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Rural Poverty and THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES by Mindy McGinnis

Sometimes, it is indeed a small world after all. Shortly after moving to Texas, I learned that author Mindy McGinnis lived just 10 minutes from the very library I had spent the last 10 years working at in the state of Ohio. This town was my home, the place where my children were born. It was also, at the time, the county with the highest poverty rate in all of Ohio. So while there were many aspects about Mindy McGinnis’ THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES that stood out to me, one that stood out most vividly is the depiction of rural poverty. THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES is set in a small, Midwestern town that is ravished by poverty and in my mind’s eye I could picture the very places around this small town that I thought Mindy might be talking about. And while all poverty is bad, each type of poverty has its unique challenges. For example, one of the greatest challenges in rural poverty is transportation. Rural communities are often spread out and don’t have public transportation systems, which makes things like going to a grocery story or doctor’s appointment quite challenging. There are usually fewer options in rural communities, and less options means less competition and less price choices.

Although I currently live in Texas, I work in a public library in another rural Ohio community that is also fighting high poverty. Many of my patrons don’t have the money to buy current technology, and even if they did have the money the truth is, there are still parts of my community that have no providers offering wireless or DSL Internet. Like many other places experiences high rural poverty rates, drug use and drug related deaths are reaching epidemic proportions. So as I mentioned, THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES resonated with me in ways that I can not even begin to describe.

Today, I am honored to host author Mindy McGinni who talks about rural poverty and the part it plays in her newest release, THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES.

thefemaleofthespecies

The Female of the Species addresses many issues within its pages; rape culture and vigilante justice being the most prevalent. A quieter issue raises it’s head though, one that is easy to overlook, shadowed as it is by the more controversial topics.

Rural poverty.poverty2Much of the time poverty is associated with urban life and that is certainly a truth that cannot go ignored. However, there is another face to poverty, one that looks picturesque. Farms with collapsed barns. Homes where no one lives anymore.

I was born and raised in a rurally impoverished area and now I live and work in one. For fourteen years I have been employed as a library aide at a local school where nearly forty percent of our student body receive free and reduced lunch.

During deer hunting season our attendance list shows double digits of our students are excused for the day to participate… and in most cases it’s not a leisure activity for them. They’re putting much-needed food on the family table.

Food pantry lines are long, faces are pinched, and during the summer months many of our students go without lunch because they depended on the school to provide it. Because it is a sprawling, rural community, people who have to weigh the cost of gas for the drive to the pantry against the food they will get there.

None of the characters in my book suffer the indignity of hunger, because I feel it’s an issue that deserves more space than there was room for within this particular story. But hunger breeds a specific type of desperation that calls for an escape, and this can open the door to darker things.

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Upper and middle classes know the need for a vacation. We all feel the cycle of our daily lives triggering stress, causing irritation and anger, and even pushing us towards exhaustion. So we take a “mental health day,” call off work for little or no reason, or we cash in those vacation days and just “get away from it all.”

We have that luxury.

Many of the jobs available to the working poor pay by the hour, and to take a day off means to take a pay cut – one that the budget doesn’t allow for. Vacation time may be possible, but the idea of affording to actually leave is laughable. Escapes from reality are sometimes sought not in a getaway, but in drug use.

There is a major heroin epidemic in my area. We have lost students in my small school district to it. One Twitter user already thanked me for mentioning the epidemic in The Female of the Species, saying that she hopes it may draw more attention to the issue. If it doesn’t, this should; last weekend alone multiple people OD’d, two of them in a mini-van with a four year old.

It’s easy to point fingers, lay blame, criticize and judge. What kind of people do this?

The desperate. The addicted. The hopeless.

Such descriptions aren’t solely the realm of the poor, but there are correlations that can’t be denied.

On my worst days – and we all have bad ones, no matter who we are – I can get upset, feel like giving up or just ducking out of reality for awhile. Stress is present in all our lives, no matter our socioeconomic standing.

But on these days I remind myself that I have food. I have clothes. I have a working car that I can drive to my next school visit, library appearance, or book club talk. I can fill the gas tank and go to work without having to worry about paying for that stop.

The small luxuries of our lives are something that most of us take for granted until they are taken away from us – a cracked phone that doesn’t work, the car being in this shop for a few days, the heat and electric always being on.

When you do have one of those days, think about those who can’t afford a phone at all, and are literally holding their cars together with duct tape. In the past I’ve had students that heat their home with the kitchen stove, and the children sleep with the pets to share body heat.

Spare a thought for them on your bad days, and if you can spare more than that, please do.

Publisher’s Book Description

Alex Craft knows how to kill someone. And she doesn’t feel bad about it. When her older sister, Anna, was murdered three years ago and the killer walked free, Alex uncaged the language she knows best. The language of violence.

While her crime goes unpunished, Alex knows she can’t be trusted among other people, even in her small hometown. She relegates herself to the shadows, a girl who goes unseen in plain sight, unremarkable in the high school hallways.

But Jack Fisher sees her. He’s the guy all other guys want to be: the star athlete gunning for valedictorian with the prom queen on his arm. Guilt over the role he played the night Anna’s body was discovered hasn’t let him forget Alex over the years, and now her green eyes amid a constellation of freckles have his attention. He doesn’t want to only see Alex Craft; he wants to know her.

So does Peekay, the preacher’s kid, a girl whose identity is entangled with her dad’s job, though that does not stop her from knowing the taste of beer or missing the touch of her ex-boyfriend. When Peekay and Alex start working together at the animal shelter, a friendship forms and Alex’s protective nature extends to more than just the dogs and cats they care for.

Circumstances bring Alex, Jack, and Peekay together as their senior year unfolds. While partying one night, Alex’s darker nature breaks out, setting the teens on a collision course that will change their lives forever. (Katherine Tegen Books, September 2016)

More on Rural Poverty and America’s Rural Drug Crisis

Understanding the Epidemic | Drug Overdose | CDC Injury Center

Opioid Addiction 2016 Facts & Figures

About the Epidemic | HHS.gov

5 Charts That Show How Bad America’s Drug Problem Is | TIME

Rural Poverty Portal: Home

Why the Left Isn’t Talking About Rural American Poverty – Rural America

Child Poverty Higher and More Persistent in Rural America

Who’s Afraid of Rural Poverty? The Story Behind America’s Invisible

Hunger and Poverty

Additional Sources:

Social Mobility:

Cycles of Poverty:

How Poverty Affects Schools:

Karen’s Thoughts on THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES: Highly Recommended

femaleofthespecies femaleofthespecies2 femaleofthespecies3 femaleofthespecies4More From Mindy McGinnis

THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES 9.20.16 HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen Books
GIVEN TO THE SEA 4.11.17 Putnam Children’s Books
Available Now:

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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Books, privilege, and how libraries are the only way some children will get to read a bedtime story tonight

Libraries are the Beating Heart of Our Communities

You may be aware, but Amazon is currently in some kind of a negotiation war with the publisher Hachette. There are a variety of  houses and authors who publish and are distributed by Hachette. Amazon has cut any price discounting for Hachette titles, they are delaying shipping, and there is no longer any way to pre-order titles that have an advance publication date.

So in the midst of this, last week several people took to Twitter and urged people to buy their books from a brick and mortar store, an Indie store even if possible. A few hashtags sprang up, I think perhaps #BuyHachette. I even Tweeted several times about this, recommending a few titles here and there.

Then yesterday, an article appeared on Book Riot reminding us all that for some people, a bricks and mortar store isn’t a real possibility. It maintained that if you had a bricks and mortar store in your community, or a car that you could afford to put gas in to drive to one, then you were speaking from a place of privilege. The post then when on to talk about how for many people, Amazon IS the only option to buy books for a variety of reasons.

But if you take it a step further, being able to buy books via the Internet is also coming from a place of privilege as well. In fact, being able to buy books at all means that you are coming from a place of privilege. If at the end of your paycheck you can afford to pay your basic bills, feed your family and buy extra things like books, you have it better than an estimated 20% of the population. Having a computer or device with Internet access in your home, also coming from a place of privilege.
Every time someone tweets about watching Game of Thrones, they are doing so from a place of privilege because that means they can afford cable with HBO even.When we talk about driving our cars, turning on our heat or air, going to the movie theater to see a movie and even going to the grocery store, we are doing so from a place of privilege from someone else’s point of view.
Having books in the home is a huge monetary issue for many people and there are a variety of social activists who work hard to raise funds and try and get books into the homes of families struggling with poverty. Some children will never own a book they can call their own. And if we want to raise a nation of readers and thinkers and innovators, having access to books is a powerful thing. Scholastic has a good discussion about how lack of access to books can be an issue for school readiness.
 

Which is why we need libraries. It is also why libraries need to do better jobs of reaching out to their local communities and reminding parents about the importance of regular trips to the library, reading together, and having books in the home. It’s why we need things like 1,000 books before Kindergarten. It’s why we need things like every child ready to read. It’s why we need things like YA librarians and youth programming.

My library, like many libraries around our nation, is currently researching how to better reach the needs of our growing homeless population. There are libraries employing social workers and job counselors and writing grants to provide food for children living in poverty this summer who will go without a free school lunch. Libraries help children have access to the Internet, complete homework assignments, and have access to books they would never get to read if their only options was to buy them. Some people don’t have the money to buy books period.

I work part-time. I struggle from paycheck to paycheck to buy groceries. The nearest local bookstore is an hour drive for me. To be completely honest, I don’t buy a lot of books. Not from the bookstore. Not from Amazon. Not online. Mostly, I check my books out from the library. Because every time I choose to buy a book, the money for it comes out of our food budget. It is the only place in the budget that has any wiggle room. Sometimes we make that sacrifice and we eat a few extra peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Usually it is so my kids can have a book they want, not me. Luckily, the Tween wants a lot of the same books that I do. But even knowing this, I know that for many of the patrons I serve, I am still coming from a place of privilege. I buy books more often than they will ever be able to consider buying a book.

So I buy books for the library. Not just the books I want, but the books that my patrons want . . . and need. Because for many of them, that is the only way they will ever get to read a book.

So yes, buy books. Buy them whenever and however you can. Support your local bookstore sometimes if you can. And if you believe in the importance of books and reading, support your local library as well. Libraries matter. For the 1 out of 5 children going to bed hungry each night, libraries are the only way they’ll get to read a bedtime story tonight.