YA Books Reflect the Activism of Real-Life Teens

From attacking the Third Reich to making high schools accountable for women's needs, authors are highlighting the large and small efforts of young people to effect change.

Kim Hyun Sook

It started with a book club.

“I was studying literature, and I thought it was just a chance for after school study,” says author Kim Hyun Sook.

But this club read books that spoke truth to power—books that her oppressive South Korean government had prohibited. “I quickly learned that I had accidentally become the youngest member of an illegal activist group. They taught me that I was living in a dictatorship and I didn't even know it.”

In Kim’s graphic memoir Banned Book Club (Iron Circus, Apr. 2020), cowritten with her husband Ryan Estrada and illustrated by Ko Hyung-Ju, she details how, while attending university in 1983, she became an activist who circulated anti-government writings on campus and learned to hurl Molotov cocktails. Though some of her friends disappeared for days while being questioned by the police, she avoided arrest and persevered.

While Kim’s story takes place years ago, she hopes teens today see themselves in her book, and realize that anyone can take a stand. “We weren't characters in a dystopian novel; we were just living our lives. Going to class, working part-time jobs, going on dates.” She learned to fight for justice, even if it was for an issue or person she was initially unfamiliar with. She adds, “I learned by listening. In my college days, that came from listening at banned book club meetings, but today it's as easy as talking to someone new or following people who aren't like you on social media.”

In recent years, young people’s power to effect change has been making news, from Marley Dias, who started a social campaign to surface books about black girls, to the teen survivors of the school shooting in Parkland, FL, who work for gun control. YA authors are taking note, too, offering novels and nonfiction that push readers to connect literature and current events, and to realize that even young people can make a difference.

With Flowers in the Gutter: The True Story of the Edelweiss Pirates, Teenagers Who Resisted the Nazis (Dutton, Jan. 2020), K.R. Gaddy spotlights teens from Cologne who risked their lives for their beliefs. Like the members of the more well-known nonviolent activism group the White Rose, the Edelweiss Pirates opposed the Third Reich by handing out fliers and scrawling graffiti. But the working-class Pirates also got their hands dirty, fighting back when attacked by Hitler Youth, by derailing trains and committing other acts of sabotage. Thirteen of them were executed in 1944 for allegedly plotting to bomb Gestapo headquarters.

Gaddy was struck by the antipathy these young people engendered in Germany even decades after World War II. The head of the antifascist league in Cologne told Gaddy that when he was growing up, most people thought of the Edelweiss Pirates as criminals, not heroes. And Caroline Schink, whose brother Barthel was one of the young men executed, fought for years to convince the government to recognize her brother as a political victim rather than a criminal.

Gaddy sees parallels between the suspicion with which many Germans viewed the Pirates and the criticisms leveled at recent movements—many attack Black Lives Matter protesters for being anti-police; those on the far right have called Emma González and the other Parkland teens crisis actors.

“It’s amazing how easy it is for people to say, ‘There’s no leadership to this organization, or they’re making too great a demand.’ I think the first step should be to listen and understand,” Gaddy says.

Teens need not stand up to fascist regimes as the Pirates did in order to make a difference, she notes. Efforts like objecting to sexism, racism, or homophobia in everyday conversation also can have an impact.

Lily Williams and Karen Schneemann, authors of the graphic novel Go with the Flow (First Second, Jan. 2020), believe that activism can begin with the simplest of actions, like a blog post or a tweet. Their book centers on four high schoolers who start a movement to make pads and tampons freely available at their school. Passionate Abby blogs about period poverty (the lack of access to menstrual products) and the stigma around menstruation. Her post gets results—it’s picked up by mainstream media, and soon a tampon company donates a year’s worth of products to the school.

Like Abby, the authors have harnessed social media to spread important messages. As a college student worried about humans’ destructive effects on oceans, Williams posted a series of infographics laying out the dire consequences of shark extinction. The post went viral and led to Williams’s 2017 picture book If Sharks Disappeared.

Go With the Flow coverGo with the Flow originated as a webcomic called The Mean Magenta. The authors wanted to openly discuss women’s health, which has long been seen as a private and shameful subject, and the internet provided an ideal venue. Schneemann says that unlike print publications, “social media allows anyone to create a post and start a larger conversation. It’s becoming easier to engage on topics that aren’t necessarily considered mainstream.”

She adds, “It doesn’t have to be a big movement to make a difference. Even changing one person’s perspective can have an impact.”

However while activism can be simple, it’s rarely easy. In Dave Connis’s novel Suggested Reading (Katherine Tegen Bks., Sep. 2019), Clara fights censorship at her school by secretly disseminating banned books, but she wonders whether she’s doing the right thing. And though she’s quick to criticize her school administration for their narrow-minded attitude toward reading, she slowly realizes she has biases of her own—she wrongly assumes that her rich, popular classmates can’t relate to the books she holds dear.

Connis wants readers to realize that the path toward activism is a complex process. Young people such as climate change activist Greta Thunberg may appear to emerge out of nowhere, with their arguments fully formed, but behind the scenes Thunberg likely struggled to hone and articulate her beliefs. “That’s not stuff we see in the news,” he says, “that’s stuff she went through before we even saw a single headline.”

He urges caution, too. “A lot of times, especially with social media, we feel like we have to be the activist who immediately comes out and says exactly what we believe.” Whether young people are passionate about the environment or free speech, Connis notes that it’s important to consider their perspective and to encourage them to ask questions: What am I fighting for? Why? “A huge part of successful activism is being willing to admit you’re wrong,” he says.

To that end, Connis urges teens to reach out to others. “Don’t do it alone. Surround yourself with a group of people who you can bounce ideas off of.” No matter how hard it is, though, he emphasizes: “Your voice matters and you have a part to play in the world that only you can play.”

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Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is Reference and Professional Reading Editor for Library Journal and School Library Journal and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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