A Book and A Dream: An author’s adventure in writing, reading, and being an epic fangirl

From Harry Potter to Hunger Games: The Politics of YA Fiction

November 10, 2020 Megan O'Russell Season 1 Episode 50
A Book and A Dream: An author’s adventure in writing, reading, and being an epic fangirl
From Harry Potter to Hunger Games: The Politics of YA Fiction
A Book and A Dream: An author’s adventure in writing, reading, and being an epic fangirl
From Harry Potter to Hunger Games: The Politics of YA Fiction
Nov 10, 2020 Season 1 Episode 50
Megan O'Russell

Every story has its inspiration, and when drawing concepts from the real world, touching on the political becomes inevitable. 

From revolutions to classism, this episode of A Book and A Dream looks at some young adult reading favorites and how their political leanings could be (mis)interpreted.

Show Notes Transcript

Every story has its inspiration, and when drawing concepts from the real world, touching on the political becomes inevitable. 

From revolutions to classism, this episode of A Book and A Dream looks at some young adult reading favorites and how their political leanings could be (mis)interpreted.

Megan: [00:00:01] Because as an author, you don't know, ever, when something, one statement, one quote, one paragraph, a character, is going to become so important to a reader that they are going to start interpreting the events in their life through that lens.


Announcement: [00:00:16] Welcome to A Book and a Dream with Megan O'Russell: an author's adventure in writing, reading, and being an epic fangirl.


Megan: [00:00:28] Hello, my name is Megan O'Russell and welcome to Episode 50 of A Book and a Dream. Now, first of all, thank you for sticking around for 50 episodes. A lot of podcasts don't even make it to 20. So look at us go. Woop woop. Here's to the next 50 episodes. I wanted to talk to you a little bit today about politics.


Megan: [00:00:48] I know we haven't had enough of it, right?


Megan: [00:00:52] No, but seriously, there is so much political content within YA books that we don't even notice or that we notice and we try to interpret it. Maybe we're like super off. But who's to say? Most authors will never tell you. But I think it's something that's really important to touch on, because as we are in this current political climate and as we're talking about YA books, it's really sort of an unavoidable topic. And I didn't want to talk about it before the election because that was just too much. But now that we're sort of on the calmer side of things, I do think it's a very important thing to touch on.


Megan: [00:01:27] Now, I try not to be super political in my books. If you know me on a personal level, you know that I'm a very political person, but I try and temper that a little bit in my books. Part of it is because I'm not some super important political-constitutional scholar, so I don't know why people would base their political beliefs on what I have to say. Also, because if you were to name it, like, instead of just Girl of Glass, Girl of Glass: Because when the world ends, the rich are going to last longer because they've been hoarding all the supplies that the rest of us need to survive, a lot of parents would never buy that book for their kids. So you just kind of have to put your beliefs into your characters and then let it go. And hopefully if people choose to interpret it as a political statement, they're going to interpret it the way that you meant it.


Megan: [00:02:22] Sometimes it's not going to happen. We'll get to that. But you really can't push it farther than that, especially in the YA genre, because even though a huge amount of the YA audience is adults, there are enough teens and younger kids, sometimes too young to be reading the books they are, that you do have to be conscious of keeping things that their parents will allow them to read. So you can't be blatant about it.


Megan: [00:02:49] Now, unfortunately, to start this conversation, we we do have to bring up the book that dare not be named, because before J.K. Rowling sort of, for lack of a better phrase, screwed the pooch, the Harry Potter books were a very important political statement to an entire generation of readers. And there have actually been some really interesting studies based on how many times people read through the Harry Potter series and what their trust of politicians were, what their trust of mainstream media was. And if you really look at Harry Potter, there are some very important, very blatant political statements. The easiest one to pick out, honestly, is Dolores Umbridge: that the government should not interfere with education, that teachers should be in charge of teaching, and that when we start using schools as a way of indoctrination, that it's not going to work out so well, that they need to be separate and we need to let our students learn.


Megan: [00:03:46] It also has things like, you know, oppressing people is wrong and that you can't just sort of shunt a group off to the side because you decide that they're not as good as you. It also very blatantly teaches us that youth is important, that just because you're young doesn't mean you don't have anything to say politically. That some of the youngest voices are the ones that are the people we need to listen to. Because even though the adults are the ones who are creating the systems, the problem that they create within those systems are going to be inherited by the youth. So, if we really screw up, it's not going to be us who deals with the consequences. It's going to be the next generation. So we...we have to allow that generation to become involved.


Megan: [00:04:31] We have to have our Harrys and our Hermiones because they're going to be the ones who have to deal with the consequences. They're going to be the ones who live with the fallout. And it is very tragic how badly things went with Rowling because there were so many people who felt like they were a part of that young political movement who learned to be socially involved from Harry Potter, who felt like outcasts and found a community within Harry Potter. And Rowling did an incredible amount of damage to a very vulnerable community. And I hate mentioning the books now because everyone needs to sort of deal with the ramifications of her statements in their own way.


Megan: [00:05:14] But if you're going to have a political conversation about YA, you kind of have to put Harry Potter in. So, I'm very sorry, and know, anyone who was hurt by her statements, you are loved and you are important and you are valuable as you are. And you are members of society, and we all believe you when you say who you are. Well, not all of us, because Rowling's a jerk, but the good people believe you. And that's the important thing. We'll take care of the jerks together.


Megan: [00:05:38] So moving on, because we don't want to linger on her. You can even see political statements in more current contemporary novels. And it's easier to see in dystopian just because, you know, when the government falls and the world ends, you kind of get a lot of government in your books, so you can look at something like the Red Queen. There is a huge amount of political content in that book, and a lot of it is fairly blatant. Now, this does get into the territory of our readers misinterpreting the author's intent. So I'm going to do this as spoiler-free as I can.


Megan: [00:06:16] For those of you who haven't read the books, there are the silver bloods who are like the royal ruling class. They're basically mutants and very important. And then there are the red bloods, and they are the poor, plebeian class. And no one cares about them and they shall punish them and use them to fight in their wars and they can all die.


Megan: [00:06:33] You're right, a fascist class system. Not political. Cool, whatever. And then, like some people become more important and then they have powers, then it's like, "No, you can't have powers. We're going to stay in charge forever. We're going to lie about your value because no one but the upper class can be important."


Megan: [00:06:50] And then they're like, "Screw you guys. We're going to have an uprising."


Megan: [00:06:54] And if you look at that, it's sort of like, oh, we if we decide that only old white men should ever have a voice because they're the only ones who should ever be in charge, there's going to be a political uprising. It's going to happen.


Megan: [00:07:07] And so looking at that book, and looking at the...the people who are backing the establishment, the people who are saying, "No, this is the way the system has always been. No, we should keep it just upper class. No, we can't have faces in here that don't look like other faces we've ever had." It gets super reminiscent of current politics. And so there is the statement of it is the voices who haven't been heard that are going to rise the loudest in the end because they are the ones who are the strongest, have from...having come up from these horrible places. So Red Queen, super important things.


Megan: [00:07:41] You can even get some that are, like, maybe not as political as Red Queen, but in the dystopian field, they still have political statements to be made. You can look at The Lunar Chronicles because, you know, there's the young king who's really trying hard to save his people, and then there's all the people around him, more like, :"ou could just like let them die instead. Like, you don't have to save everybody." And so in that, looking at what it takes to be a good king, what the obligations are of a ruler to protect his vulnerable people, what is worth risking in order to protect those people?


Megan: [00:08:18] What to do when you have, I don't know, some other government coming in and threatening everyone and you're just trying to appease them. So what do you sacrifice? Those things are very political statements. Not quite as blatantly applicable to the current vibe, but you can't read it in a nonpolitical way.


Megan: [00:08:38] And then sort of the the biggest. The, the one that you can't deny. The one that you can't have a conversation about, "Oh, no. This might start a revolution." Hunger Games. Oooof. And this is where part of me as an author gets even more hesitant about, like being blatantly political in my books, because Hunger Games is actually interpreted a few very different ways, which is odd to me. But, you know, sometimes the curtains are green just because they are, and sometimes the curtains are green because they represent life, and sometimes the curtains are green because they represent envy, and unless you're going to put Cliff Notes and be like, "This is based on this uprising in 1950," then you're not you're not going to ever make sure that everyone's interpreting it correctly.


Megan: [00:09:29] And it would be horrible if an author's, like, legacy was a misinterpreted political statement that led people in the wrong direction, especially youth, because they are the next generation. So we sort of have to count on them. But within the Hunger Games...I'm assuming pretty much everyone is at least a little bit familiar with The Hunger Games. Basically, it's an authoritarian, fascist regime. The rich people live in the Capitol and they have all the money and all the wealth, and then they make the poor little working class people in the districts work really hard for nothing. So there you go, that's a good starting off point. And so they reward the poor people when they take their children away and make them fight to the death as payment for past political crimes.


Megan: [00:10:20] And by past political crimes, they mean having an uprising. Because the Capitol kept all the money and let people starve, and the starving people said, "We don't want to starve anymore." Which doesn't seem like a bad uprising to have really, when you think about it. Hungry people being, like...feed us, but whatever. Anyway.


Megan: [00:10:42] So then Katniss comes and she's like, "No, we're going to have a rebellion." And there really isn't, in my opinion, there really isn't a way to look at the Capitol and say, "Oh, this is justifiable."


Megan: [00:10:58] And I think that is one of the coolest things that she did, is there are individual characters within the Capitol, like Snow, who can sit there and say, you know, I'm just trying to protect my people. This horrible system is in place to protect my people, but there's no way to actually defend the Capitol as a whole. There's no way to look at this class of people who have hoarded so much wealth--everyone else is starving--and see them as the good guys or the victims or anything else. The only person who can sort of sympathize with out of these oppressive oppressors is Snow.


Megan: [00:11:34] And then whether you interpret the uprising from Katniss and everyone else as, you know, a political reckoning against big government, or if you look at it as a class war and an uprising against a fascist regime like it can be interpreted different ways.


Megan: [00:11:52] But really, you can't say, "Oh, the Capitol is made of good people who are just trying to hold on to what they have."


Megan: [00:12:00] No.


Megan: [00:12:02] It is a, er, a political state with a government with a multitude of interpretations, but what makes it more important and more fascinating to really look at is that she doubled down recently.


Megan: [00:12:17] This year, she released The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. Now, I was a little hesitant. I'm not a huge like I'm going to go back in and just like pop out this origin story, which I know was really funny coming from me, but generally speaking, once I have a character's full arc, I don't need to go back. And there were some things that I didn't necessarily enjoy about Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. I was not super fond of how much, umm, ittle origin nuggets she was placing, so like, "This is how this began, and this is how this began, and all that" thing. "Here it is!" Like, there was a little bit too much of that for me, even as a Hunger Games fan. So...but what I really appreciated was that she doubled down on her theory of class problems, really.


Megan: [00:13:10] So the book takes place pretty soon after the war that began The Hunger Games. It's focused on Snow, which you can tell from the back cover. So that's not a spoiler. And it looks at the early Hunger Games and the pain of the Capitol.


Megan: [00:13:24] And even then, there really isn't a way to justify what they're doing from the beginning. There really isn't a way to say, "Oh, and these random kids should totally die because of this. Oh, it's our right to watch their suffering." Like, there is no moment in the book where you're like, "Oh, yeah, those kids should totally die. Yeah. We should punish younger generations for the crimes of the past. That's a great idea." There never is that moment, and it really goes down with the interpretation of...how do we look at the people who have so much who are abusing the people who have so little, and do we get to continue the abuse of the people who are literally asking for food? For the ability to care for their children, for their right to live a peaceful life, do we get to punish them because we don't like how they're asking for it?


Megan: [00:14:28] And it's really amazing, the complete and utter definitive "no" that she gives. No, we do not get to oppress people because it's convenient for us. No, you don't get to decide that you want to hurt people because you don't like the fact that they want their kids to survive. No, you don't get to decide that some people don't deserve human rights because they don't act or look like you. It's so definitive. And I've never gotten to have a conversation with Suzanne Collins. She's very fancy, and I'm sure she's very important and busy.


Megan: [00:15:02] But it's amazing that there is this whole trilogy with four movies that some people are like, "No, it means this. "No, it means this." And then there's just this book slapped on the table that's like, "No, it means being an authoritarian that kills kids is wrong. And there is no origin story that can justify it. It's just wrong. And they're psychopaths and they're murderers. Have some Tea." And I think that that is so admirable, especially in the YA genre. And honestly, I think a lot of authors could not have gotten away with that as The Hunger Games had not been so successful.


Megan: [00:15:40] Well, first of all, it wouldn't have had so many conflicting interpretations. And, you know, there wouldn't have been young kids walking around with guns being like, "But it's like The Hunger Games. I'm going to go out and defend myself," and people being like, "Actually, no, that's illegal. You don't you don't get to do that."


Megan: [00:15:56] But anyway, because it got so important, she had the ability to say, "This is the statement." Otherwise, people wouldn't have been listening. But because she had a four-movie franchise and, you know, she's Suzanne Collins, she can smack that book on the table and say, like, "Oppression is wrong, authoritarian regimes are wrong, fascism is wrong, and there is no correct interpretation where fascism is correct. No, it's always bad," and just slide that book across the table, and I think that that's amazing and I think it's great and a little weird that so many people look at all these YA books from Harry Potter to Hunger Games to Red Queen, you can even look at Narnia and there are political statements hidden in each of those books.


Megan: [00:16:47] And yes, sometimes they are tiny, and sometimes they are small, and sometimes they are just like, "Is the cost of war worth it?" Or sometimes they are massive, like, "Just because someone's a figurehead, if they're are talking mouthpiece and have no brain behind it, that doesn't make them a ruler." So, it depends on how big the author's willing to go. But my challenge to you, and this is a dangerous one, is to think through your favorite YA books and see what what statement could the author be making. And it is dangerous, because it can be misinterpreted. As someone who has gotten messages from people, and I'm like, "No-wha-what? How did...how did you get that? That's not what I meant. But thank you for reading my book and I need to go now." It's happened to me several times, in fact, and it's a little scary because I'm like, "I don't want to. Oh, that is not the legacy I want to leave. But thank you for reading."


Megan: [00:17:41] But go back and look at those books and look at what you believe the author's interpretation was. If you want extra credit, Google it, see what other people have thought and find where art is trying to make the casual political statement, the subtle political statement, the statement that really focuses more on what is our place as humans within this system as not politicians, not freedom fighters, as human beings who are trying to survive in this world and hopefully leave it a better, kinder, more livable place for those poor kids who are coming after us, who have no control over what we're doing right now, but are going to have to clean up our mess.


Megan: [00:18:25] What is the author saying to you about that? What can you take from the text that will create a better, kinder world going forward? And for the authors out there, what legacy are you leaving? What statements are you making? Because, yes, YA, a lot of our readers are adults, but for those kids, when they are going to have a moment in time when they can choose to interpret their next action in kindness or in self-profit, which, which action are they going to take if the thing that flashes through their mind in that moment is, is your book? What, what is the path that they are going to choose based on what they have absorbed from your book?


Megan: [00:19:09] Because as an author, you don't know ever when something, one statement, one quote, one paragraph, a character is going to become so important to a reader that they are going to start interpreting the events in their life through that lens. And I think the more we look at art not as a teaching moment, but as a an avenue for growing our humanity, hopefully in a better way to create a more hopeful future, the the better we will be as readers, as authors, as storytellers. So look at it. Take a moment, take five minutes while you're waiting for your coffee while you're stuck in traffic, while, I don't know, your Internet cuts out and you have to scream at your computer for 30 seconds, instead of screaming at your computer because your Internet cut out, you know, think about the depth and meaning of a book and how it affects you as a human being, because we are at a place right now where we can choose different paths.


Megan: [00:20:08] We have options available to us as a species, as a country, if you're here in the US, and every choice that we take, er, make, every action that we take toward our our fellow humans can have a monumental difference. And I hope that by learning about humanity, by experiencing other people's lives, through reading that, we will choose the kind path that invites our fellows to come along with us to a prosperous place and step away from oppression and pain and bigotry and loathing of those who are different. So take a moment, choose a book and actively choose, I hope you'll get from the books that you read because that's really the most the most common message, but actively choose to raise your fellow man up with you instead of grinding them into the dirt so we create a new Hunger Games.


Megan: [00:21:11] So until next time, love the people around you, no matter what they look like. Love them, raise them up, or if they're trying to, umm, grind people into the dirt, be Indiana Jones, just punch a Nazi, you know, whatever you have to do. But for the people who need help, help pick them up because it's been a hard time and they need a little love. Until next time.