Hope Is a Ferris Wheel, Growing Up Poor, and Class Issues

I saw the great CBC Diversity post, “Dumpster Diving: An Observation on Class in Children’s Books,” and decided to share a few things about Hope Is a Ferris Wheel.

Class issues aren’t necessarily at the center of Hope. Star (the main character) and her family are poor. Her mother doesn’t have a job, they live in a small trailer, and they’re on food stamps. (Except it’s a food card instead of stamps. I don’t think California uses stamps anymore.) I gave Star’s family these traits because I was poor growing up, too. And while I wasn’t as poor as Star, I wanted to portray what it’s like to live at the poverty line, and how it isn’t entirely hopeless, or desperate, or completely terrible. I mean, it sucks being poor, but people learn how to be poor. They deal with it. I wanted to write that kind of a family, one who was comfortable being poor, though a bit of money might solve some of their problems.

I didn’t base Star’s home life entirely on my own. I used the experiences of other poor friends of mine, which is why Star’s mother doesn’t have a job. (My mother worked two jobs as far back as I can remember.) Some of my friends’ parents didn’t have jobs, but they still had money, either from welfare, unemployment, or a family friend. Star’s mom is on welfare, and the family friend Gloria, who is employed as a hairdresser, provides some luxuries like donuts and movie rentals.

Star’s family isn’t starving. Their food card provides them with enough food, and Star is eligible for the free lunch program at her school. (Winter, her sister, is as well.) They have health insurance through the state, but they don’t have dental insurance. All their clothes come from thrift stores or department store clearance racks. Some of this isn’t stated in the book, but it stayed in my mind as I wrote. It stayed in the background.

Star’s poverty is the background of her life, just like it was the background of my life. But it isn’t an issue for her. Star does deal with a lot more bullying and prejudice than I did – I dealt with virtually none until I went to college. Mostly, though, Star is teased for her mullet and the fact that she lives in a trailer park, and not necessarily because she’s poor.

That’s how it was in my life. I was never teased for being poor, but some of the things I was teased about were a direct result of being poor. My clothes, for example, which were hardly ever in fashion. I mean, I like to think I made it work, but I don’t think I did. Or my extreme love of ketchup. (I still get made fun of for that!)

I still remember the time in high school, during an honors English class, when we were talking about To Kill A Mockingbird. We had just finished reading the chapter in which Scout invites her classmate home to eat lunch with her and he douses his lunch in molasses – ruining it, in Scout’s view. Our teacher asked us if we knew why the boy had done that, and nobody had an answer. “Think about it,” he said. “Anyone here ever put a lot of salt on something? Soy sauce? Ketchup?”

Ketchup! My hand shot up in the air. I loved ketchup on practically everything.

Pointing at me, the teacher announced, “Yes! That’s something poor people do to mask the taste of bad food!”

Although I was embarrassed at the time, it didn’t occur to me until years later that my teacher had basically announced to the entire class that I was poor. Probably because I didn’t often think of myself that way. Like Star, I thought of myself as a kid. (Or, in that case, a teenager.) My family had been through some rough times, but what family hadn’t? Being poor didn’t negatively affect my life, except that I couldn’t afford a lot of things and often skipped lunch to save my lunch money so I could go see movies with my friends.

Some people still tease me about the time I ate a bagel out of the trash, though they conveniently leave out the part where the bagel was still in a ziploc bag. And hey, it was a perfectly good bagel. I had listened to some girl despair over the fact that her mother had packed her a bagel for snack, and then watched as she threw the entire thing, bag and all, into the trash. It wasn’t like I had to dig through the trash to get it. And besides, in that moment, I could only think of one thing: I hadn’t had breakfast, and there was a perfectly good bagel right at the top of the trash can.*

Anyway, I’m getting off track.

I didn’t just write Star as poor because I was poor. I wrote her that way because there was a distinct lack of impoverished children in the books I read. Which was weird, considering that I, along with my two best friends, grew up poor. And it was weird, considering how many poor kids I worked with while I was an after-school teacher. It seemed to me, in the small town where I grew up, that a lot of people were poor. A lot of them were poorer than we were. It seemed so foreign to me to read about all these kids in houses with yards and fences and a second or third story.

So, one of my ultimate hopes for this novel is that it will ring true for some poor kids reading it. And another hope of mine is that it won’t ring true for some poor kids reading it, and that they will grow up to write their own version of growing up poor, for me to read.

Or something.

In the meantime, here’s some books I love with poor protagonists (both MG and YA):

  • Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell (YA) (Eleanor has the typical miserable poor existence, but that isn’t the main problem of the novel.)
  • The Land by Mildred D. Taylor (MG/YA) (Work hard and you won’t be poor anymore! Just kidding. The only reason Paul-Edward is poor is because he’s saving up to buy SOME LAND, but this still counts!)
  • The Revenant by Sonia Gensler (YA) (Girl runs away from poor family to teach at Navajo boarding school, class issues between her and the wealthy Navajo mean girl gang are subtle and don’t drive the story)
  • Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson (MG) (Poor family front and center.)
  • Becoming Naomi León by Pam Muñoz Ryan (MG) (Naomi lives in a trailer park too! And her life with her grandmother is pretty ideal aside from their lack of money.)
  • With a Name Like Love by Tess Hilmo (MG) (Family is poor because they’re traveling religious folk. Big, happy, poor family.)
  • Tyrell by Coe Booth (YA) (Saddest ending ever. But Tyrell’s struggles to get out of the roach-infested hotel his family is forced to live in are so immediate and gripping.)
  • When Pigs Fly by June Rae Wood (MG/YA) (Family becomes poor, moves into weird old house. They have that weirdness that my family (and other poor families I knew) had.)

* You’re still allowed to make fun of me for eating a bagel out of the trash if you are one of my very good friends. Even if you aren’t, you can still make fun of me.


(This is x-posted to my tumblr.)

EDIT 1/13/14: Stacy on tumblr reminded me that THE REVENANT takes place in a Cherokee boarding school, not a Navajo boarding school. Sorry for getting it wrong and for any confusion I caused.


Filed under Hope Is a Ferris Wheel, My Books, Personal, Writing

4 Responses to Hope Is a Ferris Wheel, Growing Up Poor, and Class Issues

  1. Love this post, Robin. Can’t wait to get my hands on HOPE IS A FERRIS WHEEL! And a HUGE congrats on the blog and website!

  2. Thanks so much for this! It’s great to get to know you better, and also to have some discussion about more diversity in children’s books.

    • Robin Herrera

      Funnily enough, I hadn’t actually thought of how few kids books touch on poverty and being poor until I read that CBC post. Then, looking back over all the books I’ve read, I realized it was true!

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