By Stacey Lee
Word Count: 88,916
AR level: 5.5
AR points: 14.0
I suggest 6th through 12th grade.
I actually grew up most of my childhood in Atlanta, although I never really considered myself a Southern girl. My parents had moved my family from Los Angeles when I was eight years old, and I always thought of myself as more of a free-spirit West Coaster.
However, having lived in Oklahoma for almost a decade now, and having returned to the horse farm outside Atlanta where I spent so many days working outside, reading on the porch, and imagining so many stories, I found that The Downstairs Girl was a perfect blend of history, Southern charm, and equestrian intrigue for me.
Historical fiction set in the deep south can give us insight into personal difficulties that other people these days might seem happy to bury. This story focuses on Jo Kuan and the way her own pluck and talent help in the fight against racism and inequality. But this story isn’t all seriousness–it is heartwarming, romantic, funny, and moving as well. The story is also a clean read, which broadens its appeal to upper middle grade readers. Obviously I also love the newspaper angle, so this was a win-win novel for me!
By day, seventeen-year-old Jo Kuan works as a lady’s maid for the cruel daughter of one of the wealthiest men in Atlanta. But by night, Jo moonlights as the pseudonymous author of a newspaper advice column for the genteel Southern lady, “Dear Miss Sweetie.” When her column becomes wildly popular, she uses the power of the pen to address some of society’s ills, but she’s not prepared for the backlash that follows when her column challenges fixed ideas about race and gender. While her opponents clamor to uncover the secret identity of Miss Sweetie, a mysterious letter sets Jo off on a search for her own past and the parents who abandoned her as a baby. But when her efforts put her in the crosshairs of Atlanta’s most notorious criminal, Jo must decide whether she, a girl used to living in the shadows, is ready to step into the light. With prose that is witty, insightful, and at times heartbreaking, Stacey Lee masterfully crafts an extraordinary social drama set in the New South.