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Also Known As Harper by Ann Haywood Leal

Posted by Sherry on 10/3/2009 in 2009, Children's Fiction, Cybil Awards |

In this post at Chasing Ray, Collen asks a group of authors for children and young adults the following questions:

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?

Take a look at their answers; it’s long but worth a read if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

I link to the discussion here because in Ann Haywood Leal’s Also Known As Harper, the socioeconomic status of the family in the book is the main focus of the story, and it works, sort of. Harper Lee Morgan is a poet, the daughter of an alcoholic father and a hard-working mother, and Harper is also the one who has to take care of her little brother Hemingway while Mom tries to find enough work to keep the family from being evicted from their rental house. A lot of the story is rather dark as Harper and her family move from their house to a run down motel to an even more rundown shack in the woods with no plumbing or electricity. As a source of hope Harper has her poetry, and the ending of the story is hopeful, if a bit unrealistic.

Still, I’m not sure that this story would appeal so much to children who are actually living through the circumstances described in the book. I tend to think those children would prefer Narnia or a middle/upper class family like the Moffats or even the Cassons, something to aspire to or dream about. In fact, the family in Also Known As Harper fixates on To Kill a Mockingbird, and Atticus Finch in particular, to feed their fantasies of a better life. The children I can imagine embracing this book are those who are metaphorically “slumming” when they read it, children who want to know how the other half lives. And some of them might have a sense of compassion and even empathy aroused by reading about Harper Lee and her struggles.

From Colleen’s post:
Jenny Davidson: “Details like this are so telling, so vivid, and obviously novels are one of the ways that we get a sense of lives other than our own…”
Zetta Elliot: “I do sometimes worry that white middle-class readers are drawn to such books out of a perverse desire to be voyeurs—impoverished urban blacks are “exotic,” and the dysfunction of their world leads to titillation rather than sympathy or understanding.”
Mayra Lazara Dole: “I know there are many of us who’d love to read stories written by authors who’ve experienced poverty, as well as novels that entertain and have you living vicariously. Exposing how others live through authentic lit might change the lives of teens . . . for the better.”

What good books would you recommend for children and young adults that feature characters living in poverty or in lower middle class financial stress? How does this choice of socioeconomic class on the part of an author affect the book and its characters’ choices?

1 Comment

  • When I saw the post at Chasing Ray, this was the book that came to my mind.

    I wasn’t sure that this book would be very appealing to the audience, but when my daughter read it (at age 10 1/2), she enjoyed it, so I guess it did.

    I do agree that the purpose is probably less of helping those in that situation to identify than to educate or enlighten those who aren’t in that situation.

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