Sunday, December 14, 2014

Writing Poverty in YA

One way YA needs to become more diverse is through economic diversity. Most YA deals with characters in the "money's tight" to the "nothing fancy but just enough" range. Economic diversity needs to reach far beyond that, if we're going to tell representative stories. I'm seeing poverty crop up pretty frequently in YA, too, though, and I'm seeing something that I don't quite like about it.

Here's what it is: poverty showing up as a reason to make us feel bad for a character. Sympathy poverty, pity poverty. Financial stress comes with some circumstances that may be appealing to write about-- teens having to take care of siblings, be responsible, hold down a job, act as a parent figure. What reader wouldn't respond to that?

But I take issue with it when poverty is used as an easy way to make a character sympathetic. When it's not explored realistically, when it's mostly used as a sympathy-producer. Here's why I have a problem with it:

It's inaccurate.

When poverty is used in its simplest form, it looks like financial stress. But that's not truthful or fair to the problem. 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, shame, isolation, having no voice in the system and knowing it. A road that goes around and around, instead of out.

I grew up that way. There's a tremendous lack of confidence, all kinds of toxic emotional bandaids that get used, and such an intense lesser-than mentality that I would just about rather die than let anyone know the problem. My needs, and the needs of the people I knew in similar situations, went so deep that I'm surprised I ever got out of it.

Not enough money wasn't even a third of the problem. Shame, inability to affect change in my own life, and isolation were the problem. When those things are the issues, you take it out on the people around you. Home becomes an awful place. You resent even your friends, because they know and you can't stand them knowing. There aren't many Hallmark "surviving it together" family moments, and many people don't grow up stable enough as teens to have balanced friendships and mostly healthy romances. They don't grow up being capable of managing school, a job, and little siblings as teens without significant failures. And that's why-- they don't have the support and the community necessary to have confidence in themselves, or the ability to ask for the help they need, or even anyone to ask that of. Chances are, there have been major parenting problems and giant holes in their education. They form damaging relationships because the need to fill the gaps caused by the helplessness and isolation is so great that right now is all that matters. The list of problems is a long and horrible one.

And we can't be using that as a stock solution to make the love interest sympathetic or sexy. The poor boy from across the tracks can have an appeal. But how it's handled is so important. Portraying poverty as a shortage of money that produces parenting-worthy, responsible teens is at best inaccurate, and can spread dangerous myths and bad information.

Every time I read a book where poverty is handled mostly as a lack of money, it's a struggle for me. It feels like those problems are being reduced to something easily solved. It reads false. I sometimes even come away offended, even if I know it's not the author's intention, because it's such a significant misunderstanding, or misrepresentation, of what that situation is like. To be told the character is in poverty, but have it not really be poverty at all. I don't see poverty there. It's isolating, all over again.

We need to think more intentionally about how we are using and employing economic diversity in fiction. We can't be reducing a major, systemic issue like that to a stock reason for adding struggle to someone's life. We need to avoid writing middle-class teenagers and inserting them into poverty, and thinking it's the same. And we really can't be using it as a reason to make teens look attractive, sympathetic, or sexy. It's not sexy. It's not attractive.

For the same reasons we can't use minority characters as stereotypes and LGBTQ characters as a checkmark, it's not fair, accurate, or representative to use poverty as a cardboard situation.

Execution is everything. And it's incredibly difficult to execute a fair exploration of a difficult topic if there isn't first a solid understanding of the issues.

So how do we handle poverty in fiction, particularly in YA?

We can start with talking to people who have been there. Thinking about where these teens would be mentally and emotionally.  What gaps they would have, what needs they're trying to fill, where they are on the scale of just not being able to handle anything else. What they've done because they couldn't handle it. Reading up on the psychology of poverty, and how people react in those situations. Thinking about the local and national culture--poverty looks different depending on where you are. Thinking about how their poverty intersects with their race, orientation, mental illness, disability, etc. Not handling characters as if they're the sum of how they grew up, and allowing for differences in how they were shaped. Not just throwing it in because it's easy, not simplifying it in our thoughts. It's a place to start, at least.

Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma showed a different but authentic kind of poverty, to me. I also loved Unteachable by Leah Raedar and Dark Places by Gillian Flynn for those reasons. Have you read any books where you felt like poverty was handled well? Mention them in the comments, so readers can find them!


  1. Try Trish Doller's WHERE THE STARS STILL SHINE. I think she handled it really well.

  2. All of Katie McGarry's books really portray all aspects of teen poverty really well. They start with PUSHING THE LIMITS, and her book CRASH INTO YOU does a great job contrasting the issues a poor teen and the issues a teen from a rich family deal with.