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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


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