Children’s books have moved into the spotlight this past week with the announcement of Dr. Seuss Enterprises pulling six Dr. Seuss books from publication due to claims of racism.
I’ll linger on that story long enough to say these few things: First of all, I’m just as much against banning books as I am against banning and canceling people. Secondly, are we going to discard all the good things that Dr. Seuss created over the years because of now perceived racism in some of his books? And lastly, if you feel compelled to boycott Dr. Seuss altogether, rather than just those books, better boycott Disney while you’re at it, since they produced far more racist cartoons back in the day (which have now also been pulled from the shelf).
However, much as I love The Cat in the Hat and Horton Hears a Who, this post is actually about books for older kids – namely those that fall in the young adult (YA) category, which is where I spend a lot of my time as a middle school teacher. And if you have kids in the 11- to 15-year old range (or even older high schoolers) and you’re looking for books that will lead to deeper conversations about the state of the world, these five books (plus some bonuses) would be my recommendation.
- Red Scarf Girl by Ji-li Jiang
While the following books that I will recommend are all excellent, this one is top of my list because it’s not science fiction. It’s true – and this memoir of a twelve-year old Chinese girl living through the Cultural Revolution in China in the 1960’s is a book I think everyone should read – including adults.
I just did a book study on this one with my seventh-graders, and our conversations got pretty deep, especially the more we connected events that happened back then with current events happening in America. The quotation, “The world had turned upside down. Now it was a crime for students to respect teachers” was a chilling reminder of mobs in America screaming hatred and disrespect towards police this past summer.
Getting rid of the “Four-Olds” (old ideas, old habits, old customs, and old culture), making people “repent” for the sins of their landlord ancestors, forcing people to go to “struggle meetings” until they agreed with Communist ideology, and publicly shaming anyone who disagreed with Chairman Mao – all of these are things that happened less than a century ago in China and are beginning to surface in their own ways in the United States.
I recently read an article in the newspaper about a lawmaker in our state who wants to require that the negative effects of Communism be taught in high school. One politician who disagreed said, “Right now Americans are upset about America and how we got here […] Communists are not on our doorstep.”
If you read this memoir, you will see exactly how a statement like that reveals that Communists are not as far away as he thinks.
Warning – there are several uses of the word “damn” or “damned” in the book and some intense scenes of physical torture including a suicide. It is written in a way that is suitable for most middle schoolers, but parents should be aware of that ahead of time.
- The List by Patricia Forde
This dystopian story is one I discovered a few years ago and was subsequently captivated by. In this futuristic society, the city of Ark is the last safe place on Earth, and to ensure people’s “safety,” the leader has decreed that everyone must speak “List” – a language of only 500 words. However, one girl named Letta, apprentice to the Wordsmith, has access to all the words, including such words as freedom and music. As in all dystopian novels, she comes across a group of people who are rebelling against this order, and she has to make a choice to go with them and risk banishment or stay in her stifled world of limited language.
This book is the perfect starting point to discuss the power of words, censorship, and freedom of speech with your kids – all of which are loaded topics in America at the moment.
- The Giver by Lois Lowry
One of my all-time favorite dystopian novels that I discovered in college, The Giver focuses on a futuristic society that values “sameness.” The government has decided that when people are allowed to make their own choices in life, they choose wrong, so they’ve constructed a society of sameness where people’s choices are all but taken away. Similar to the previous story, there is one who holds all the memories of the world as it was before (the Giver). His job is to pass these on to his new apprentice, Jonas, who is supposed to hold on to the memories in case he needs to advise the society’s government about things in the future.
What Jonas realizes in accessing all these memories is that yes, his world has basically eradicated any kind of pain and suffering, but along with it, also eradicated the deepest forms of joy and love. Additionally, he discovers that the government conveniently “disposes” of the elderly or babies that aren’t thriving, which leads to deep conversations about whose place it is to make those kinds of decisions.
This book is one that my seventh-graders will end the year with, and I look forward to our discussions about it, especially when it comes to the government deciding for the people what will and won’t make them happy.
- The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
This is a book I added to my classroom library and read just last year. This one is actually a fantasy about a village called The Protectorate who tell their people that every year they must leave a baby in the woods as an offering to the witch who lives there to keep her from terrorizing their village. In actuality, the witch, Xan, is kind and rescues the babies from certain death, taking them to welcoming families on the other side of the woods.
One year, she accidentally feeds a baby moonlight instead of starlight, filling her with incredible magic, so Xan decides to raise her as her own. As the baby, Luna, grows to her thirteenth birthday, the magic starts to come out, with dangerous consequences.
There are many other plot points all weaved together to make this a fascinating story, but what I found to be so significant was the idea of what happens when fear is intentionally cultivated in a people by their rulers – against a place, a person, a people group, or against some terrible evil that may happen to them. When the truth comes to be known and that fear is lifted, life becomes more bearable, more beautiful, and more freeing.
- The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins
Probably the most well-known dystopian novels in recent years, these books are best for middle schoolers on up as they get a little graphic in depictions of violence. Also set in the future after wars have ravaged the world, this futuristic society holds an annual event called “The Hunger Games” where two tributes from each district must come to the Arena and fight to the death to be the last person alive. Seem unnecessary? That’s what the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen thinks, and soon becomes the symbol for the rebels fighting back against the corrupt Capital.
Across these three books (which also features a teenage love triangle of course adding to the angst) are woven strong themes of justice, courage, and morality especially in a world that twists them to be the opposite of what they are. It leads to discussions about how to stand up for what you believe in when those in power are determined to keep you down – and how by doing so, you give courage to others to do the same.
Bonuses: 1984 by George Orwell and Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
I would recommend these to older teens as the writing style and subject matter is a little heavier, but if you read them one right after the other, they make for excellent comparing and contrasting. Both are also dystopian science fiction novels, but the first was written in the late 1940s, but set forty years in the future (in 1984); and the second was written last decade, also set forty years in the future (in 2045) – but with overwhelming references to the 80s.
You may have heard references lately to an “Orwellian world” which comes from 1984, with its references to “Big Brother,” “newspeak,” and “oldthink,” all of which feel chillingly relevant to our current age. It is a world where the government not only controls the lives of their citizens, but also controls their thinking by carefully rewriting history and convincing people that they aren’t even remembering things correctly from the past.
Ready Player One (which does have a bit of language) is set in a world where most people stay indoors and do everything virtually through an online platform called OASIS (school, work, socializing, etc.). By the end of the book, however, the main characters realize that there is so much more joy to be had in living life “in the real world” in person with each other.
There is a reason I am passionate about literature, and it’s because it gives us such a platform to talk about life. As writers, we write to make sense of the world – and in these books specifically, to give warnings to people about what happens when we make certain choices. As readers, we read to make sense of the world as well and to experience hypothetical consequences to choices that could be dangerous. The trick is to actually take heed of what these authors warn us of – to recognize the warning signs in our culture around us, and to actively work against those dangers.
If we start with our children and educating them on these kinds of topics, we’ll be working in the right direction, because they are our future leaders and thinkers. Let’s help them think deeply so they won’t be lead astray through dangerous ideas packaged in the best of intentions. And also help them to enjoy good stories and great writing along the way!