5 Books to Help Teens Understand Current World Issues

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Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman

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Sephy is a Cross — a member of the dark-skinned ruling class. Callum is a Nought — a “colourless” member of the underclass who were once slaves to the Crosses. The two have been friends since early childhood, but that’s as far as it can go. In their world, Noughts and Crosses simply don’t mix. Against a background of prejudice and distrust, intensely highlighted by violent terrorist activity, a romance builds between Sephy and Callum — a romance that is to lead both of them into terrible danger. Can they possibly find a way to be together?

In this story of white privilege reversal, where whites are victims of racism and blacks are considered the superior race, Malorie Blackman puts a thought provoking spin on racism and prejudice. The protagonists face violence, oppression and bitter injustice in a society that highlights the constant discrimination that goes on in our own.  A powerful, complex story, it embodies compassion and the importance of fighting for what is right: equality for all human beings.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K Rowling

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Harry has been burdened with a dark, dangerous and seemingly impossible task: that of locating and destroying Voldemort’s remaining Horcruxes. Never has Harry felt so alone, or faced a future so full of shadows. But Harry must somehow find within himself the strength to complete the task he has been given. He must leave the warmth, safety and companionship of The Burrow and follow without fear or hesitation the inexorable path laid out for him

In the final book in this well-loved series, the government is being controlled by an evil dictator. Sound familiar? In the wizarding world, muggles are crunched underfoot and muggle-born wizards and witches are accused of stealing their magic. Voldemort is “purifying” society, attacking and dehumanizing a group of humans for their birth and origins. Under these terrifying circumstances, Harry, Ron and Hermione must show courage, loyalty and mercy to triumph over evil once and for all.  The need to stand together against oppression is greater than ever before.

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank 

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Discovered in the attic in which she spent the last years of her life, Anne Frank’s remarkable diary has since become a world classic—a powerful reminder of the horrors of war and an eloquent testament to the human spirit.

In 1942, with Nazis occupying Holland, a thirteen-year-old Jewish girl and her family fled their home in Amsterdam and went into hiding. For the next two years, until their whereabouts were betrayed to the Gestapo, they and another family lived cloistered in the “Secret Annexe” of an old office building. Cut off from the outside world, they faced hunger, boredom, the constant cruelties of living in confined quarters, and the ever-present threat of discovery and death.

The diary of a young Jewish girl living in hiding during the Second World War, this book is a real life account of the terror, poor quality of life and tragic consequences met by millions of Jews at the hands of one racist man. A priceless contribution to history, it highlights the destructive effects of racism, bigotry and xenophobia and the fact that everyone should have a right to freedom.

Welcome to Nowhere by Elizabeth Laird

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Twelve-year-old Omar and his brothers and sisters were born and raised in the beautiful and bustling city of Bosra, Syria. Omar doesn’t care about politics – all he wants is to grow up to become a successful businessman who will take the world by storm. But when his clever older brother, Musa, gets mixed up with some young political activists, everything changes . . .

Before long, bombs are falling, people are dying, and Omar and his family have no choice but to flee their home with only what they can carry. Yet no matter how far they run, the shadow of war follows them – until they have no other choice than to attempt the dangerous journey to escape their homeland altogether. But where do you go when you can’t go home?

This story gives an insight into lives of Syrians and refugees of today, regarded by so many as the enemy. Written to help children understand the refugee crisis and empathise with the situation of its victims, it portrays the desperate struggle to survive when war is on your doorstep, with themes such as discrimination against women and people with disabilities woven throughout. With so much confusion about the situation in Syria and the arrival and rejection of refugees, books like this are so important.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now…

This novel is set in a world in which women have been stripped of all rights, including the right to read, and are only needed for reproduction. Religious and sexual freedom are non-existent and a theocratic government imposes its own rules. This dystopia is a little too close for comfort with the growing sexualisation and objectification of women in today’s society, where “locker room talk” is justified and rape culture is rife. Eye-opening and scary.

Can you suggest any books to add to this list? 

Thoughts on ‘Go Set a Watchman’ by Harper Lee

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This post contains spoilers.

I was thrilled when the news came out that Harper Lee had written a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird and that it was going to be published. I was even more thrilled and intrigued when I learned that this sequel was actually written before To Kill a Mockingbird but had been abandoned on advice from the publisher in a favour of a new manuscript starring younger versions of Lee’s characters. So Jean Louise the adult had existed before Jean Louise the child. Interesting.

I was relieved to read that Jean Louise the adult was just as plucky and fierce as her younger self. Obviously, it is difficult to read the sequel of such a famous piece of literature without having expectations. I loved the book and couldn’t put it down, although it wasn’t a thrilling page-turner like the first. The plot seems to waver in the second half and is replaced by Jean Louise’s train of thought, her inner turmoils and long interior monologues. It became a little less about action and more a debate, Jean Louise’s witty and sacrcastic reactions to the subject of racism, and to the fact that as she becomes an adult she is realising that the people she loves are a lot less accepting than she previously believed.

After  closing the book, I realised it’s not about who is racist and who is not. It’s about Jean Louise becoming her own person, and Atticus, who she puts at the same moral level as God, becoming human, with fault, fears, regrets and weaknesses. It turns out that the famous Atticus supports white supremacy. Atticus, who has always taught his children to be kind and fair, who always stood for justice, is joining white supremist groups and expressing his opposition to having black people in government. In To Kill a Mockingbird, he defended a black man against his white accusers, and although Atticus is a kind man, we realise that Scout’s childhood adoration of him depicted him as liberal, egalitarian non-racist man, when actually in defending this black man he was simply doing his job as a lawyer and making sure justice was served.

Although he is not a violent racist, Atticus is a man of his time. What he really is a white southern man raised during a time when black people were surpressed and whose father fought for the confederate side in the Civil War. Atticus is on the side of the law and will defend whoever is right, black or white, but ultimately sees black people as a threat to society. His ignorance creates the desire in him to “preserve” southern society because his view is and has always been that black people are not “ready” to take on the freedoms being offered to them. Another era of reconstruction was upon the South at this time and people feared how much their society was to change yet again faced with black empowerment, 100 years after slavery had been abolished.

Although I loved Atticus less for it, I am glad Harper Lee have him a daughter who inherited the better parts of him. Scout is not a racist, because her father never taught her to differentiate between black or white. Jean Louise is effectively “colour blind.” This suggests that Jean Louise’s children’s generation should have all trace of racism squashed out of them, if their parents had been raised the same ways as Atticus raised his daughter. We know, of course, that in real life this was not the case.

This was a beautiful, albeit different novel which gave insight to life in the postbellum South. It was one that made me think, and I loved going back to long-loved characters. I will never be able to read To Kill a Mockingbird in the same way ever again, but I think the way Atticus’s whole character in that first novel is actually just his child’s perception of him is genius. Harper Lee strikes again.