Illustrator: Craig Orback
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In The Can Man Laura E. Williams tells the story of Tim, a boy who desperately wants a skateboard for his birthday. Although his parents have made it clear they do not have the money to spare for impractical gifts, Tim is resolute. When he sees the local homeless man, “The Can Man”, collecting aluminum cans to bring to the redemption center Tim sees an opportunity to earn his own money for a skateboard.
Tim’s parents know The Can Man as Joe Peters, a former neighbor who lost his job and became homeless when he could not find employment. His parents notice Tim is collecting cans that would typically go to Mr. Peters, and other members of the community notice as well. “But I’m only going to take them until my birthday,” (Williams, 2010) is Tim’s defense of these concerns.
Two days before Tim’s birthday he runs into Mr. Peters on the street. During their brief conversation, Tim learns that Mr. Peters is saving money for a coat to protect him from the coming winter and that collecting cans is his only source of income. The implication of their conversation is that Tim’s new skateboard suddenly seems less appealing. The next day, as Tim prepares to get the cans to the redemption center Mr. Peters shows up and offers help. They walk to the redemption center together, but before Tim is done Mr. Peters has gone. With a paper bag full of coins in his hand Tim runs after Mr. Peters and gives him the money. Although Mr. Peters tells Tim to keep the money he earned through hard work, Tim’s insistence prevails.
On his birthday, Tim heads outside to meet his friend, but first he finds a plastic bag with a soda can tied to the end. Inside is a used, but carefully refurbished skateboard with his name painted on it. Soon Mr. Peters approaches with his new jacket on. Tim thanks Mr. Peters for the skateboard then goes for an inaugural ride with his friend.
Element 5: Raising Awareness
Written at around the third grade level, The Can Man uses accessible language and concepts to raise awareness of the condition of homelessness. Williams takes a homeless man and gives him a name and a story. She reveals Mr. Peters’ circumstances and motivations, and she creates a human being that readers can relate to. Given the circumstances of the Great Recession, homelessness is a growing problem. In urban centers this crippling problem has been even more acute. However there is still often a dehumanizing effect that American society tends to place upon the homeless. The Can Man reminds us that the homeless are very much a part of the American family. It also illustrates that even children can make a difference by helping someone in need.
In the classroom, The Can Man can be used to segue into action. During whole-class read alouds, students can brainstorm ways they might help the homeless in their local communities. They can then break into small groups to begin to write proposals that share some of these ideas. The use of writing prompts will help to get the ball rolling. Upon completion, the students are ready to reconvene to discuss what can be done as a class to help the homeless and alleviate the causes of homelessness.