To be completely fair, it’s not as if I’ve read a great deal of YA Contemporaries and there are certainly some YA books that don’t fall into the above aforementioned category. Winner of many awards last year, Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give had a protagonist who I would not label as necessarily being upper middle class or wealthy. Eleanor and Park has a girl who is poor and not in the best of family situations.
I’m just struck lately, by how many contemporaries I deign to read that have characters of the above aforementioned description though.
Admittedly a lot of it comes out of reading what’s popular. Booktube mentions: Morgan Matson, John Green, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Emery Lord, All the Bright Places, I’ll Give you the Sun, Simon vs the Homosapeins Agenda, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, ect. and of course you want to read them to stay relevant and have some fruitful conversations. Better still if you can enjoy them so you have something to say to others about your reading experience. Some of the books on this list I like and I’m happy I read. Some of them like Simon I was absolutely ecstatic over. In no way am I saying these are bad books (although my personal opinion on these books vary), I’m just mentioning books or authors where I’m seeing characters who own their own cars, don’t worry about gas money or money to go out and have fun with friends. They might or might not work, but never are they hampered by the idea of not having enough money to do x, y, z activities that their peers are also doing; plus they have the money and autonomy to get themselves places including to that graduation trip or to up and jump in the car to drive across the state.
I’m not saying that upper class people can’t or don’t have their problems, I just think that with the amount of upper class characters in YA contemporary, there’s a whole side of hardship and adversity that we are not seeing. Let’s just use A Fault in Our Stars as an example. For some people this was a harrowing tale about a girl with cancer, and that was enough, but where was the money coming from for her treatment? Why is this issue that are never addressed in any way whatsoever? The Perks of Being a Wallflower main character certainly has his issues, but no shortage of money that he just receives whenever he asks for it, his friends also drive around without any concept of money or how much things cost. Do authors know that a person can be nuanced and have more than one problem? It’s kind of like…do authors know that a person can be intersectional and marginalized in more than one way?
I know I’m kind of being a dick about this. I also know that books exist that don’t follow this norm. I also know that authors are free to write what they want and that the publishing world is changing. I also know that I’m free to read what I want and I could even write a book of my own if I so chose. I’m not saying that authors must write to my desires, but you might find things end up a lot more interesting if you diversify what you are doing and consider diversity in economic disparity as well, as that changes a person’s reality considerably. Besides which, many YA contemporaries take place in the United States where four in ten children live below the poverty line, so it’s not uncommon!
It’s just that having grown up with very little money for the extras, needing handouts from my grandparents for school uniforms and music lessons and field trips, being unable to get periodic dentist appointments and having to choose the most hideous glasses frames because that’s all my parents could afford was the bargain wall, having to wait until the next pay day to get vegetables in the fridge, never having my own car despite living in the middle of nowhere, having to give “loans” of money from my chores to my parents (which were never paid back)…these were all a reality of my life growing up. I’d like to see more characters who reflect this aspect of my own life growing up, and characters who are nuanced and aren’t only “the poor kid”. I’d also like to see more people who aren’t poor themselves being able to understand what it might be like to live as a poor person, from nuanced fully realized characters who embody a variety of perspectives.
I’m going to use Adam from the book I’m reading currently (Release by Patrick Ness) to illustrate how you can have a nuanced character who is not in the upper class. Meet Adam and there is more than one problem he is dealing with. He’s gay and growing up in a religious family who is overly protective and doesn’t approve of his “lifestyle choices”. He also worries about his family’s financial situation and about money to go to college. He is also afraid he’s going to lose his job because his boss is the creepiest man on the block and always makes unwanted sexual advances, which he refuses and his boss subsequently abuses his power. I’m not saying that every character has to have these kinds of problems or that life situations always have to have these nuances. I mean I like my well written fluffy contemporaries as much as the next girl, but I like that, despite the character and I being different in some ways, I get a lot of Adam and where he’s coming from. That which I don’t identify with is written well, so I also understand him and his motivations as a character. THESE are more of the kinds of characters it would be great to get.
I actually wasn’t aware that other people were having this conversation until I googled it after I wrote this post. Now I’m in making an edit with some other interesting takes on the issue: