The shifts being made in literature, specifically young adult literature, in the past few years have been fantastic. While there are still huge gaps and underrepresentation, the direction it is headed is hopeful.
The fantasy and dystopian genres, in particular, are doing an incredible job of shedding new light on current happenings in our world. I believe this is partly due to the fact that these genres are a uniquely effective tool for such work.
I say this because they can be an impressive allegory for what’s really happening in our world. The power, though, comes from the fact that these genres allow us to view current events or stigmas or injustices as though we are outsiders. It helps us effectively see the world through a different lens and helps us shed our bias.
A colleague recently told me about an interesting experiment that reveals the impact of truly removing our biases and actually seeing something from a different perspective. We often speak of this ideal, the one of empathy and perspective-taking, and many of us believe we are effective at this skill.
And while we might have an increased ability to do so, it’s difficult to completely remove our lens and look through the eyes of another. We are the sum of our own experiences, and the way we view the world is, rightfully, shaped by that. But, just as we honor our own beliefs, it is just as necessary that we acknowledge those of others.
The Sacred RAC experiment proves the difficulty of taking a completely unbiased perspective, and demonstrates just how meaningful, and just how difficult it, is.
I believe that like this exercise, which I won’t give away, fantasy and dystopian literature allow us to have a similar experience of shedding our bias. These genres create new worlds, new societies, that represent or model the impact of our current politics, societal norms, or prejudices. And they allow us to see these things through the eyes and experiences of someone else. Maybe, hopefully, someone who is entirely different from us.
Recently, I finished reading the final novel in the Scythe trilogy by Neal Shusterman called The Toll. The entire series is phenomenal, and I highly recommend it. However, the novel that has resonated with me is the final one. Mainly because it allowed me to see new perspectives, or rather, the same issues we are facing in our world today, in an entirely new light.
Among others, this novel broaches the subjects of authoritarian leaders, the drawbacks of technology, radicalization of religious groups, and gender fluidity. And it does all of this within the context of a dystopian society, in a way that is digestible for young adults (or adults who love YA, like yours truly).
One concept that I felt was particularly well done was that of gender. In the novel, there are several unique places around the world where people live, each of which has its own culture and norms. In one particular location, children are not assigned gender at birth. They are gender fluid from the day they enter the world, deciding later if they’d like to remain fluid or assign themselves a binary gender.
This is a concept I am entirely unfamiliar with. I am a white, cisgender woman and have little to no understanding of gender fluidity. I have never had this experience, nor do I have a lot of schema on the topic itself.
What this novel did for me was allow me to see, from the perspective of another person, what gender fluidity truly means. And how it is approached. And how it feels. And how those who are binary can, and should, respond. It did all of this through storytelling, set in a dystopian society, which allowed my own experiences to fall away. I could see clearly through a different lens and begin to better understand those who live through that lens every day.
I can’t help but think: If it was this successful for me, how valuable is that for my students?
I’ve said it before, and I’ll continue to. Our job is to prepare our students for the people they will ultimately be. It is our job to ensure they are empathetic, kind human beings who will put good into the world. We must empower them to be their authentic selves every day, and help them to acknowledge and value the authentic selves of others.
The movement of young adult literature toward more inclusive writing and more equitable representation is critical to this development. There is true power in looking outside of ourselves and our own experiences. There is so much growth to be made by witnessing the truths of others.
Why not do it through the pages of a book?