There’s been more and more talk lately about the lack of diversity when it comes to socioeconomic class in contemporary YA fiction. Today, librarian Faythe Arrendondo talks about why this conversation is important and why we need to see more poor kids in realistic YA.
When she’s not wasting time on Twitter, Faythe Arredondo is a teen services librarian is a rural (poor) area of California. She’s a fan of dogs, hockey, popular culture, and getting ragey about things people take for granted.
For most of my life, I have been surrounded by people that can be classified as “rural poor.” It’s the nature of our agricultural area, especially now that we are in the midst of the worst drought anyone can remember. I’ve worked in or around the same area since I became a librarian. Nothing I see is new; it’s just how life is.
I’m not sure how the topic was brought up, but I think I mentioned how poor people in young adult literature aren’t a “thing” like vampires and werewolves were/are. This sparked an immediate reaction from three of the teens sitting in my office. They went off on how you never “see anyone” like them. How there is “no middle” and characters are either homeless, from a drug riddled home, or rich. There are no characters that are just living life and trying to find their way in an “instant gratification takes too long” society. You don’t read about characters who have a place to live and food to eat, but “don’t have the extras.” As I listened to them talk, my soul hurt. Here are three teens that know they are doing okay in life, but society would look at them with pity. That day I found out for certain the parents of these particular kids didn’t work and their money comes from the government.
Some people would feel sorry for them because they don’t have the latest iPhone, or an iPad, or a computer. These are things that a lot of people take for granted but for a lot of families, these things are an extravagance. Why is this? My gut reaction is because of popular culture. There are no leads in contemporary TV shows, movies, or books where an adolescent character doesn’t have a cell phone or an Internet connection at home. In the fall of 2013 I started a study hall at the library when I found out that a couple of the teens couldn’t finish their homework because they shared their small apartment with eight other people. They also couldn’t get some of their homework done because teachers were putting the homework assignments and extra credit online. These teens would walk 20 minutes from school to the library and study for at least two hours. They would have to leave by 6pm because their walk home took almost an hour. They couldn’t afford bus passes.
This isn’t abnormal. These kids aren’t special cases. This is their norm. According the National Center for Children in Poverty, 41% of adolescents (their definition is ages 12-17) live in low-income families. This is fact. I didn’t know these numbers when I decided I needed to call attention to the lack of the socio-economic diversity (low-income) in books. I only knew what I saw on a daily basis and what I lived with growing up. We didn’t have the “extras” growing up, yet all I seemed to see when I read YA books were teens who had everything and didn’t have to worry about trying to finish their homework to avoid flunking.
So why isn’t this large group of teens represented in culture? When was the last time you read a book about low income kids that didn’t involve drugs, aliens, the supernatural, government control, or a natural disaster? Can you recall a book when teens are from a low-income family that takes place in modern society? Where things like a cell phone or computer aren’t commonplace? Or the family is on welfare? Reading should open up your worldview, but not discussing low-incomes teens or families is failing all readers.
I was given access to the Children’s Literature Comprehensive Database and I did some searching trying to find books that had low-income families. The first search I did was for “poor” with 2013 and 13-18 as filters. That returned just 68 results. Of those, 22 used “poor” as a descriptor including “poor judgment” and “poor little rich girl.” Only eight of these results actually had low-income teens or similar situations in the books. A couple of months later I decided to use the same filters but try “poverty” instead and only found nine of 46 books had low-income teens.
To say I was disappointed in the results would be an understatement. I thought there would be more, but I did find some titles that address socioeconomics. I read a lot and I don’t remember more than a handful that talked about poor teens and their lives. These are the books that we need to talk about and read. The more we read, the more demand there will be.
The first one that immediately comes to mind is Sherman Alexi’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. This books tackles so many issues that a lot of YA books shy away from. It is probably one of the first books I can remember reading that actually addressed being poor. To try and get ahead, Junior had to make an effort and attend school off the reservation. This reminded me of the teens I work with at the library. They make the extra effort a lot of people take for granted.
The Distance Between Us by Kasie West tackles the rich versus poor in a small coastal town. Money is an obvious issue and drives most of the plot, but it takes the easy way out in the end by having the protagonist find her wealthy grandparents. This theme also plays a part in Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Boys (of which I’ve only read book 1). It’s a point of contention between the characters almost every time they interact. The book isn’t exactly contemporary, but I felt it should be mentioned along with The Distance Between Us.
In The Lure by Lynne Ewing, Blaise lives outside of Washington DC where life is not easy. By being a “lure” for the local gang, Blaise can find money, safety, and love. She lives in a broken down neighborhood where violence is commonplace. She sees being in a gang as her only way to survive and have money. Lack of money is the driving factor in this book and it’s a favorite among some of the teens in my library.
On the flip side, Lauren Oliver’s Panic takes place in rural New York. These kids are some that I recognize: teens who want to get out of their life, want to break the cycle and who have to work if they want the extra things. The teens in this story all have cells phones, but they all also seem to have jobs. They literally risk their lives to win money so they can start their lives some place else. The plot may seem a little far-fetched, but the motivating factors are genuine.
One author who always incorporates low-income teens is Katie McGarry. In her latest, Take Me On, the protagonist and her family were evicted from their home and are temporarily homeless. The rich guy in the story is cut off from his parents and also ends up homeless for a little while. Prior to this novel, each title had a protagonist who was in the foster care system. By book three in the series, two of the characters lived in their own apartment, but always had to worry about making rent. I recommend these books to my teen patrons because they contain something for everyone.
The latest book to capture my attention is Gabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero. It is a book people need to talk about more and handles almost every issue a teen can face. It’s the first time I read a book and could see actual people in the characters, with situations that happened to people I know. When Gabi loses a cell to water damage, she didn’t get a new one right away. In fact, she had no real plans to replace it because she had no money. I can recall several instances in other books when a teen lost their phone and it was replaced instantly.
These are just a handful of books I’ve read and thought they did a good job of addressing low-income families. I want everyone to read these books and talk more about them, but it’s not enough. These are a fraction of books published. Why can books about vampires, angels, aliens, werewolves, and so on be published ad nauseum, but we can’t publish fiction that actually reflects its readers? Why can’t there be more books about teens that live in a low-income family? It’s up to us as readers to question publishers and writers as to why we aren’t seeing these teens in literature. If we don’t ask, they won’t realize there is a need.