing class inequality (Hill, 2012; hooks, 2000; Jones, 2006b; Kelley et al., 2005), it is important for teachers and teacher educators to understand what messages about social class are communicated in literature available to young readers. Should these translated titles offer a more complex perspective on social class than the middle class orientation of American literature (Jones, 2006a, 2008; Kohl, 2007), we believe the Batchelder books may give students an opportunity to experience socioeconomic diversity through literature. In a country with greater income inequality than at any time since the 1920s (Tierney, 2013), we believe it is critical to examine social class in literature and identify books that may present realistic images of class.


In our review of the literature, we discuss social class and children’s literature to contextualize our study. We begin by considering definitions and perspectives about social class in the United States. Following this, we review the research on cultural group representations in books for young readers, including the few deconstructions of social class we have identified in the literature.


Some researchers have noted that social class has received less scholarly attention compared to other social constructs such as gender and race (e.g., Ostrove & Cole, 2003; Thein, Guise, & Sloan, 2012). One reason for this could be the difficulty in defining it: There is little agreement on how class should be defined (Hill, 2012; Holtzman, 2000). Storck (2002) offered a useful explanation, which is used in part to operationally define class in our study. According to Storck (2002), class is “a large group of people who share the same degree of access to physical, economic and social resources (material and social capital), and are perceived as belonging to similar status locations within local and/or global hierarchies” (p. 365). Similarly, media scholar Diana Kendall (2011) mentioned resources in her definition of class, though she added “type of work” and income as defining characteristics (p. 21), while Hill (2012) included education level as a construct tied to social class membership. Indicators like access to resources and capital are also found in discussions of class by early theorists such as Marx and Engels (1908).

There is further disagreement about the class systems existing in the contemporary United States (Hill, 2012; Holtzman, 2000; Kendall, 2011; Storck, 2002). Kendall (2011) employed the six-tiered class system described by Dennis Gilbert and Joseph Kahl (1982, as cited in Kendall), which includes the upper, upper middle, middle, working, working poor, and homeless classes. In a study of social class and its impact on what children learn in school, Anyon (1981) observed and described four classes: executive elite, affluent professional, middle class, and working class. Others like Storck (2002), Hill (2012), and Rawson (2011) utilized a basic, three-tiered system consisting of an upper, middle, and lower class in describing social class. In short, there is no standard, widely acknowledged definition of class or the number of existing classes, and these factors can complicate discourse about class.

In addition to the lack of a common definition of class, scholars cite other reasons why class is less examined compared to other social constructs. For one, class has fewer physical markers compared to race and gender, which makes it hard to identify another’s class status (Ramsey & Dickson, 1991; Temple, Martinez, & Yokota, 2006; Van Galen, 2000). James Minor’s (2012) observation of impoverished college students with middle class accoutrements like iPhones adds to this contention: An individual’s class position is difficult to pinpoint when everyone owns an iPhone or some other ubiquitous marker of disposable income. hooks (2000) has also argued that consumerism obscures class differences.

Further, Americans generally consider class a taboo topic (Holtzman, 2000; Sanders & Mahalingam, 2012). This is unsurprising given that many subscribe to the myth of the United States as a “classless society” (Holtzman, 2000; hooks, 2000; Neitzel & Chafel, 2010). The myth is perpetuated since people belonging to the same class tend to live in the same neighborhoods (Holtzman, 2000; Iceland & Wilkes, 2006; Neitzel & Chafel, 2010), and this “residential segregation” limits interaction with people of other classes (Iceland & Wilkes, 2006, p. 248). Meanwhile, Americans blame poverty and low socioeconomic status on personal failure (Heilman, 2004; Kelley et al., 2005), and some even believe social class is a personal choice (Ostrove & Cole, 2003). These beliefs are consistent with the mythology of the American dream—that anyone willing to expend effort can achieve economic success. Yet these views are misguided: as Donaldo Macedo warned in his introduction to Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Freire, 1970/2000), “it is an enormous mistake, if not academic dishonesty, to pretend that we now live in a classless world” (p. 13).


In contrast to studies about social class in books for young readers, research on race and gender appear much more frequently in children’s literature scholarship. Nancy Larrick is often given credit for initiating examinations of cultural identity in books for young people (Temple et al., 2006). In Larrick’s 1965 article entitled “The All-White World of Children’s Books,” she found that fewer than 7 percent of the 5,000 children’s titles she evaluated between 1962 and 1964 included African or African-American characters. Larrick insisted the scant number of African Americans depicted in literature was damaging for all children. Children of color would not have the opportunity to have their racial identity validated through books, while White children would be led to believe in the dominance of the White race. “There seems little chance of developing the humility so urgently needed for world cooperation, instead of world conflict, as long as our children are brought up on gentle doses of racism through their books,” Larrick noted (1965, p. 63).

Other scholars of children’s literature have followed Larrick’s (1965) lead in studying the portrayals of other marginalized groups. Weitzman, Eifler, Hokada, and Ross (1972) investigated depictions of women in books given the Caldecott Award and Honor for outstanding illustrations; they found women were shown in subservient, passive roles. Like Larrick, Weitzman et al. contended these depictions were damaging to children. They noted that when youth are led to believe that males and females occupy separate roles, choosing to enact or reject a traditional gender role could be stifling or stigmatizing. Analyses of race and gender in books for children continue to the present day. Studies of recent years include Clark’s (2007) analysis of females and African Americans in Caldecott and Newbery books, and Crabb and Marciano’s (2011) evaluation of gender roles in Caldecott titles.

Recently, scholars have begun to expand analyses of cultural representations in children’s literature to include constructs such as sexual orientation, disability, and religion (e.g., Rawson, 2011). Rawson examined 248 award-winning and popular, bestselling fiction titles for young adults and compared characteristics of the protagonists with actual demographics in the United States, including gender, race, religion, lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender (LGBT), and socioeconomic status. Findings suggest that award-winning titles are more likely than teen choice or bestselling titles to feature non-White, LGBT, or various religious affiliations.

Social class is often discussed in association with race and gender (McLeod, 2008). Race and gender depictions in children’s literature have been studied for decades, but this is not the case for class depictions. Only a handful of children’s literature research studies have examined portrayals of social class: Sano (2009) stated that social class in children’s literature has been “largely understudied” (p. 2561). A few of the existing studies examined poverty exclusively. Kelley and Darragh (2011) and Kelley et al. (2005) analyzed titles from a sample of books depicting characters living in poverty. Kelley and Darragh (2011) found women were depicted as poor more frequently than men, which mirrors poverty demographics according to their comparison to recent U.S. Census data. However, this analysis also found that rural poverty is depicted in books less often than it occurs in real life. Earlier, Kelley et al. (2005) examined poverty in realistic fiction titles and revealed themes perpetuating stereotypes about the poor. For instance, they noted these titles promoted the belief in individual responsibility for class status and economic circumstances. They contended these themes fail to show children how structural inequalities contribute to one’s position in the class hierarchy. Moreover, these themes are dangerous in their reinforcement of “dominant ideologies that blame the poor, herald individualism, and support the idea that people can or should pull themselves up by their bootstraps” (Kelley et al., 2005, p. 29). The ideology of individualism is not limited to books depicting poverty. Patrick Shannon (1986) found 29 of 30 Children’s Choices books he studied portrayed characters acting from an individualistic, rather than a collaborative or community-oriented, social perspective.

A few other researchers have noted social class stereotypes in literature for young people. Sano (2009) compared social class depictions in Caldecott titles to books frequently read in classrooms for English Language Learners (ELLs). The ELL books depicted working class characters more often than the Caldecott books, which usually portrayed middle class “professional workers” (Sano, 2009, p. 2574). Sano believed the frequency of working class depictions communicates the expectation that ELLs will someday take on blue-collar jobs like “farmhands” and “factory workers” (p. 2574). Swindler Boutte et al. (2008) uncovered a similar stereotype. Their study of 29 frequently read children’s books determined that 80 percent of White characters were middle class compared to 40 percent of African-American characters; higher class status was thus more often associated with Whiteness. These studies indicate books for children may communicate unfortunate stereotypes related to social class, language, and race, though such stereotypes are not limited to books for young children. Glenn (2008) observed an influx of young adult novels featuring wealthy, high society teens (e.g., Gossip Girl and The A-List) that glamorize the vapid, superficial attitudes of their protagonists. Meanwhile, these titles denigrate ethnic minorities and lower classes when they depict Latinas as sex objects, for instance, or show main characters pitying those beneath the upper crust. These negative images extend to other forms of media; communication researchers such as Butsch (1992), Kendall (2011), and Perks (2007) have also observed class stereotypes in television shows, news stories, and films.

These analyses of social class portrayals in children’s literature indicate a clear need for greater understanding and dialogue about social class, and this is even more urgent given the negative stereotypes about lower social classes appearing in some books. Considering this need, the purpose of our research was to analyze portrayals of social class in books honored with the Mildred L. Batchelder citation, an award given for outstanding translated literature for children (ALSC, 2012). Translated literature, we believed, would help to broaden these discussions of social class. Our research was guided by the following research questions:

1. How are various social classes depicted in Batchelder Award and Honor titles published since 2000?

a. What kinds of markers designate class?

b. In what ways does class intersect with other cultural constructs (e.g., gender, race/ethnicity, religion)?

This study borrows two key assumptions from Luke’s (1995/1996) description of critical discourse analysis: (1) no text is neutral or free of ideology, and (2) texts build cultural understanding and form constructs of social identity (e.g., what it means to be a woman or an African American). In other words, texts are “normative, shaping, and constructing rather than simply reflecting and describing” (Luke, 1995/1996, p. 19). Since texts play an important social and cultural role, and children’s literature in particular is a “vehicle for education and repository of cultural values” (Swindler Boutte et al., 2008, p. 944), it behooves readers to deconstruct the cultural understandings present in books and assess the ways they may privilege or marginalize different groups of people. Grounded in these assumptions of the powerful nature of literature, we analyzed the texts in the present study with an emphasis on social class.


This study employed an inductive approach to qualitative content analysis to analyze the Batchelder titles. Using Berg’s (2001) definition of this technique, categories emerge from the text rather than being predetermined. This approach was justified for two reasons. First, there is lack of agreement regarding how social class is defined and how it should be categorized in the U.S. context (Hill, 2012; Holtzman, 2000). Second, the data source is a set of translated books originally published outside of the United States, and several titles are classified as historical fiction. Since scholars disagree on how to define class in the contemporary United States (Hill, 2012; Holtzman, 2000), it would be problematic to apply a strict definition of class to stories set in foreign countries or historical times. Thus, an inductive approach best matched this study’s purpose.

To begin, we operationalized a general definition of social class based on the perspectives described in the literature review. Storck’s (2002) description serves as the base of our definition: A social class is a group of people with similar social status and access to resources. As Kendall (2011) and Hill (2012) have noted, the type of work an individual performs and his or her level of educational attainment are also considerations for describing class. Thus, the definition of social class that we initially used took into account access to goods and resources like food, housing, clothing and other articles, occupation, and education level.

Table 1. Process of Content Analysis


Researcher Actions


Independent reading of 12 Award books (award years 2001–2012) and line-by-line coding.

Research team met to come to a consensus about codes. Differences were reconciled to come to full agreement of codes.

20 Honor books (2011–2012) were read and coded by two researchers; codes were checked by the third researcher.

2013 books were read and coded by two researchers and codes were checked by the third researcher.

All codes were entered into a spreadsheet.


Passages in spreadsheet were analyzed for types of references to class.

Categories such as “living arrangements” and “safety” were developed. These were called markers, or indicators, of class.


Categories developed in Phase 2 were collapsed into two broad categories: Access to Resources and Outward Markers.

Relationship of social class to cultural constructs like gender and race was analyzed.

Data was analyzed in three phases as summarized in Table 1. In the first phase of data collection, the three researchers each read the 12 Batchelder Award books published between 2000 and 2011 (award years 2001 to 2012) and independently marked passages that referenced social status or access to resources. At this phase of the study, titles available electronically were coded on Amazon Kindles using the note and highlight functions. Also, because of the prevalence of studies looking at other cultural constructs in relation to class (noted in our literature review), we decided to code passages for six other cultural constructs at this point in the study (race/ethnicity, nationality, gender, religion, disability, and immigration status). While class was our primary interest in this phase, we wanted to examine how these cultural constructs related to social class since “social identities are always experienced in conjunction with each other” (Ostrove & Cole, 2003, p. 681). Then, the three researchers met to discuss any discrepancies and come to consensus. Instances of social class were entered into a spreadsheet for further analysis, and data on other cultural constructs was retained.

After independent coding, the research team met to discuss each book and reach agreement on the most salient and illustrative examples of these cultural constructs and social class, coding these on a fourth Kindle. Discussions often focused on the amount of a passage needed to contextualize the content or passages that one or more researchers had overlooked. Discussions were rarely disagreements about whether the passage in question was about social class or not.


Some passages were very straightforward to code because social class was explicitly referenced. For example, in this passage Malika in The Shadows of Ghadames (Stolz, 2004) describes her family’s class status in this way: “My mother, like all the women of high birth in Ghadames, hasn’t set foot outside the house since her marriage, except to go to the baths” (loc. 502–504). Other references to social class were subtler. In A Time of Miracles (Bondoux, 2010), the team identified the following passage as reflective of social class because of the reference to lice and low bodyweight: “My playmates are Emil, Baksa, Rebeka, Tasmin, and Faïna. They are thin and lice-ridden, as supple as eels. Some speak Russian like me, others not, but children don’t need words to understand each other” (Bondoux, 2010, loc 153–154).

Following this development of a shared understanding of how to identify passages about social class and how much context to capture, each of the 20 Batchelder Honor books was read and coded by at least two members of the research team. The third researcher also read the book, and then examined and confirmed the codes agreed on by the first two researchers. This process was repeated when the three 2013 Batchelder titles were announced in January 2013. After every book was read and coded, each passage was compiled into a spreadsheet for analysis. This completed the first phase of analysis.

In the second phase of analysis, the passages that were identified and entered into the spreadsheet in phase one became the unit of analysis. Table 2 below shows an example of a passage through each stage of analysis. Members of the research team read each passage and identified the type of references made to social class. Some interesting categories began to emerge in this phase, such as “where you sleep” and “death rituals” that were apparent in multiple titles. Valerie in When I Was a Soldier (Zenatti, 2005) made us especially aware of “where you sleep” as a marker of social class with her comment about there being “. . . nothing as middle class as sleeping in a bed” (p. 212). These kinds of references were compared to each other in order to develop categories such as living conditions, housing, occupation, educational attainment, material possessions, dress, and access to food. These markers are similar to those used by Sano (2009) in her analysis of Caldecott titles and books frequently read in ELL classrooms. At this phase in the analysis, it was also possible to group passages by the other six cultural constructs and note how these impacted class status.

Table 2. Example of the Progression of a Passage Through Each Phase of Analysis


Unit of Analysis

Coded For



Each line of the 35 books

References to social class

The homeless man who used to sleep here at night hadn’t been around since the spring. “Maybe they . . . krrrk!” Bekka made a motion at her throat. But I didn’t believe that. I figured he was working for the Reich somewhere.

After all, we constantly heard how the Führer took people from the streets and gave them work. (Voorhoeve, 2012, p. 14, ibooks version)


Passages from Phase 1

Markers of social class

Shelter, where you sleep, safety, work


Markers of social class

Kinds of markers of social class

Access to resources: shelter and safety

In the third phase of analysis, the research team holistically considered the categories identified in Phase 2 in order to distinguish major themes. For example, the discussion about “where you sleep” led to the distinction between access to resources and outward markers of social class. Having a place to sleep often related directly to a character’s access to both shelter and safety. In Son of a Gun (de Graaf, 2012), the child soldiers sleep in trees where they are less vulnerable than on the ground, and in the example in Table 2, the homeless man is potentially a victim of violence or enforced work. On the other hand, there were also references to a neighborhood or house as reflective of relative status. Categories related to basic needs for survival such as food, shelter, and healthcare were classified as access to resources while more enduring indicators such as houses, occupation, or speech were classified as outward markers. Patterns were also sought among the passages coded for other cultural constructs, revealing that gender, race/ethnicity, and religion were most frequent. References to nationality or immigration status and social class were usually more about ethnicity or religion. The very few passages about disability and social class related to access to health care and are included in the discussion about that category.

Only three picture books were included in the sample: Big Wolf and Little Wolf (Brun-Cosme, 2009), Garmann’s Summer (Hole, 2008), and Henrietta and the Golden Eggs (Johansen, 2002). There was also one graphic novel, A Game for Swallows: To Die, To Leave, To Return (Abirached, 2012). Since 2000, Batchelder Award winners and Honors have more often gone to chapter books than to picture books (Garrison & Kimmel, 2014). When books did include pictures, they did not convey information about characters and their class positions that was not already communicated in the texts, so a decision was made not to include illustrations in this analysis.


The sample of children’s literature analyzed in this study included 35 Batchelder titles, 13 Award and 22 Honor books. (See Appendix A for a bibliographic list of the titles.) The Batchelder Award is given to U.S. publishers that have published English translations of children’s books originally published elsewhere in an effort “to encourage international exchange of quality children’s books” (ALSC, 1987, para. 1). The Batchelder Award recognizes books identified for children up to age 14, but we have observed that some of them may appeal to older teens. The books represented various genres: non-fiction, historical fiction, contemporary realism, and fantasy. They were mostly in a novel, chapter book format, but a few picture books were also included in the sample as previously noted. An annotated list of the 35 titles is included in Appendix B.


Results indicated this sample of international children’s titles included varying portrayals and descriptions of the different social classes. These findings begin to create a foundation for the development of a framework to analyze social class in children’s literature. The class indicators we identified are discussed first, and our findings about how social class interacts with other social identities like gender and ethnicity follows.


In the development of our framework for analyzing depictions of social class in children’s literature, we found rich and diverse portrayals in these 35 translated titles. Since the indicators of class that we identified were broad, we divided them into two main categories as mentioned in the discussion of the study’s third phase. These two categories were: (1) characters’ opportunities and access to resources, and (2) outward, visible class markers. These main categories are shown in Table 3 along with their corresponding subcategories and an example of a coded passage that fell into each.

Opportunities and Access

Social class was indicated in the Batchelder books by the kinds of opportunities and access characters had to resources. These resources were essential, helping characters meet basic needs like shelter, food, safety, and healthcare. Access to leisure and education were also relevant indicators of class status.

Living Conditions. The conditions of characters’ living arrangements were often tied to their social class status. Soldiers were barracked according to rank and passengers berthed on ships by class. The wealthy Ahmed Mudhi in Tiger Moon (Michaelis, 2008) sleeps in a bedroom with wall-to-wall mirrors; Adam in An Innocent Soldier (Holub, 2005) rolls out of the hay in the morning; and Nopi is forced to sleep in a tree as she is on the run from rebel soldiers in the Liberian civil war (Son of a Gun, de Graaf, 2012). Servants sleep apart, such as Elna, a maid who sleeps on a “wooden settle” (The Lily Pond, Thor, 2011, p. 30). Living arrangements are also something that can be taken away. In A Time of Miracles (Bondoux, 2010), the family’s farm is requisitioned by the military. Again and again in the books set in Nazi Germany, such as Daniel Half Human and the Good Nazi (Chotjewitz, 2004), A Faraway Island (Thor, 2009) and My Family for the War (Voorhoeve, 2012), families are forced to move out of their homes into modest apartments shared with other families or strangers.

Food. Getting enough to eat is a clear struggle for many characters in poverty. Some exchange labor, material goods, and even a bear cub for food in Soldier Bear (Tak, 2011), while others beg for coins or handouts from churches. Other characters describe having enough to eat because they have a garden or can hunt for food. The wealthy do not necessarily eat well in comparison. In How I Became an American (Gündisch, 2001), Johann describes the rich as intentionally not eating as much in order to be thin, and the prince in Moribito (Uehashi, 2008) realizes that his food was always cold because it had to be tested for poison before he could eat. In extreme conditions such as the Napoleonic Wars, even money has no value compared with bread:

Thousands of kopek pieces have spilled onto the dirt. What riches! But no one is interested. If only it were bread. What would we do with metal coin? There’s nothing to buy with it, and money would only weigh us down. (An Innocent Soldier, Holub, 2005, loc. 1937–1939)

Table 3. Categories and Markers of Social Class



Example (Quotation)

Opportunity and access

Living conditions

“Back then we were living in the basement of an old house,” Mosca explained. “Riccio, Hornet, and me. It was over in Castello. You can always find a place there. No one wants to live there anymore. It was awful: wet and cold and we were always ill and we never had enough to eat.”

“You may as well say it straight: We were in deep trouble,” Riccio interrupted him impatiently.

“‘You can’t live in a rat hole like this,’ is what Scipio told us.” (The Thief Lord, Funke, 2002, loc. 2638–2651)



They all took for granted their clean, well-ironed clothing and enjoyed thick sausage slices in their sandwiches at recess, whereas Armin’s clothes, though clean, were rumpled. At best he brought along a piece of bread and butter for recess; when times were not so good, plain bread; when worse, nothing.
He came to the Christianeum at the time of the economic crisis, when many Germans were extremely poor and often went hungry. For Armin and two others from so-called socially weak families, the school kindly provided glasses of fresh milk and raisin bread. Armin liked the raisin bread, but he hated sitting with the shoemaker’s twins from the parallel class at the ‘asocial table.’ (Daniel Half Human and the Good Nazi, Chotjewitz, 2004, p. 143)


Safety and protection

As a prince he had taken it for granted that he should be protected, but now he knew how precious this protection was. (Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, Uehashi, 2008, p. 237)



In a poor country like Kanbal, only four out of every ten children survived. (Moribito II: Guardian of the Darkness, Uehashi, 2009, p. 176)



In this mud everywhere I dream of being dry. I dream of a big plate of rice and meat. I dream of watching football on TV. I dream of being able to read. I dream of my sister hearing me. I dream of finding my parents. (Son of a Gun, de Graaf, 2012, loc. 460–465)



But May believes the Social Democratic Party is in the process of changing all that, and that the most important thing is for people like her, ‘ordinary people,’ as she says, to have the opportunity to get an education and become decision makers in society.” (The Lily Pond, Thor, 2011, p. 43)

Outward indicators


Of course, there were clear lines of distinctions between the warriors and the Herders. The Herders worked for the warriors, not the other way around. They never went to school, and they never married warriors or even commoners. They remained Herders all their lives. But Kassa spent most of his time with them after school, tending goats on the crags. Likewise, Gina and his mother worked with Herder women and girls weaving woolen cloth and tilling the fields—jobs his mother far preferred to spending time with her brothers’ wives. (Moribito II: Guardian of the Darkness, Uehashi, 2009, p. 73)



On both sides of the street, it’s just one house after another, and none of them have decent dung heaps. That means the people who live in town can’t be especially rich. Although the houses all look big and grand. Perhaps the rule about dung heaps in front of houses doesn’t apply in town. Perhaps the people who live here are rich, even though they don’t have any livestock. All the time we were driving, the farmer didn’t say a single word to me. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. He never talks much to the help. The hands and maids and laborers he just tells what to do, or else he shouts at them. (An Innocent Soldier, Holub, 2005, loc. 142–146)


Speech and mannerisms

As she listened to them, Balsa made a mental note to train Chagum to speak less formally. Nothing ever fazed Tanda, but any ordinary person who heard him talk would stare at him in surprise and wonder what noble family he came from. (Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, Uehashi, 2008, p. 87)



They were wearing weird clothes. Definitely not Lacoste. (The Pull of the Ocean, Mourlevat, 2006, p. 35)


Death rituals

Eliss didn’t get a gravestone, because we didn’t have any money. (How I Became an American, Gündisch, 2001, p. vii)


Material possessions

These brass vases represent the fortune of every self-respecting family, and we would have to be reduced to dire poverty before ever selling them. (The Shadows of Ghadames, Stolz, 2004, loc. 374–375)


Safety and Protection. Safety for the wealthy characters seems to be a matter of perception and they are often worried about protecting their property from theft. As a narrator in The Pull of the Ocean explains: “The owners are rich people who spend two months out of the year by the seashore and the rest of the time live in fear of having their summer homes ‘visited’” (Mourlevat, 2006, p. 149). The poor are more likely to be accused of being thieves if they have any material goods or money. Myna in The Crow Girl (Bredsdorff, 2004) is questioned for having a beautiful shawl and Stephie in A Faraway Island (Thor, 2009) is accused of stealing money when she tries to pay for something in a shop. Often, the very poor and desperate do resort to stealing food or clothing in order to survive. In The Thief Lord (Funke, 2002), Scipio ostensibly feeds his homeless friends by bartering items he has stolen from the rich, but it turns out he has been stealing from his own father. When he is discovered, he accuses the family maid who is then dismissed from her job.

The poor in the Batchelder books are more likely to be victims of abuse and crime, even from their own families. In The Pull of the Ocean (Mourlevat, 2006), Yann leads his brothers to run away out of fear that their abusive father plans to kill them. Daniel, a wealthy boy, and Armin, his working class friend, contrast the punishment each expects from their fathers:

After a while Armin said, “My old man’ll beat me to a pulp.”

“Not mine; he never beats me,” Daniel said. “He’ll just keep quiet, never speak to me again.”

“Lucky you,” Armin said. “Mine never shuts up. He’s been in a rotten mood ever since they took him off unemployment.” (Daniel Half Human and the Good Nazi, Chotjewitz, 2004, p. 19)

In The Killer’s Tears (Bondoux, 2006), Angel murders the impoverished parents of Paolo and the readers are told, “This was not Angel’s first crime. Death was commonplace where he came from. It put an end to debts, drunken disputes, women’s deceptions, neighbors’ betrayals, or simply ended the monotony of a dull day” (p. 3). In Moribito (Uehashi, 2008), two servants die saving the prince. Such sacrifice is expected of the poor as we are told in Brave Story (Miyabe, 2007): “‘And you think that makes you more likely to be sacrificed?’ Wataru asked them. ‘Sure. Why, our bodies are the only things of value we have left’” (loc. 9523–9529). Wealthy characters were concerned about protecting themselves from the poor, while the poor were more likely to be victims of violence or crime.

Healthcare. Related to the issue of safety and bodily harm, healthcare and decent sanitation are also issues for those who cannot afford them. Lice were a matter of fact in the poor conditions described in many of the Batchelder titles. A favorite game of the young Jewish refugee Jurek is to extract his lice from his clothes and make them walk in a line while he tends sheep (Orlev, 2003). In a letter, Stephie’s father describes the convalescence of her mother, a Jew in Nazi Germany, “If only we had good, nutritious food, I am sure she would soon be completely healthy” (Thor, 2009, p. 216). Samir, a young Palestinian boy, has to leave his family for a Jewish hospital where he will get an operation needed to fix his leg; he realizes the alternative, “I’d be walking on crutches all my life. Like the sahlab seller who doesn’t have the money to get an artificial leg” (Samir and Yonatan, Carmi, 2000, p. 19). Young Nopi in Son of a Gun (de Graaf, 2012), whose hearing was damaged by artillery fire in the Liberian conflict where she fought as a child soldier, also despairs that the operation she needs in order to hear again will not be affordable.

Leisure. Leisure is viewed as related to expendable income. The poor dream of it in the Batchelder titles. “The really rich have a piano shipped in from New York and get a telephone,” according to Johann in How I Became an American (Gündisch, 2001, p. 85). Samir, a Palestinian, reflects on the image he has from the media of the more affluent Jews: “Maybe in their homes they live quiet lives, like the series on television. Sitting around sculpting in clay, eating rolls with sour cream and chocolate crispies” (Samir and Yonatan, Carmi, 2000, p. 85). Leisure is something the Jews in Nazi Germany remember having lost:

In those days, the Steiners were still an ordinary family, taking the streetcar, going to movies and concerts, enjoying vacations. But less than a year after the picture was taken, the Nazis invaded Austria, annexing the country to Germany. Things the Steiner family had always taken for granted were suddenly prohibited. Forbidden to all people like them, to Jews. (A Faraway Island, Thor, 2009, loc. 294–297)

Lucky in Son of a Gun (de Graaf, 2012), whose family was stripped of their home and possessions as a result of civil war, dreams of better days when he will be able to watch football on television and learn how to read.

Education. Reading and education are often depicted as activities allowed only to the upper classes; education is a luxury for the poor. In How I Became an American (Gündisch, 2001), it is not unusual for children to leave school to go to work in factories to support their families. In several titles, less affluent children require scholarships in order to attend school, and in others, families struggle to pay for an education for their children. As Nopi and Lucky’s father says, “From this ‘curse’ [diamond mining] we will have enough to pay your school fees” (Son of a Gun, de Graaf, loc. 277). Other families tell their children that without an education, they will go nowhere in life—or have no money. Young Nicholas elucidates: “And then Dad would say I’d never get anywhere in life, I would be poor, and people would say, ‘Oh, that’s Nicholas who got such bad scores at school!’ and they’d all point and laugh at me” (Nicholas, Goscinny, 2005, p. 59). Farhad, the thief in Tiger Moon (Michaelis, 2008), weighs the value of philosophy as “a branch of knowledge offering very few financial incentives. Thinking too much about this, that, and the other never made you rich. It got you either thoroughly confused or put you in prison” (p. 51). In other books such as Moribito (Uehashi, 2008), an education as a “Star-Reader” is seen as a way from the lower class into upper class status, and in Tiger Moon (Michaelis, 2008), the young British girl Eleanor reflects the colonial idea that by educating the native Indian children she is making them into better, “brand-new people” (p. 132). In The Killer’s Tears (Bondoux, 2006), the murderer Angel, who knows nothing other than poverty, glimpses the potential he might have realized with an education:

He wished he were shrewder and better educated so as to be sure that this man was not going to trick him. He felt as if his small brain were locking thoughts inside, smothering and compressing them, and that his skull would never be large enough to let intelligence bloom. This thought cramped his face with pain. (p. 21)

Social class was evident in the Batchelder titles with characters’ opportunities and access to resources like healthcare, education and food. Outward indicators, explained next, were also important markers of class status.

Outward indicators

In the 35 Batchelder titles, outward indicators identified characters and situations reflecting class. These outward indicators were defined as visual markers of class, differentiating them from the more inferential nature of the opportunity and access category. Outward markers included occupation, permanent residence, speech and mannerisms, clothing and dress, death rituals, and material possessions.

Occupation. Occupation was noted as an important outward marker of social class. In many cases, the job that characters performed was a direct indicator of their social class. In How I Became an American (Gündisch, 2001), Johann describes his father’s job and how his wages affected other markers of social class like diet and dress:

My father was actually a weaver by trade, as was his father, and so for a while he worked as a weaver. Although the work paid little, we had enough to eat because my grandmother and mother raised a garden of potatoes, sugar beets, carrots and onions. They also grew field beets for the pig that we slaughtered at Christmastime, when it had put on some weight. When one of us needed shoes, however, my Mother had no idea how we were going to manage. (p. 3)

In the books dealing with the experiences of Jews in Nazi-occupied countries during World War II, the father’s loss of his job, usually as a lawyer or doctor, marked a turning point for the family where they began to slip into a lower class. In My Family for the War (Voorhoeve, 2012), Ziska talks about this: “Papa’s license to practice law was revoked today. We knew it was coming, but it’s terrible for him anyway, now that it’s happened” (pp. 21–22). The loss of their class status due to their Jewish descent and her father’s misfortune meant losing other markers of their class including their residence, material possessions, and leisure activities such as attending social functions like concerts and movies. Daniel’s father in Daniel Half Human and the Good Nazi (Chotjewitz, 2004) has the same experience of losing his law license as a result of his marriage to Daniel’s mother, who has Jewish ancestry. In A Faraway Island (Thor, 2009), Stephie thinks about this sudden change when her father lost his job as a doctor:

“What about your family in Vienna?” Britta asks. “They’re rich, aren’t they?”

Stephie remembers the large apartment, the beautiful furniture, the soft rugs. She remembers her mother’s elegant clothes, her fur coats and hats. And Papa’s study with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, filled with leather-bound volumes. She remembers all the things they had to leave behind when the Nazis took their apartment and her father’s medical practice away from them. “Not anymore,” she answers curtly. (loc. 1412–1417)

As a marker of social class, occupation was connected to other activities. In A Time of Miracles (Bondoux, 2010), Gloria explains her father’s view of the revolution in the Soviet country of Georgia: “We were just small farmers, apple pickers! We had to leave politics and weapons to others!” (loc. 2039–2040). His thoughts imply that being a “simple laborer” means not participating in the revolution and being a political activist (Bondoux, 2010, loc. 2011). Further, characters in a lower class with blue-collar jobs were often associated with bars and drinking alcohol. This reference was explicit in Brave Story (Miyabe, 2007): “Wataru didn’t know much about people who went to bars, but judging from Katchan’s comments they weren’t the same class of people that, say, worked at his father’s company” (loc. 294–295). In Daniel Half Human and the Good Nazi (Chotjewitz, 2004), Daniel describes his best friend’s father as being a violent drunk, laid off from his blue-collar job: “Armin’s father was out of work. He sat in his regular dive for hours on end with his beer glass in front of him” (p. 5).

Residence. This outward marker of social class was defined as the homes and neighborhoods where characters lived. We distinguished residence from the marker called “living conditions” discussed in the opportunities and access category. We interpreted residence as an external structure where people live, while living conditions were a more malleable environmental context of characters (e.g., sleeping arrangements). In many of the books, there were explicit passages describing the residences of characters in both low and upper classes. Middle class residences were not described in detail. As one may expect, characters in lower social classes lived in meager and often unpleasant residences. The description of Yann’s home in The Pull of the Ocean (Mourlevat, 2006) expressed a dilapidated and unkempt place.

The farm was ugly and dirty. A huge heap of scrap iron was piled in the yard. Weeds were growing on top of it. Near the door of a shed, whose roof was falling apart, a large, skinny dog was barking. (p. 6)

Stephie’s friend May in The Lily Pond (Thor, 2011) is explicitly labeled as coming from a working class family and lives in a small one-bedroom apartment with her parents and six siblings in a neighborhood of similar homes and families.

The residences of upper class characters were described with rigor at the opposite extreme: clean, beautiful, and lavish. In A Game for Swallows (Abirached, 2012), Lebanese couple “Monsieur Khaled and Madame Linda lived on the top floor of a luxury high-rise building in the manara district, west of town. From their terrace, they had a view of the sea” (p. 101). The rich neighborhoods in Samir and Yonatan (2000) have much cleaner streets than the poorer areas where Samir lives. In The Thief Lord (Funke, 2002), Scipio’s house is described as a “palace” complete with a “courtyard with a fountain” (loc. 2278; 2286). Further, the upper classes seem to isolate themselves in the books. Stephie sees this in The Lily Pond (Thor, 2011): “ . . . of all the fancy addresses in Göteborg, the streets above the lily pond are the fanciest of all, with their brick homes closed off from the rest of the city in splendid isolation behind stone walls” (p. 43). This is also the case in the Moribito series (Uehashi, 2008; 2009), where high walls separate the royals from the mere nobles. In Brave Story (Miyabe, 2007), a Japanese traveler notes the class considerations city planners must have made when building:

The construction of the city of Solebria reflected with uncanny accuracy the class structure that ordered the daily lives of people in the north. In the center, surrounding the palace, stood the looming offices of the government. Beyond them lay the lavish arcade teeming with shoppers that formed the merchant district. Even further out were the homes of the city dwellers, all standing in their approved plots, gaily decorated with the requisite markers of wealth and individual taste. But the farther one strayed from the center of town, the shabbier things became. There was a deep moat between the city center and the outer ring of town, forming a rift, a natural line of separation that was clear to see from Mitsuru’s vantage point. (loc. 12772–12778)

In addition to these general descriptions of residences, there were a few instances where more explicit descriptions were included, marking a distinct line of separation between the residences of the lower and upper classes. In Daniel Half Human and the Good Nazi (Chotjewitz, 2004), Daniel’s reflection on his neighborhood and his best friend’s exemplifies this:

We two were an odd pair of friends. I lived on the Flottbeker Chaussee, a pinnacle of elegance toward which long stretches of lesser town houses aspired. . . . Whereas Armin lived here . . . Dockworkers, fish-factory workers, and people out of work who couldn’t afford to feed their families lived here. Barely. At night whores too old to drum up business on the Repperbahn stood around in courtyard entrances and alleys. . . . Like most people in this dirt-poor quarter, [Armin’s father] was a ‘Red,’ an old Social Democrat, and none too pleased when his son made friends with a ‘rich brat’ from the Flottbeker Chaussee. (p. 5)

The upper middle class teenagers in Nothing (Teller, 2010) make a more implicit description about such division:

We lived in Tæring, an outpost to a fair-size provincial town. Not swank, but almost . . . Neat, yellow-washed brick homes and red bungalows with gardens running all the way round, new gray-brown rows with gardens out front, and then the apartment houses, home to those we never played with. (p. 7)

Both of these passages note a clear separation of classes based on where people reside and the type of dwelling in which they live.

Speech and mannerisms. Speech and mannerisms, defined as the language and vocabulary characters used as well as the physical way they carried themselves, were an interesting outward indicator of class. In The Thief Lord (Funke, 2002), one character gives a good account of this code in her description of the wealthy Scipio. “‘But you,’ she looked at Scipio appraisingly, ‘you’re from a noble family, aren’t you? I can tell from the way you talk, even the way you walk’” (loc. 3918–3919). Linguistic differences in social class are also noted in An Innocent Soldier (Holub, 2005), where a lower class private and a “wellborn” lieutenant pose as French soldiers to capitalize on benefits in transportation:

The first chance we have, we part company with the French. Before the Guards notice the deception. They didn’t notice anything yet. Konrad warns me not to open my mouth. I’m to point to my mouth and mime dumbness. Konrad speaks French. At home, he speaks more French than German. As is the way with the aristocracy. Particularly when there are visitors, the style is French and cultured. (Holub, 2005, loc. 2194–2197)

Clothing/dress. The way characters dressed was revealed as an outward indicator of social class as well. Prosper, a homeless orphan, considers the wealthy Scipio’s clothes in The Thief Lord (Funke, 2002): “He was dressed like one of the rich kids Prosper had sometimes seen in expensive restaurants, sitting stiffly and eating with a knife and fork without spilling anything” (loc. 2241). Like their residences, the garments of lower class characters were described as undesirable and unfashionable. A girl observing the Doutreleau runaways in The Pull of the Ocean (Mourlevat, 2006) says, “They were wearing weird clothes. Definitely not Lacoste” (p. 35). The nomad bodyguard Balsa in the Moribito series notes her class difference in regards to dress when offered new clothes by the queen after Balsa saves the prince from drowning: “Balsa smiled. ‘Thank you, but I think I’ll be more comfortable wearing the clothes I’m used to. A commoner like me isn’t used to such luxury’” (Uehashi, 2008, p. 8). In Run, Boy, Run (Orlev, 2003), even underwear is considered a luxury item only the upper class could have by Maritsa, a poor farm girl. She voices this in a scene with Jurek: “A sudden breeze billowed her dress. ‘You’re peeking!’ she said. ‘That’s dirty.’ ‘No, I wasn’t. I couldn’t help seeing.’ ‘You wouldn’t have seen anything if I was rich.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Because then I’d wear panties’” (loc. 884).

Death Rituals. Even in death, social class was notable. The death rituals of characters emerged as an interesting, unanticipated outward indicator. In Tiger Moon (Michaelis, 2008), there was an explicit discussion about this at a cremation ceremony near the sacred Ganges River.

The wood that this other body could afford smelled of perfumes and expensive oils. The varieties of timber used for pyres were of as many kinds as the castes and histories of the dead burned on them. People were burned on a pyre that was right for them and the depth of their purses. The wood used to burn poor people was light in color, fibrous, and dry as straw. It smelled of nothing but ashes. (p. 266)

When Johann’s baby sister dies during the family’s immigration journey to the United States in How I Became an American (Gündisch, 2001), she does not get a tombstone because the family cannot afford one. The orphaned refugee Jurek notes burial differences among the classes in Run, Boy, Run (Orlev, 2003). “Apart from the tombstones, there were several structures that looked like little houses. These were old mausoleums in which nobles and rich landowners had been buried” (loc. 1670). Ironically, the homeless Jurek finds shelter in one of these same mausoleums for some time.

Material possessions. The final outward indicator of class we noted in the titles was the material possessions of characters. The upper classes were defined by what they had or what they were able to purchase. Middle class character Nicholas talks about his classmate’s family: “Geoffrey’s dad is very rich and buys him all the toys he wants” (Goscinny, 2005, p. 5). German immigrant Johann, who becomes Johnny upon his arrival to America, sees possessions including cars, phones, and pianos as being markers of the upper class. He notes, “Car owners were all very rich; we were poor compared to them” (Gündisch, 2001, p. 82). In The Lily Pond (Thor, 2011), Stephie’s landlady elaborates on the expensive possessions her upper class status permits her to have:

Mrs. Söderberg ranted on at Stephie about everything that could happen if she lost it [the house key]: the apartment could be broken into, the silver and the paintings could be stolen—“priceless works of art, you know”—the East Indian china might be broken, and the Persian rugs trampled with dirt. (p. 44)

When thinking about her own class change due to the Nazi occupation in Austria, Stephie notes her family’s possessions once included a number of luxury items such as her father’s books and her mother’s fur coats. Conversely, lower class characters were, in part, defined by items they did not possess, like Armin from Daniel Half Human and the Good Nazi (Chotjewitz, 2004).

Armin switched on the radio and turned the dial, hoping for a symphony as background to their game. He wished he had a radio in his room. But there was no chance of that. His parents didn’t even have one. (p. 39)

The data presented here begins to build our framework for analyzing social class in children’s literature. These examples illustrate how characters’ access to resources, like their ability to obtain an education, and outward indicators, like dress and speech, make class identity visible for readers. Although many of these markers are somewhat unsurprising, they reveal that social class is indeed visible in children’s books in spite of the lack of scholarship on this subject (McLeod, 2008; Sano, 2009). Next, we discuss how social class identities intersected with other cultural and social identities in these award-winning translations for children.

Interactions with Other Cultural Constructs

In addition to analyzing markers of social class, our investigation sought to examine the interactions of class with other cultural constructs coded for in the 35 Batchelder titles. The most notable findings included the constructs of gender, age, ethnicity, and religion.

Gender and age. Many of the characters in the Batchelder titles found their social class tied to characteristics such as gender or age. Women and children were often dependent upon a husband or father for their social class membership and economic well-being. Women, such as Raka in Tiger Moon (Michaelis, 2008), are considered the property of their fathers and husbands, and marriage is an economic contract. In this story, the bride’s virginity is a part of that contract, and upon discovering his bride is not a virgin, Raka’s new husband, Ahmed, has an angry reaction: “He had been cheated. He had been dishonored, fooled, tricked. He, the most powerful merchant of Jaisalmer, perhaps the most powerful merchant in the whole desert of Thar” (Michaelis, 2008, p. 433). In A Time of Miracles (Bondoux, 2010), Blaise describes the many homeless people migrating to his refugee camp including “laborers who’ve lost their jobs, old people who’ve gone soft in the head, sailors without ships, women without husbands, deserters” (loc. 333–336). In both The Shadows of Ghadames (Stolz, 2004) and How I Became an American (Gündisch, 2001), a female relative is described as having a decline or improvement in social class because of the death of a husband.

As children’s books, the Batchelders most often feature children as the main characters, and their social class is particularly vulnerable to the fortunes of their parents. In How I Became an American (Gündisch, 2001), women and children are left behind as husbands and fathers leave first for America, some never returning to their families. In A Time of Miracles (Bondoux, 2010), Gloria recognizes the bleak, undeserved prospects of her child and raises him to believe he is not her son or a Georgian, but a French citizen. This ruse does indeed require the French to give him citizenship, an education, and a good home. Yann, a little person who is also selectively mute, is considered another mouth to feed, but not a source of labor by his impoverished parents in The Pull of the Ocean (Mourlevat, 2006). In The Last Dragon (De Mari, 2006), parentless children are forced by orphanage managers to do hard labor with little or no food. Stephie, a refugee in Sweden with parents still in Nazi-occupied Austria, is expected to serve as a maid by the family who provides her a place to live while she attends school in The Lily Pond (Thor, 2011).

Ethnicity. Many of these titles were set in times of ethnic conflict, like the persecution of Jewish people during Nazi occupation, but also the Georgian conflict after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Palestinian-Jewish conflict, and the civil war in Liberia. In these cases, the social class of particular ethnic, racial, or religious groups was unstable. Jewish families were stripped of their jobs and forced to sell their belongings to support themselves. The Nazis treated Judaism as a racial characteristic rather than a religious one as evidenced by Daniel Half Human and the Good Nazi (Chotjewitz, 2004), where Daniel and his mother were not practicing Jews but were ostracized and threatened by the Nazis anyway due to her ancestry. This was also the case for Ziska, a practicing Christian labeled as a “Jew” because of her Jewish roots (My Family for the War, Voorhoeve, 2013). Samir alludes to a time when his family had wealth before the Palestinians were forced from their homes into territories (Samir and Yonatan, Carmi, 2000). In Son of a Gun (de Graaf, 2012), the family of siblings Nopi and Lucky had to leave their home several times as war and looting by rebel tribes threatened their safety; eventually, the children are kidnapped and forced to fight.

Religion. Religion was also tethered to wealth (or the lack thereof) and class. Farhad the thief carefully weighs the monetary value of the various religions in India:

Sometimes he visited one of the great temples to pray to the gods, and as chance would have it, he usually came out again with a handful of coins from the plate left out for offerings. He had tried going into the new British church, too, but the donation boxes there were kept well locked, so he decided against converting to Christianity. The Muslims were clever and had driven him straight out of their mosque. So Farhad remained a Hindu out of what might be called his economic convictions, and on the whole he looked after himself successfully. (Tiger Moon, Michaelis, 2008, p. 28)

In a few of the books, members of the noble class were considered direct descendants of gods, and religion dictated the social place of individuals. In Tiger Moon, Farhad is told he can never marry the princess because of his lowly caste and the fact that she is the daughter of the god Krishna (Michaelis, 2008). In other books, a commoner could not make fun of the king (An Innocent Soldier, Holub, 2005) or look into the eyes of royalty (Moribito, Uehashi, 2008) without expecting punishment or death. The royal characters in Moribito (Uehashi, 2008) maintained the family’s power by a myth integrated into the society’s belief system. Clearly, other social identities like gender, ethnicity, and religion were linked to the class status of characters in these books. Our findings in this study indicate that class is indeed an often-explicit construct in children’s literature, one that arguably deserves more attention in scholarship.


Examining social class and class hierarchy is critical in today’s world. In a 1993 study, Lichter and Eggebeen noted that disparities between rich and poor families have always existed, but this gap widened and accelerated during the 1980s. Twenty years after Lichter and Eggebeen’s work, class disparity is still prominent (Hill, 2012), and as Jones and Vagle (2013) indicated, increasingly visible. Jones and Vagle contended “it has arguably never been more important to seriously consider social class, class inequity, and the insidious ways classism penetrates curriculum, pedagogy, and experiences of schooling” (p. 130). In this context of class inequality and the visibility of class, the findings of this study are significant for several reasons. First, they add to the dialogue about class within education. Second, they advance a topic of critical discourse within children’s literature that has received little scholarly attention. To our knowledge, this study represents the only analysis of social class in translated, international titles, and it is one of only a few analyzing social class in books for young people. The inclusion of translated literature in this discussion of class allows for a more expansive and global understanding of the topic. Set in other times and places, these books allow the reader to view class from a distance. Finally, our discussion of class indicators can be useful for other researchers interested in analyzing social class in texts and media. Given the complications of defining and identifying social class, the indicators we identified (see Table 3) can serve as a coding framework for future analyses. Our hope is that other scholars will use this framework to advance understanding of how social class is represented in books and media created for children and young adults.

Overall, the portrayals of characters from lower social classes are positive. While such characters were sometimes depicted negatively, such as Armin’s drunk father in Daniel Half Human and the Good Nazi (Chotjewitz, 2004), and others were victimized, such as the many Jewish characters stripped of their possessions and status by Nazi occupation, many of these same characters exercised agency. Jurek in Run, Boy, Run escapes from the Warsaw ghetto and survives years of wandering (Orlev, 2003); Stephie demonstrates her grit and determination by pursuing her education in spite of her foster mother’s objections (The Lily Pond, Thor, 2011); and Ziska knocks on door after door to find a job for her mother (My Family for the War, Voorhoeve, 2012). Gloria and Blaise travel hundreds of miles on foot in order for Blaise to reach the security of France (A Time of Miracles, Bondoux, 2010), while Yann leads his brothers away from his impoverished and dysfunctional family (The Pull of the Ocean, Mourlevat, 2006). Though some lower class characters do not get idealized, happy endings at the end of the books, they are not passive victims of the unfortunate circumstances surrounding them. In our view, the lower class characters in the Batchelder titles are admirable.

Further, wealthy characters in the books were not glorified. According to hooks (2000) and Perks (2007), mass media in the United States tend to idealize the rich and depict the attitudes and consumption habits of wealthy people as normal, and these images influence how people perceive class groups. Members of the working class, for instance, feel devalued when they cannot acquire the material goods readily available to the rich (Perks, 2007). In the Batchelder books, the wealthy character Ahmed Mudhi was not exalted for his vast estate and numerous possessions (Tiger Moon, Michaelis, 2008). Rather, he was portrayed as a greedy villain. Besides Ahmed Mudhi and Stephie’s landlady in The Lily Pond (Thor, 2011), other rich characters were not shown as superficial or obsessed with consumption. Malika, the wealthy adolescent girl from The Shadows of Ghadames (Stolz, 2004), is compassionate as we see when she helps to hide a wounded man wanted by village authorities. Before Nazi occupation, both Stephie (A Faraway Island and The Lily Pond, Thor, 2009 and 2011) and Daniel (Daniel Half Human and the Good Nazi, Chotjewitz, 2004) came from wealthy families, and there is little evidence that either was snobbish or superficial before encountering poverty. For the most part, these books do not hold negative stereotypes about the rich like those observed by Glenn (2008) in her study of young adult novels depicting high-society teens.

One of our most interesting findings is the visibility of characters belonging to the lower class and experiencing very obvious downward social class mobility. Often these characters are portrayed empathetically and dynamically, like Prosper and Bo in The Thief Lord (Funke, 2002), Jurek in Run, Boy, Run (Orlev, 2003), Farhad in Tiger Moon (Michaelis, 2008), Samir in Samir and Yonatan (Carmi, 2000), and Blaise in A Time of Miracles (Bondoux, 2010). These characters and their experiences of downward mobility are antithetical to the “rags-to-riches” upward mobility stories so popular in American texts and media (Beller & Hout, 2006) and so embedded in the “American psyche” (Wyatt-Nichol, 2011, p. 259). With the Great Recession still a recent (and painful) memory in the United States, offering children books about losing one’s class status and encountering poverty would serve the interests of many children who know economic hardship. Since children should see themselves in the books they read, the stories of poverty and downward mobility in the Batchelder books can affirm the experiences of many children in American classrooms.

The Batchelder books can counter the dominant narrative of the American Dream myth that indicates hard work will result in upward social class mobility. These award-winning, international titles reveal to us that working hard does not always equate to achieving the affluence we are taught to aspire to and idealize in U.S. society. We understand this when we envision Blaise grasping for knowledge at the “university for the poor” where neighbors teach neighbors because there is no school for homeless refugees (A Time of Miracles, Bondoux, 2010, loc. 378). We see it again and again when Ziska cuts out of school early to locate a job for her mother (My Family for the War, Voorhoeve, 2012) or when children exchange “backbreaking work” for nothing more than a bowl of worm-ridden porridge (The Last Dragon, De Mari, 2006, p. 125). Contrary to the American Dream myth, these books depict downward social mobility and provide a more realistic portrayal of economic and class inequality than American media have typically presented. Children deserve to know the truth that systemic inequalities are often the root of poverty and class inequality in the world. Poverty is not a personal choice (Ostrove & Cole, 2003) nor is it always the result of personal failure or laziness (Heilman, 2004; Kelley et al., 2005). The Batchelder books permit young readers to understand how and why one can become poor, and perhaps the use of Batchelder books in schools can begin to chip away at the vilification of the poor so common in U.S. society (hooks, 2000).

As described in the literature review, American books and popular media often perpetuate unflattering images of the poor and working class. Books for young people, including those with characters living in poverty, also tend to stereotype members of the lower class (Kelley et al., 2005; Kelley & Darragh, 2011), which furthers that group’s sense of marginalization. Even with the historic myth of the public school system as the great social equalizer, schools are places where social class stratification is perpetuated, or in Anyon’s (1981) words, “reproductive” of the class system (p. 31). Research from Anyon (1981) revealed that some teachers have lower expectations of poor and working class children. Jones and Vagle (2013) argued that many educators lack class sensitivity and are less responsive to the needs of children from poverty or the working class. Yet if children are shown that coming from poverty or the working class is not something to feel ashamed of, perhaps negative perceptions and attitudes can change. Given the multifaceted, likeable, and engaging depictions of lower class characters in this set of books, the Batchelder titles are a promising means of working toward a goal of “class-sensitive pedagogy” (Jones & Vagle, 2013, p. 129). These international books do not privilege or normalize a certain social class while disparaging other class locations. Children reading these titles, regardless of their own socioeconomic status, will see positive representations of a diverse range of social class locations. These books can serve to validate children’s class identities and hold the potential to help them get past class biases and stereotypes permeating media and social discourse.

There are multiple ways that educators can use Batchelder books in today’s schools. Making them accessible through placement in school and classroom libraries is a starting point. In a literature-centric language arts curriculum such as Tompkins (2013) described, Batchelder books could be selected as main texts in literature focus units or as choices for student-led literature circles. Teachers could also use Batchelder titles as read-aloud to facilitate conversations about class, like Labadie, Pole, and Rogers (2013) did using picture books with class-related themes in a kindergarten class. Jones (2006a) also described how literature can be used to foster critical conversations; applying a critical literacy lens to texts can help students both connect and disconnect with what they read. We suggest that Batchelder titles could be paired with American titles having similar themes, and students could compare and contrast the titles and generate personal connections and disconnections with both texts. If it is true that American titles tend to be middle class in nature as some have contended (Jones, 2006a, 2008; Kohl, 2007), then we suspect that many young people, particularly those living in poverty or low-income households, may better relate to the circumstances of Batchelder characters than those of middle class American characters.

Though we would also like to recommend a set of American titles including positive depictions of the poor and the working class, the limited amount of research about class in children’s literature does not permit us to do so. In fact, scholars such as Jones (2008) and Kohl (2007) have observed the lack of books for children portraying these classes. Future studies about class representation in children’s literature might use the framework presented here to look at other text sets and identify titles with complex, realistic depictions of different class groups.

Although the Batchelder titles include positive images of poverty and socioeconomic diversity, the books are far from perfect in their depictions of social class and class differences. We observed that impoverished characters tended to appear in historical fiction and fantasy titles, while middle class characters were often shown in contemporary realism titles. When poverty appears in titles set in decades past or in fantasy stories, the implication is that poverty, too, is a thing of the past or something irrelevant to today’s real world. This is similar to Larrick’s (1965) finding that African-American characters were more often portrayed living outside of the U.S. or in historical times in children’s literature. Like Larrick’s finding, relegating poverty and social ills to historical and fantasy stories does a disservice to today’s children, who may be led to believe that the present is a time of abundance and affluence for most people. Future research should address whether titles originating in the United States also depict poverty more frequently in historical fiction books compared to those set in contemporary times. It is imperative that children see a variety of experiences in the books they read, especially as class disparities continue to expand and as children are exposed to diversity on a global scale as a byproduct of technological advances.

In sharing this work, it is our hope that others will understand the importance of addressing social class in educational and academic discourse. Class is less understood and less discussed than other social identities like race and gender, yet class shapes our school and life experiences in powerful ways. By understanding how class is represented in books for young people, we can take steps toward countering the dominant narrative that glorifies the wealthy, normalizes the middle class, and marginalizes the poor.


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Sample of Batchelder Award and Honor Titles (Award Years 2001–2013)

Abirached, Z. (2012). A game for swallows: To die, to leave, to return (E. Gauvin, Trans.). Minneapolis, MN: Graphic Universe.

Bondoux, A. (2006). The killer’s tears (Y. Maudet, Trans.). New York, NY: Delacorte.

Bondoux, A. (2010). A time of miracles (Y. Maudet, Trans.). New York, NY: Delacorte.

Bredsdorff, B. (2004). The crow-girl: The children of crow cove (F. Ingwersen, Trans.). New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Bredsdorff, B. (2009). Eidi (K. Mahaffy, Trans.). New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Brun-Cosme, N. (2009). Big wolf and little wolf (C. Bedrick, Trans.). Brooklyn, NY: Enchanted Lion Books.

Carmi, D. (2000). Samir and Yonatan (Y. Lotan, Trans.). New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine.

Chotjewitz, D. (2004). Daniel half human and the good Nazi (D. Orgel, Trans.). New York, NY: Richard Jackson Books.

de Graaf, A. (2012). Son of a gun (A. de Graaf, Trans.). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.

De Mari, S. (2006). The last dragon (S. Whiteside, Trans.). New York, NY: Hyperion/Miramax.

Funke, C. (2002). The thief lord (O. Latsch, Trans.). New York, NY: The Chicken House/Scholastic Publishing.

Goscinny, R. (2005). Nicholas (A. Bell, Trans.). New York, NY: Phaidon.

Goscinny, R. (2007). Nicholas and the gang (A. Bell, Trans.). New York, NY: Phaidon.

Gündisch, K. (2001). How I became an American (J. Skofield, Trans.). Peterborough, NH: Cricket Books/Carus Publishing.

Hole, S. (2008). Garmann’s summer (D. Bartlett, Trans.). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Holub, J. (2005). An innocent soldier (M. Hofmann, Trans.). New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine.

Johansen, H. (2002). Henrietta and the golden eggs (J. Barrett, Trans.). Boston, MA: David R. Godine.

Lehmann, C. (2000). Ultimate game (W. Rodarmor, Trans.). Boston, MA: David R. Godine.

Matti, T. (2010). Departure time (Nancy Forest-Flier, Trans.). South Hampton, NH: Namelos.

Michaelis, A. (2008). Tiger moon (A. Bell, Trans.). New York, NY: Amulet.

Miyabe, M. (2007). Brave story (A. O. Smith, Trans.). San Francisco, CA: VIZ Media.

Morgenstern, S. (2001). A book of coupons (G. Rosner, Trans.). New York, NY: Viking.

Mourlevat, J. (2006). The pull of the ocean (Y. Maudet, Trans.). New York, NY: Delacorte. (Original work published in 1999 as L’enfant Océan, Paris, Editions Pockey Jeunesse)

Orlev, U. (2003). Run, boy, run (H. Halkin, Trans.). New York, NY: Walter Lorraine Books/Houghton Mifflin Company.

Richter, J. (2007). The cat: Or, how I lost eternity (A. Brailovsky, Trans.). Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed.

Schyffert, B. U. (2003). The man who went to the far side of the moon: The story of Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins (E. Guner, Trans.). San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books.

Stolz, J. (2004). The shadows of Ghadames (C. Temerson, Trans.). New York, NY: Delacorte.

Tak, B. D. (2011). Soldier bear (L. Watkinson, Trans.). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Teller, J. (2010). Nothing (M. Aitken, Trans.). New York, NY: Atheneum.

Thor, A. (2009). A faraway island (L. Schenck, Trans.). New York, NY: Delacorte.

Thor, A. (2011). The lily pond (L. Schenck, Trans.). New York, NY: Delacorte.

Uehashi, N. (2008). Moribito: Guardian of the spirit (C. Hirano, Trans.). New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine.

Uehashi, N. (2009). Moribito II: Guardian of the darkness (C. Hirano, Trans.). New York: Arthur A. Levine.

Voorhoeve, A. C. (2012). My family for the war (T. Reichel, Trans.). New York, NY: Dial Books.

Zenatti, V. (2005). When I was a soldier (A. Hunter, Trans.). New York, NY: Bloomsbury.


Language, Origins, Genres, and Social Class Portrayals in Sample



Language & Origin



Social Class of Protagonist

My Family for the War

2013 Award

German; Germany

Germany, England

Historical fiction

Middle to lower to middle

Son of a Gun

2013 Honor

Dutch; Netherlands


Contemporary realism


A Game for Swallows

2013 Honor

French; France


Contemporary realism


Soldier Bear

2012 Award

Dutch; Netherlands

Africa, Europe

Historical fiction


The Lily Pond

2012 Honor

Swedish; Sweden


Historical fiction


A Time of Miracles

2011 Award

French; France

Georgia (country), France

Contemporary realism


Departure Time

2011 Honor

Dutch; Netherlands

Fantasy setting




2011 Honor

Danish; Denmark


Contemporary realism


A Faraway Island

2010 Award

Swedish; Sweden


Historical fiction



2010 Honor

Danish; Denmark


Historical fiction


Big Wolf and Little Wolf

2010 Honor

French; France



Not applicable (animal characters)

Moribito II: Guardian of the Darkness

2010 Honor

Japanese; Japan

Fantasy setting



Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit

2009 Award

Japanese; Japan

Fantasy setting



Garmann’s Summer

2009 Honor

Norwegian; Norway


Contemporary realism


Tiger Moon

2009 Honor

German; Germany




Brave Story

2008 Award

Japan; Japanese

Japan and Vision (fantasy setting)



The Cat: Or, How I Lost Eternity

2008 Honor

German; Germany




Nicholas and the Gang

2008 Honor

French; France


Contemporary realism


The Pull of the Ocean

2007 Award

French; France


Contemporary realism


The Killer’s Tears

2007 Honor

French; France


Contemporary realism


The Last Dragon

2007 Honor

Italian; Italy

Fantasy setting



An Innocent Soldier

2006 Award

German; Germany

Germany, Russia

Historical fiction



2006 Honor

French; France


Contemporary realism


When I Was a Soldier

2006 Honor

French; France


Contemporary realism


The Shadows of Ghadames

2005 Award

French; France


Historical fiction


The Crow-Girl

2005 Honor

Danish; Denmark


Historical fiction


Daniel Half Human and the Good Nazi

2005 Honor

German; Germany


Historical fiction

Upper to lower

Run, Boy, Run

2004 Award

Hebrew; Israel


Historical fiction


The Man Who Went to the Far Side of the Moon

2004 Honor

Swedish; Sweden

United States



The Thief Lord

2003 Award

German; Germany




Henrietta and the Golden Eggs

2003 Honor

German; Switzerland



Unknown (animal characters)

How I Became an American

2002 Award

German; Germany

Germany, United States

Historical fiction


A Book of Coupons

2002 Honor

French; France


Contemporary realism


Samir and Yonatan

2001 Award

Hebrew; Israel

Palestine, Israel

Contemporary realism


Ultimate Game

2001 Honor

French; France


Contemporary realism


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 117 Number 2, 2015, p. 1-40
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17781, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 3:37:47 AM

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