My Twitter feed, these days, is full of comparisons between Donald Trump’s America and good-versus-evil battles in pop culture: Harry Potter, Divergent, The Hunger Games, Star Wars, and on and on. Alongside the very real and very distressing news, Trolling Joe Biden memes, and calls to action, there is the clear and oft-repeated sentiment, “Gee. Where have we heard this before?”
By now, we’ve seen high school kids (sometimes even elementary school children) walk out of class and protest an America that is quickly ramping up vindictive and cruel hate crimes, only to see articles' comment sections full of bile. “You lost, get over it,” is code for “Please stop holding me responsible; stop making me uncomfortable; stop making me think critically about the consequences of my actions. I am right and you are wrong.” Shut up. Let us silence you.
We’ve probably seen our own friends and relatives belittle and dismiss those who choose to make their call for empathy heard. We don’t “get it,” of course: we’re soft, we don’t know “the real world,” the “economic anxiety.” They’re not racist, they just had to vote for what was best for them, and their vision of America. We’re the ones who are expected to be handed everything we want, no matter what, including an election. In fact, all of these negative consequences have been made up. There are no hate crimes: you just want attention. It's the liberal media lying to you. This, of course, is code for “I don’t care. I haven't seen it with my own eyes. I don't believe you. It will never happen to me.”
When faced with an unending surge of trolls and a staggering lack of empathy, it really does start to feel like people are rolling up their sleeves to show off their Dark Mark tattoos, without fear of shame or reprisal. You knew they were out there, but now they’re emboldened.
The hero’s journey is arguably the most popular literary and mythological theme humanity has created. It’s everywhere—even in commercials. Life sucks right now? Buy this car, and you’ll become the kind of rugged adventurer you’ve always dreamed of. Use this lipstick, and you’ll be a femme fatale who will shatter glass ceilings and take many lovers. Save abandoned puppies and kittens, and you’ll rest comfortably knowing you helped the helpless. Buy this brand of cloth diapers, and be the kind of parent who cares about your kid and the environment. We all want to be the heroes of our own stories, whatever scale that story is on.
In the last ten years, YA fiction has become something of a juggernaut. We’ve watched Jessica Darling morph into Katniss Everdeen and Hazel Grace Lancaster. Our dreamy mysterious loner dudes are sometimes mysterious loner revolutionaries or manic pixie cancer patients. General teen anxieties are still there, but they’re put into perspective against backdrops of war and personal horror. Or are they?
At its very core, YA exists to tell teens, you are not alone. We’ve been there. The adults writing this story have had giant zits and tucked their skirt into their underwear and flubbed tests and were the targets of bullies. We’ve had adults misunderstand and think they know what’s best for us. We’ve suffered deaths of loved ones. We’ve had cruel teachers and were beaten up for our sexual orientations or the hobbies that we like or even just the way we look. We survived. We were the heroes of our own stories. Billions of teenagers in the history of the world have survived. You will, too.
This empathy for the struggle—the journey, if you will—when hormones are raging and emotions are amplified serves two major purposes. First, we’re telling teens, whether we’re the authors or the people who help put that book/movie/TV show in their hands, “I understand, and it gets better.” They might be going through a dark night of the soul now, but all is not lost.
Second, and more importantly: in having empathy for them, in a relentlessly loud and unflinching way, we’re teaching readers to have empathy for others.
Eleanor was a bullied fat girl who probably didn’t think twice about Asian-Americans before she met Park. Samantha was an Asian girl in 1850s Missouri, who had her own problems to worry about before she met runaway slave Annamae. Kestrel felt sympathy for Arin, but what about all the other slaves her father and country exploited? Blue was financially poor, but her family was warm; Adam was not so lucky. Throughout the course of the stories we consume, the concept of an Other is summarily dismantled. The hero of one story is the villain of another. Traits do not define you; actions do.
Modern YA teaches us that there is no societal “Other,” there are only others.
In the wake of the election, there has been a lot of hand-wringing and fear. It’s not unwarranted. There seems to be an unbridgeable ideological chasm in America, and all we can do is make our voices heard: calling our representatives, donating to worthy causes, advocating for the less powerful and privileged.
I worry, of course. It’s hard not to. It wasn’t so long ago that people freaked out because they realized Rue is black. Book Twitter constantly has debates over “who can write which story” and why it’s important to hear stories from the people who actually live them. Problematic representation is rampant, and those who call it out catch a lot of flack and tone policing. There’s always someone yelling “all lives matter” when someone points out that black lives matter. There are people who genuinely believe racism and sexism is over because they haven’t personally witnessed or experienced it.
But I also see progress: calls for diversifying not only literature, but every form of media are slowly, surely enabling us to look past a historically dominant narrative. I see people standing up for harassed minorities in public. I see people asking, “are you okay?” I see teens asking incredibly intelligent questions at author events, and their calls to action on Tumblr. There is no shortage of bullies and jerks, but there are also a growing number of kids committed to unpacking privilege and questioning authority. Stories—and the people who help us access them—open up new worlds.
You don’t have to be Katniss or Tris or Hermione to stand up against inherently biased systems or people, but their stories are allegories (sometimes depressingly on-the-nose) directed at the future of our society. The kids who feel powerless today, and who are learning empathy at the hands of a growing, diverse set of storytellers, are the voters tomorrow.
When it comes to our collective story, once more we’re in America’s dark night of the soul—we’ve certainly had a lot of them over the past 240 years. It’s especially crushing when it seemed like racial and gender equality would be achieved at the highest levels of government, only to have that reversed by a minority of voters.
We know how this story goes, though, whether historical or fictional. Right now, we’ve just started the second book of the trilogy, where all the bad shit happens and it seems that all may be lost. That just means we also know what to do: be vigilant. Ask questions. Make sacrifices. Protect others. Lead by example.
Amplify voices. Share stories.
You know, all those things we already do every time we shut a book and talk about what we’ve just read. All the things we do as authors, agents, bloggers, publicists, librarians, teachers, book club members, Goodreads reviewers, and concerned parents. We’re just doing them for a much bigger audience, now, and the stakes are higher.
I worry about the next few years and the immediate road we’re on, yes. What doesn’t worry me is the next generation of readers and voters, who already fearlessly stand up for justice and representation. It won’t and doesn’t just affect fellow readers—their empathy and advocacy has a ripple effect in their schools, in media, on the internet. They’re taking what we’ve given them and they’re already making it better. They might be the quiet heroes of their own stories, or they could be the heroes of ours.
I don’t worry about them—the YA readers shall inherit the earth, and they’re already making it a better place.