#SJYALIt: Socio-Economic Diversity in YA Lit
As part of our Social Justice in YA Lit Project, we are inviting guest bloggers to share their thoughts, feelings, books, programs and more. Today, Rachael Allen and Sarah Lemon are discussing socio-economic diversity in YA lit.
I remember sitting in sophomore English and hating Holden Caufield. This kid had every advantage, but he was failing out of some fancy prep school, and we had to listen to him whine about it for 214 pages, while we jumped through academic hoops and wondered if we’d ever be able to scrape together enough for college and a ticket to a new life*. In a sea of books with middle and upper middle class main characters, I desperately wanted books about kids like me.
I still want those books.
So, I was really excited when Sarah Lemon agreed to write a list of “Favorite YA’s with Socioeconomic Diversity” with me. Here are our recs:
DREAM THINGS TRUE by Marie Marquardt
Evan and Alma are from two different worlds, but you can’t read this book without rooting for them to be together. My favorite parts were Alma’s big, warm Mexican family, seeing her life juxtaposed against Evan’s privileged one, and the intersection of living in a lower income family and being an undocumented immigrant. I’m embarrassed to admit how little I knew about immigration before reading this book, and it’s clear Marie Marquardt is an expert. She’s also an expert at weaving all of this information into the narrative effortlessly – it’s rare to find a book that you devour that also opens your mind with every page.
NO PLACE TO FALL by Jaye Robin Brown
This book has stunningly beautiful descriptions of Appalachia and characters that you won’t be able to get out of your head, but my absolute favorite part is Amber’s spirit. Sometimes it seems like all the kids who don’t have a lot of money are hard and angry and cynical – and sometimes that’s true to life, but sometimes it isn’t. Some people remain dreamers no matter the situation, and that’s why Amber was such a breath of fresh air. She’s a girl who brings brownies to travelers on the Appalachian Trail so she can hear their stories, who keeps a map tacked to her bedroom wall, who’s going to sing her way out of her small town. And I love her for it.
ELEANOR AND PARK by Rainbow Rowell
The first time I read this book, I ugly cried at lunch. The second time, I knew better than to read it in public.
I love this book for so many reasons. Because Rainbow Rowell can make you feel like holding someone’s hand on the bus is everything. Because this was the first time I saw my childhood mirrored in a book, and it meant so much it made me cry. And because poor kids and misfits deserve epic love stories too.
Things that were particularly well done: Never having quite enough of anything (food, clothes, etc.). Eleanor keeps a wooden crate with fancy markers and things in the top of her closet. The idea that a crate that fruit came in is an item to be treasured is something I really connected with. Also, the idea of not wanting to share something because it’s your only nice thing. The idea that a song or a comic or a book can be the thing that gets you through because it helps you escape, even for a minute. Also, bad stepdads, and moms who sacrifice their children for a guy they just met, and wanting to get out of your house so badly, and founding members, and feeling like you carry the burden of your parents’ mistakes directly on your shoulders.
Note: For another perspective, see Ellen Oh’s critique of this book.
THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN by Sherman Alexie
This book is hilarious. And very sad. Often at the same time. I loved Alexie’s voice and wit, his portrayal of life on a reservation, and the way he challenges stereotypes. Arnold such a smart, funny kid, and it was really fun to spend a book inside his head. I really liked that he wanted to use school as a vehicle to get someplace else (he gets his parents to allow him to attend a school outside the reservation). I thought the parts of the book where Arnold acclimates to the fancy high school in the next town over, feeling like you have to hide your poor, the flack he catches back home, were very well done. Also, Arnold’s thoughts about tribes and belonging and life make me want to read this book again and again and again.
MORE HAPPY THAN NOT by Adam Silvera
I know the Bronx is a far cry from a small Georgia town, but I feel like Adam Silvera captured a piece of my childhood with this book – the parts about spending hours and hours outside with the neighborhood kids playing games you made up (and, yeah, maybe it’s because you don’t have a lot of money, but it’s also because it’s really freaking fun). And then there’s the part where Aaron can’t afford to buy the comic. I full on sobbed reading this scene. I wanted to reach through the pages and hug him and say, “I’ve been there, buddy. It’ll be okay, I promise.” This book has important things to say about being gay in a poor community. It also has a love story that will squeeze your heart, and a twist that totally punched me in the face (I was legit embarrassed I didn’t see it coming – I am usually so good at guessing twists).
My favorite part, though, was the love between Aaron and his mother. She’s a nurse, and she works her butt off, and she’s an amazing mom. I just loved that. Because here’s a thing – good people, smart people, loving people can still be poor. I get so frustrated when the media makes all the stories with poverty have parents who are alcoholics and drug addicts and bad people who make worse decisions. And it’s not that you won’t find people like that out there in real life, but when those are the only stories we tell, it gets so easy to imagine that every person who lives their life below middle class deserves to be there because of their own bad choices, and that simply isn’t true. So, yeah, I loved Aaron’s mom quite a lot.
WHEN WE COLLIDED by Emery Lord
Jonah’s story is different from the others on my list. When his dad died, his family was plunged into a completely different financial situation. This happens to lots of families for lots of reasons – divorce, death, family illness and mounting medical bills. I think it’s important to show that having a low income is not always a permanent state. I think Lord does an excellent job of painting a picture of what this change is like for Jonah and his family. Everyone had to make sacrifices. Everyone had to grow up a little faster. Jonah and his two older siblings have to become insta-adults overnight. This is a reality for so many kids – having to be an adult before your time – and I loved the portrayal of it here. Also, Jonah has a heart of gold, and the love story is amazing, and this book has beautiful and important things to say about mental health, so. Read it.
Myracle does the South like nobody else, and SHINE is no exception. This book captures every good and every gritty piece that makes up Cat and Patrick’s rural North Carolina town – small mindedness and homophobia, moonshine, church ladies, small town politics, grandmothers who can make almost anything better, sweeping class differences, gossip, meth, and the hate crime that Cat is desperate to solve. I love that the characters are so complex – never all good or all bad – even for the characters you expect to be completely unredeemable. I also loved Cat and Patrick’s friendship.
I have a special love for books with friendships that have all the power of a love story. This is one of those books. Reagan and Victoria mean everything to each other – they’re each other’s support system in their small town. And for Reagan, who lives in a trailer park and is fighting like anything to go to college, their friendship is the thing that refills her well, that feeds her toughness. Sometimes one person believing in you is the thing that changes all the other things, and I loved how Adler painted these two girls and their relationship. I ship them harder than any star-crossed lovers.
SUCH A RUSH by Jennifer Echols
It’s a principal of poverty—if you want to do something cool, you must try and weasel your way into a job that gives you access. For Leah Jones it means a job at a small, private airport until she works her way into flying advertising banners over her beach town. Leah’s home and economic situation have an impact on her life, but it’s not the story. The story is Leah gets to have a hot angsty romance. That is genuinely precious when we’re talking about books with kids in poverty. I highlighted this particular title, but many of Echol’s books involve lower to middle class protagonists. They’re smart, diverse, hilarious, and everyone gets to have hot romances. Teenage me, needed that.
THE SMELL OF OTHER PEOPLE’S HOUSES by Bonnie Sue Hitchcock
This book surprised me. It has a beautiful, but sort-of snoozy cover. A beautiful, but sort-of snoozy title. I got it from the library and it sat around. Once I started reading it, I was hooked. This is an Alaskan book. Oh-so-Alaskan. Centering on four very different teens in the 1970’s, the book captures Alaska’s unique perspective by capturing the unique diversity and commonalities of the character’s experiences as Alaskans. My sister lives in Alaska, so I’m familiar with this difference every time I have to listen forty minutes of talk about the salmon run. The Native representation (“I’m Athabascan!”) is not to be devalued here, in my opinion, because it shows a broad range of families and a nuanced portrayal of non mono-lithic indigenous culture. Not just the stereotype, and not just the ideal minority. It shows modern Native families, in the minutiae of living as modern Alaskan natives. Again, poverty is depicted throughout (both white and non-white families) without being the focal point.
Note: For another perspective, see Debbie Reese’s critique of this book.
THE SERPENT KING by Jeff Zentner
Being poor and religious is often like getting beat with two bats at once. As a child, having religious parents means you might not have access to things like supplemental food stamps, WIC assistance, or school lunches. It can also mean, if you are disenfranchised from your religious community, you have no alternative means of support. This is Dill’s situation. And the grace and care with which Zentner handles Dill’s situation is one that will always remain special to me. Poverty and religious issues are things easily exploited for plot gains, and Zentner resists that pitfall.
Note: Rachael jumping in to say I am in love with this book too and wholeheartedly recommend it! Even if it did break me.
I was so excited to read this book by a fellow 2017 debut author. One of my favorite things is how Raychel “on paper” is a stereotype (white, poor, southern, has a “reputation”, child of a single mother, also with a reputation, living in a trailer) and through Hart’s excellent storytelling and prose, we see a complex, dynamic individual that I recognize immediately as being of my own kind. That Raychel’s survival is not exploited is doubly important when talking about this book, due to the content of sexual assault.
SALVAGE THE BONES by Jesmyn Ward
This is not a YA book, but I feel like teenage me would have needed this book, would have been broken over this book in a way all the Sarah Dessen novels in the world could have never broken me (no offense to Sarah Dessen! All the love for Sarah Dessen! How many times can I say Sarah Dessen?). The plot of this book follows a teenage girl who is grappling with the knowledge she is pregnant, while keeping track of her family (which includes their pitbull who just had puppies), as Hurricane Katrina forms and moves into their Louisiana existence. The language of this books is the language I speak—the flip between country talk and words you’ve read, can use, and can’t pronounce. There are SO. MANY. INDICATORS of authentic rural poverty here—the ramen (if you know what I’m talking about seriously, we’re friends for life), the outdoors, the boys, the relationship with your animals, and the recognition of kinship between girl and bitch. The thing that truly makes me want to classify this as crossover YA, is that it doesn’t carry the hopelessness and despair adult books often carry. Hope remains. Hope that does not depend on a change of circumstances. This book maintains that hope even until the last pages, where fate is left still unknown, the way it truly is to a fifteen-year-old girl, regardless of her present circumstances.
CRAZY HORSE’S EX-GIRLFRIEND by Erika T. Wurth
My personal opinion is that this is actually darker than SALVAGE THE BONES, but this one is categorized as YA. (I know why, I just…………*shrug*). This book follows Margaritte, a seventeen-year-old Native American (Apache, Chickasaw, Cherokee, and white) looking at the cycle of poverty, abuse, despair and drug abuse without necessarily being able to escape it. The level of nuance here—in both recognizing the cycle, repeating the cycle, condemning the cycle and condoning the cycle—is so authentically real. Even when poverty itself is removed from a teen or an adult, the cycle of poverty (or abuse, etc.) is not and this book depicts that cycle so vividly, without ever quite losing hope for Margaritte. In the end, the circumstances worsen but the hope rises, which again….real for days, man. REAL. FOR. DAYS.
Given the current state of our nation, I think it’s more important than ever for us to read diverse and #ownvoices books, to plunk ourselves into the worlds of marginalized people so we can decrease our ignorance and increase our empathy. I think socioeconomic diversity is a type of diversity that is often overlooked, and my hope is that there will be more and more stories that feature these characters, stories that show a range of the spectrum of life that is not middle and upper class, and stories that show class intersected with other types of marginalization.
What books are you reading that show socioeconomic diversity? What are you hoping to see in the future?
*Before everyone gets mad, I have read THE CATCHER IN THE RYE as a grown up, and I realize I missed a few things.
Meet Our Guest Bloggers
More on Hunger and Poverty at TLT
Hunger and Poverty
- Can We All Just Stop Saying the Internet Is Free Now Please?
- Rich Teen, Poor Teen: Books that depict teens living in poverty
- Working with youth who live in poverty
- Sunday Reflections: This is what losing everything looks like
- Sunday Reflections: Going to bed hungry
- Sunday Reflections: A tale of two libraries
- Sunday Reflections: Are schools disriminating against the poor?
- Sunday Reflections: Poverty doesn’t always look the way you think it does
- Sunday Reflections: All I Want for Christmas is the Chance to Go to College
- Feeding Teens at the Library: Summer and Afterschool Meals
- The Economy as Villain in The Year of Shadows by Claire LeGrand
- Book Review: PANIC by Lauren Oliver
- Book Review: HUNGRY by H. A. Swain
- Not All Educations Are Created Equal
- Teens and Poverty: PBS Newshour Discusses Being Homeless and Trying to Graduate High School
- Sunday Reflections: Dasani, Poverty, and Education (by Robin)
- Sunday Reflections: Torchwood Children of Earth, a reflection on how we think about children in poverty among us
- Teens and Poverty: An updated book list
- Sunday Reflections: Becoming a Statistic
- Impoverished Youth: More Than Have of America’s Public School Children Now Live in Poverty
- Teen Homelessness and NO PARKING AT THE END TIME by Brian Bliss
Cycles of Poverty:
- Breaking the Cycles of Poverty in Young Families
- Cycle of Poverty Hard to Break in Poorest U.S. City
- The Cycle of Poverty and Poor Health
How Poverty Affects Schools:
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
One Star Review, Guess Who? (#184)
Review of the Day – Trees: Haiku from Roots to Leaves by Sally M. Walker, ill. Angela McKay
Review: Nat the Cat Takes a Nap
Here Be Monsters: On Horror, Catharsis, and Uneasy Truces with Yourself, a guest post by author Rebecca Mahoney
The Classroom Bookshelf is Moving