cover image The Downstairs Girl

The Downstairs Girl

Stacey Lee. Putnam, $17.99 (384p) ISBN 978-1-5247-4095-5

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. Agent: Kristin Nelson, Nelson Literary Agent. [em](Aug.) [/em]