A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
Within Jo's story, readers will learn that after the Civil War, Chinese laborers were brought to the South to replace the freed slaves who had worked on plantations, that Chinese who lived in Atlanta in the 1890s weren't allowed to own land or rent places to live, and Chinese children could only attend "colored" schools. The Author's Note talks briefly about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a federal law that prohibited Chinese from immigrating to the United States until 1942.
Shows that even if some people consider you not smart or capable enough simply because you come from a different background, you can prove them wrong and make a positive impact on the world around them.
Positive Role Models
It's not just Jo who's a role model for being brave and adventurous. Her friend Noemi, who's Black and works as a cook at the Payne's plantation, learns to ride a bicycle -- something few White women dared do in the 1890s.
Positive representation of Chinese American main character Jo Kuan girl and her adoptive father, Chinese immigrant Old Gin, in 1890s Atlanta. Jo battles bias and prejudice as a strong young woman who works first in a hat shop, then as a lady's maid, and secretly writes an opinionated newspaper advice column. There's diversity in the cast of characters -- Asian, African American, White -- and resistance against racism toward people of color and issues of segregation and women's right to vote figure in the story. As does interracial romance. Jo's friend Noemi, who's Black and works as a cook at a plantation, learns to ride a bicycle -- a bold move in the 1890s.
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Violence & Scariness
A naked man tries to sexually assault Jo but she fights back and gets away. The aftermath of a character's severe beating is described. Very brief mentions of a man's suicide by hanging. A man whose body is covered with scars from burns suffered when his home was set on fire by a racist mob. A woman becomes frightened for her safety when men out for a night of drinking wolf whistle and hoot at her.
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One use of "goddamn." White characters regularly demean Black characters by referring to them as "colored" and sometimes as "nigras." Chinese characters are called "coolies," a deragatory term that originally applied to Asians working as a low-wage laborers, but is used by White characters in the novel to describe anyone who's Asian.
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Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
An adult character has a terrible hangover after a night of drinking.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know the Stacey Lee's The Downstairs Girl is set in 1890s Atlanta and told in the voice of Jo Kuan, a 17-year-old Chinese American girl. Jo lives in a secret basement apartment with her elderly guardian, Old Gin. The Bell family, who live in the house above the basement, have no idea Jo and Old Gin have spent years living just beneath them and listening to their conversations. When Jo overhears that the family's newspaper is in danger of failing and they might lose their home, she comes up with idea to save both the newspaper and their (and her) home. While working as a lady's maid for the snobbish daughter of wealthy plantation owners, Jo begins secretly writing an advice column for the paper under the name "Miss Sweetie." The columns are an immediate hit with readers and subscriptions soar. But when she begins to take a stand for equal rights for women and people of color, a rival newspaper sets out to expose Miss Sweetie's identity. White characters refer to Black characters as "colored" and sometimes as "nigras." Chinese are called "coolies." A naked man tries to sexually assault Jo but she fights back and gets away. A character is severely beaten, and there's a brief mention of a man who commits suicide by hanging. As in her previous books (Outrun the Moon and Under a Painted Sky), Lee places relatable young Chinese characters in stories about significant events in American history. The Downstairs Girl was a A Reese's Book Club YA Pick and chosen for Best Book of the Year lists by NPR, The Washington Post, and School Library Journal.
Is It Any Good?
This chapter of American history is wrapped in a mystery and spiced up with a secret romance all told by a witty and bold young Chinese American tween in the 1890s. The character of Jo in The Downstairs Girl will inspire readers who are activists and offer a story of encouragement to readers who, like Jo, may feel their talents and gifts are being overlooked or undervalued.
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Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.
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