Finding Her Voice – The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

Lynn: Finding your voice is an important theme of teen books. In Stacey Lee’s new historical fiction, The Downstairs Girl (Penguin/Putnam, 2019), we meet a young girl for whom speaking at all literally means risking the roof over her head and the food on the table. Jo Kuan works as a maid to the cruel and selfish daughter of one of the wealthiest families in Atlanta. She goes home at night to a secret basement home under the offices of The Focus, an Atlanta newspaper. Originally a part of the Underground Railroad, the little apartment is unknown to the upstairs Bell family and Jo has grown up knowing she and her grandfather must not make a sound to reveal their presence. Living in earshot of the lively Bell family has given Jo a wonderful education and vocabulary to assist her already sharp, curious mind and growing sense of justice. But Jo is Chinese in the Atlanta of 1890 and the Chinese, many of whom were brought to the South during the Reconstruction to work the plantations, are discriminated against in both law and society. So even outside of their little home, Jo must keep her thoughts to herself.

But then Jo wangles a job as the new advice columnist for The Focus – anonymously. Not even the young editor, handsome Nathan Bell, knows the identity of the Dear Miss Sweetie column and the success of the new column skyrockets. Gradually Jo takes on discrimination, women’s rights, and injustice in Atlanta and her columns and comments are the talk of the town. As deeply buried secrets about Jo’s past surface and controversy swirls, Jo begins to wonder if the price of speaking up is way too high.

Lee has once more done a stellar job of weaving fascinating history into a lively and highly entertaining story. I knew nothing of the history of Chinese immigrants in the South and the story also includes a less-than-flattering picture of the embedded discrimination in the suffragette movement, as well as the social and legal restrictions on women and minorities that existed at the time. The book is packed with vivid and well-developed characters and Jo, in particular, won my heart from the very first page. As Jo truly finds her voice and speaks up for herself and others, readers will cheer.

Cindy: The “Agony Aunt” columns, as they were nicknamed at the time, were often written by male journalists pretending to be female authors but Jo’s identity is a dangerous secret, and there are plenty of other dangers that keep the plot moving along. Interspersed with the serious themes and events, are chapter-opening sample advice responses to Miss Sweeties fan mail, some tongue in cheek and others with a good dose of snark. This story gallops to a finish, perhaps a little too neatly, but all but the most cynical readers will be cheering as author and protagonist cross the finish line. I’d love to see this book brought to film. Definitely recommend this one to fans of Jennifer Donnelly’s novel, These Shallow Graves (Delacorte, 2015), another 19th-century story with a feisty heroine, a family mystery, and issues of social and gender injustice.

Play Like a Girl: 4.5 Questions with Barbara Carroll Roberts

Cindy and Lynn: How are your brackets doing? If you are a participant in the madness, we hope you filled out a Women’s NCAA basketball tourney bracket too! Their games are exciting as well! In the meantime, while you wait for another men’s or women’s game to tip, we are bringing you an interview with debut author Barbara Carroll Roberts. We featured her book, Nikki On the Line, recently but we wanted to know more. Read on for some women’s sports history you can share when you booktalk Roberts’ book.

1.     Cindy: We love debut books. It’s fun to read an offering by a brand new author. What has the experience been like for you to BE the brand new author?

Barbara: It still feels a bit unreal. I worked on this book for many years, so to see it on bookstore and library shelves – or even better, in readers hands – is wonderful. The best part has been hearing from young readers who have enjoyed Nikki’s story.

 

2.     Lynn: As I wrote in the review, it is rare to find a book about sports and a female athlete that actually has sports action in it. Nikki on the Line had such terrific and authentic game, practice, and tryout scenes. I also really loved the way you addressed the experiences of juggling practice schedules and homework and that struggle that many star players experience when they move to a higher level team with equal or better players. How did you decide to write a book with a sports focus and what personal experiences guided your writing?

Barbara: I love this question, because when I was trying to find books about girls who play sports for my sports-loving daughter, I noticed the same lack of actual sports action in the very few books I found that had a female protagonist and a “sports theme.” Instead, in most of the “sports books” about girls that I found, the sport was simply a background element of the story.

But my daughter and the other girls on her teams were passionate about playing sports. So I decided to write a book for and about those girls.

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I began researching this book when I was in high school, playing competitive sports, feeling all the aches and pains of sore muscles and bruises, and juggling homework and family chores. But I also spent many years watching my son and daughter play team sports. Their experiences, and particularly the high levels of competition they faced, inspired much of the action in Nikki on the Line.

 

3.     Cindy: When I booktalk Karen Blumenthal’s nonfiction book about Title IX, Let Me Play (S&S/Atheneum, 2005), my students don’t believe me when I tell them that as a forward playing junior high basketball in the early 1970s I wasn’t allowed to run the whole length of the court. We had 3 defensive players and 3 offensive players on each team that stayed at their respective ends of the court and only 2 guards on each team were able to run across the center line. What memories of playing sports in those days do you have?

Barbara: Oh, I love this question, too! I’ve also seen expressions of disbelief on the faces of young people when I tell them that “experts” used to believe that it was harmful for girls to run the length of a basketball court.

I started playing high school sports in 1970, two years before Title IX was passed. We wore our hideous, one-piece, seafoam-green cotton gym suits for every sport – no actual uniforms. We did play full-court basketball, but our team was only allowed to play in the gym if the boys weren’t using it. All the rest of the time, we had to practice and play outside on the blacktop. I grew up in northern California, so it wasn’t terribly cold in the winter, but it still made me angry that we were treated like second-class athletes.

I didn’t see a lot of changes right after Title IX passed in 1972, though our sports teams did get new gym suits. They were one-piece, pull-on polyester suits with gold and white stripes that snapped at the shoulders. They moved a lot better than our old cotton suits. But they were still hideous!

 

4.     Lynn: The sports is a highlight but you do so much well in this story. I particularly appreciate the depiction of Nikki’s struggles with changing friendships and her relationship with her mother and little brother. Of course, we love the fact that Nikki’s mom is a reference librarian! Both Nikki’s mom and brother are such well developed and wonderful characters! Did you begin writing this story with both these characters so clearly defined or did they evolve as you worked on the book?

Barbara: Nikki’s brother, Sam, first “appeared” to me jumping on his pogo stick, asking a million questions, but he definitely evolved as I got farther into the book. I think the same is true of Nikki’s mom. I wanted her to be someone who wasn’t interested in sports, because I wanted Nikki’s achievements to be all her own, rather than influenced by a “sports parent.” I started out with a clear idea of who she was, but her character certainly developed and deepened as I kept working.

 

4.5  Cindy & Lynn: Did you have a lovely cotton one-piece snap-up jump short gym outfit too?…Female athletes today don’t know how good they have it.

Barbara: I’ll answer that with a photo from my 1972 yearbook. I’m #11 and my sister, Kathleen Carroll Au, is #12. I cut the sleeves off my cotton gym suit to get a little more freedom of movement.

1972 Monta Vista High School (Cupertino, CA) yearbook photo