After the last horrific school shooting, as the teenagers in Parkland began to organize and advocate for gun control, I came across this tweet:
I’m not sure why people are so surprised that the students are rising up—we’ve been feeding them a steady diet of dystopian literature showing teens leading the charge for years. We have told teen girls they are empowered. What, you thought it was fiction? It was preparation.— Jennifer Ansbach (@JenAnsbach) February 19, 2018
Of course, these teens are motivated by their own terrifying and tragic experience, not too many readings of The Hunger Games. But the point here — that books have power, that they can inspire and galvanize — is valid. In my own town right now, I've organized a community-themed book club to inspire and encourage our efforts to revitalize our city and build connections among neighbors.
But books also reflect life back to us, and I'd say one of the reasons so many modern dystopian novels have teen protagonists is because young people — teens and young adults — have historically led the charge on social change. Look at the Civil Rights movement: one of the leading groups was the SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Many of the Freedom Riders were young adults, still in their teens or just barely out of them. Rep. John Lewis was just 19 when he was making "good trouble" with the Freedom Riders. If you haven't read Lewis's three-volume, award-winning graphic novel of the Civil Rights movement, March, you should, and here is a strong list of other books about the Civil Rights movement. Another book, Shadows of Youth, shows how teenagers who launched sit-ins became SNCC activists and Civil Rights veterans.
Young feminists have played vital roles in advocating for women's and workers rights as well, as evidenced on this list of books and this one, too. From the young women writers who led the Good Girls Revolt at Newsweek to 17-year-old Clara Lemlich, a Ukrainian immigrant who spoke out about unfair working conditions in shirtwaist factories, young women challenged the status quo. More recently, young people have been important to the Black Lives Matter movement, a fact recorded in Wesley Lowery's book, They Can't Kill Us All, and reflected in the young adult novel, The Hate U Give. (Both are worth a read, by the way.)
All of this is to say: while we live through an interesting time that surely will be mentioned in history books, it's probably worth reading some history to remember that young people can be powerful agents for change. Even the Founding Fathers might be younger than you think — Alexander Hamilton,now famously, was barely into his 20s when he served as Washington's aide.