What Today's Teens Have To Say About George Orwell's '1984'

With "alternative facts" in the headlines, high schoolers connect with George Orwell's classic novel and protagonist Winston Smith's world of "Newspeak" and "doublethink."
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The original 1949 cover of Orwell's novel.

Bow-wielding teen girls, love triangles, underground bands of scrappy young freedom fighters, or wrong-colored skies are surefire markers of a hit dystopian novel. But this month’s surprise best-seller in the genre has few of those trappings. The protagonists are pencil-pushing adults. It wasn’t written for teens. It’s not even new. George Orwell’s 1984, which shot to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list days after the first mention of “alternative facts” by Kellyanne Conway on the January 22 Meet the Press, is nearly 70 years old. Like much contemporary dystopian YA literature, 1984 is the disquieting story of an authoritarian regime, of one person’s quest to make a difference, of the idea of love combating apathy, and of an effort to recapture individualism and liberty. 1984 has long been a standard on reading lists in high schools, and drawing comparisons between the ideas in the book and modern life isn’t new. A 2007 podcast created by New York Public Library teens noted the similarities between the idea that “Big Brother is watching” and the invasive nature of social media, the Bush era wiretap controversy, and the USA PATRIOT Act. George_Orwell_press_photo

George Orwell

Ten years later, it’s still the book’s prescience driving its popularity, but the focus has changed. Winston Smith’s world of Newspeak, doublethink, the Ministry of Truth, and Big Brother’s cult of personality seem all the more relevant in the current cycle of news and politics that includes the terms “alternative facts,”  “fake news,”  “post-truth,” and most recently, “pre-know.” With the book selling out and recently topping the Amazon best-seller list, some educators have noticed an uptick in teen interest too. “I’ve never had a student ask me for a copy out of the blue,” says Gina Seymour of Islip, NY. “It’s on the AP reading list, but other than that, no one has asked to read it...until last week.” Seymour’s student had heard about the buzz around the book and sought to understand more about the parallels people were noting, telling Seymour, “It sounds like he [Orwell] predicted things.” Across the country in Albuquerque, NM, Karra Shimabukuro’s students were similarly surprised by the new and different way the news media and politics are interacting. Shimabukuro’s Advanced Placement English students were focusing on the question, “What is the role of journalists today? Why are they important to an educated, informed populace?” when the “alternative facts” comment emerged. “Miss, how come she can just lie like that?” asked one of her students. In response, Shimabukuro changed her lesson plans to make space for 1984 as the next focus.
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A passage in "1984."  © Jason Ilagan, Creative Commons
In Knoxville, TN, Powell High Library media specialist Liz White has noticed a dramatic uptick in interest. After sitting for nearly four years without circulating once, her copies are flying off the shelves and have wait lists. When a copy returned damaged, White ordered two more. “They’ve not arrived yet, but I’ve received at least three requests since.” A number of the public librarians shared a different observation, noting that these sorts of book don't provide the kind of escapism many teens are seeking right now. Kathleen March of Anderson’s Bookshop in Downers Grove, IL, concurred. It’s not teens coming in to buy the book, she says, because “If they read it over the summer off of their [school-provided reading] list, it’s only been six or seven months, so it’s still fresh in their minds….It’s adults buying it to reread or to read for the first time.” For high school students like Zoë Madsen, immersing themselves in something so on the nose might not necessarily be where they want to spend their leisure reading time. “I immediately made the connection to 1984 when I read the tweet from Donald Trump that said ‘Any negative polls are fake news.’ That really freaked me out,” said Madsen. “It was this whole idea that the government can create the facts and anything that goes against the government-issued truth is automatically classified as fake news. It sounds all too close to a dystopian novel.” Whether or not they’re reading the book for the first time or rereading it, many teens want to be part of the conversation. Fortunately, teachers and librarians can make space for them. At the Brooklyn (NY) Public Library, Nicholas Higgins, director of outreach services, is conducting a series of three-week book discussion cycles about 1984 over the next four years. One teen, Brandon, participated in the first cycle, and Higgins has plans to boost outreach efforts to local high schools as the series rolls on. “At 13, Brandon’s very familiar with how information can be shifted. He lives in a world that’s constantly online,” Higgins says. Brandon related most directly to Julia, a character with a sense of rebellion and a clear awareness that everything was “fake,” he says. Brandon connected with the idea of choosing to focus not so much on upending the system as finding individual well-being and personal fulfillment. If the news makes him laugh, Brandon said he is more likely to pay attention to it. “It’s all entertainment to him,” Higgins says. Could it be that growing up with dystopian themes as a major part of their media diet has given teens a leg up on the issues? Higgins believes so. “I think [teens are] definitely ahead of the game. I’m looking to them to find creative solutions to the problems we face,” he says. For their part, Zoë Madsen and her cohorts are ready for more conversation. “Thanks for listening to young people’s voices,” she says.
heather_boothYA librarian Heather Booth blogs for Teen Librarian Toolbox.  

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