Young people are often discounted and dismissed. Their youth and experience, we assume, cannot compare to the wisdom of adults, especially in times of crisis. This might be why—as more and more Americans compare the current COVID-19 crisis to end-of-the-world stories—we ignore what young adult dystopian novels have to teach us.
One of the reasons we dismiss YA dystopian literature might be that the overwhelming majority of young adult dystopian novels are written by women, and even more feature female protagonists. Women and girls—so often the victims of patriarchal violence, so often the glue that keep families and communities together in times of crisis—know about the hardships of dystopia. We live the impacts of our dystopic patriarchal world every day, especially if we are further marginalized by race, class, or sexual orientation. So why are our Girls on Fire stories dismissed when the real world is faced with real dystopic crisis?
Lurie Penny describes, in “This Is Not the Apocalypse You Were Looking For,” an article for Wired, how we Americans like our end-of-the-world stories: “Our heroes—usually white, straight men with traditional nuclear families to protect—are cut off from the rest of the world; the daydream is of finally shaking off the chains of civilization and becoming the valiant protector and/or tribal warrior they were made to be.” These heroes dominate our cultural landscapes and imaginations.
A Facebook post, from a self-proclaimed retired high school librarian who had read her fair share of dystopian literature, encapsulates the very problem with patriarchal imagination and adults’ attitudes: “don’t worry… somewhere a seventeen-year-old girl is working on a cure for COVID-19, if only she can decide which boy she is in love with first.” Even those who are familiar with the stories of YA dystopia are quick to dismiss the Girl on Fire.
This kind of attitude is common among adults. This kind of attitude will be our undoing. It is true that many of these novels have romantic plotlines, but these books are also about self-discovery, survival, resilience, freedom, hope, community, and the power of love. Penny notes that the current COVID-19 crisis has brought out a different story. Those on the front lines “are not fighters. They are healers and carers.” But this insightful article does not cite any of the stories that are over-shadowed by these powerful cultural myths, rendering them further invisible.
We see this tendency to turn our attention to the texts that have been inspired by, and produced in, our patriarchal American culture in some of the dystopian venn diagrams that have been circulating on social media. Typically, the only book that appears on such lists that was written by a woman is Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, which makes the list as a token representation, at least in part, because of its popular television adaptation. It also makes the list because it is about the control and forced pregnancy of women’s bodies, which becomes more and more relevant every day. It is allowed to exist alongside the other texts that erase women from our visions of the future.
So, if we were able to step outside the boundaries that patriarchy has created for our imaginations, what might we learn from the end-of-the-world texts that center girls?
Community is important and we can only succeed if we work together.
The battles scars of trauma are real and lasting.
No matter how powerless we feel, there is always something we can do to make things better.
It is important to take care of other people, but it is also important to take care of ourselves.
No matter how dire circumstances may seem, there is always hope. We can always build something new.
These are only some of the lessons that YA dystopian literature can teach us, but we have to be willing to question some of our long-held beliefs about who we are as a country and who we want to be when the current COVID-19 crisis tapers off.
In order to better understand who we are and where we are going, we need to read new stories, and Girls on Fire stories are a great place to begin. Unlike adult dystopian stories, these stories have hopeful endings. We can teach these stories, and I’m hoping that the young people who read these stories, who take these stories to heart, will be the next generation of leaders who don’t get stuck in the tired old narratives that have shaped our contemporary patriarchal dystopia.
This Girl (Is on Fire)
A sense of humor
in trying times--
toilet paper shortages
and social distancing
are fair game.
But when a retired
high school librarian
claiming vast knowledge of genre
right now a 17-year-old
girl is working on a solution, but first
she has to decide
which boy she is in love with”
The joke’s on us.
Because belittling young adult
is one thing
but trivializing girls
is the death of us all.
Side note: A student asked me if any of the YA dystopian novels I had read for my research took up subject matter that might compare to the pandemic. While plenty deal with similar scenarios, I could not think of any that really spoke to the current moment… until I picked up the book Recoil by Joanne MacGregor a couple of weeks ago. First published in 2016, this book is a little too close to home. So, if you like that kind of thing (like I do), check it out.