Poverty in YA Literature

Posted February 23, 2015 by Tara Gold in articles, featured, Let's Talk Books /// 25 Comments

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Over the past year, the #weneeddiversebooks campaign has gained a lot of visibility in the world of YA literature. Bloggers and readers have made a specific effort to read more diversely. I’ve been so pleased to see readers discovering great books about LGBTQ characters, people of color, characters from diverse nationalities and religions, and characters with disabilities. There was a time when YA literature was mostly a white, heterosexual, protestant, middle class world. However, many readers don’t have the privileges and resources of the character about whom they read. This post will look at how socioeconomic status, and poverty in particular, is represented in popular novels from the past five years.

(Note: I won’t be including books about poverty during wartime, history, or in other countries/cultures of the world because those treatments of poverty are outside of the scope of this post!)

Rich Teens, Poor Teens and the Element of Fantasy

According to the narrative of the “American Dream,” everyone has a shot at living comfortably. Depending on who you talk to, that might mean that everyone is capable of joining the middle class OR that everyone is capable of becoming wealthy due to his or her own hard work. On one hand, this narrative gives us hope. It pushes us to take risks and work hard and believe that our children will have it better than we do.

On the other hand, this narrative carries with it elements of fantasy. Think about stories that glorify the rags-to-riches tale: stories from Cinderella to Fifty Shades of Grey prey on the fantasy of fast-tracking jumps between social class, and series like Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars entice us with the luxury and leisure of the upper (and upper middle) class.

However, the fact remains that most teens will remain in the social class to which they were born. Upward mobility exists in fairy tales and fantasy because it is generally just that: fantasy. Approximately 14.5 percent of Americans live in poverty, but these voices are vastly underrepresented in young adult literature.

Poverty in Dystopian Novels

Poverty is almost always an important element in dystopian novels, but the treatment of poverty here can be superficial. Dystopian literature focuses on worlds where overbearing governments often exploit people, leeching resources off of the common man to support a corrupt upper class. Here, poverty acts as a plot device to give characters the motivation to distrust, and eventually overthrow, government.

In these novels, society is typically structure in one of ways. In one version, multiple regions of the country are all supporting an opulent capital. In the other, a caste system divides people into a hierarchal system of wealth and status.  In either system, the protagonist of the dystopian novel is almost always from a lower caste or a poor district. In alignment with Marxist philosophies, it is up to these impoverished teens to recognize their oppression and overthrow their governments. Think about characters such as Katniss in The Hunger Games, America in The Selection, Callie in StartersKitty in Pawn, and Day in Legend. Each of these characters’ stories begin within worlds of poverty. American is worried that she will have to become a servant if she marries her boyfriend. Katniss’ family cannot afford food, and Kitty tries to become a prostitute to make ends meet.

ya poverty dystopian

The problem with poverty in dystopian novels is that it is not realistic. These are worlds of fantasy — worlds where readers can brush off the hardships these characters face as being part of the novel’s exposition. In these stories, characters get a “golden opportunity” to live a more privileged life, and use these opportunities to escape a unpleasant life. Poverty here is very much an conflict of (wo)man vs. government or (wo)man vs. society, and all of society must be overhauled in order for happily ever after to be found. I would posit that counting dystopian novels as novels about poverty grossly ignores the ways in which poverty operates in society today. As in, right now. 

Poverty in the Contemporary Novel

Contemporary novels, on the other hand, focus more on an individual character’s struggle to find a way out of poverty or to survive poverty until he or she turns 18 and can leave. These representations of poverty, and my subsequent feelings about them, are complex. While, on one hand, it is good for readers to read about teens living in trailer parks and Section 8 housing, I often worry that the authors crafting these stories lack first hand experience of being poor and fail to capture the nuances of poverty. However, there are many novels that have tried to represent these experiences, and these include:poverty in ya

  1. Such a Rush by Jennifer Echols
  2. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
  3. Panic by Lauren Oliver
  4. The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson
  5. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
  6. Tyrell by Coe Booth

Now, none of these novels escapes criticism. But each are ones in which I noted the treatment of poverty in my own reviews, and each makes the attempt to show different sides of systemic poverty in America. Tyrell and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian take on poverty and race, and Tyrell also focuses on the unique realities of urban poverty and parental incarceration. The Impossible Knife of Memory explores poverty due to the mental illness of a parent. The desire to escape rural poverty is the primary motivation behind the terrifying challenges in Panic, and the protagonist in Such a Rush lives in a trailer park. Finally, Eleanor & Park approaches the subject of domestic and sexual abuse as part of the cycle of poverty for a whole family.

Problematic Depictions?

Because poverty is relatively underrepresented in YA, individual novels can be accused of essentializing poverty to the experiences of the characters in the story. This was a major issue I noted in my review of Tyrellafter experiencing the reaction that my YA Literature students had to the novel. I believe Coe Booth has written a good novel that gives a lot of depth to Tyrell as a main character living in Section 8 housing. However, my students worried that Tyrell reinforced stereotypes about urban black poverty, and they brought up many valid points about how more privileged readers might use the story to shape their own views.

Similarly, there have been critiques of how Eleanor & Park tackles the subject. Some readers thought that Eleanor faced too many types of oppression (to which I say: it happens in the real world!) and that readers might believe that all poor people live in dirty conditions and have abusive parents. Repeat similar critiques for every novel that includes characters living in poverty, and you can start to see that the REAL problem is the danger of a single narrative. The stories of individual characters can’t carry the weight of representing universal poverty. There are a million stories to be told here, with nuance and compassion (and without having the main character “escape” from poverty to find a suitable conclusion).

Looking Forward

we need diverse books

So, in short: we need more stories that capture the diverse world of poverty. While poverty and social class are a types of diversity that are needed in the #weneeddiversebooks revolution, these should also reflect intersections between elements such as race, gender, nationality, location (rural/urban), language, family status, etc. This shouldn’t be surprising, the call for more books about poverty and social class, because more diversity is always a fabulous thing.

Here’s what I want to know from you: what books have you read that offer interesting depictions of poverty? Which show it as a complex phenomenon, and which simplify and stereotype it? What thoughts do you have about how poverty is written about and discussed in YA? I would love to hear your thoughts!

Tara Gold

Tara is a PhD candidate studying education. Her dissertation is on digital book communities as public pedagogy (ask her about it!), though she often takes a break from all of that to read books about oppressive governments and sassy teenagers. In a former life, she was a middle school teacher and middle school librarian. In her future life...well, that's yet to be determined, but it probably involves getting kids jazzed about books or research. In her free time, she drinks a lot of coffee while planning her next grand adventure (there's always something).

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25 responses to “Poverty in YA Literature

  1. This is a great post, Tara! The fact that you looked at dystopian novels is really awesome. I don’t think that reading a lot of dystopian novels will affect the viewpoints of teens to think that the government is their enemy (often their parents do a great job of that!) but it is an interesting dichotomy our American culture views as the norm: Big Brother Gov is the bad guy, and so are the scientists toying with our lives. The reality is actually quite the opposite!

    As far as novels that depict the nuances of poverty well, Katie McGarry does a fantastic job in her contemporary YA novels: Pushing the Limits, Crash Into You, Take Me On, and Breaking the Rules all show the complexity of living in poverty, living in the upper class, and all the dilemmas and benefits that come from each – while still letting those aspects be background material to the actually story.

    • Thank you for the recommendations! I’ve heard of those novels and I’ll have to look at including them on my syllabus when we talk about poverty in my YA lit class. And I brought up dystopian literature because it came up a lot in our class discussion, but I definitely feel like including poverty in those novels does not fulfill my desire for more socioeconomic diversity in books, even though the treatment of class in the novels is definitely fascinating and worthy of being part of the discussion. And I completely agree with the idea of government/science being evil in novels is a bit black and white, and I really appreciate books that bring more nuance to that.

  2. Love this post, Tara! I’m watching Gossip Girl at the minute, and I definitely relate to the idea of fantastical dreams of jumping social classes – I didn’t realise how often I read stories like this and just how often I find myself reading them with wishful thinking! I think the reality of life (bills, work, office politics etc.) is so rarely included in fiction, that on the one hand it presents the ideal opportunity for escapism, but on the other can create feelings of… dissatisfaction among readers as we compare the hardships we face in everyday life to the lives of the protagonists. Excellent post!

    • It’s definitely a fine line, and it really depends on the reader. When I was a librarian, I definitely noticed that I had kids who wanted to read as an escape, and kids who were so happy to read about kids who were like them. Like, I had these girls who loved Tyrell because he was a cool guy — even though poverty is a huge factor in the book, they weren’t reading it as an “issue” novel because that life seemed normal to them. They read it as a story about a guy who felt conflicted about his girlfriend and didn’t want to make the mistakes his dad made. It was a really important moment for me to see that kids all read books through different lenses, and that these books aren’t just about “teaching” about social issues (though I continue to use them that way with other students) but reflecting various experiences for kids who want to connect with character.

  3. Sam

    Wow, what a great post! When I started reading, I instantly thought of ‘Eleanor & Park’ because I finished it recently. I’ve read a few books that were aimed toward adults that talked about poverty including ‘The Language of Flowers’ by Vanessa Diffenbaugh and ‘The Bean Trees’ by Barbara Kingsolver. Both of these had very different situations for the character and tackled it in different ways. Victoria was a former foster-system child aging out and Taylor was running away from poverty at home to try and find something new.

    I think there’s a lack of diversity in YA novels because I feel that that genre, more than many others, tends to be escapism. For the girl living at home with an abusive father, does she want to read about Eleanor who is much like herself, or would she rather read about Harry Potter escaping to Hogwarts? I think even non-Fantasy novels try to be escapism and if you view literature this way, then all characters should be middle-class with well functioning families. But where’s the conflict there? As you can see, I’m torn. Your post has really made me think. Thanks for writing it.

    • I think that some kids want to read to escape, but there are definitely others who read to see themselves in the pages. I also think in terms of using books in a more formal setting (ie, the classroom) and how my students in the past have connected so intensely with books like The Outsiders that feel very close to their own lives (vs books like The Giver, which felt very foreign to them — though I feel the complete opposite way about the two books).

      However, I think these kids are not in bookstores buying books, which may be why there are not as many popular books that reflect their experiences. The kids buying books are the kids who have the parents who take them to the bookstore and spend money on books, which is a very specific subset (middle class, likely educated) segment in society. Eleanor and Park is little different case because I think the audience IS the mainstream YA audience, and I did have one friend who gave the book back to me and said she wouldn’t have read it if she knew there was abuse, because it was too sad and hit too close to home. Another, who experienced some really horrific abuse, said it was one of the most amazing novels she’d ever read. You are completely right that it is all is really complicated and I’m torn as well!

  4. If I find you depicts two girls who have grown up in the woods with there drug addicted mum. I gained a whole new perspective on my life and made me feel so much more grateful for the smallest things, a great read.

  5. Amen, amen, amen! I love your discussion posts! I haven’t read any books that directly tackle poverty, at least now within a “western” system. I’ve read a few books that tackle poverty in India or China or even Jamaica, but hardly any that explore it within the “first world context”. It’s sad to say that the only book that comes to mind is The Hunger Games.

    • I purposefully left out “third world” novels (I’m still struggling with that term) because I could go on a rant for days about how Americans are taught to understand poverty in other countries. Some books do it REALLY well, but others just…ugh. Do you have any recommendations for good books that have themes of non-western poverty?

  6. This is an amazing post! I know when I did my discussion post about Eleanor & Park I brought up Eleanor’s multiple types of oppression (which I think is completely realistic, because if there’s one thing I learned in my Women’s Studies courses, it’s that there’s so much validity to the intersection of race, class, gender, etc. so I didn’t feel that it was too heavy handed a depiction at all). I’m lucky enough to not have to worry about not being able to afford food, so some parts of the book were really hard to read, but also scarily eye-opening (such as the fact that she doesn’t even have her own toothbrush).

    I was actually surprised by the holiday anthology My True Love Gave To Me because there were a few stories that involved main characters that grew up in poverty (one of my favorites, Angels in the Snow by Matt de la Pena, featured a protagonist who was slowly starving during while apartment-sitting in New York because he couldn’t even afford to spend money on groceries or order a pizza). It’s really eye-opening in terms of offering a different perspective, and definitely lends to having more of an impact when reading a contemporary novel. I completely agree, when I see poverty featured in fantasy/dystopian novels it almost seems like more of a trope (such as in fairy-tale retellings, when almost all the protagonists start out poor and make that social class jump once they’ve proven themselves aligned with good over evil. Which is problematic in and of itself, because such narratives equate money as a reward or indicator of moral superiority, which is often not the case in real life). When a character is facing poverty in a contemporary novel, it’s much harder to “look past” that element because there’s no suspension of disbelief, and as a reader I have to reconcile the fact that I am living in the same world as this struggling character, and I am so much luckier than them.

    • I really enjoyed your post on Eleanor and Park, and your discussion of Eleanor’s layers of oppression. A lot of this post comes from the discussions in the YA lit class I taught in the fall, and the reading journals my students turned in for the book. I loved the book, but it was eye-opening to see how my (mostly white, female) students reacted to the story. One student was really angry that the novel was too many problems tackled all once for Eleanor. This student felt that novels should tackle issues in isolation.

      I also read My True Love Gave to Me and I remember Matt de la Pena’s story. I’ve also read Mexican WhiteBoy, which also shows the life of a working-class family and an incarcerated father, and it was quite a good story because it was about the struggle of straddling two cultures in America. I think another of this novels, Ball Don’t Lie, tackles the hope of escaping poverty through athletic talent, which is also a complicated and fascinating phenomenon. So it appears I should have discussed Matt de la Pena’s books in this post as well, because they do offer additional narratives the give depth to the topic!

  7. Honestly, I haven’t read many books with poverty as the focus. I definitely think that more books need to be written about the subject. I really like this post. If you have any other suggestions, I’d love to hear them.

  8. madison

    great post! I know this book isn’t really a young adult, but I found that The Glass Castle was a good portrayal of dynamics in a poor family, portraying the struggles and adversities they face as lower class citizens. Once again not a YA book but that is the kind of stuff I’d like to see more of in YA.

    • Thank you for the recommendation! I’ll add to my lists of books to look in to for this topic, because it is something we discuss in classes I’ve taught in both library science and eduction.

  9. Wow, these are some extensive thoughts on the topic. Personally, I have parents who grew up in relative poverty, and my mom is a social worker, so I’ve grown up hearing a lot about poverty and oppression, even if I’ve been lucky enough not to want for essentials myself.
    With this in mind, I really enjoyed Eleanor & Park, and I did find it to be an accurate description of the struggles and oppression kids face. I didn’t think it was over the top.
    For me, I really appreciated We Need New Names by Noviolet Bulawayo, which described the African experience of poverty quite well.

    • Thank you for your thoughts on Eleanor and Park. I think that giving realistic portrayals of real life is so important and valuable to so many readers who want to see themselves in literature. Also, thank you for the recommendation — I’m making a list from these comments of books I need to investigate, and possible add to my YA Lit course syllabus!

  10. This was a really good post. I agree with you completely. And I loved Eleanor and Park. I grew up a lot like her. There was poverty, a stepfather who physically and emotionally abused my mom and some sexual abuse. It happens, unfortunately. I feel it was very realistic.

    • Thank you for sharing your experiences and your feelings on Eleanor and Park. I know I’ve also had some students (adult students in my college class) who really enjoyed the novel and have brought up how they connected with her story — whether it was bullying, body issues, her home life, etc. For me, the discussions about her weight hit very close to home, and while this dug up some emotions from my own past, it was so great to feel like that issue wasn’t ignored in books.

  11. Great opinion Tara, though the goals may not be achieved in real life for the readers, it would get them inspired and get their own personality developed with how the characters they like inside the book react while experiencing adversity.

  12. Another reason why I rely on reading fantasy books is that there are hardly any class battles involved. Only a manipulative monarch and his goons. I also want to escape the harsh reality in which I’m also currently involved with. Because in reality, it would be excruciatingly hard to help people out of poverty.

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