book review: the can man

Written by Laura E Williams + Illustrated by Craig Orback

Tackles: Homelessness, poverty, and compassion for others

Age Range: 5-10 years 

Genre: Picture Book

This book tells the story of a young boy named Tim living in a low income family and his experience with a homeless man that the people in the neighborhood call the can man. Tim wants a skateboard for his birthday, but he knows that his family does not have the money. Tim sees the can man collecting cans from the trash to return for money, and get the idea to collect his own cans for money for a skateboard. Tim collects his cans  and the can man helps Tim get them to the return center. Tim finds out that the man is collecting cans for a new winter coat, and when Tim gets the money from his cans he decides to give it to the can man so he can get his coat. However, the next morning he wakes up to a skateboard on his doorstep. Not a brand new one, but one that the can man had painted and labeled with Tim’s name. The images in this book are vibrant and detailed, and carry this story well. 

This story touches on a very important and widespread issue: homelessness. The book doesn’t play into the stereo types of homeless people being mean or scary. In fact, Tim’s parents don’t call him the can man, they call him Mr. Peters. They share memories with Tim about when Mr. Peters lived in apartment 3C and worked at an auto body shop. They treat Mr. Peters as a person rather than just another homeless man, and it sets a good example for Tim (and all of the kids reading the book!) to treat everyone as your equal, no matter their situation. 

This book also touches on children growing up in low income households. Tim wants a new skateboard, but is aware of the fact that his family doesn’t have the extra money. There are so many children growing up in similar situations, and Tim is a character that those children can relate to. For the amount of children living in low income homes, there are not a lot of children’s books that depict that difficult situation.  

Finally, the can man also depicts kindness. Tim cared for the homeless man and did a selfless act when he gave up his dream of a skateboard for someone who is not as well off as he is, even though he is in a difficult situation as well. However, when reading this book, I couldn’t decide in the end if I wanted Tim to get the skateboard or not. When I read the end and found out that he got one from Mr. Peters I was happy, but I can’t help but wonder the different message it would have sent if he hadn’t got the skateboard. All too often, people help others expecting something back; tears, thanks, their video going viral on Facebook, being recognized by Ellen, whatever. While Tim wasn’t expecting a skateboard from Mr. Peters, part of me wanted the story to end with Tim giving selflessly just for the sake of being kind rather than depicting Tim being nice but still getting what he wanted. Was Tim’s sacrifice still as meaningful if he still got what he wanted? And is that a realistic expectation of giving that we should set for our children? I don’t think this takes away from the valuable lessons and topics this book depicts, but its something interesting to think about.  

Overall, this book touches on topics that aren’t always mentioned in children’s books and I appreciate that. 

9.5 out of 10 cans 

Buy it here.

Read it free here. 


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