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Sunday Reflections: There is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch?

The tickets were a different color. That’s what I remember about being on the free and reduced lunch program after my parents got divorced and we tried to make it as a single income family. The tickets were a different color so every kid knew that you were poor. There was great shame that came with handing that ticket to the lunch lady. But that shame didn’t overwrite my hunger, so I handed it to her and I ate.

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This past week, Betsy DeVos made the comment that there is no such thing as a free lunch. And that is technically true. Lunches, even lunches that come free to children in our nation’s schools, cost someone money. I, personally, don’t mind paying taxes to help make sure that children don’t go hungry.

Here’s the thing about children. They are our most vulnerable population. They are developing and forming and every thing that happens to and around them affects them. Hunger. Poverty. It affects them. And because it affects them, it affects all of us.

I am a Christian and since this is a Sunday, let me turn now to the Bible. Once there was a man named Jesus who stood before a large crowd and he was going to deliver what we would call today a sermon. He was teaching them. But he looked out among them and saw that they were hungry and he understood they would not be able to listen and learn while their bellies rumbled with hunger pains, so he fed them. This is the Sermon on the Mount. The feeding of the multitude. The story of when a man named Jesus took some loaves and fishes and fed thousands of hungry people so that he could teach them.

We can argue about the best ways to feed starving children. But there are hungry kids sitting in our public schools – current statistics indicate 1 in 5 of every kid – and they already have a lunch time and a lunch program, so free and reduced lunches make sense. It’s a distribution program in place that works.

There has been a lot of talk since the election about rural poverty. No one, they claim, cares about poor rural people and that is why we are here. Ironically, cutting school lunch programs would dramatically hurt those living in rural poverty. I know, because I work in an area with high amounts of rural poverty. In fact, I recently did a long series of Tweets about what is was like working with these teens. I share that story with you here because it seems relevant to this conversation we keep having.

It’s true, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Someone, somewhere is paying for that lunch. But I’m not in the business of punishing children, affecting their health and development, and compromising our future for some negative ideology that overlooks the very real causes of poverty and puts more money into the hands of rich people while children sit hungry in the classroom and can’t focus on learning because their teacher’s voice isn’t louder than the growling in their bellies. I’d rather my taxes go to feed hungry children then pay for our billionaire president’s many vacations or to increase our capacity to kill the world a thousand times over by developing more nuclear weapons. Investing in children is an investment in America.

This is what it's like working with teens living in rural poverty in a small Midwestern town//


This is what it's like working with teens living in rural poverty in a small Midwestern town



  1. If you would like, please gather round for a look at teenage life in poor(er) rural America. Multiple tweets to follow.


  2. Just five minutes ago, I sat in a busy, active Teen Makerspace with 24 teens. In a moment, they are all gone. Just like that. Why?


  3. They all left to go to the local hot meal. This happens every week night like clockwork. They're here, then there are gone. Poverty & hunger


  4. are so rampant in this rural town that local churches/organizations have a steady, weekly rotation of hot meals for the public. My teens


  5. know the schedule by heart. The staff does as well, because it is the most frequent question we get asked after where's the bathroom.


  6. They come here after school and stay until closing. Sometimes parents come check on them in between going from one part-time job to the next


  7. Many of them are in foster care. They share stories of abuse, sexual violence, drug use and more. They are bored, restless, scared.


  8. Our schools are failing because there is no $ and no one will vote for a levy because they can't afford higher taxes.


  9. One girl wore broken glasses for months because she can only get new ones 1 day a year when the local place has a free clinic.


  10. Some of my teens have teeth rotting out because they can't afford to go to a dentist. No one makes fun of them because they all know and


  11. and understand here what it's like to live in poverty. They know what it's like to be hungry. To have your electricity or water turned off.


  12. They talk openly about it all because it's all they know and they have no shame. They don't have space for your shame. They are surviving.


  13. There are a few pockets of more middle class in this town, but overall we have a high amount of poverty, poor health, instability, low ed.


  14. These parents are trying hard in a system designed for them to fail. There are no jobs locally, not good paying ones. And you need cars &


  15. childcare to get out of town for the better paying jobs. Or for cultural experiences. Or for anything that isn't mass marketed & cheap.


  16. It's a never ending cycle. One illness, one car break down, and they fall back down the ladder. And it keeps repeating, because the system


  17. that's designed to hold them down is very good at it.


  18. These are children. Teenagers yes, but children. When they turn 15 many of them will get jobs. They will try & go to school, but they need


  19. the $ more immediately then they need the education. They need to eat. Electricity. Running water. Education is a luxury here for those who


  20. can afford to stay in instead of dropping out and working.


  21. So remember when you are talking about poverty, you are talking about real people. Most of them the hardest working people you'll ever meet.


  22. And remember that these kids love like this because of us. Because of our laws, our systems, our decisions. But we can also work to change.


  23. Things they need:
    To be valued, respected, cared for
    Parents w/jobs that have livable wages & benefits so they can be more present in the


  24. Life of their children
    Quality public education
    Health care
    Nutritious food
    Cultural opportunities like field trips to museums & plays


  25. Side note: so many schools no longer have field trips, which is the only way many kids go to museums, plays, etc. Another huge loss for all.


  26. Some of these teens are born and raised here & have never been out of this small town because how could they get there? They can't.


  27. In a half hour they will all walk back to the library in the freezing rain and stay until close. Then they'll go to wherever it is they are


  28. sleeping tonight. For some, it will be home. For others, it won't. In the mean time, I'm honored to sit in this space w/them & listen, teach


 

#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.

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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:

Rachael’s Recs:

socio1DREAM 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.

socio2NO 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.

socio5ELEANOR 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.

socio6THE 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.

morehappythannotMORE 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.

socio7WHEN 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.

socio8SHINE by Lauren Myracle

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.

socio9JUST VISITING by Dahlia Adler

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.

Sarah’s Recs:

socio10SUCH 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.

socio11THE 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.

socio13THE 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.

socio14AFTER THE FALL by Kate Hart

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.

socio12SALVAGE 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.

socio15CRAZY 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

Rachael Allen
Rachael Allen lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband, two children, and two sled dogs. In addition to being a YA writer, she’s a mad scientist, a rabid Falcons fan, an expert dare list maker, and a hugger. Rachael is the author of THE REVENGE PLAYBOOK and 17 FIRST KISSES (HarperTeen).
Sarah Nicole Lemon
Born and raised in the Appalachians, Sarah Nicole Lemon spent the first fifteen years of her life doing nothing but reading and playing outside, and has yet to outgrow either. When not writing, you can find her drinking iced coffee in a half-submerged beach chair near her home in southern Maryland. Sarah is the author of the forthcoming DONE DIRT CHEAP (Amulet, March 2017).

 

More on Hunger and Poverty at TLT

Hunger and Poverty

Additional Sources:

Social Mobility:

Cycles of Poverty:

How Poverty Affects Schools:

Sunday Reflections: Making it Unaffordable to Walk in Someone Else’s Shoes, what the death of the mass market paperback means to struggling teens

sundayreflections1Last summer, before The Teen could enter into the middle school AP reading class, she had to read and annotate the book Wonder by R. J. Palacio. If she didn’t show up on day one of the school year with the project in her hand she was automatically kicked out of class. There were no classroom copies of this book. And we couldn’t check it out from the school library because school was not in session.

Our only option if she wanted to be in advanced placement reading was to buy the book and complete the project over the summer months.

Earlier this week, the Harper Lee estate announced that they would no longer be selling the mass market paperback edition of To Kill a Mockingbird. In a few months, the only editions available will be the trade paperback edition or hardback, both of which are significantly more expensive than a mass market paperback.

Also this week I had an interesting online discussion with Twitter user @jennygadget where she noted that one of the things that she was concerned about in recent trends in YA publishing is the increased price point of YA titles. The average cost of a new YA book in the U.S. these days is $17.99, up from around $14.99.

To further complicate matters, let’s consider the many Americans living in rural towns – like myself. The closest new book store from my home is a little over an hour. I can drive twenty minutes in either direction and I will run into a Half Price Books. This means I have to have transportation, gas money and time to make the trip.

If I want to order off of Amazon I either have to sign up for Prime, which has a subscription price, or pay shipping. I also have to have a way to pay online, which means a credit card, Paypal account or Amazon gift card. Many families don’t have any of these things.

I happen to live in a town without a real public library. There is a small public library as part of the high school, but its offering are maybe 2% of what you might find in a fully developed and staffed public library. Its children’s section is smaller than my kitchen, compared to those libraries that have entire floors dedicated to children’s books.

Access to a diverse offering of quality titles is sparse in these parts. Even sparser if you can’t afford to build your own private library.

I mention all of this because I want to highlight the stumbling blocks to reading that many families – many teens – face. Keep in mind, 1 in 5 kids/teens go to bed each night hungry. They don’t know how they are going to pay for their next meals, so they don’t always have the cash on hand to drop to buy that assigned book in their classroom. The number of families in my area who qualify for free or reduced lunch hangs around 70%. For some of these families, their middle schoolers couldn’t sign up for advanced reading and successfully complete the Wonder project simply because they couldn’t get their hands on a copy of the book to complete the assignment.

Last month the class was assigned The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton. This time there were a few classroom copies available to students who couldn’t get their own copy, but they were passed out and turned back in each 45 minute period. They couldn’t take the book home. They couldn’t do the annotate the book portion of their assignment because they were using a shared book. And if they were a struggling reader who needed more time with the text – or a reader who wanted to spend more time with the text – they were out of luck.

This is just one of the many ways that teens going into middle and high school can be at a disadvantage. Pay to play is another. When The Teen tried out for basketball this year, it was clear that she didn’t make the team because those that did were more experienced players. They had been playing in local leagues – which charge a pretty high fee – from an early age. If you wanted to be on the cheerleading squad, you had to have had years of gymnastics and be able to plop down a clean grand after being chosen for the team. Baseball, soccer, tennis, musical instruments and more – all opportunities that you couldn’t take unless you already had experience, which means money for lessons and uniforms and local leagues. And parents with enough free time off of work that they could take you to practices and games.

So many of our teens come into our education systems with an economic disadvantage. All education, it seems, is not equal. And this doesn’t even take into account economically disadvantaged school districts and how THAT affects education and opportunity. When we lived in one of the highest poverty school districts in the state of Ohio, you could see every way in which the underfunded schools left local residents at a disadvantage. The school library doors were closed and locked. There were no field trips. And the class offerings are dramatically different than what you find in more well funded districts.

As a librarian, we tend very much to care about the concept of access. In order for people to succeed, they need access to the things they need to be successful. In order for our students to be successful readers, they need access to books. New books. A wide variety of books. Assigned books. The classics. And everything in between. But access isn’t as universal as we think. Like public schools, not all public libraries are the same. They have dramatically different funding, which impacts collections, which impacts access.

And then in their own homes, our teens can have huge barriers to access as well. They may not have the funding to purchase a lot of titles for their home. Or the way to get to a bookstore. They may not even have a bookstore near by, but that’s a different rant about the loss of local bookstores. School and public libraries are supposed to be one of the things that help bridge these gaps and level the playing field for our citizens, but we all know that is not always the case.

Many people don’t realize the significance of what it means to hear that the Harper Lee estate will no longer be selling the mass market paperback version of To Kill a Mockingbird; how it will make access to this title a lot harder for many of our teen readers. But I do. And it makes me sad because I know that this is just another way in which our financially struggling teens will be further disenfranchised and have to work that much harder to try and be successful in school. It’s another way of telling our poorer families – our poorer teens – that they have so little value and we have so little respect or compassion for them. It’s just another hurdle that makes it seem like it’s that much harder to climb up the education ladder successfully.

I think the news would make Atticus Finch a little sad because he would have taken a moment to walk in those teens’ shoes and understood how challenging their journey to success is. It’s hard to pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you can’t even afford to buy a pair of boots.

Teens, Hunger and Poverty: An ongoing discussion

As students head back to school it’s important for us to remember that ” nearly half of the nation’s children between the ages of 5 and 17 attend schools in communities where a large chunk of families are struggling to get by” (Source: Huffington Post).  One of our ongoing issues of focus is that of teens and poverty. Here are a selection of posts what we have already done below, and we will be doing more because we here at TLT feel like this is one of the greatest issues facing our teens today.

See also Stacked: Socioeconomic Class in Contemporary YA Lit: Where Are The Poor Teens? Guest Post by Librarian Faythe Arrendondo and Kate Brauning: Writing Poverty in YA

You Are Now Approved to Read, Economic Hardship in More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera

morehappythannotApproved

When I use my debit card at the grocery store, I always breathe a deep sigh of relief when this work pops up on the little thingy ma bob letting me know that my transaction has been approved. I usually call the bank before I go, getting an idea of how much I can spend. And if I have to go to a business lunch or dinner I get cash out before I go, fearing that my card will be rejected in front of others, people that I care about. This all comes with the territory when you live paycheck to paycheck, this moment when you’re sweating bullets and hoping beyond hope that the magical words “approved” will appear on the tiny little screen before you.

Which bring me to the book More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera.

More Happy Than Not is one of the most creative, jaw dropping, holy crap did that just happen books I have read in a long time. It is also one of the more authentic portraits of living in poverty or near poverty that I have read in a very long time.

Aaron Soto, our main character, is a young man growing up in a single parent home after his father’s suicide. Money is tighter than tight. He and his brother share a room in the small apartment with the four walls barely staying up that his family lives in. He has a job and a girlfriend and is struggling with his own issues, especially since it turns out that he might be gay and isn’t likely to get a lot of support on this topic from his friends and neighbors.

There is a scene where Arron and his girlfriend go to a comic book store and when he swipes his ATM card to buy a comic, it is declined. His girlfriend offers to go ahead and buy it for him, but pride leads him to shake off the offer. It’s a brief scene, but it’s an important one that helps us establish many things about Aaron, including how desperately poor he and his family really are. It’s a brief glimpse into the very real struggles of not having enough cash on hand to buy even the most basic, simplest of pleasures. It’s not a huge amount, just a few dollars, but Aaron can’t even swing this small amount.

And then there is Aaron and his brother’s room situation. They are a family of three living in a one room apartment. Thing 2 is friends with a girl who are a family of 7 living in a 3 bedroom apartment since their family had to move in with grandparents after losing everything. Two teenage brothers on my street share a full mattress that rests on the floor of their room since having to move after their father lost his job and they lost their home to foreclosure in another state. And these are just a few of the very real scenarios of friends, families and neighbors who, like Aaron, are counting pennies and standing before that card reader at the cash register praying to see the word approved pop up on the screen.

Just yesterday I shared on Tumblr what I thought the greatest threat to the American family was today, and it’s not the issue that my preacher has been preaching from the pulpit about or that conservative media is putting in the headlines. Tonight 1 in 5 children will go to bed hungry. Tonight there are teenagers sleeping on a mattress on a floor in a barely furnished apartment while their hard working parents get food from the local food bank to supplement what they are able to purchase at the store. As someone who cares about, works with and advocates for teens, I stunned every day by the stories they share about the struggles their families are facing to barely survive. And I am grateful to the literature that reflects those stories in the little details, like we see here in Aaron’s story. More Happy Than Not succeeds on so many levels, but what I appreciated most was that in the midst of this fabulous and quite frankly mindblowing storytelling, author Adam Silvera was able to authentically portray real world teenagers struggling with impoverishment.

Aaron’s story is moving because even in the most fantastical details of this story, we know that there are teens facing many of the same struggles that Aaron does every day.

My verdict on More Happy Than Not: Approved (and highly recommended)

More on Teens, Hunger and Poverty in our Teen Issues series:

See also Stacked: Socioeconomic Class in Contemporary YA Lit: Where Are The Poor Teens? Guest Post by Librarian Faythe Arrendondo and Kate Brauning: Writing Poverty in YA

 

 

Boom, Crash, The Sound of the Economy – featuring THE TRUTH ABOUT US by Janet Gurtler, THE HIT by Delilah S.Dawson and THE BULLIES OF WALL ST. by Sheila Bair

In 2008 the world changed as the economy went tumbling. They say we are in recovery now, though for the shrinking middle class it probably doesn’t feel that way. Reports indicate that poverty and hunger are rapidly growing concerns in the U.S., with 1 in 5 children now facing food insecurity and hunger. Although Robin and I have been talking about this issue for some time now along with some more progressive publications like Mother Jones and NPR, it’s finally starting to really hit the mainstream in more obvious ways as even corporations like Wal-Mart are highlighting the issue in recent advertising (see example ad below). You could argue that they are also trying to capitalize and profit off the issues in ways that to me sometimes feel opportunistic, especially since one of the main criticisms leveraged against this and other big box chains is that they fail to pay a livable wage to their employees, but there is something to be said about seeing a commercial on prime time television that honestly highlights this very real issue that many of our kids are facing. . This recent article about the Millvale community in Cincinnati highlights the extreme poverty many kids are facing and how dramatically it can impact their education success, which affects us all: “Cincinnati has a child poverty rate of 53.1 percent, second only to Detroit’s 59 percent child poverty rate, according to the 2012 American Community Survey. That means that, without help, every other child in this city doesn’t have enough to eat, clothes to wear or a place to live” (Sharon Coolidge and Liz Dafour). As mentioned in the article, lots of school and libraries, both public and school, are trying to find creative and alternative ways to meet their patrons most basic needs before trying to find out how to create first class makerspaces because they know that hungry kids don’t have the energy and the focus needed to successfully engage with a makerspace.

For some time now I have been reading YA lit and making a mental note of those titles that at least mention that for many of our tweens and teens economics is a very real issue. For me, it’s personal, affecting both my family and far too many of the families that I see coming into the public library day after day. Here are a few new titles that I recommend that deal with the issues in subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways.

In The Truth About Us by Janet Gurtler, we see the budding romance of two teens who come from very different worlds. Jess is rich, spoiled and privileged in ways she doesn’t recognize. But when she is caught in a scandalous situation, her father decides that she will spend her summer volunteering at a local shelter to open her eyes to just how easy she has it. Here she meets Flynn, a guy who quite literally lives on the wrong side of the tracks and often does work around the shelter so he feels like he is earning the free meals his family gets to help supplement his single mother’s barely there income. As Jess spends time at the shelter getting to know the people, you do begin to see some changes in her. But that’s not my favorite part.

My favorite part is the way the people at the shelter view Flynn. It’s no surprise that Jess and everyone in her life thinks she’s too good for Flynn, but I love that Flynn’s friends and family all think that he is too good for Jess. Because they know that being too good for someone is not about what side of the tracks you come from or how much money you have in the bank, but about whether or not you are a good, loyal, and trustworthy person. In their eyes, Flynn is one of the best people they know working hard, overcoming obstacles, and making personal sacrifices to help out his mother and little brother. Flynn is far too good for the initially spoiled and selfish Jess and I love how protective this shelter family is of him.

The Truth About Us will appeal to contemporary romance readers, but it also does a really good job of highlighting the truth about the various economic realities of the people we know but don’t always know well, the people we see every day but never really learn their stories. I also love that it doesn’t vilify or demonize any of the people in the shelter and it highlights the truth of many people like Flynn’s family who just need a little bit of extra help to make ends meet as they bust their butts in jobs that barely pay a livable wage. For every story you hear about someone milking the system, the truth is that most of the people needing some additional help are working hard in a system that seems designed to make sure they fail. The Truth About Us helps give those stories a voice.

The Hit by Delilah S. Dawson takes a fun house mirror to some of our current economic discussions and highlights what could happen in the most absurd ways if we don’t start to really question corporate influence on our political and economic systems. That is, after all, what a good dystopian novel does and this one is a fun ride with a twinge of truth that hits a little too painfully close to home.

Nobody read the fine print which is how Patsy is given a horrifying choice: Kill 10 people on a list supplied to her by Valor National Bank or die right then and there knowing that her mother is slowly and painfully dying of cancer because they can’t afford to get her the medical care they need. You see, the US is finally out of debt, but the cost is that the country has been bought and paid for by Valor National Bank. They are now collecting all our personal debt in the most extreme way imaginable: you can pay up immediately, become an assassin for the bank, or die. So Patsy sets out on a timed mission offering others the same deal she got.

During her first kill, she meets the son of the man she has killed and the two of them end up helping each other out. It’s a complicated relationship because she knows that the last person on her list is his brother, so trust is obviously an issue. But they also at times seem wildly attracted to each other. And each name on the list seems to have some type of personal connection to Patsy, because evil corporations are evil and it’s not enough that they have to make her a killer, but they have to make her kill people with names and faces that somehow relate back to her.

Underneath the thrilling layers of The Hit there is a lot of meaty discussion to be had about corporate influence over politics. There are also some good discussions about privilege and the various differences in socioeconomic classes. The various places Patsy goes to cross off a name on her list leads to some interesting discussions about various types of neighborhoods, the struggles of the people that live there, etc. It makes you seriously uncomfortable to read, sometimes hitting a little too close to home, but you can’t put it down. And Patsy fends off packs of would be rapists – twice – as she goes into areas where she faces desperate people trying to maintain any semblance of control over their lives that they can. Like I said, it’s an uncomfortable read at times, because it’s easy to see how given our current trajectory we could come to a bizarro world scenario like we find in The Hit and we are forced to ask ourselves what we would do to survive.

The Hit takes a few turns and there is going to be another book, which I am anxiously awaiting. Because the question is, will we just do what the corporations tell us or will we at some point take back control and insist that our government be once again by the people, for the people?

The Bullies of Wall Street is a nonfiction book on the financial crisis written by former FDIC chariman Sheila Bair. Seeing real life socioeconomic issues play out in YA literature is important and illuminating, but sometimes it is helpful to read some straight talk about important issues that are affecting us. The tagline really illuminates the Bair’s take on the situation: “This is how greedy adults messed up our economy.”  The Bullies of Wall St. pulls no punches and gives lots of statistical information to highlight the problems that we are still facing.  There is some specific discussion about the housing market and bank crisis and bail out. It ends with Bair discussing the growing national debt and how it will affect future generations. She then raises this challenge to us today: Be a good business person, be a good consumer, be a good parent, and be a good citizen.

Economics is a big, weighty subject with a lot of different opinions and theories. Bair’s The Bullies of Wall St. tries to apply those specifically to the economic crisis of 2008 and on in ways that make it easy for teen readers to understand. Bair does this in part by sharing stories of various teens. We meet Matt, who is forced to re-home his beloved dog Attila because they have to move into a smaller rental home and they can’t find one that will let them keep the dog. I related a lot to this story as we also lost a home and moved for a job. It was so hard leaving all my girls’ childhood memories behind, including the door jams where we had measured their growth in pencil marks. We also meet Anna, who has moved three times in three years. We meet Jorge whose father loses his job and they end up with over $12,00 worth of medical bills because his family lost their insurance when his dad lost his job. Each of these stories, and there are more, are used to highlight specific issues that happened in the “recession” of 2008 and explain a variety of economic theories, including supply and demand and the housing bubble. The way the stories are used to explain the concepts helps make it more readable and less dry, as I remember my high school economics class being.

The economic recovery is not over, despite what you may sometimes hear on the news. It’s important that we keep talking about it and I believe these books, and others like them, help us to do that.

More on Teens, Hunger and Poverty in our Teen Issues series:

See also Stacked: Socioeconomic Class in Contemporary YA Lit: Where Are The Poor Teens? Guest Post by Librarian Faythe Arrendondo and Kate Brauning: Writing Poverty in YA

 

Sunday Reflections: Impoverished Youth: Over half of public school children now live in low income homes

As I pulled into the Target parking lot we saw him, a man old enough to be my grandfather holding a sign saying he had been laid off and was hungry. The girls and I exited our vehicle and made our way towards the entrance when I noticed The Tween was crying. “It’s so sad,” she said, “that poor man.” While I love her compassionate heart, I hate to see her hurting, especially when it turns out there is so little I can do to fix the ills of this world which seem so much bigger than me.

The truth is we were only at Target because we hadn’t gotten a gift card for Christmas and since things have been tight for us I knew we had to use it for groceries. And we did, we used it for groceries. It just turns out that we would be sharing those groceries on this day.

This was the second time in two months that my girls had seen the effects of poverty up close. Back in December we had stopped at a Denny’s with some family when an older man came walking in with a backpack on his back and a battered rolling suitcase in his hand. He ordered a glass of water and a single pancake. I watched as he lifted his trembling hand to try and align the fork with his mouth realizing that he was suffering from advanced Parkinson’s disease, the same disease that took my grandfather’s life 6 years ago. My heart shattered into a million pieces as I realized that this man, he could have been my grandfather if his situation had been just a little bit different. The waitress seemed to know him and confirmed that he was homeless and came in frequently. We couldn’t do much but The Mr. had the waitress put a Denny’s gift card in his hand after we left that day and I gave her information to give him about local area resources. In both of these cases the person we saw was older, but children are not immune to poverty.

Just this last week a report was released that indicates that for the first time in over half a century more than half of U.S. school aged children in public schools are living in low-income or impoverished homes: “Overall, 51 percent of U.S. schoolchildren came from low-income households in 2013, according to the foundation, which analyzed data from National Center for Education Statistics on students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.” (Source: Huffington Post). This information adds a grim portrait to recent reports that indicate that in the year 2013 1 in 30 youth were homeless at some point.

The SEF said the rate of poor students in public schools hasn’t been higher in more than half a century, calling its findings “a defining moment in America’s public education.” Source: Buzzfeed

Every day I listen to NPR and the news reports assure me that the economy is getting better, jobs are being added – we’re on the upswing they say.  And yet they are also doing more and more stories about the plight of the youth in America today, the shrinking middle class, and the fact that food banks are running out of food because they can’t keep up with demand. The truth is the economy is getting better, for some people. Sadly, a lot of those people don’t seem to be our nation’s children. The effects of this are both immediate and long-term, and devastating.

Southern Education Foundation / Via southerneducation.org from Buzzfeed article :

http://www.buzzfeed.com/davidmack/public-school-poverty#.klJpojOkgp

I recently read an advanced copy of More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera, which Amanda will be reviewing closer to its release date though I highly recommend it because it genuinely blew me away and moved me. I was struck by the main character, Aaron, who is struggling with a lot of issues, one of them being growing up in extreme poverty. Aaron’s situation struck me because it was the situation of the teenage boys who live next door to me. Like Aaron, these boys are forced to share a bed. In fact, they sleep on a full size mattress that rests on the floor, they don’t even have a frame. At various times their family has had to go to the local food bank to get food because they couldn’t make ends meet that month. There is a scene in More Happy Than Not where author Silvera shows Aaron going to a local comic book store where he doesn’t have enough money to make the purchase that he wants. It’s not a big purchase, but it still happens to be out of his reach. This scene resonated with me as The Tween and I stood at Target searching for the cheapest of everything we could find, making sure not to go over the gift card limit. It reminded me of the family next door and those teenage boys having to say no they couldn’t go out for tacos after the school play because they couldn’t scrape up enough change in the couch cushions. It reminded me of that man ordering one pancake and a glass of water.

These past few months I have seen an upswing in the amount of YA literature that is more realistically depicting the economic struggles of teens today. I’ve seen a few more More Happy Than Not‘s to contrast with the number of rich kids in boarding schools or teens with cars that never seem to break down because they are brand spanking new. Even in Brutal Youth by Anthony Breznican, a book about a private Catholic school, it is made clear that many of the students there can barely afford to pay their tuition or are there because of some type of benefactor. Like Aaron in More Happy Than Not or Sean and Neecie in Perfectly Good White Boy by Carrie Mesrobian, I’ve also seen more nods to working teens.

I think that the increasing number of children living in struggling economic homes is the greatest challenge our nation faces today. There are a lot of causes and a lot of things we need to do to address the problem, but first we have to acknowledge and understand the extent of the problem. Literature can help us do that, but a story is not enough. We need to use the power of story to open the eyes of those who don’t understand the depth of the problem, and then we must all challenge ourselves to do better in addressing the problem. As the economic report states, “Their success or failure in the public schools will determine the entire body of human capital and educational potential that the nation will possess in the future.” Addressing the issue of poverty isn’t just about taking care of kids today, it’s about taking care of our collective future.

More Teens and Poverty in TLT:

See also Stacked: Socioeconomic Class in Contemporary YA Lit: Where Are The Poor Teens? Guest Post by Librarian Faythe Arrendondo and Kate Brauning: Writing Poverty in YA

Sunday Reflections: Becoming a Statistic

As we begin 2015, I can’t help but hope that it is somehow better than 2014. Great things happened in 2014: TLT joined SLJ, Amanda MacGregor joined us, and my kids rock. But something else happened in 2014. Something very personal. In 2014, I became a statistic. I share this story with you now because I see it happening all around me and understanding how easily it happens can better help us serve the teens around us.

In 2014, we became one of the many U.S. citizens that lost a home to foreclosure. But that journey did not begin in 2014, it began in 2008.

In 2008, Thing 2 was born as the world around us collapsed economically. She was born with a variety of health issues that resulted in lots of doctors appointments, specialists, and pharmaceutical grade formula that could bankrupt the richest of families. At that same time, The Mr. realized that he was going to be losing his job and found a new one that turned out to suck in epic ways. He ended up working nights which caused devastating health consequences for him. After searching for over 2 years he finally found a new (and better job) in 2010 – but in a different state.

For a year he spent the week in Texas while the girls and I stayed in our home in Ohio; he came home every other weekend to see his girls. I was lucky to have a job I loved, friends and family I loved, and the support I needed as I tried to navigate what felt like single motherhood with a child with health issues while working a very fulfilling full-time job. But then in February 2011, all hell broke lose. Quite literally.

Pictures from the Flood

The town I lived in in Ohio was ranked as part of the poorest county of all of Ohio. Crime rates were rising, drug use was rising, and the schools were underfunded and failing. This town was struggling. And then that night, the last night of February, the town flooded. My home flooded. I woke up at 4 AM because of a burning smell in my home only to learn that was the least of my problems. As rushing waters filled my basement, I opened my front door to find thigh high water racing through the streets.  The electrical outlook was arcing as water rushed in to flood my home, electrifying the water filling my basement. The damage to our home and belongings was substantial. We lost 1/3 of our possessions. And although the flooding wasn’t covered by insurance, they did find a loophole to give us money to replace our furnace and water heater. That money would soon bite us in the butt as the insurance company dropped us. Unable to find another insurance company that would insure a home with flood damage, the mortgage company forced an insurance provider to cover us, but doubling our mortgage payments.

In 2011, after floods and health issues, we decided that we needed to be together as a family and moved to Texas where The Mr.’s job was. Leaving everything I loved behind was one of the hardest things I had to do. Even more worrying, we knew that we would never be able to sell our house. But for 3 years we were incredibly lucky and were able to find someone to rent it. Knowing what the market was, the first couple of years of forced insurance meant we had to charge under what the monthly payment was and find ways to make up the difference out of our own budget. These were lean years made more difficult by the fact that I was only able to find part-time employment when we made the move to Texas. There were points in the last 3 years where The Mr. worked multiple jobs while I worked part-time and took any freelance project I could get just to make ends meet. Our children learned that our house was a house of no; no candy, no nights out at dinner and a movies, and no new shoes (thrift stores are our friend). Our life became dramatically different. The types of foods we ate changed (healthy food is vastly more expensive than unhealthy food). Thing 2 was put in only partial preschool because we could not afford a full week of preschool. And I put my librarian skills to use finding free entertainment whenever possible for my kids, the more educational the better.

Then in June of 2014 our renters moved out. The town had flooded again (climate change?). We had to replace the furnace. Again. But we could not come up with the money – $12,000 was the lowest estimate we received – to fix the now ravaged roof. Our renters had tried to buy the house twice in these years but could not get approved due to their own financial issues. Suddenly we were forced to try and pay for this home out of a pocket that had nothing to spare but lint.

Soon the letters started coming as we scrambled to figure out ways to save this home in a state where we no longer lived. This home where I had penciled in my children’s growth each month on the door jam. This home where friends had come over and eaten pizza with us as we watched our toddlers play in the baby pool. This home where I had brought Thing 2 home from the hospital on Thanksgiving Day, only 1 day old. This home that had been the only home I had ever known with my beautiful girls, the loves of my life.

Time and money were not on our side and no matter our intentions, we could not afford two homes. We knew that we had been lucky to have renters for the years that we did. They, like us and so many people like us, were barely scraping by themselves. And that is how in 2014 we became a statistic: we were one of the now many people who lost a home to foreclosure in the state that has the 13th highest rate of foreclosure in the nation. We are no longer names, but numbers on a court docket and another stat to mark down in the books.

I don’t tell you this because I want you to feel pity for me. I know that many of you will feel disgust and the truth is I share in your disgust; I am embarrassed and ashamed. I am sad. A part of me always hoped that one day my family would return to that home and we could recapture those memories with those people in that home that we loved. Now we can’t. Now we will never be able to look at those door jams again and see my children growing in those pencil marks. My children will never return home from college to their childhood home and see their childhood friends. They will never bring their own children to my home and say, look there is the room I was raised in. We didn’t just lose a house, we lost precious moments, we lost possibilities and hope, and we lost the sense of community that made us feel like we were safe.

The thing is, we are not alone.

Thing 2 goes to Kindergarten with a little girl from a family of 5 living in two rooms of their grandparent’s home. The family is trying to find work and save up money to find a new home. There are 7 people living in this dwelling meant for 4 at most.

The Tween is friends with the girl next door. The dad lost his job and then they lost their home in another state. They moved here as a family member is kindly paying for their home while the dad tries to find steady work to get the family back on their feet. The high schooled age boys sleep on a full size mattress that sits on the floor of one of the rooms. They sometimes get food from the local food bank when the dad’s contract work runs out and he searches for something new.

Another classmate of The Tween’s had to sell their home when the mother was diagnosed with cancer. They now live in a pop up camper on the land of some family members while they try to stay afloat and get the medical care the mother needs.

Recently I helped a man in a suit and tie apply online for a job at Sonic. He was searching for any job, any where after being laid off to take care of his family. He cried as he shared with me his desperation to keep his family together.

They are among the many who are what is being called the new definition of homelessness, the quietly homeless. There are less families sleeping in cars and in shelters, but more families who are living with other family members – couch surfing as it is sometimes called – while they try and get back on their feet. Homelessness doesn’t always look the way we think it does:

“Every year, hundreds of thousands of American families become homeless, including more than 1.6 million children. These families are hidden from our view. They move frequently, and many are doubled-up in overcrowded apartments with relatives or friends. Others sleep in cars and campgrounds or send their children to stay with relatives to avoid shelter life.” (source http://www.familyhomelessness.org/facts.php?p=tm)

Here’s more information about the “quiet homeless” epidemic from Salon:

According to HUD, the number of people on the streets and in shelters on a single night in January has fallen for the past four years straight. Even more remarkably, the category that HUD terms chronic homelessness — people with mental or physical disabilities living without a home for extended periods, or repeatedly — has dropped 30 percent since 2007, even as the nation went through a severe recession.

But there’s also another story about homelessness in America, told by a report from the National Center for Family Homelessness, that shows a record number of children are now homeless. That’s based on data from the Department of Education, which measures homelessness quite differently from HUD. Instead of just surveying streets and shelters, the DOE includes anyone who’s living doubled-up, couch-surfing with friends or extended family. Because of that, the scale of the problem depends on which source you’re looking at — almost 1.3 million homeless students by the DOE’s count, compared with HUD’s point-in-time estimate of 578,424 homeless people of all ages. (source: http://www.salon.com/2014/12/25/help_these_kids_today_americas_quiet_homelessness_nightmare_is_1_3_million_homeless_students/)

My family is lucky, we are not homeless. We lost a home, but right now we have one that we are working desperately to hang on to as we navigate the murky financial and legal waters of losing a home. Many others are not so lucky. They are often our neighbors, our students, our teens in our libraries. They quietly sit among you while their insides rage with turmoil and strife and uncertainty and stress.

The other thing you need to know is that losing your home fixes nothing. No one wants it. It trashes your credit, there are tons of costs that come with it – costs that you probably can’t afford and cause even more compounding issues – and then there is the shame and loss. And for many, their struggles are only beginning. These teens are growing up with this constant sense of fear and insecurity that cripples. They are dependent on the generosity of family members or friends. And then you have this constant fear that you can lose everything all over again at any moment. When you’ve lost it all, you are all too aware of how easy it is. One medical diagnosis, one storm, one lost job is all it takes. 1 in 30 youth today has experienced this. These are our teens.

Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/12/26/college-student-homeless-boston_n_6145980.html ; http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2014/11/17/3593226/homeless-children-record/

Salon: http://www.salon.com/2014/12/25/how_i_became_homeless/

More Teens and Poverty in TLT:

See also Stacked: Socioeconomic Class in Contemporary YA Lit: Where Are The Poor Teens? Guest Post by Librarian Faythe Arrendondo and Kate Brauning: Writing Poverty in YA

Teens and Poverty, an updated book list

As part of our ongoing series discussing the issue of teens and poverty, I thought it was time that we updated our book list. Although it may seem that a high number of YA titles present us with a lot of incredibly rich teens, often attending boarding schools (see, for example, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart or Winger by Andrew Smith), the truth is our current economy makes it clear that more and more teens are living in homes where parents are struggling to pay the most basic bills, often working multiple part-time jobs to try and make ends meet. And this year many of our favorite YA titles started to better reflect the very real socioeconomic realities of the teens we serve.

The truth is, there are a wide range of economic realities that teens today are living in. And although this has always been true, it is also true that we are seeing a huge and continuining shift in these economic realities in a post 2008 collapse U.S. For many families, these ripple effects are still being felt. As Kate Brauning writes in her terrific post on Writing Poverty in YA, “Not being able to provide for even the most basic needs for you and yours creates a host of mental, physical, emotional, and educational problems. And most of those issues aren’t ones you earned yourself– they were handed to you through cycles. Poverty isn’t mainly a lack of money. Poverty is a lack of community. A lack of support. Feeling like you have no voice in the system. Shame and isolation. A road that goes around and around, instead of out. ” Poverty is this living, breathing thing that informs the very environment you grow up in, thus informing so many parts of who you are and how you feel about your place in the world. When people state that the answer to poverty is just to get a job or an education, they don’t recognize the very real doors that poverty closes for you. If a job or education are the keys to opening those doors, what do you do when you don’t have the means to fairly access those keys? That’s the very real struggle that kids growing up in poverty face.

But there also has to be that middle ground between the rich kids of Gossip Girls and the teens living in true and very real abject poverty. There are those teens whose families fall somewhere into the shrinking middle and lower middle class that are making very real and very hard decisions about what they are going to cut from their budgets to help pay their bills. The teens who shop at thrift stores not becaue it’s edgy and cool but out of economic necessity.  The teens who aren’t watching Game of Thrones because they don’t have cable. The teens whose families sometimes show up at food banks because the monthly budget doesn’t stretch to meet food needs of the family, even shopping at discount grocery stores. These stories also need to be told, these teens also need a voice.

In Perfectly Good White Boy by by Carrie Mesrobian, for example, we see the very real economic hardship of a teenage boy named Sean who is considering joining the Marines as his only feasible hope of a future. His family home shows its wear and tear, he works at a local thrift store where they constantly see those in similar hardship shopping for goods, and he works with co-workers who understand all too well what it means to barely scrape by. Perfectly Good White Boy is an engaging read in part because it perfectly captures the inner voice and real life struggles of the 47% of our population who are weighed down by the day to day struggles of barely scraping by and being forced to answer the question what comes next. Sean’s voice serves as an authentic stand in for the tons of teen boys I have served over the years in my public library career. I like Sean and care about his story because I know Sean, I see Sean every day signing up for a computer to try and complete a homework assignment or asking for books on things like college financial aid.

One of the things that I liked most in this year’s Panic by Lauren Oliver was how well Oliver captured the desperation of teens to flee both small town life and a life of poverty. It is that desire to escape, to flee, to get out at any cost that leads one of our main characters to enter into this very risky competition. And for a period of time we see Heather and her sister living out of their car. I have seen this fevered desperation in the eyes of many of the teens that I have worked with in the library and could see them diving into a deadly challenge like this for even the smallest chance that it might just finally be their way out. Panic reminded me in some ways of the older title Wrestling Sturbridge by Rich Wallace, which also captures this small town desperation.

Earlier this week I shared with you the upcoming title No Parking at the End Times by Bryan Bliss which highlights the plight of a homeless brother and sister duo. They are homeless for unique reasons, but the fact remains that they are very much homeless and this gives a very realistic look as to what that entails. This year another YA title was released that featured a teen that finds herself homeless for very unique reasons: Kiss Kill Vanish by Jessica Martinez. In Kiss Kill Vanish, Valentina is the witness to a murder so she flees to Canada to try and find safety. Here she is literally living in the closet of a group of barely surviving teens and early 20s. Kiss Kill Vanish is a thriller, but in the midst of reading it I was struck by Valentina’s plight to survive. It is such a stark contrast when you compare where Valentina is coming from to the life she lives in hiding. Kiss Kill Vanish is chock full of problematic relationships, but it was undeniably a decent thriller and the juxtaposition of Valentina’s two lives makes for an interesting discussion of what happens when you lose everything like so many families did after the crash of 2008.

In Althea & Oliver by Cristina Moracho, Althea makes her way to New York City in pursuit of Oliver where she spends a couple of unsafe nights literally sleeping in her car. She finds temporary shelter with a group of teens and young adults who also serve food to the hungry. Here we get multiple perspectives into poverty and homelessness. Although there were many things I liked about Althea & Oliver, there is some questionable handling of male rape that I think merits more discussion; but if you are looking for some good representation of our economic times this title definitely fits the bill.

In the upcoming All the Rage by Courtney Summers, the main character Romy is a part of a family that is struggling on a very low income. As any woman knows finding a good fitting bra can make all the difference in the world, but it can also put quite the burden on your pocket book. There are some excellent scenes that play out in All the Rage where Romy is looking at bras in a discount bin at a local low end market, think Dollar General. The longing and heartache and acknowledgment of Romy’s economic struggle are played out with a visceral force in these scenes. Romy has a stepdad, really a mother’s boyfriend, who is on disability for a bad back and there is some very good nuance in this family dynamic as well, including the way he is looked down on by members of the community.

We can also see in the upcoming The Devil You Know by Trish Doller and Dumplin by Julie Murphy, both 2015 titles, some realistic depictions of struggling lower middle class families.  I once had a discussion with an administrator of a public library who said libraries needed to weed 75% of their books because everyone just reads ebooks now, which is someone speaking from a position of privilege because of course not everyone has the technology necessary to do this. Many families struggle to meet their basic bills and extras like smart phones and wifi aren’t necessarily part of their necessities.  There is some discussion of that struggle and a little glimpse into the stress that comes with being a member of the middle class or lower middle class in titles like these. While youth homelessness saw a dramatic increase in 2013, still many other families are forced to find ways to cut corners, juggle bills, and forgo some of life’s basic necessities and it’s validating for teens to see this economic reality affirmed in their literature as well. Even little glimpses can help us all realize what economic hardship can mean to teens and families and develop a more compassionate approach to our fellow human beings. Sometimes even in the nicest of neighborhoods the families are huddling under forts of blankets to try and cut down the heating bill and barely holding on to their homes, which means things like smart phones and new cars are right out. The truth is, we don’t know what is going on behind the doors of our neighbors and far too often many of them are struggling in silence, they don’t necessarily qualify to stand in line at the food bank but they aren’t shopping in places like Whole Foods either. Their day to day existence features some very real sacrifice and struggle. Stories can help us remember the diversity of socioeconomic lives we are all living in this new economic reality. And for the teens who can’t relate to some of the real wealth often found in YA lit, it can help make the stories more relate-able and accessible.

More on Teens, Hunger and Poverty in our Teen Issues series:

See also Stacked: Socioeconomic Class in Contemporary YA Lit: Where Are The Poor Teens? Guest Post by Librarian Faythe Arrendondo and Kate Brauning: Writing Poverty in YA

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Teen Issues: Teen Homelessness and NO PARKING AT THE END TIMES by Bryan Bliss

In November of this year the results of a new study were released that indicate that the U.S. had achieved a disreputable goal: In the year 2013 1 in 30 youth were homeless at some point. That’s 2.5 million children experiencing homelessness. This was an unprecedented level of homelessness for our youth, a shamefully high and unacceptable number for a first world nation that is supposed to pride itself in its compassion for the least of these and be such an economic powerhouse.

 

Fast Fact: Children under 18 accounted for 39% of the homeless population – See more at: http://www.safehorizon.org/page/homeless-youth-statistics–facts-69.html#sthash.PufCz7ha.dpuf

As we have discussed in our ongoing series on Teens and Poverty (listed below), being from a low income family presents a variety of very real challenges to our youth. Being homeless even more so.

In 2015 a new book titled NO PARKING AT THE ENDS TIME by Bryan Bliss will be released that takes a very stark look at a family with two teenage children living out of their van in the San Francisco area. The reasons for their homelessness are unique, but the results are very much the same: these teens are not enrolled in school, they are forced to memorize a schedule of local meal distributions to find basic food, and they are in constant danger of being noticed both by local criminal elements and children’s services.

Many families typically find themselves without a home due to job loss, medical issues that bankrupt them, or fleeing from a violent home.  A large number of teens are homeless because they are rejected by their family when they come out as GLBTQ. But the family in NO PARKING AT THE END TIMES is homeless because their parents got involved in an end times cult and they sold all their possessions to travel to San Fran and wait for whatever is supposed to come next. Except it doesn’t come.

Fast Fact: Approximately 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBT – See more at: http://www.safehorizon.org/page/homeless-youth-statistics–facts-69.html#sthash.PufCz7ha.dpuf

Author Bliss makes some really interesting decisions here. By choosing to have the family become homeless due to issues of faith, he creates a really interesting discussion piece about the role of faith in the life of modern day believers and juxtaposes them against the discussion of parental responsibility. If you were to go with a literal interpretation of the Bible, Jesus did indeed say that believers should abandon everything and follow him, which these parents are doing. He even says that you should literally walk away from your plow and just leave it in the field to come follow Him. Wealth and riches are considered one of the largest stumbling blocks to entering into the kingdom. But our modern day world also insists that we take appropriate care of the children we bring into this world, which these parents are failing at miserably. In fact, they may be the worst parents I have ever encountered in YA literature outside of the sexually and violently abusive ones, although they are ironically very loving and well intentioned.

Fast Fact: Every year, approximately 5,000 homeless young people will die because of assault, illness, or suicide while trying to survive. – See more at: http://www.safehorizon.org/page/homeless-youth-statistics–facts-69.html#sthash.PufCz7ha.dpuf

Outside of the very interesting discussion of faith that happens in the pages of this book, Bliss also presents a very realistic and compelling look into the physical and emotional struggles of homeless teens. And while many homeless teens in YA lit are homeless and living on their own, here we see a homeless family trying to stay together – a very real life scenario as some kids and teens are homeless not in isolation but as one part of a homeless family unit. This family is living in their van, which they have to make sure and move periodically in order to avoid getting ticketed, arrested, or towed. They have to find ways to stay together in the absence of communication devices that would make it easy for them to find and locate one another if separated. They must find ways to shower and brush their teeth, to stay warm in the cold nights, and to find food. In the pages of Bliss’ book we see these very real struggles and although the reason behind them may make you angry, they did me, it’s a very compelling and compassionate look into the lives of what recent statistics tell us 1 in 30 youth are living.

If one of our goals in reading is to get a glimpse into lives different then our own, and I believe it sometimes is, then No Parking at the End Times should be on every TBR pile out there in 2015, both for its fascinating look at the spiritual lives of teens and for its insightful look into the lives of family homelessness. In the media we hear a lot of debate and anger about the causes and solutions for poverty and homelessness, but we forget that at the heart of this matter are actual people, often children who are in no position to help themselves. Abigail and Aaron are stand ins for the 1 in 30 homeless children whose stories we aren’t hearing because they are too tired and hungry and marginalized to speak up. Bliss has created a compelling narrative that reminds us all that there are real and vulnerable people behind these statistics, and we need to listen to their stories.

About NO PARKING AT THE END TIMES by Bryan Bliss

“Abigail’s parents have made mistake after mistake, and now they’ve lost everything. She’s left to decide: Does she still believe in them? Or is it time to believe in herself? Fans of Sara Zarr, David Levithan, and Rainbow Rowell will connect with this moving debut.

Abigail doesn’t know how her dad found Brother John. Maybe it was the billboards. Or the radio. What she does know is that he never should have made that first donation. Or the next, or the next. Her parents shouldn’t have sold their house. Or packed Abigail and her twin brother, Aaron, into their old van to drive across the country to San Francisco, to be there with Brother John for the “end of the world.” Because of course the end didn’t come. And now they’re living in their van. And Aaron’s disappearing to who-knows-where every night. Their family is falling apart. All Abigail wants is to hold them together, to get them back to the place where things were right. But maybe it’s too big a task for one teenage girl. Bryan Bliss’s thoughtful, literary debut novel is about losing everything—and about what you will do for the people you love.” (Publisher’s Description)

Will be published February 24th, 2015 by Greenwillow Books. ISBN: 9780062275417

More on Teens, Hunger and Poverty in our Teen Issues series:

See also Stacked: Socioeconomic Class in Contemporary YA Lit: Where Are The Poor Teens? Guest Post by Librarian Faythe Arrendondo and Kate Brauning: Writing Poverty in YA