Thursday, November 5, 2009

Book Thoughts: Class in YA Lit

Back in August, I asked Will the recession hit YA lit? Short summary: adult chick lit is introducing characters that are used to rich, jet-setting lifestyles but must now downgrade in the midst of the real life recession. Reflecting upon the book store displays I dubbed "Rich White Girls with Problems" books, I wondered if we would start seeing similar patterns in YA books.

A post in the What a Girl Wants blogging series made me think of this again. That post is actually over a month old (I haven't gotten around to adding the blog to my Google reader yet...I only remember to check it out when Sara Ryan re-posts her response), but I wanted to highlight the blog post over here.

The What a Girl Wants prompt for this round was:
Do you think historic MG & YA fiction addresses socioeconomic status more effectively than contemporary titles? How important do you think it is for readers to identify with protagonists of their own socioeconomic background? Do you need to read about people with the same financial struggles you have or in times of trouble is it better just to live vicariously? Are realistic titles of this type just too much of a downer? If the book is about fitting in or teen love or friendship, does it help or hinder to drop those details into the plot? Is socioeconomic fantasy just a new kind of fantasy - as out of this world as vamps and wizards and just as much fun? Are we in literary denial or just willfully trying to conjure a more carefree world?

There are some absolutely fantastic responses over there. Please, check them out!

Class in YA lit has been on my mind a bit this week, thanks to the character I'm writing for the NaNoWriMo novel I'm working on with my husband. We're writing steampunk zombies (really, there's not much more to the story than that!) and originally the character I was going to write was going to be a rich young woman who had always thirsted for adventure, and now has more adventure than she can handle, fighting zombies.

But then I realized - once again her story could be boiled down to "rich white girl with problems." Granted, zombies are a much bigger problem than how to keep your boyfriend, but the essence is there. So in a fit of frustration with myself I threw out that whole concept and am now working with an Irish immigrant who worked in a factory prior to the zombies showing up. Does this put her on the opposite end of the spectrum referenced in the What a Girl Wants post ("parents ... receive either masses of money, or conversely can't get jobs at all")? I hope not - I hope to make her as close to working-class as possible in the world we're creating. She's not going to be comfortable by any means, but she's going to (start off) better than my husband's character, who is a homeless, orphaned street urchin.

Of course, once there are zombies I'm not sure class matters too much anymore, but I want it to inform the background of the characters. Maybe we'll never see my character at work in a factory, and maybe by the time the story starts money will be useless, but I'm sure class consciousness will affect her decisions in some way or another down the line.

I've also just re-read Robin Wasserman's Skinned and working on my second reading of the sequel, Crashed (read Crashed once and then realized I didn't remember enough from Skinned to really get it, so I had to go back). The sequel in particular has a lot of comments on class, so this discussion may pop up again next week when I post my review of Crashed.

Any other thoughts out there? Know of any YA books that really look at class issues? The What a Girl Wants blog post has several examples of "classic" MG & YA lit that shows struggling middle class characters, but I didn't catch any mentions of more contemporary titles. Do they really not exist? Or do you just have to know where to look?

2 comments:

Rachel Stark said...

I remember Cheryl Klein (http://chavelaque.blogspot.com/) at AAL Books mentioning that one of the things that initially attracted her to the Harry Potter books was the fact that they showed some of those class issues in a very realistic light. Harry's not desperately poor, but the other students at his original school and at Hogwarts notice that what he has is shabby. And then there's Ron, who suffers even more from that problem.

Cheryl told me she loved that because so many readers come from solidly working-class families, and there's no doubt that they've been teased for that. It's something to which teens are particularly attuned, and it can incite some of the most vicious taunts.

I think it's important for YA lit to address any and all issues teens face often, and class is certainly a big one.

Angela Craft said...

Hey Rachel, you finally found time to comment! lol

Good point on Harry Potter - hadn't thought about that one. Harry's money-issues also play into the wish-fulfillment aspect of the character - I'm pretty sure everyone who's ever been hurting for money wishes that there would be a sudden inheritance/lotto win/bank error in their favor.

I think people can get antsy talking about class because it's something that we, in America, prefer *not* to think about. OUr country has the myth that if you work hard enough you can do anything, and you're not destined to always be part of the class you were born into. The reality is, of course, much more complicated. Combine that with the general uncomfortable feeling a lot of people get when YA starts delving into RL issues and you've got a topic that people want to cover up and ignore.

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