Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Younger Reader / Young Adult Fiction and Cultural Criticism

I'm sure you've heard about the Harry Potter and Hunger Games books and movies. Both have been wildly popular with younger readers, getting kids and adolescents to read like little else in these times of the Internet and video games and more. But did you know that there's been an effort to mobilize young adults/adolescents to think about societal injustices based on some of the ideas raised in these books?

It started with the Harry Potter Alliance. Straight from their webpage, "The Harry Potter Alliance is a coalition of fandom leaders and members who feel passionate about the power of story to inspire and affect social change. Just as Harry and his friends fought the Dark Arts in JK Rowling's fictional universe, we strive to destroy real-world horcruxes like inequality, illiteracy, and human rights violations." 

As an offshoot of the Harry Potter Alliance, a similar concept is forming based on the Hunger Games series, written by Suzanne Collins. It's known as Odds in Our Favor. According to the Odds in Our Favor website:"Economic inequality knows no boundaries — it is pervasive and persistent, and it affects every city, region, and country across the world. The gap between the wealthy and the poor grows wider every day, while the middle class shrinks and more people find themselves short of what they need to get by. Who controls the narrative? The rich and powerful tell us that if we put our heads down and work hard, we can overcome the odds and join the ranks of the victors — the wealthy and privileged few. However, it’s increasingly clear that the game is rigged, and that we have an important role to play: At best, we are the loyal consumers. At worst, we are the ones who slip through the cracks. And that’s why we’re taking back the narrative. The Hunger Games explores numerous themes that are relevant to the imbalances that exist in our world. In Catching Fire, Katniss Everdeen solidifies her role as a symbol for change and sets the resistance in motion. Thus, the release of the Catching Fire film represents a perfect opportunity to establish a dialogue about our own problems and set the wheels in motion for positive change. Instead, Catching Fire is being used as an opportunity to sell makeup and fast-food sandwiches. And we have a very simple response to that: Not on our watch." 

My take is that the Odds in Our Favor campaign is a little more sophisticated conceptually than the HP Alliance, asking followers to think about economic injustice and, ultimately, Empire itself. Of course, the Harry Potter books (particularly the earlier ones) are for younger readers than the Hunger Games books, so I suppose that makes sense. The Harry Potter books are less overtly about cultural criticism than the Hunger Games, where the cultural criticism is barely disguised. So in that sense, the HP Alliance is more of a stretch; I didn't really think about issues of social change while reading these books any more than I would when reading a super hero comic book. Reading the Hunger Games series, it's impossible not to think about the parallels to our socio-political situation. In that sense, Odds in Our Favor seems like a natural. I suppose my only concern about the Odds in Our Favor is the violence of the Hunger Games series; I hope that it will inspire peaceful responses to questioning Empire. I'm sure that's its intention -- peaceful response to economic injustice and Empire. They are promoting "dialogue" and "positive change".

I think both the HP Alliance and Odds in Our Favor are exciting ways of harnessing the energy that young people feel in reading about heroic fictional characters and wishing they could be like Harry Potter, like Katniss Everdeen. I continue to be impressed by the Millennial Generation and their social awareness. It gives me great hope.