Books with Personality: The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

Monday, January 3, 2022


The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers, August 13, 2019

Genre: YA (Popcorn)

Format: I audiobooked this one via Sora 

I read this one because it was one of the most popular checkouts currently available while I was browsing on the high school library app.

Jo Kuan is a Chinese hat maker living in Atlanta at the end of the 19th century. That unique premise was enough to get me through the first few chapters. A sassy apprentice hat maker who is known for her skill in tying beautiful knots? Whoops! She needs her job but is fired for her lack of decorum with the uppity society ladies who covet her hats. What happens next is Jo navigating society while she learns more about her family history, her values, and her strength when it counts.

In the South after the Civil War, plantation owners searched for labor in order to continue harvesting crops. Beginning in the 1850s, the US saw large numbers of Chinese immigrants, who arrived to work in the gold mines, the railroads, in agriculture, and in other pursuits. In 1882, Chester A. Arthur (Who? The 21st president) signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which among other things, banned Chinese women from entering the United States. Jo, as a 17-year old, already faces the prejudice that led to the CEA, but her tenacity and charm is anything but crushed.

Lauded as a "voice-driven" novel, I haven't found a critic who has any reasonable disapproving comments about this book. If you're a plot reader, you may find the plot predictable, but I didn't care. Spending a few hours with this book is like spending a few hours with a funny friend who likes to tell exaggerated, hilarious, wise, and energetic stories. Just try to keep up.

If you like this one, you might also like Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool.


Being nice is like leaving your door wide-open. Eventually, someone’s going to mosey in and steal your best hat. Me, I have only one hat and it is uglier than a smashed crow, so if someone stole it, the joke would be on their head, literally. Still, boundaries must be set. Especially boundaries over one’s worth.

Today I will demand a raise.

“You’re making that pavement twitchy the way you’re staring at it.” Robby Withers shines his smile on me. Ever since the traveling dentist who pulled Robby’s rotting molar told him he would lose more if he didn’t scrub his teeth regularly, he has brushed twice daily, and he expects me to do it, too.

“Pavement is underappreciated for all it does to smooth the way,” I tell his laughing eyes, which are brown like eagle’s feathers, same as his skin. “We should be more grateful.”

Robby gestures grandly at the ground. “Pavement, we’re much obliged, despite all the patty cakes we dump on you.” He pulls me away from a pile of manure. It was Robby’s mother who nursed me when I was a baby, God rest her soul. And it was she who told Old Gin about the secret basement under the print shop.


I loved Jo almost as much as I loved Anne of Green Gables the first time I saw the mini-series featuring Megan Follows (1985). Even though I recognize The Downstairs Girl probably doesn't have the layers it would need to merit study in a lit class, I enjoyed it and was sad when it wrapped. I'll be reading more Stacey Lee.

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