A Plea for Poor Girls in YA

Dear everyone in YA publishing,

*Please* can we get some books about scrappy poor girls with lots of character instead of an endless string of books about debutants and girls “suddenly thrown into the lap of luxury” and the like? They’re fine once in a while, but I’m more than a little tired of a constant parade of “poor little rich girl” stories and photo covers with tacky prom dress-clad models (including many who are trying pretty pathetically to look historical in their tacky mall prom dresses).

Please, somebody go back and remember that some of the best stories have been about overcoming challenges that have nothing to do with pretentious boarding schools or arranged marriages to Venician dukes or not being able to get this season’s “It” bag because your mother has decided to cancel your sixteen credit cards in a cruel and completely unwarranted bout of insanity.

Some of the best stories have had to do with overcoming hardships like finding ways to afford necessities, escaping enslavement or crushing prejudice, and coping with the basic and universal truths of growing up (achieving greater independence; increasing responsibilities; changing relationships with parents, siblings, friends and romantic interests; etc.). There are so many great stories that have *nothing* to do with being pretty and rich and privileged and some of those stories are so incredibly valuable.

Little Women has been a classic almost since the day it was published and the girls in that story have almost nothing. The book *starts* with a comment about there being no money for Christmas gifts and one of the most memorable moments in the book is Jo selling her hair to have money to pay for her mother’s trip to nurse her sick father who has been away fighting in the Civil War. No riches here – just character building through family and life experience.

Today it seems like YA shelves are filled with series books about private academies with cute uniforms and too much money to spend on dances and teas, flouncy historical fictions about second daughters who need to marry rich men for vague reasons that are never fully explained and (inexplicably) normal girls who are suddenly thrown into lives of lavish wealth and excess for reasons that are somewhat unclear and probably don’t matter anyway. Many of the books feel more like excuses to drop the names of designer labels or describe fancy parties with corseted women and dashing Darcy-clones than like actually interesting stories.

Most of us do not wear Chanel dresses to drink too much with our dreamy boyfriends and historical fiction tends to be more interesting when there’s more to it than a couple of bratty girls in corsets flirting too much and trying to get proposed to fastest. Story matters and for a good story, you need conflict. I’m absolutely not saying that a rich girl can’t have conflict enough in her life for a good story, but I’m afraid you’re going to have to work a little harder to show it to me. A poor girl has conflict built into her daily life, even when her family and friends are as loving as can be.

Besides, I really want stories that illustrate that there’s more to life than Dior dresses and making sure you have the handsomest guy on your arm for the party. I want characters with depth and personality, characters I can relate to and sometimes even aspire to be like, characters who I can learn from. I want more than fan fiction and ads for Vogue and everything in it.

There is so much possibility out there, please tell a more varied set of stories! I am tired of every cover having a fancy gown and every description including the words “incredible wealth” or “exclusive boarding school”. Give me some public school girls, some scrappy inner city kids, some farm girls, maybe even some soldier girls and characters with *gasp* jobs at retail and food-service places. Give me stories about the kinds of people I see every day and the kinds of girl I might have been had I lived in another era.

From an avid reader

2 Comments

  1. Monica said,

    March 17, 2012 at 12:14 pm

    I wrote a book about a French Spy named Alexandria. She definitely wasn’t rich. She went through horrible things… none of the girls you described could survive–their beau would be too drunk to save them too, ahaha.

    I know what you mean, they don’t have depth and character or tension. I’ve noticed a lot of books like that too. I just try to stay away from them and read what I enjoy. Right now I am reading Anne of Green Gables. Now that book has depth!! L.M. Montgomery is a very good writer. Magic for Marigold and The Story Girl are also good books by her, about girls. They all have depth, character, tension, personality, and everyday-ness. I’m able to relate to them. I wish there were more books like those. I guess I can only hope that what I write is as good as the books I admire.

  2. Rich Girl Fantasy said,

    May 3, 2012 at 1:24 am

    What about wish-fulfillment, fantasy, and playfulness?

    I haven’t actually read any of the books you describe, but I’ve seen them on the shelves and certainly been turned off by the aura of snobby, self-centered privilege they exude.

    But do you see a place for this kind of story at all? Sometimes it is fun to daydream….Who hasn’t played the “If I had a million dollars” game? You’re right that these shouldn’t be the only stories we see, but I think they still have a place. Books can allow us to imagine worlds we may never enter.

    And what about the fact that the heroic Katniss Everdeen is the quintessential impoverished girl struggling against social injustice? I know one example does not make a trend, but do you have any favorite books that represent the kinds of fiction you wish for in this post?

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