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 Starters, Kitty 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.
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:
- Such a Rush by Jennifer Echols
- Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
- Panic by Lauren Oliver
- The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
- 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.
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 Tyrell, after 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).
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.