How fiction for teens helps combat hate crimes
written by Robin Talley, winner of the Amnesty CILIP Honour 2016
*This blog first appeared in Gay Star News
I write books for teenagers. So, like many young adult authors, I’m often asked if the stories I create are based on things I remember from my own teen years.
My answer, which never fails to disappoint the person asking, is no. Sure, there may be a few elements I borrowed from memory ― a corny joke here, a bizarre homework assignment there ― but the plots and characters I write are invented wholesale.
But I do remember what it felt like to be a teenager. And I remember, quite clearly, how it felt when I first became conscious of inequality and injustice. I remember when I first understood the truth about the slave trade, and apartheid, and violence against women. About the Jim Crow laws, and the response to the AIDS epidemic, and the genocide of American Indians. About countless other cruelties over millennia of human history.
Last week, I remembered that feeling anew. And I wondered how my daughter will feel when she learns that when she was just a baby, a young man walked into a nightclub spraying bullets and killed 49 people for being who they were. For being gay, like her moms.
For me, it took days for the news from Orlando to fully register. I’m still not certain it has. I keep thinking about the gay clubs I went to when I was younger. The happy vibes in the air. The sense of togetherness, of belonging. The idea of such a space being invaded ― violated ― by this kind of hate ― and of all those lives lost, primarily young lives, primarily the lives of queer people of color… The idea that hatred of this scope exists in the world is horrifying. But history has shown us that it shouldn’t be surprising.
I’m raising a child in a world where attacks like the one in Orlando are a reality. Where a leading presidential candidate has called for a ban on people entering the country based on their religion. Where many of my daughter’s preschool classmates will have already faced profiling based on the color of their skin. Where some countries have deemed her mothers’ sexual orientation punishable by death.
But I already have one tool that I know will make it easier for her to begin to grasp the complexities of it all: fiction.
Novels teach empathy without it feeling like they’re teaching. This is true of all fiction, from Gone Girl to Hamlet. But books that focus on characters from marginalized backgrounds ― like the closeted lesbian teen living in Iran in Sara Farizan’s If You Could Be Mine, or the black high school student ruthlessly beaten by a police officer in Jason Reynolds’ and Brendan Kiely’s All-American Boys, or the 13-year-old Nepalese girl trafficked into a brothel in Patricia McCormick’s Sold ― can show readers a world they never imagined before. Or, even more importantly, they can mirror a marginalized reader’s own world.
This year, the Amnesty CILIP Honour was created to recognize books for children and young adults that address human rights and social justice. But addressing teen lives through a social justice framework is hardly a recent phenomenon in literature. Back in 1967, S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders tackled socioeconomic inequality. In 1982, Nancy Garden’s Annie on My Mind became the first mainstream young adult novel featuring a same-sex couple who were allowed to have a happy ending. The 1990s saw The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis, which culminated in the 1963 bombing attack that killed four young black girls, and Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, about the aftermath of a 13-year-old’s sexual assault. In recent years, hugely popular series from The Hunger Games to His Dark Materials to the most popular series of all time, Harry Potter, have addressed social justice issues head-on.
There’s a perception out there that teenagers aren’t interested in politics. That it isn’t relevant to their lives. Tell that to the teen writing a fanfiction epic about the uprising of District 11, or arguing passionately with her friends about gun violence, or being harassed for protesting outside a Donald Trump rally.
Teenagers are passionate about this world and their role in it. They know its future is in their hands. And the more they read, the wider they’ll understand that world to be.
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.