Critical Thinking with the Hive Mind

I’m about to start semester the third in the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at the fabulous Vermont College of Fine Arts (a program I highly recommend). Anyway, the third semester is when you do your critical thesis and I’m putting together the reading list for the bibliography of mine, attempting to get a headstart on things. What I’d love from you smarty smart peeps, are your recommendations of any and all (good, bad, indifferent) young adult fantasies with strong political overtones.

Nothing’s too obvious to mention, because I’m interested in being as comprehensive as possible and my ability to overlook stuff should never be discounted. And although I’m more focused on relatively current work (last 10-15 years), classics are fine too as I haven’t fully established the scope yet.

20 thoughts on “Critical Thinking with the Hive Mind”

  1. I’ll try to remember to look over the shelves later, but the first thing that pops to mind is Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy, which functions quite nicely as a skewering of the British class system, among other things.

  2. Octavian Nothing! Which I just read thanks to your (ancient) recommendation. Excellent on slavery, and experimenting on people, and all that. Is Cory Doctorow’s new book Little Brother allowed? I haven’t read it yet (since it’s not out, der), but what I gather from Neil Gaiman’s review is that it is intensely political.

  3. I keep going back and forth on whether I can make a case for it as a fantasy. What I’ll probably do is include it as a relevant title of interest to fantasy readers and put it in the bibliography.

  4. Well there’s an awful lot I don’t understand about categorization. One: I am not sure I am competent to say what is fantasy or not (since for me “wish fulfillment” counts, but can slop so far into other genres that I tend to get booed when I bring it up. Oops). Also, I am not sure what the possibly even more esoterically strict parameters of “young adult” might be.
    So: I think Louis Sachar’s Holes can adequately be called both (and political in the socio way that is often cited as political and certainly serves as an expression of politics). But it might also be less fantasy and younger than you are looking for.
    Also, since “nothing is too obvious” (a funny block quote, maybe, juxtaposed along with suggestions of Octavian Nothing here, and its apparent lack of obviousness), Joan Aiken’s historical Hanoverian revisionism, in every “wolves” book other than the Wolves of Willoughby Chase, is steeped in important narrative politics. Again, that might be far too young.

  5. Alan Garner’s “The Owl Service” takes a look at the class system as well, although it’s more in terms of British (represented by upper-middle class) and the Welsh working class, so there are nationalistic themes as well.
    I think William Nicholson’s The Windsinger trilogy (or is it Windfire? I’m dumb) could count as well, since it deals with an elitist society segregated by their educational credentials.

  6. His Dark Materials, naturally
    The Giver by Lois Lowry?
    Perhaps the Among the Hidden books by Mary Downing Hahn
    Perhaps even the Uglies sequence by Scott Westerfeld
    What about Wide Awake by David Levithan? It is not outright fantasy, not dystopic nor utopic, but it is set in the future and is uber political.

  7. I’m the first to mention Megan Whalen Turner’s Attolia books? wow. Especially the last one, but all three, really (The Thief, Queen of Attolia, King of Attolia.)
    If you are doing old, I suggest that The Girl Who Owned A City by Nelson is a must read; I loved it as a kid, was deeply disturbed by the politics as an adult. Which proves my point, tho, that some stuff that adults get worked up over just go over the heads of kids, or are ignored because they are the boring part of a story.
    As I think on this some more, I’m sure I’ll think of other titles. But I also think that while some do it brilliantly (the Attolia books, for example); others never get beyond a black/white version of politics of who is good, and who is evil, and let’s not question the monarchy. While Tale of Despereaux is arguably more about class than politics, it is intriguing in that it suggests (that for the rat) one should not strive outside of one’s class; and the maintenance of the status quo, politicly, is a desireable thing. The mouse & rat don’t strive to change the political situation of who is literally in the light and who is out, but rather strive to change their own class to become members of those in the light.
    I’d love to to do that MFA program.

  8. I second the Attolia rec. But you know about those already, don’t you?
    And I also think that Wide Awake is a TOTAL fantasy. I mean a gay Jewish president of the USA?
    I also think Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey is deeply political. But I can’t tell you why without spoilers.

  9. “un lun dun” by china miéville is political about the environment and about race (ish) as well.
    some of the books in the earthsea series by ursula le guin are very feminist–especially “the tombs of atuan”–but the later ones aren’t really YA.
    anything by tamora pierce, but especially the lioness series and the protector of the small series–very outspokenly feminist.
    there were some interesting class issues in susan cooper’s “the dark is rising” but i wouldn’t say that politics infused the book. and the rest of the series is politics-free.
    you could argue–easily–that race is one of the major themes of the harry potter series … but only if you accept that wizards and muggles form two different “races.” by the same token, you can argue for a discussion of class politics.
    susan vaught’s “stormwitch,” walter mosley’s “47,” and anything on the carl brandon society’s awards shortlist.

  10. Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark trilogy, if it is not too old (published early/mid-80s). Lots involving the transition from a monarchy to a republic.

  11. Dune (but this might be Sci Fi), Little Fur: the Legend Begins (definitely counts), The Tales of Alvin Maker series by Orson Scott Card if those count as YA.

  12. Dune (but this might be Sci Fi), Little Fur: the Legend Begins (definitely counts), The Tales of Alvin Maker series by Orson Scott Card if those count as YA.

  13. Hi Aunt Gwenda!
    I spent my MFA tracking down out of print copies of my two favorites ever.
    Skinny Malinky Leads the War for Kidness, by Stanley Kiesel
    (George) by E.L. Konigsburg
    I think the latter’s my favorite Konigsburg. I owe it to the librarian at Adamsville Elementary, every inch her name (Mrs. Beatrice Wetscher), who would have told me that it breaks books’ spines to lay them open face down. She was always pushing bookmarks the way mothers did handwashing before dinner. One of those old ladies, perfumed in every fleshy fold, who have achieved through soft life and the pious coddling of children the approximate dimensions of a bullfrog. With a breathy exhalation prefatory to a lecture on the Dewey decimal system, she would settle into and overflow a chair, fluttering her fat ringed fingers, like a dowager princess gone to voluminous seed. I am making some of this up.
    As for the first, a surreal sequel of rebellion fondled eagerly behind adults’ backs.
    Good luck with the thesis!

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