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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

Additional Titles

Last week when author Carrie Mesrobian and I were discussing this issue, we crowd sourced a list of recommendations off of Twitter. Some of the titles mentioned/recommended to us include:

Family Under the Bridge

Freak Observer

Tithe and Valiant by Holly Black

Find Me

Nearly Gone

Wake by Lisa McCann

Fair Coin by E. C. Meyer


Brooklyn Burning

33 Snowfish by Adam Rapp

Tyrell by Coe Booth

Uses for Boys by Erica Lorraine Scheidt

Esperanza Rising



Can’t Get There from Here

If You Find Me

Dark Metropolis

Books Discussed

Althea & Oliver by Cristina Moracho

“What if you live for the moment when life goes off the rails—and then one day there’s no one left to help you get it back on track?

Althea Carter and Oliver McKinley have been best friends since they were six; she’s the fist-fighting instigator to his peacemaker, the artist whose vision balances his scientific bent. Now, as their junior year of high school comes to a close, Althea has begun to want something more than just best-friendship. Oliver, for his part, simply wants life to go back to normal, but when he wakes up one morning with no memory of the past three weeks, he can’t deny any longer that something is seriously wrong with him. And then Althea makes the worst bad decision ever, and her relationship with Oliver is shattered. He leaves town for a clinical study in New York, resolving to repair whatever is broken in his brain, while she gets into her battered Camry and drives up the coast after him, determined to make up for what she’s done.

Their journey will take them from the rooftops, keg parties, and all-ages shows of their North Carolina hometown to the pool halls, punk houses, and hospitals of New York City before they once more stand together and face their chances. Set in the DIY, mix tape, and zine culture of the mid-1990s, Cristina Moracho’s whip-smart debut is an achingly real story about identity, illness, and love—and why bad decisions sometimes feel so good.” (Publisher’s Description, 2014)

All the Rage by Courtney Summers

“The sheriff’s son, Kellan Turner, is not the golden boy everyone thinks he is, and Romy Grey knows that for a fact. Because no one wants to believe a girl from the wrong side of town, the truth about him has cost her everything—friends, family, and her community. Branded a liar and bullied relentlessly by a group of kids she used to hang out with, Romy’s only refuge is the diner where she works outside of town. No one knows her name or her past there; she can finally be anonymous.But when a girl with ties to both Romy and Kellan goes missing after a party, and news of him assaulting another girl in a town close by gets out, Romy must decide whether she wants to fight or carry the burden of knowing more girls could get hurt if she doesn’t speak up. Nobody believed her the first time—and they certainly won’t now — but the cost of her silence might be more than she can bear.

With a shocking conclusion and writing that will absolutely knock you out, All the Rage examines the shame and silence inflicted upon young women after an act of sexual violence, forcing us to ask ourselves: In a culture that refuses to protect its young girls, how can they survive?” (Publisher’s Description, 2015 publication date)

The Devil You Know by Trish Doller

“Eighteen-year-old Arcadia wants adventure. Living in a tiny Florida town with her dad and four-year-old brother, Cadie spends most of her time working, going to school, and taking care of her family. So when she meets two handsome cousins at a campfire party, she finally has a chance for fun. They invite her and friend to join them on a road trip, and it’s just the risk she’s been craving-the opportunity to escape. But what starts out as a fun, sexy journey quickly becomes dangerous when she discovers that one of them is not at all who he claims to be. One of them has deadly intentions.

A road trip fling turns terrifying in this contemporary story that will keep readers on the edge of their seats.” (Publisher’s Description, 2015 publication date)

Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy

“Julie Murphy’s second YA novel follows Willowdean, a “card-carrying fat girl” who believes her secret summer love is ashamed of her, is determined to take on the small town’s beauty pageant (run by her mother) —until she realizes that what’s holding her back may not be everyone else’s perception of her, but her own.” (Publisher’s Description, 2015 publication date)

Kiss Kill Vanish by Jessica Martinez

“Valentina Cruz no longer exists.

One moment, she was wrapped in Emilio’s arms, melting into his kiss. The next, she was witnessing the unthinkable: a murder in cold blood, ordered by her father and carried out by her boyfriend. When Emilio pulled the trigger, Valentina disappeared. She made a split-second decision to shed her identity and flee her life of privilege, leaving the glittering parties and sultry nightlife of Miami far behind.

She doesn’t know how to explain to herself what she saw. All she knows now is that nothing she believed about her family, her heart, or Emilio’s love, was real.

She can change her name and deny her past, but Valentina can’t run from the truth. The lines between right and wrong, and trust and betrayal, will be blurred beyond recognition as she untangles the deceptions of the two men she once loved and races to find her own truth.” (Publisher’s Description, 2014)

Panic by Lauren Oliver

“Panic began as so many things do in Carp, a dead-end town of 12,000 people in the middle of nowhere: because it was summer, and there was nothing else to do.

Heather never thought she would compete in Panic, a legendary game played by graduating seniors, where the stakes are high and the payoff is even higher. She’d never thought of herself as fearless, the kind of person who would fight to stand out. But when she finds something, and someone, to fight for, she will discover that she is braver than she ever thought.

Dodge has never been afraid of Panic. His secret will fuel him, and get him all the way through the game, he’s sure of it. But what he doesn’t know is that he’s not the only one with a secret. Everyone has something to play for.

For Heather and Dodge, the game will bring new alliances, unexpected revelations, and the possibility of first love for each of them—and the knowledge that sometimes the very things we fear are those we need the most.” (Publisher’s Description, 2014)

Perfectly Good White Boy by Carrie Mesrobian

“Sean Norwhalt can read between the lines.

“You never know where we’ll end up. There’s so much possibility in life, you know?” Hallie said.

He knows she just dumped him. He was a perfectly good summer boyfriend, but now she’s off to college, and he’s still got another year to go. Her pep talk about futures and “possibilities” isn’t exactly comforting. Sean’s pretty sure he’s seen his future and its “possibilities” and they all look disposable.

Like the crappy rental his family moved into when his dad left.

Like all the unwanted filthy old clothes he stuffs into the rag baler at his thrift store job.

Like everything good he’s ever known.

The only hopeful possibilities in Sean’s life are the Marine Corps, where no one expected he’d go, and Neecie Albertson, whom he never expected to care about.

“We’re something else. Some other thing. I don’t know what you’d call it. Maybe there’s a word, though. Maybe I’ll think of it tomorrow, when it won’t matter,” Neecie said.” (Publisher’s Description, 2014)


  1. Around the world, it is a common trend to find majority of teens living in abject poverty. This is common in most developing countries


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