Anyone remember Joseph Kony?
The Ugandan recruiter of child soldiers was one of the most famous people in the Western world for a week or so in March, when the film Kony 2012 went viral. Then Kony was overtaken by Katniss as the name on everyone’s lips.
Kony is a real person; Katniss is fictional. Fame is one thing they have in common. Another is age. Katniss is the heroine of The Hunger Games, first in a trilogy of novels (now a film) for young adults; Kony 2012 was made for school kids. And another is that they have both become linked to social activism.
The narrator of Kony 2012 turned his documentary subject into a children’s story he was telling to his young son. In the process, key facts were left out or glossed over, and the film was heavily criticised for simplifying its subject.
The film-maker’s response (taken from an interview here) was that
We make films that speak the language of kids. We say, "You may live thousands of miles away from these problems in Uganda, but those kids are just like you, and you can do something to help them by getting your government and your self involved."
It may be underestimating, not to mention patronising, children to assume they can’t understand some background and context to the world’s problems. But it’s a laudable aim, to encourage young people to be interested in social injustices, empathise with those who are suffering, and desire to change the world for the better. Kony 2012 was intended to get viewers directly involved in a campaign to bring Joseph Kony to justice.
The Hunger Games is fiction, but with its themes of violence as entertainment and entertainment as social control, it also encourages readers to think about what’s wrong with the world now, and what it might become. And activists are trying to harness the popularity of this and similar books to effect real social and political change. Imagine Better is a project getting fans of Harry Potter and Katniss involved in real-world campaigning. It’s not alone; this article gives an excellent overview of the growing phenomenon of fan activism.
As a writer for children and young people, I'm fascinated by this spill-over from fiction into reality. Kony 2012 took fact and turned it into a children’s story. Here the opposite is happening; young literary fans are being asked to take the ideas and ideals contained in the books they love, and apply them to the real world.
I don’t write my novels with any overtly didactic purpose to send children on crusades; I believe you have to put a good story first. When I think about many of the books I read growing up, I remember them foremost as great reads. But there’s no question that they broadly and fundamentally influenced my attitude to the world.
TH White’s The Sword in the Stone made me see that might is not right. Joan Aiken’s heroine Dido Twite showed that girls can be independent and adventurous. Rosemary Sutcliff taught me that war and invasion are not simple matters of winners and losers. From Robert Cormier and William Golding and SE Hinton I learned about the dangers of group mentality; Watership Down gave me lessons in community building as well as the human relationship to nature...
From these books I learned, I think, how to be a better person without ever realising I was being taught. That is the way of all the best lessons.
The best young adult novels challenge one's worldview and suggest what can be possible. They are timeless in a way that Kony 2012 is not. I have come back to these books as an adult, both to nostalgically enjoy them but also to analyse how they work. My analysis turned out one basic truth. They work not because they are simplified, or sensational, or patronising, but because they are great stories, imaginatively and empathetically told.
Anyone remember Kony? Anyone remember Katniss, and Harry Potter? How extraordinary that long after a real-life tyrant is deservedly buried and forgotten (although not so easily forgotten, I do realise, in his own country), the immortal ones may well turn out to be the fictional people. A really great character in a story is like a really great idea; once it’s in your head you can’t get rid of it. It might change you so much you go on to change the world.