A Reese's Book Club YA Pick and New York Times Bestseller
From the critically acclaimed author of Luck of the Titanic, Under a Painted Sky, and Outrun the Moon comes a powerful novel about identity, betrayal, and the meaning of family.
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.
"This vividly rendered historic novel will keep readers riveted as witty, observant Jo deals with the dangers of questioning power." --The Washington Post
"Holds a mirror to our present issues while giving us a detailed and vibrant picture of life in the past." --The New York Times
"A joyful read . . . The Downstairs Girl, for all its serious and timely content, is a jolly good time." --NPR
In 1890 Atlanta, Chinese-American Jo Kuan, 17, and her guardian, Old Gin, live secretly in abolitionists' quarters underneath the family home of Mr. Bell, publisher of failing newspaper the Focus. When Jo loses her job as a milliner's assistant, she reluctantly takes a job with her former employer, wealthy Mrs. Payne, as lady's maid to her cantankerous daughter Caroline. Jo endures Caroline's cruelty each day, but after overhearing the Bells' wish for an "agony aunt," she anonymously offers her services as a columnist. As "Miss Sweetie," she voices her true feelings about society's ills in a cleverly written column that addresses many forms of prejudice, sparking controversy while increasing the newspaper's subscriptions and raising questions about her identity. Lee (Under a Painted Sky) slowly unspools secrets about Jo's past as she liaises with Atlanta's notorious fixer, pieces together clues about the parents who abandoned her, and navigates self-realization and romance. Featuring historical signposts (streetcar segregation, suffragists on safety bicycles) and memorable, well-developed characters, this captivating novel explores intersectionality, conveys the effects of restrictions placed on women and people of color, and celebrates the strengths and talents of marginalized people struggling to break society's barriers in any age. Ages 12 up.