Tuesday, February 21, 2012

You Are What You Read?

I've always been a bookish young lady.  Growing up, most of my allowance and baby-sitting money was spent on books; I mentally referred to the public library in my small town as 'my office'; and if I met Judy Blume today, I'm pretty sure, nay, certain, I would lose my shit completely.

I still re-read the books that I enjoyed as a youngster and despite my voracious reading habit, I still find that I missed a few classics here and there.  My friend Melissa was reflecting on her best-loved books a while ago, and mentioned the works of Alida Young, in particular, a cautionary tale of the dangers of steroid abuse: Dead Wrong.

Oh no!
I never read Alida Young when I was growing up, but she seems to be in the Lurlene McDaniel/ Beatrice Sparks camp of writing cautionary tales about young people who go through incredibly trying ordeals and often die.  Other Alida Young titles include: What's Wrong with Daddy?  Is Chelsea Going Blind? and I Never Got to Say Goodbye.

Naturally, I immediately requested Dead Wrong from the library and read it the other day on my lunch break.  What struck the most, however, was not the message that steroids are terrible (I do already know that, and have no desire to bulk up), but the fact that money and the family's struggles with it are just as much of a theme in this book as steroid abuse is.

The parents in this book own a small business and work very long hours trying to bring the money in, which ends up being one of the reasons that the older brother uses performance-enhancing drugs--he needs a college scholarship.  The main character hates that her parents are always working, and begs them to buy a computer so she doesn't have to use her teacher's or a friends, but they tell her that they can't afford it.  

This reminded me that a lot of young adult and children's books I read growing up featured families that were struggling financially, and that in most of the young adult books I read these days (the current ones) rarely include characters like that, or even mention money unless it's spending it at the mall.  Let's take a look at some of the books I read that shaped me into the lovely adult I am today:

Ramona Quimby in the Ramona Quimby Series:
  1. The cat, Picky Picky, had to eat Puss Puddy brand cat food because it was the cheapest, and he hated it.
  2. In Ramona and her Mother, Ramona squirts out an entire tube of toothpaste in the sink, and her mom carefully scrapes it all back out and the family has to dip their brushes in the cup of paste until it's all gone.  When I first read this, I thought it was weird and gross, and I remember having what may have been my first lightbulb moment: this family is poor!  In my mind, that made these books even more interesting.
  3. The family always eats at home, and there is mention of crock-potting and eating pancakes for dinner.
  4. There are various job changes and layoffs over the course of the series, and even though the books are told from the perspective of a young girl who doesn't quite understand everything, money is often at the forefront.
Baby Sitters Club Series:
  1. Perhaps most of the families weren't poor, but Kristy's rich step-father was an anomaly which always got an extended mention.
  2. The BSC members all worked for all of their own spending money, and seemed to buy most of their own clothes.
  3. The only time the BSC girls seemed to go on vacation, they were also babysitting.  Even when they went to camp, they went as Counselors in Training and presumably got a reduced rate.
Sweet Valley High Series:
  1. The Wakefield twins shared a car that had previously belonged to their mother.
  2. Jessica was often involved in a hair-brained money-making schemes
  3. Elizabeth saves up for the duration of a whole book to pay for her word processor
  4. Many mentions of baby-sitting jobs, au pair gigs and internships (that Jessica always seemed to get even though she was wildly underqualified and seemingly uninterested).
  5. There were 'rich' characters--Bruce Patman, Lila Fowler, and then there was everyone else.

Contrast those titles with current 'classics'
  1. Gossip Girl Series: Rich kids in Manhattan whose only money concern is having the newest and best.  I used to read Gossip Girl books while on my break at the bookstore.  I would pretend that the latte and biscotti I was enjoying were not simply spoils of the barista life, but that I was the type of person who lounges in a cafe with coffee and a treat.
  2. The Clique Series:  I've only read one of these books, but they pretty much only talk about labels and shopping.  Apparently The Gap is unacceptable?  Who knew!  I rarely shop at the Gap because I think it's too expensive.
  3. Pretty Little Liars Series:  Fancy houses in a fancy part of Philadelphia.  There's some shoplifting, but not really because the characters are poor.  Many, many mentions of Escalades.
So what happened?  I realize that it's more fun to read about and write about people who have the means to have endless adventures, but if these books are supposed to imitate life and allow kids to find themselves within the pages, we may have a problem.  Did we get too comfortable during the heyday of the 1990's spending and forget what it meant to scrape by?  

So far, the current economic slump seems to be inspiring more distopian YA fiction than ever before, which seems to make the money woes of the present more far removed from reality.  Maybe the 'New Frugality' will take a place in the books for the next generation, or maybe we'll keep sheltering kids by making money trouble more fantasy than real life.  Of course, we have to consider that there is far, far more writing for young people these days than at any other time in history, but even if we look back at the very old classics, there was often mention of money and not having enough of it, and there were often secondary characters who were known as rich people--often the rich people were unhappy:
Little Women-- The March family constantly frets about money (even though they have a servant).
The Secret Garden--The characters have money, but are miserable until the poor neighbor boy teaches them how to play outside and make things grow.
Heidi--Lives in a mountain hut with her grandfather and sleeps on a bed of straw.  Also, spends time in Frankfurt with rich people who seem very unhappy.
Nancy Drew--Even though Nancy never worried about money personally, Bess and George often had the challenge of coming up with cash to go mystery-solving with their favorite chum.  Honestly, I remember wondering at various points in that series where Nancy got all her cash.  Then I decided to be a lawyer, since they're obviously rolling in it, like the famous Carson Drew.

Is this something anyone else noticed?  Can you think of other books from way back that included poor or poorish characters?


  1. I loved this post. I've been angry for a while at the depiction of money in television and movies, where 99 percent of people don't worry about it. Rosanne was a big game changer for that, except the final season. And kudos to Winter's Bone for depicting poverty and having a character who, gasp, has to walk to places for lack of a car.

    The Hunger Games, for current YA lit, speaks at length of the effects of poverty and income gaps on individuals and society at large.

    I vaguely remember an early theory about literature, that it showed that rich people had problems too, so you should be happy that you aren't rich. Literature as means of keeping the masses happy they are getting shafted.

  2. The extreme poverty of The Hunger Games is in a future distopia that is incredibly different than real life. Sure, it shows incredible poverty, but in such a way as to make it almost extra fiction--something that will never happen to 'us.' I seriously have been racking my brain trying to think of a current popular series that includes a poor character that isn't set 50 years in the future after mankind's greed has fucked everything up.

  3. Good point. However, I can't think of any recent YA fiction that isn't about vampires, distopias, dragons, magic or other genre fiction. Amazon's top 100 YA is filled with those as well. In many ways, that's sad, but it's the kind of stuff I read as a teen, so I can't really complain.

  4. Those boxcar children didn't even have a house . . . until they got adopted by better off relatives in the first book. Why they continued to call them the boxcar children for the next 400 books I'll never know.

  5. hahaha--good call!! I thought that they kept the boxcar to use as a playhouse in the back yard, or something. I could be remembering that wrong though.

  6. Love this post. I had to mention because I order the YA books for my library system, that Lurlene McDaniel has a new book coming out this spring! How are there *any* movie-of-the-week issues left for her to write about? Honestly.

    My faves growing up were Gordon Korman's Macdonald Hall series, which were about Canadian kids in boarding school. Somehow, other than one snooty rich classmate, they never came off as particularly privileged. Actually, they were constantly running schemes and fundraisers to get money for one odd project or another.

  7. Oh Lurlene! Funny story, I wrote another, pretty unflattering blog about Lurlene a while back, and she requested me as a friend on Myspace!

  8. Found you via Shopping Detox. :) I loved the Ramona books as a kid. I think that Ramona was the only one who had to dip her toothbrush in the jar, though. The rest of the family used a tube of toothpaste, and poor little Ramona was sad. Some of my favourite books as a kid were Homecoming and Dicey's Song by Cynthia Voigt. They were about kids abandoned by their mentally ill mom, and they made their way on their own to find family members to take them in. I'm guilty of reading almost exclusively science fiction young adult books, so I'm not familiar with any modern children's books that depict realistic poverty.

  9. Hi Stephanie! I may have misremembered the Ramona book, I should probably re-read it....

    I LOVED Homecoming and Dicey's Song! Those books were interesting because the kids had to figure things out for themselves and find a way to survive--I miss books like that.