I just finished re-reading George Orwell’s 1984. I say re-read because I read it once in high school (didn’t we all?) but I felt as though I was reading it for the first time because all I remembered was a white male protagonist, an oppressive regime and something about sex. Last spring I read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 for the first time. I was surprised to realize many similarities between the two books.
Orwell’s book came first, published in 1949 and inspired by anti-Stalinist sentiment as well as the realization of the relationship of society and government to the people. Bradbury’s book was published in 1953 and was inspired by the McCarthy hearings. No matter the initial inspiration, the effect is quite similar between the two. In both books, the protagonist is a fairly unexceptional middle-aged man living in an oppressive system. In fact, in both books, the protagonist’s job is essentially the destruction of words. In the case of 1984, main character Winston “rectifies” past newspaper articles so that they agree with the current sentiments of the government. 451’s Guy Montag is a fireman, he sets fire to books, which are illegal. In both books, the main characters view their wives as vapid, shallow women with whom they are unable to connect. In both books, a young vibrant woman is the spark that sets the main character toward his path of rebellion. And both books feature a somewhat mysterious man who assists the main character in his brave act.
The worlds of these books are exceedingly well conceived. There is much to respect in each of them. But it’s what I didn’t see that grabbed my attention. I didn’t see myself. Reading these books made me remember why I fell in love with young adult literature. The young adult dystopias that have landed on best-seller lists and subsequently made into movies are like feminist retellings of these old classics.
Even if you don’t feel that the protags of some of the recent big sellers can rightly be called feminist, you’ve got to admit what absolute fun it is to see girls at the helms of these stories. Girls who aren’t vapid or shallow or manic pixie dream girls, but girls who shoot arrows and start revolutions, who leap from trains and save their friends, who defy what society demands in order to do what is right.
I grant you that we seem to have traded the middle-aged man paired with young nubile female for teen girl chased by two overly handsome brave boys, but still — if I’m going to read something and try to find myself, I’d much rather see Katniss or Tris than Julia or Clarisse.
I grew weary of adult fiction when I couldn’t find myself there anymore. I wasn’t in the middle-aged men having affairs. I wasn’t in the mothers unfulfilled by motherhood. I wasn’t in the working women who loved to shop. I definitely wasn’t in the Red Room of Pain. Young adult literature offered me girls as main characters, girls who worked toward what they wanted, girls who fought and feared and loved and lost. Girls that spoke to me.
At the end of the day, isn’t this what the #weneeddiversebooks campaign is all about? Every child should be able to open a book and see herself — no matter what color her skin or who she loves or where she came from. It’s up to us to make sure it doesn’t take another sixty years.
(book covers from Amazon.com, Katniss from moviepilot.com, Tris climbing the ferris wheel from pinterest.com)