Themes in Young Adult Literature: Jobs and Working

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2470

Titles Discussed

Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo

Dead-End Job by Vicki Grant

Ask the Passengers by A.S. King

Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Thematic Overview

In an article for the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) on the history of young adult literature, Michael Cart said...

(The entire section contains 2470 words.)

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Titles Discussed

Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo

Dead-End Job by Vicki Grant

Ask the Passengers by A.S. King

Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Thematic Overview

In an article for the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) on the history of young adult literature, Michael Cart said that it “is made valuable not only by its artistry but also by its relevance to the lives of its readers.” Cart goes on to say it is also important that young adult novels are relevant to the intended target audience's interests. It is better to promote literacy among young adults by allowing them to choose what interests them rather than forcing them to value literature just for being literature.

Young adult literature about jobs and working is becoming more relevant as more teens hold jobs while in high school. As NPR's Marcela Valdes wrote in 2013, more young adult books are focusing on dystopian societies fraught with “economic anxiety.” Examples of economic anxiety are readily available in novels such as Veronica Roth's Divergent (2011), where people are placed in communities and jobs based on the kind of work for which they are best suited, and in Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games series, in which characters fight a government that starves its people in order to control them. The protagonist in each series takes responsibility for providing for her family. The need to provide for one's family mirrors the emerging awareness of young adult readers as they begin to notice the economics of their own families. Works following characters who have a sense of economic responsibility help readers to contextualize their own experiences of money and family.

Teens who have jobs while in high school have an interest in young adult novels that include protagonists with jobs—whether it is for supporting their families or for earning spending money. Either way, many teens need to reconcile their feelings about having to work instead of just having to worry about homework and their social lives. Working teens may react by saying “life is not fair” or envying those who seem to “have it easy.” Reading about young adults who must work may help teens to realize that they are not alone, and that many young adults do not have families who can pay for luxuries like cars, computers, and phones. Even if young adult readers do not work, they can learn to value those who do.

Frances, in Dead End Job, works the late shift at a secluded convenience store to save money for art school; Amelia, in Love and Other Perishable Items, puts in long hours at a local grocery store to become financially independent; D. J., in Dairy Queen, works extremely hard to keep her family's dairy farm running while her dad is recovering from a hip injury; Astrid, in Ask the Passengers, works weekends for extra cash. Each protagonist has a personal reason for working that may resonate with young adult readers who work while in school. Frances wants a good future; Amelia hates having to ask her parents for money because she knows they cannot afford all the things she wants; D. J. feels responsible for keeping her family's farm going, even though it gets in the way of her schoolwork.

Works

Frances is a seventeen-year-old girl who works every day after school until midnight. The convenience store where she works is in a secluded location, and she often works alone until the overnight manager starts her shift. Frances is often bored and draws. One night, a boy named Devin comes in and innocently asks to see her drawing. Frances is friendly but not flirty since she already has a boyfriend, Leo. Even so, Devin comes in the next night with an expensive gift of pastels as an apology for bothering her the night before. Frances is uncomfortable about accepting the pastels, and is relieved when Leo comes to pick her up from work. After multiple run-ins with Devin, Frances realizes he is stalking her. He e-mails her pictures he has taken of her and sends flowers to her house. He also sends Leo a picture of her, making Leo believe that Frances was cheating on him.

The stalking comes to a climax when Devin forces Frances into the store's back room and locks the two of them in. He tells her that if he cannot have her, he will kill her. She stalls for time, offering to draw his picture, and then stabs him with her pencil. She escapes the back room right as Leo pulls in.

The novel ends with Devin going to trial for attempted murder. Frances claims that she will not let what happened to her keep her from going to art college and says, “But I have to admit, I'm scared. Maybe I should just stay in Lockeport for a while with Mom and Dad. And Leo. We'll see.” The ending demonstrates how a young woman, even when she has money and ambition, can feel unsafe.

While this novel does not really focus on Frances's job, it does show the consequences of an unsafe work environment. Frances is a minor, yet she works the late shift completely alone. She has no means of protection against robbery, kidnapping, and attempted murder. It is important to note that Frances should have been provided with a safer work environment. It is also important to realize that this is not only true for a teenage girl, but for any employee. Dead-End Job is about how the work of young people, especially anyone in a service position, is trivialized and how that can create difficult situations in a society where money is necessary to succeed.

When Devin threatened Frances, she contemplated dying at the age of seventeen. She says “I felt sad for my father. He'd blame himself. He didn't like me working alone at a convenience store out on the highway. He'd tried to stop me, but I'd won. We both knew he didn't make enough money to pay for my college education. Somebody had to.” Dead-End Job understands how hard it is to be a parent that is unable to support your children. The novel nurtures the maturity a teenager needs to understand this reality. Many people work hard and still do not have enough to afford everything they need, never mind the things they would like to have. Frances does not feel anger toward her father, since she understands he is doing the best he can.

Love and Other Perishable Items (2012) by Laura Buzo, is about a fifteen-year-old girl named Amelia. Amelia lives in Australia, goes to school, and works at a grocery store referred to as “The Land of Dreams.” Amelia's coworker and trainer at work is twenty-one year-old Chris. Amelia has a huge crush on Chris, despite knowing their age difference makes it impossible for them to be together. Amelia tries to look and act more mature to get Chris to notice her. While it takes some time, Chris does notice Amelia, and he begins to wish she were older.

Both Amelia and Chris work while attending school and envy their classmates who are supported financially by their parents. Chris complains about having to work at the store, and he says that he could put more effort into schoolwork if he did not have to work. He resents that his friend Ro's parents gave him the down payment for a house and now his friend can live alone. Chris wants to rent an apartment, but his dad says paying rent is a waste of money. Chris argues that paying the money is worth the price of independence. Chris feels he cannot get ahead, saying “[I] can't run my own race. I'm constantly checking what's happening in the other lanes.” Amelia understands Chris's frustration and chooses to work in order to be financially independent from her parents, but her long hours takes a toll. She is frequently tired and does not have time for a social life.

Amelia wakes up early, goes to school, and then works until nine o'clock every night. Then she has to finish all her schoolwork before going to bed. While she does not resent her parents for not having more money to give her, she does resent their unequal share of work around the house. While having a conversation with Chris about what Amelia hates, she confesses that she believes feminism has ruined her mother's life because she has to work at a job and at home. Amelia's dad also works but does not help with the cooking, cleaning, or taking care of the children.

Amelia works with people of all ages at the grocery store. While her work ethic is admirable, it may be worrisome for parents to see what Amelia is exposed to while working with older people. Amelia's coworkers ask her to smoke cigarettes and marijuana, drink alcohol, and have sex. Admittedly, this could happen to Amelia under other circumstances. Buzo's message is that young adults need to be given the tools to make responsible, safe decisions when presented with opportunities to drink, smoke, and have sex.

Astrid, the protagonist in A. S. King's Ask the Passengers, works part-time at a catering company during her senior year of high school. Her parents are not good role models: her mother is an agoraphobic, workaholic, and her father is unemployed and smokes marijuana. Similar to the other protagonists, Astrid does not have much of a social life since she works weekends, and work becomes Astrid's social outlet and the setting of the novel's main conflict.

The novel deals primarily with the crush Dee, Astrid's coworker, has on Astrid. Astrid begins to question her own sexuality in the face of Dee's crush. She knows dating coworkers is generally taboo, but it is not at all uncommon, and Astrid, who does not have much time to meet people outside of work, starts a relationship with Dee.

In Dairy Queen, D. J. works on her family's farm in order to help support her family and keep the farm running. D. J. puts more effort into the farmwork than her homework, not because she likes farmwork, but because she feels she has no choice. Her family is thankful for her hard work, but D. J. becomes depressed and resentful of her family's expectations, causing tension between her and her parents. Eventually, D. J. realizes that she needs to find a balance between her work life and her social life. She cuts down on the farmwork and joins her school's football team. Her family realizes they were being unfair to D. J. and help pick up the extra work around the farm. Dairy Queen teaches the importance of hard work but also acknowledges the importance of recreation.

Reading these novels may help equip readers to handle difficult situations in the workplace. Readers should also appreciate being able to learn about jobs outside their own experience, as working at a grocery store is much different from working on a farm, but both require a good work ethic and self-motivation. It is beneficial for teens to develop a strong work ethic, but not at the cost of getting poor grades or putting oneself at risk, however.

Conclusions

Young adult fiction might be used to expand the perspective of young adults and teach them to empathize with the people around them. Reading about the work of others can prepare young adults for difficult situations they may encounter in the workplace.

Critics agree that young adult literature is becoming more prominent on the best sellers list, and more young people ages sixteen to twenty-nine are now reading these types of books. In each novel, the protagonist faces his or her precarious place in the workforce using different coping mechanisms, depending on the challenge each is confronted with. In Dead-End Job, Frances is forced into a job to provide for her future, but this puts her at risk of violence. Her labor, youth, and gender are connected vulnerabilities. According to critics these kinds of situations offer young adult readers “culture and contemporary realism.”

In Love and Other Perishable Items, Amelia uses her sexuality to succeed in the workplace. She must keep in mind that she is working to become financially independent from her parents, which will require her to balance professionalism and her feelings for her coworker, Chris. Astrid is in a similar situation where she works with Dee, a coworker who has a crush on her, and Astrid must now examine her sexual identity, all while remaining professional. Critics believe that teens connect with this kind of story on a personal level.

D. J. is a victim of larger social issues. She has the most difficulty balancing work and school, as she takes it upon herself to keep the family farm going. She is concerned with the economics of self-employment due to her father's injury. D. J. must create her self-identity while working on the farm, and unlike other characters, she creates her own space for socializing, which forces her family to appreciate the work she does for them. It also changes her family's view of gender roles; D. J. is financially providing for the family, while her father does the cooking and baking.

The creation of self through work, and the resignation to its necessity by young adults is a major factor in these books. Providing for oneself and others is the most important and difficult aspect of growing up, and these books link that maturity to larger social issues. Valdes writes, “As situations get more desperate, so do the characters' reactions.” These characters come to understand that though they are young, work is a necessity they have to face and accept.

Further Reading

  • Rev. of Ask the Passengers, by A. S. King. Kirkus Reviews. Kirkus Media, 15 Aug. 2012. Web. 12 May 2015. <https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/as-king/ask-passengers/>.
  • Rev. of Dairy Queen, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock. New York Times. New York Times, 17 June 2006. Web. 2 May 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/18/books/review/18conni.html?_r=0>.
  • Rev. of Love and other Perishable Items, by Laura Buzo. Kirkus Reviews. Kirkus Media, 24 Oct. 2012. Web. 12 May 2015. <https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/laura-buzo/love-and-other-perishable-items/>.

Bibliography

  • Barnes, Meredith. “How Young Adult Fiction Came of Age.” Interview by David W. Brown. Atlantic. Atlantic Monthly Group, 1 Aug. 2011. Web. 12 May 2015. <http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/08/how-young-adult-fiction-came-of-age/242671/>.
  • Cart, Michael. “The Value of Young Adult Literature.” YALSA. American Library Association, Jan. 2008. Web. 12 May 2015. <http://www.ala.org/yalsa/guidelines/whitepapers/yalit>.
  • Strickland, Ashley. “A Brief History of Young Adult Literature.” CNN. CNN, 15 Apr. 2015. Web. 12 May 2015. <http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/15/living/young adult-fiction-evolution/index.html>.
  • Valdes, Marcela. “What Terrifies Teens in Today's Young-Adult Novels? The Economy.” NPR. NPR, 30 Sept. 2013. Web. 12 May 2015. <http://www.npr.org/2013/09/30/226472708/whats-terrifying-teens-in-todays-ya-novels-the-economy>.
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