Rich Teen, Poor Teen: Books that depict teens living in poverty
As I began my 2013 reading, I kept noticing an interesting trend: really rich kids dominating teen fiction. The reason it stood out to me was because it doesn’t seem to reflect the reality of our current economic situation. The news keeps discussing how more and more people are sliding out of the middle class and inching towards poverty. Adults being laid off, being hired only part time, how pay rates haven’t kept pace with inflation, and more. The rate of children going to bed hungry is increasing at alarming rates with the newest numbers indicating that 1 out of 5 are going to be hungry. But what does a life of poverty really look and feel like? Sadly, too many of our tweens and teens can tell us. You can find their stories in some of the following books.
Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
Hands down this is one of the most stunning and spot on depictions of poverty I have ever read. It is also a beautiful love story and a heart shattering story of abuse. There is a scene where Eleanor talks about how her bra is being held together by safety pins and after reading it you will never be the same. It is set in the 80s, but this type of poverty transcends time and the depiction of the struggle and feelings is so spot on that it will always ring true.
Scowler and Rotters by Daniel Kraus
These are two separate and totally unrelated books. But underneath all the horror in the books is another very real presence and character: the horror of poverty. Kraus is an excellent, and disturbing, storyteller. His stories are disturbing (and I mean that as a compliment), not Kraus himself. Well, he could be, I don’t really know. But most disturbing of all is his very accurate and moving depiction of how poverty affects these boys lives. There is a prolonged scene in Rotters where Joey is just tormented by a raging hunger. Stephen King fans will like Daniel Kraus, and they may be surprised by what the learn about poverty while reading these terrifying tales. In Rotters by Daniel Kraus, there is this long scene where the main character, Joey, is so hungry (he hasn’t eaten in like 3 days) that he just Can. Not. Focus. at all on anything else but the PURE PAIN in his belly caused by hunger. It is one of the most amazing things I have read. Hungry kids can’t learn. Hungry kids can’t think about doing anything but finding a way to stop being hungry.
For mature readers.
Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher
Zoe writes letter to a man imprisoned in America revealing her darkest secret: she too is responsible for someone’s death. The who and how are what is slowly revealed in the letter as Zoe wrestles with guilt. But in the background, Zoe’s father has just been laid off and the family is struggling to make ends meet. Coming out later in the fall, it is one of the few titles I have read recently that shows a teen facing what many families have been coping with these past few years: a laid off parent.
If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric L Gansworth
When Lewis “Shoe” Blake makes friends with the new kids in school, he goes out of his way to keep George from seeing his house. Lewis lives on the reservation in extreme poverty. This title comes out next month I believe and it is a gut wrenching read. The lengths that Lewis and his friends go through to hide where they live, to try and buy reduced lunch without anyone seeing and more – made me weep. This book takes place in the 70s but so much of it still rings true today. Great for MG readers.
Tap Out by Eric Devine
Seventeen-year-old Tony Antioch lives in Pleasant Meadows, a trailer park. When he is sucked into a friend’s Mixed Martial Arts class, he just might have found something he loves. But with a constant stream of guys coming in and beating up his mom and a local gang wanting to recruit him to sell drugs, can Tony find a way out? Gritty and very realistic, like Tony this book pulls no punches. Definitely for mature readers, but too many of our kids are living this life.
Ashes on the Waves by Mary Lindsey
Based on Edgar Allan Poe’s Annabel Lee, Lindsey creates a haunting gothic read that takes place on an island that has many secrets. Liam is the poorest of poor boys, living in a shack and outcast because of an injury that makes people believe he is evil. Annabel is a rich girl sent back to her childhood home to keep her out of the limelight because she has been getting some less than stellar press. The two were childhood friends that now have nothing in common. But can the bonds of true love ever be severed? A very interesting look at a love that goes “across the tracks” with some paranormal twists.
Cherry Money Baby by John M. Cusick
Cherry lives with her dad and younger brother and is proud of her work, rolling burritos, even if it’s not thrilling. Her dad also has tremendous pride in worksmanship and ownership as a mechanic and small business owner. Cherry has a brush with the rich and famous, where she vacillates between feeling totally out of place and enjoying her role as a trusted “real world” ally, but ultimately her family loses everything but the clothes on their back in one fateful evening. Though the focus of the book is not specifically on the plight of the “working poor” this story illustrates clearly the fine line between “doing just fine” and “destitute” that so many families tread. The accident and resulting poverty and financial instability then drive some very interesting choices that could change Cherry’s life forever.
Hold Fast by Blue Baillett
A young girl falls into the foster system and tries to solve the mystery of her father’s disappearance. I have not read this title yet, but I saw Baillett speak earlier this year at TXLA and she talked a lot about how seeing the poverty around her led her to write this book and tell their story.
Almost Home by Joan Bauer
Often homeless and always struggling, Sugar and her mom move from Missouri to Chicago, which doesn’t turn out to be the quick fix to their problems that they thought they would be. This is a touching story about homelessness and poverty by a masterful storyteller. My tween read it because there was a dog on the cover, but we cried and cheered together for Sugar. Great for MG readers.
Hooked by Liz Fichera
When Native American Fredricka ‘Fred’ Oday is invited to become the only girl on the school’s golf team, she can’t say no. This is an opportunity to shine, win a scholarship and go to university, something no one in her family has done. Christie reviewed this title earlier and really liked it.
Tyrell by Coe Booth
Tyrell is living in a homeless shelter and trying to make ends meet. He knows he needs to get his hands on some money, but how? Christie recommends this book.
Starters by Lissa Price
In a desolate future, the Spore Wars has claimed the lives of most adults ages 20 to 60. Callie and her brothers are living on the streets, stealing food, and trying to survive. There are renegades that would kill them for a cookie. Callie’s last choice is to rent out her body to an Ender, a woman who wants one last time to experience youth by living in Callie’s body. Science fiction excels when it makes us think of current world problems by placing us in parallel situations and making us think about the issues in creative ways. The companion book, Enders, comes out later this year.
Have more to add to the list? Please tell us about your recommendations in the comments.
Project Hope Virginia Booklist
More TLT Posts on Poverty:
Sunday Reflections: This is what losing everything looks like
Sunday Reflections: Going to be hungry
Sunday Reflections: A tale of two libraries
Can we all just stop saying the Internet is free now please?
Filed under: Collection Development, Poverty, Reader's Advisory
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
SLJ Blog Network
2023 Caldecott Jump
Cover Reveal: This Book Is Banned – The Latest from Raj Haldar (With a Helpful Q&A for Spice)
Recent Graphic Novel Deals, Early Mar 2023 | News
Love, Family, and Mental Health, a guest post by Rajani LaRocca
The Classroom Bookshelf is Moving