America's Poor White Children

The four words in this blog post title might read like an ironic oxymoron, but they aren't:
A fact sheet released today by the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) shows that, contrary to some common stereotypes about America's poor, at least one-third of the 13 million children living in poverty are white.
How I wish those four words ("children living in poverty") were beyond oxymoronic so that nobody could ever again link them in a sentence.

We talk a lot about race on the Fire Escape, but rarely mention class. Now I'm wondering how poor or working-class North American children are represented in the world of books. Not very well, because most published authors haven't experienced poverty firsthand, and when it comes to class, we dwell in the wide, comfortable place called "middle." That's why I recently wrote a note of thanks on Laurie Halse Anderson's Facebook page:
Just listened to Prom on a long drive to Saratoga Springs and back to Boston ... the actor did such a great job staying true to each of the characters. Thanks for writing a story featuring a hero with a "normal" voice; I grow tired of hyper-intelligent suburban protagonists with upper middle class tenured parents.
If one of my novels ever makes it to audio, please, oh please let Katherine Kellgren read it. The nuances of accent and class are the main benefit I gain from a well-made audio book, and Ms. Kellgren's voices were mesmerizing. Wonder if she can go desi and sound like my Mom ...


Anonymous said…
THE NOONDAY FRIENDS by Mary Stolz (first published in the 50s) is a novel that girls from working class families can relate to. The heroine is Caucasian and the setting is New York City. Lois Lenski's regional books (COTTON IN MY SACK and STRAWBERRY GIRL ) about Caucasian girls from migrant worker families in the U.S. would speak a lot to poor children everywhere. Laurence Yep has written at least one contemporary book about a Chinese girl from a poor background who lives in Chinatown with her grandmother (title escapes me). STANDING AGAINST THE WIND about an African-American girl in Chicago (which was just recently published) also speaks for youth who are underprivileged and wealth-deprived.

Yes, more contemporary juvenile and YA novels should acknowledge the silent heroines and heroes who have it hard. Perhaps writers choose not to write about them because their "story" is too gloomy and maybe not popular with publishers? What do you think, Mitali?

PiLibrarian said…
I just read Kimchi & Calamari by Rose Kent, and was surprised (why?) to realize the parents are a window washer (who always wanted to go to college) and a beautician, both Italian-American. Their middle-school son, Joseph, was adopted from Korea.
Mitali Perkins said…
Anonymous, I think as storytellers we're losing our b-a... guts thanks to the current backlash of cultural correction. It takes much more courage to write about what we don't know firsthand than it ever used to. We'll be taken to task.

One reason I don't like the word "authenticity is because nobody who tells stories can achieve it unless we stick strictly to memoir. But, as we've noticed recently in the public square, memoir and fiction differ, and rightly so. Fiction writers used to have the guts to cross all kinds of borders, race and class, without worrying about coloring outside the lines. And they did it well. Take Katherine Paterson, for example, who crossed and crosses class lines all the time. That's what good storytellers do through the power of imagination, and they take readers with them.

Let the stories come; let everybody tell them well; let the children hear. Freedom in storytelling!