The past week I have been fascinated by the student movement in the United States that has risen up to advocate for gun control. Their passion and arguments for their cause are commendable. Seeing these student activists organize school walkouts and boycotts is inspiring.
Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising though. As Jennifer Ansbach said on twitter recently "I’m not sure why people are so surprised that the students are rising up—we’ve been feeding them a steady diet of dystopian literature showing teens leading the charge for years. We have told teen girls they are empowered. What, you thought it was fiction? It was preparation."
However, dystopian books like The Hunger Games are not the only literature that teach students to resist and rise up. Many realistic fiction and non-fiction books teach students lessons about courage and standing up against authority. Check out these books for characters who see a problem in the world and take action to solve it.
- The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas, addresses issues of racism and police brutality. In the book, the main character Starr sees her friend fatally shot by a police officer. As the only witness, she must decide whether to speak out publicly against police brutality and possibly endanger herself and her family.
- All American Boys, by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, also focuses on racism and police brutality. Similar to The Hate U Give, this book starts with an attack by a police officer on the main character, who is arrested for a crime he didn't commit. As the plot unfolds, students struggle with issues of racism, eventually standing up to community members and the police in order to make their voices heard.
- March is a graphic novel collection by Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell. It outlines the civil rights movement in the United States from the point of view of John Lewis, who was active in the movement. Living in Canada, I had only a vague idea of how the civil rights movement unfolded. Reading these three graphic novels was fascinating, since it taught about peaceful resistance and the many ways civil rights activists protested and spread their message.
- Ban This Book, by Alan Gratz, tells the story of Amy Anne Ollinger, a quiet girl who defies the rules. When Amy Anne's favourite book is banned from the school library, she starts a banned book library out of her school locker. Amy Anne learns to speak out, stand up against school authorities, and stand up for herself over the course of the book.
- Hoot, by Carl Hiaassen, recounts the story of some middle school students who work to protect the habitat of endangered burrowing owls, which is being destroyed to build a restaurant. Students take on a corrupt construction company and organize a protest to save the owls.
- Malala's Magic Pencil, by Malala Yousafzai, is a book I have mentioned before, but it bears repeating. It retells the story of Malala and how she stood up for education for girls everywhere. The pictures beautifully support the message that young people can stand up and change the world.
- Letters to a Prisoner, by Jacques Goldstyn, is a wordless story about a man who is thrown in jail for speaking out. People (including children) from around the world write letters that free him from his prison.
These books teach valuable lessons about speaking out against injustice and standing up for what we believe. Historically, this has not been a main focus in schools, which are facilities for creating the next generation of workers, not disrupting the status quo. Some school officials don't always know how to handle students challenging authority, as evidenced by schools that have threatened to suspend students who participate in upcoming walkouts. However, if we want to create citizens who challenge injustice when they see it and work to improve our community, schools need to support students when they seek to make change. Providing literary role models teaches lessons in courage and strength. These books teach that given the chance, young people can change the world; we just have to step out of their way.