What Problems Do You Want to Solve? Using Literature to Discuss Child Exploitation

Ask About What?

We have all met students who we know are destined to go on and do great things because of deep empathy for others or their leadership skills. And as graduation season wraps up for colleges and high schools across the country, I have been inspired to change my conversation with students in my high school after a slide shared at a conference went viral a while back.

“Don’t ask kids what they want to be when they grow up but what problems do they want to solve. This changes the conversation from who do I want to work for, to what do I need to learn to be able to do that.” (Casap)  

I spend more time now talking with students about things they want to change or issues that they see and how they are feeling and thought it would be good to visit the topic of child exploitation. It’s more than just an awareness, but how choices they’re making are a part of a global community. How is that coffee farmed in your Dunkin Donuts cup? Where are those Nikes made on your feet and how much do they pay their employees?

It can start with a discussion over one of these titles that features children being exploited: sexually, physically, or psychologically.

Discussing It Through Literature 

The Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan

Amadou and Seydou are brought to work on a cacao farm while being starved, beaten, and punished, unable to escape the devastation with little hope of escape until Khadija, abducted from her mother’s home provides the strength to try after a traumatic injury threatens the youngest boy’s life.

Breaking Free: True Stories of Girls Who Escaped Modern Slavery by Abby Sher

The nonfiction titles showcases diverse stories related to trafficking for labor or sex. Inspiring stories that graphically detail their struggles in 2014.

Counting on Grace by Elizabeth Winthrop

Set in 1910 in Vermont, it features the Child Labor Board investing the crime of child labor in a factory where Grace meets the famous advocate Lewis Hine.

Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan

This well-read title features Esperanza who during the Great Depression has left their house in Mexico to find day-labor jobs in California in which her family faces discrimination and financial trouble.

Factory Girl by Barbara Greenwood

This nonfiction title features the Acme Garment Factory and the interwoven fictional tale of a girl named Emily who works eleven hours a day in the warehouse clipping threads featuring the plight of all types of child labor and the social conditions related to this labor.

The Queen of Water by Laura Resau

Based on a true story, this novel is about Virginia, who is taken to a mestizo family’s home to be their indentured servant in Ecuador where she suffers unspeakable horrors.

Sold by Patricia McCormick

This contemporary classic showcases sex trafficking in India when Lakshmi from Nepal is brought to a brothel where she must endure to survive in the hopes of being rescued or escaping.

Traffick by Ellen Hopkins

With five narrators in the story, Traffick features male and female teenagers and their sexual exploitation at the hands of adults.

A Walk Across the Sun by Corban Addison

Set in Mumbai, two sisters who are orphaned and homeless are abducted and taken to the brothels and hope that Thomas Clarke, a foreigner can save them in time to save them from this fate.

Now What?

During these book discussions, facts can be gathered from the United States Department of Justice’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and UNICEF. And sometimes it’s best to start with current articles and new stories like the Ohio mother who is accused of offering her eleven year old daughter to drug dealers in exchange for heroin to feed her addiction. In the article it specifically mentions a problem with child trafficking in their area and visits by Homeland Security.

Evident in this story is an addiction to drugs. In our area alone, there have been multiple overdose deaths in the last two years leading communities and schools to host presenters, survivors, and family of these loved ones discussing both the drug but also the consequences that usually coincide.

So it might be a start to put up a display or highlight books that feature storylines of child exploitation, but it would be another to discuss the books and what the average student can do to change this, while they’re still in high school, but also in what problems that they see that they’d like to solve. Think about this the next time you’re having a conversation with any teenager. Don’t ask what they’re going to study or what they want to be, ask them what problems they see and how they’d like to solve them.


Alicia Abdul, currently reading A Fierce and Subtle Poison by Samantha Mabry

One thought on “What Problems Do You Want to Solve? Using Literature to Discuss Child Exploitation”

  1. What a great article, and this kind of a conversation moves teens a big step closer for thinking about their role in even continuing the exploitation (Nike shoes and the proliferation and popularity of coffee shops). It also starts them along a road of thinking of issues and problem-solving. It also gives them a focus for how to locate reliable information (information literacy).

    Thanks for sharing!

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