Those meddling kids!
by Ruby Scalera
“No one will forget me. Not my look, not my name.
Katniss. The girl who was on fire.”
― Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games
Before Katniss Everdeen volunteered as tribute, before Tris Prior began to diverge, before Marvel’s Runaways even thought of running away, there was a little boy. It was June of 1997 when Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone first hit bookshelves in the United Kingdom, June of 1997 when the way the world looked at young heroes and heroines fundamentally changed forever. Harry Potter—The Boy Who Lived—would reach the top of the New York Times’ best sellers list within two years.
The seven-book series would go on to sell more than 500 million copies, with translations in 80 languages, a harbinger of the potent strength that a series defined by a child’s rebellion, loyalty, and self-reliance would have on the generation that literally learned how to walk on its own two feet in the wake of Y2K. “JK Rowling has created an international phenomenon that’s going to last well after she’s dead,” says C.J. Redwine, the New York Times best-selling author of several science fiction and fantasy series aimed at young adult readers. “When you look at the canon of literature that we as a society, as a culture, have valued and hung onto, and that we’ve studied, there are very few who are not white men. You see the face of things changing a lot.”
The young adult genre, specifically with magical, dystopian or futuristic elements, is not only an increasingly powerful part of the publishing industry, but society as a whole. There is a long history of this kind of storytelling—Peter Pan leading Wendy and the boys to Neverland, Mary Lennox and her secret garden, and despite all the overt religiosity, the Pevensie children seeking refuge from the horrors of World War Two, complete with lions and witches in a magical fantasy realm beyond a typical piece of bedroom furniture. That these stories of heroism, good triumphing over evil, and the young and rebellious coming out the victor are even being marketed to young people after generations of selling them to adults is proof that even cynical, immovable institutions have taken note of the power that such a generation wields. Kids willing to ask for what they want and to accept nothing less—not in the stories they read nor in the world in which they live.
The change, the ripple effect started by a boy wizard, followed by a girl archer, and many others who have become symbols of hope, opportunity, and rebellion, is not limited to the media in which they exist. These stories, in book, movie, and television form, portrayals of dystopian societies brought to ruin by adults in power and ultimately saved by children and young adults from humble, unremarkable backgrounds, have raised new generations of young adults to believe they are not only capable of changing a broken system, but that it is both their duty and their due.
“Harry Potter, that was definitely our generational cornerstone text of children’s literature.” MG Prezioso is a doctoral student at Harvard's Graduate School of Education with a focus on the intersection of developmental psychology, literature, children’s literature, and literary theory. Her senior thesis discussed how common themes found in children’s literature represent systems of order and disorder in our society. “Those kinds of books, whether they’re fantastic, dystopian, or even realistic… I think that they are inspirational,” she says. “By putting children and young adults at the center of the action and the center of the injustice and using children and young characters as a means of either restoring justice or remaking the world anew, I think that is very empowering and important for students to read and connect to their own lives.”
It is a connection that readers, writers, industry professionals, and young activists alike are making across the country, whether intentionally or subconsciously. From 2002, the year before the fifth Harry Potter book, The Order of the Phoenix was published to 2012, the year after the final film, Deathly Hallows Part II was released, the number of young adult titles published doubled, with more than 10,000 coming out in 2012. From 2013 to 2018, the revenue publishers saw for children and YA fiction increased by 11.3%, bringing its value to nearly $3.7 billion dollars. “I definitely see people and have conversations with readers at book events all over the country where they want to talk about the kind of fiction and fantasy worlds that include that.” And they are no longer content simply to talk. While a great many factors play a role in the way young adults come of age today, there is no denying that these stories of standing up, fighting back, and being the hero of your own legend, provide both a parallel and a toolbox for young people to understand and respond to the structures of power, politics, and culture in their own lives.
“As I’ve developed my political practice, I’ve gotten to read more utopian fiction. That has definitely informed my politics,” says Ben Lipkin, 17, a senior at Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey, a member of the school’s environmental club, and liaison for the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led political movement focused on climate change politics and advocacy. "There’s an idea that everybody has agency in shaping our world. In that world, there are things that are holding us back depending on our circumstances, but everybody has the potential to raise their voice and add to that conversation.”
Whether utopian or dystopian, he is speaking to several of the themes common to young adult genre fiction. It is often easier to understand and combat the harsh realities of our world when they take place in a different environment and, regardless of privilege or upbringing, anyone can be a hero. “When it comes to activism in dystopian novels, really in any teen fiction, teens are loving that,” says Kimmie DiPinto, the Coordinator of Best Fiction for Young Adults Booklist with the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA). “Whether in sci-fi or dystopia, or realistic fiction, or fantasy, that oftentimes put them in another world, something dystopian, where it’s not necessarily their reality…. [Kids today] get to go on all these adventures and experience things that are tough but they get to do it as a third party watcher. And we’ve seen a lot of kids really identifying with that. Because they can go in and they can dig into a book and they say ‘I saw this character stand up for themselves’, ‘I saw this character use their voice’ and that inspires them to do it too.”
And while many of these characters do come to find secret, hidden magical powers—like lightning in their veins, as in the Red Queen series by Victoria Aveyard— just as many of them do not. They rely on their own wit, determination, and strength to topple broken systems, forge new paths, and bring about the fall of power structures not entirely dissimilar from the ones in place today. “A lot of these stories that have been coming out in teen fiction, it’s just normal, everyday teens that do amazing things. And I think teens really identify with that,” DiPinto says, of the trends she has seen in the industry. “You don’t have to be a superhero or have magical powers necessarily, to create a positive change and to change your circumstances…. They learn to then build themselves up and we get to see the normal become amazing and become phenomenal. [They] use their voice and their skills and what they’ve learned from their hardship to do something amazing and create that positive change.”
Oftentimes, positive change comes at the necessary cost of dismantling the current system, be it the political system, the social or cultural system, or defining traditions that leave most of the disenfranchised populations vulnerable. And if our child heroes and heroines have become recognizable in these stories, so too have the adult maintainers of these institutions, villains either by intent or neglect, that have had an undeniable impact on the way young adults view the society around them.
“It is a little of a bit of a joke at the moment, but the whole sense that the Baby Boomers have abandoned us is real,” Ben Lipkin says. “Youth rebellion against adults and ‘adult values’ is not a new concept…” Tales of “those meddling kids” have been turning on teenagers of every generation, “…but because this was fiction we were reading when we were a little bit younger, and because it’s now something we very much see in real life, being told that we can’t do things or have things—for instance, the Green New Deal—there’s definitely a parallel between that fiction and our reality in terms of adults posing a barrier [to] justice.”
And putting young, capable, characters at the forefront often helps to undermine a traditionally held misconception about what they can achieve. “There’s this sense that young people of all types aren’t to be taken seriously... they’re not mature,” Lipkin says. “Part of this comes from the representation of teens and young people as unserious or juvenile, but of course people who are trying to make change in the world are very serious about it. It comes from a very real place.”
It comes from a very real place because the issues facing young adults today are anything but fiction. As recently as last week, the current United States Administration put forth efforts to reduce climate change initiatives and limit climate change projections, intentionally creating a false narrative as to the scope of environmental challenges the next generation will be particularly vulnerable to. Around the country, women’s rights and access to safe abortions are under siege, with many lawmakers pushing for jail time or even the death penalty for women seeking abortions and the doctors that provide them. For most, the veil of pro-life has been lifted to show exactly what is underneath, the goal of controlling women, disenfranchising the most vulnerable and supporting a cycle of poverty that allows a corrupt system to stand, a system which those in power continue to benefit from.
Teens and children today live in a fishbowl of fear, and not just of the future, but of here and now. Practicing active shooter drills instead of multiplication tables, they are at a higher risk of being shot and killed in their own school than deployed members of the military still fighting a war that plays on loop in the background. Twenty years after the Columbine High School shooting that staggered a nation, the suicide of survivors proves that thoughts and prayers do nothing in the face of wafer-thin gun regulation. America’s obsession with the Second Amendment and the term ‘lone gunman’ grows more aggressive with each passing day.
And, of course, if the literal threat of physical harm, the cobbling of constitutional rights, the excessive gerrymandering, fear-mongering, and election-stealing, while tornados hit coastal cities and mountains burn was somehow not enough, this generation is little more than a group of indentured servants. The crippling cost of student loans, coupled with stagnated wages and an unforgiving job market means most young adults cannot picture a life without debt. That means no houses, no new cars, fewer children, and the constant threat of a single medical event or accident leading to unbreakable poverty.
These stories used to be set in the deep, dark world of outer space, or the forbidden jungles of imagined worlds. But armies of the dead, alien invaders, witches, warlocks, and wizards are no threat at all in comparison to mass inflation on life-saving medications, to blistering temperatures, and to the rise of white supremacy in a country that is not yet old enough to forget its role in World War Two. There is little wonder, then, why the villians in these books are not manic individuals desperately seeking legendhood, but the systems and powers in place that allow them to rise. The Capitol in The Hunger Games is a mirror of our own halls of justice, while American society is turning out be our very own District 1. We do not need wild beasts or mystical lore or hidden magic to spread fear in fiction. We need only to look at what’s going on in our lives at this very moment.
In some way, these books have always represented the world in which the heroes and heroines lived, with a background of world wars, cholera and smallpox epidemics, deeply divisive social castes. To look at what young people face today is to wonder if, despite the advances in technology and science, despite an outward appearance of more civility and harmony, they might have it worse than ever before. Generations that grew up in the halls of Hogwarts, are terrified, and with good reason. They are no longer reading fiction. And our society is no longer in the prologue of this dystopian novel. As much as it is true for any character from the most popular books of the genre, the world is burning up around us.
The phrase ‘if you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention’ has circled around since the last election, but it bears pointing out the importance of who you’re paying attention to. The adults that Ben Lipkin’s generation calls into question in their effort to make lasting change are not limited to those in positions of political power but also extend to the disseminators of media. In a time when the unverifiable twenty-four hour news cycle is at our fingertips and misinformation and disinformation run rampant, young adults are forced to be discerning of everything they take in, skeptical of its source, and willing to do the heavy lifting to verify what they share themselves.
“In the same way that these books teach young adults to question authority, you can extend that sense of questioning authority to questioning the press and questioning certain sources of media,” MG Prezioso says. She references the role of the fictionalized news organization and sensationalist journalist in the Harry Potter universe as a prime example.
“There’s the Daily Prophet and Rita Skeeter as a character, which ends up being sort of prophetic, even though that was before the rise really of this sort of issue with media and the news. I do think, maybe, in subtle ways, they are preparing kids to, at the very least, be skeptical of the information that they’re receiving and the power structures that provide it.” Those themes of propaganda and a single, party-written narrative structure coming from the top appear in the way the Capitol broadcasts the Hunger Games, in which civilian attention is mandatory. It does not take these young characters very long to understand that the messages in the newspapers and on the big screens do not reflect the truth of the system as it stands and, too, that undermining those systems of disinformation is a fundamental step toward independence.
Eric Devine is a middle school English teacher and young adult author whose work focuses on realistic issues facing students today, including violence, hazing, and the darker side of communication. In his classroom, he often uses these books to showcase themes and ideas that his students can then apply to the rest of their lives. “I teach predominately white kids and they want to read The Hate U Give. They come to face these ideas and realize ‘oh, okay, so maybe what I see on the news isn’t how it always is’,” he explains. “Maybe there’s another side to the story.” He has used both realistic and genre fiction to discuss themes such as sexual assault and media misinformation. “I think they enjoy it because it’s tough not to see parallels in our contemporary culture and I think it makes it easier for kids to look at the contemporary world,” he says. “Because it’s not the same. It's got this weird mirror image and that makes it a little bit safe. They can know it’s not real... that thing is not really going to happen, at least not in the way our world works, but then on some level, maybe it could... ”
That ability to create larger discourse around uncomfortable topics is just one more tool of a great many in the box that allows students, young readers, and even adults to understand, compartmentalize, and combat the world around them more effectively. There is no single defining factory in what brings a generation to rallies or protests or movements. As the youngest among us, Mr. Lipkin, points out, youth culture has so often been counterculture, be it via music or marches or online communication other generations willfully misunderstand.
To claim that dystopian fiction is singularly responsible for a more engaged, more decisive and more discerning youth would be disingenuous and irresponsible. But art has always had a way of mimicking, responding to, and helping us to make sense of the world around us. The original crafting of these stories is undoubtedly the reaction of artists living in the world today, but more than that, their success and continued production is an endorsement by one of the largest consuming media-bases, a base that is now coming of age, visiting voting booths, and running for office.
There is a reason that Spiderman has long been a favorite hero, with the third reimagining of the series on the big screen since 2002, a reason while Sabrina the Teenage Witch catches young watchers where they live, why Betty Cooper and Jughead Jones inspire truth seekers to find justice. Nearly one hundred years after its original publication, the Boxcar Children stories are still coming out, and Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series is being coproduced by BBC and HBO. These books and films offer an accessible background to speak about true-life issues to which readers of all ages can relate. They provide stepping stones for organizing up against unjust systems. They help readers to recognize systemic disinformation and propaganda and to learn how they can combat it. And, at the end of the day, they celebrate characters from all backgrounds and all experiences.
In times of demagogy, in times of political strife, when power abuses run rampant and dissenters are silenced, it becomes not only a possibility but a responsibility to take up the torch of rebellion and fight back against a broken system. Just like Miles Morales and Hermione Granger and Katniss Everdeen, anyone can be a hero. Everyone should be a hero. And the one who helps promote justice, kindness, and a better world for all might just look a little bit like you. Now that’s a story worth telling.