Photographs by Stephen Shames

Every day more than 12 million children wake up poor....Every day 105 American babies die before reaching their first birthday....Every day 1,849 children are abused or neglected." Each year poverty's effects kill 10,000 American children.

The statistics that frame the photographs in this simply produced book are current. But the images are doubly ominous for being so familiar, like symptoms of a long-raging epidemic.

A century ago Jacob Riis wrote, "Long ago it was said that 'one half of the world does not know how the other half lives.' " He tried to change that condition by showing conditions in New York City tenements. Around the same time, Lewis Hine photographed child factory workers, pleading for reform.

Depression-era photographers of the Farm Security Administration documented rural poverty. Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans too showed the faces of despair.

Many grim scenes captured by those photographers echo in this book.

Shames, a Philadelphia-based freelancer, traveled America from 1984 to 1989 photographing the poor—in slums, in cars, in streets. His goal, his preface says, was to show the "destruction of a generation of children."

Shames's photos starkly show poverty's effects on the young: sad eyes, patched clothes, peeling walls, crowded beds, always-imminent violence. Some of his pictures are wrenching. We see a young girl offer a cigarette to an even younger child. Another child, maybe 11, watches as he's injected with a hypodermic needle. Kids play in hallways, in traffic, on fire escapes and rooftops. Startling is a shot of a jailed 13-year-old in leg shackles.

Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund, writes in her afterword, "Let what you see disturb you. Let it disturb you so much that it prompts you to act."

Partial proceeds from the sale of this profoundly moving book will go to the Children's Defense Fund. (Aperture, $29.95)

by Don DeLillo

Meditating on the relationship between public gullibility and individual ambition, DeLillo's sharp-witted 10th novel evokes, among other things, Andy Warhol, J.D. Salinger, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, the Beatles, TV news and that bizarrely famous city Beirut, renowned mainly for its chronic self-destructiveness.

While DeLillo's attention and the novel's viewpoint meander among a handful of characters, the pivotal one is Bill Gray, author of two famous novels written many years before, whose obsession with solitude has kept alive a moribund career. He is visited at his hiding place in upstate New York by Brita Walker, a photographer who travels the world making portraits of writers of all descriptions.

Gray says, "In our world we sleep and eat the image and pray to it and wear it too. The writer who won't show his face is encroaching on holy turf. He's playing God's own trick." But he lets Walker take his picture, and after she liberates his image, Gray takes off for Europe to appear on behalf of an obscure Swiss poet who has been kidnapped by Middle Eastern terrorists. Gray's temptation to let himself be traded for the poet—and thereby become even more famous for becoming even more inaccessible—leads to a conclusion more unsatisfying than unsettling.

Nonetheless, DeLillo writes with a lively sense of curiosity and minimal condescension. His description of a mass marriage conducted by Moonies at Yankee Stadium is a marvel of the mundane meeting the surreal. He alludes to Warhol's multiple images of Mao—which gave the Chinese leader a kind of secondhand fame twice removed. Perhaps the only figure treated with real reverence is that of Samuel Beckett. In discussing how terrorism has become the world's new literature, Gray says, "Beckett is the last writer to shape the way we think and see. After him, the major work involves midair explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative."

In passing, DeLillo also takes little jabs at answering machines, people who make lists and book publisher—"Do you know what they like to do best? Run those black border ads for dead writers. It makes them feel they're part of an august tradition." There are random pleasures too, such as Gray, in London, seeking a place to be treated after he's injured: "Old hospitals with saints' names are the ones you want to go to if you have cuts and abrasions. They haven't forgotten how to treat the classic Crusader wounds."

Overall, DeLillo (White Noise, Libra) strikes a pretty balance. He disdains and devastates celebrity obsession with the best of us. On the other hand, look who posed for the picture that is at the top of this column. (Viking, $19.95)

  • Contributors:
  • Maddy Miller,
  • Ralph Novak.