Sunday, June 5, 2016

Rich Kids, Poor Kids: Who Are We Rooting For?

What kind of characters do you like best--rich, poor or in between? A friend who read The Beat on Ruby’s Street said she liked how the leading character (and her family) were poor.--because so many poor people in our communities wind up being invisible.

I got hooked pretty early on poor characters-- including Sarah Crewe in A Little Princess, Francie Nolan in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Hugo in The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Dani in Life, After Ever notice how when there is a rich child in a book, they are usually orphans who go to stay with a rich relative (like the little girl in A Secret Garden)? Why do you think that is?

For my part, I’ve always gravitated to characters who are struggling. That may be my dramatists heart and the lessons I learned early on about making sure your story was about the worst day in your character's life. Seems to me, it's much harder to make people sympathize with a character who is rich.

So I can't help wondering: are there any kids at the center of a book who are sympathetic AND privileged? At the moment, all I can think of is Gossip Girl, which I’ve never read because the story idea didn’t strike a chord with me. From the descriptions I’ve seen, I can’t tell if the girls are funny or fun or how they are drawn; though it seems to be a popular book and readers like them.

When I started writing about a young girl growing up in a Beat-Generation community, I was intrigued by a society that rejected conventional American values (work hard for your company, earn money, retire) in favor of a full artistic life, dangers notwithstanding.

The artists’ community is one I always wanted to believe in, though of course artists can be just as selfish and crazy as everyone else. The fact that some artists have the power to show us things we don’t always want to see is part of what intrigues me most about them; but how many achieve what they set out to do is always an open question.

On the other hand, why is it that artists are “supposed” to be poor? There's nothing inherently "romantic" about being a poor artist--and doesn’t poverty make it harder to take the time to create? Yes and no. I think Ruby’s mother Nell would say she spends most of her time trying to survive and very little time painting. Ruby, on the other hand, might say the struggle is what feeds the kind of tension artists need to create.

So do artists need to be poor? No, but a lot are because it’s so difficult to make a life-long living artistically unless you become a celebrity. What does that mean for the characters we like reading about? Will they mostly be poor, too?

I don’t know, but I believe they will—or at least, have an ambiguous love-hate attitude with money. Just like the rest of us, I guess.

For more on children, books and poverty, you might try the following links:

Illustration: Jackson O'Brien Muenster