Celebrating Stories of Teen Activists

During Banned Books Week, libraries take the time to celebrate stories that some thought shouldn’t be told, and the right of everyone to read those same stories. It is a celebration of the rights the First Amendment protects and the wonderful insights and narratives that those protections have enabled libraries to share and for people of all ages to learn from. However, the very existence of Banned Books Week demonstrates that this freedom of expression is still contested, and it is often youth who stand up and protect their own access to their rights. Stories like those that follow help give insight into the emotional realities of taking a stand as a young person. They are invaluable resources for youth trying to understand the importance of this time of year in particular, and the value of their voices all year round.

Americus by M.K. Reed and Jonathan Hill (2011, Great Graphic Novels 2012)
Sharp, colorful cartoon illustrations lend a wonderful sense of urgency to this graphic novel about a young, reserved “bookworm” named Neal and his struggle to protect his favorite series of fantasy novels from attempts at censorship by some members of his small-town community. Partnering with a local librarian, Neal launches a community movement to ensure that the newest volume of his favorite series is not barred from the library. This book attempts to accurately represent what it takes to face a book challenge, and provides a strong cast of characters to discuss all sides of a book challenge issue. Most uniquely, it focuses on Neal’s challenges balancing the everyday challenges that already exist for him because of his youth with his new role as a leader in the quest to protect The Chronicles of Apathea Ravenchilde.

The Day They Came To Arrest The Book by Nat Hentoff (1982)
While it may seem dated, this book still has a lot to say on debates surrounding books and free speech in today’s world, as observed by Alyssa Rosenberg in this editorial for The Washington Post. In his narrative about students and teachers debating the censorship of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Hentoff speaks deftly of the various perspectives on the issue, and clearly on the value of considering a work completely and closely before beginning to proselytize about or judge This is a helpful reminder for all of us, and a key understanding to equip youth to be activists and advocates for their own interests.

The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano by Sonia Manzano (2012) 
A fictional narrative set in 1969, Evelyn Serrano gets caught up in protests in Spanish Harlem alongside her grandmother, visiting from Puerto Rico. Dealing with issues of Latinx identity, Puerto Rican independence, family, and protest, this is a rich and compelling narrative that is sure to spark conversation and to encourage young people to consider the various ways they can express their rights and share their opinions and beliefs, as well as the consequences of such actions.

The Year They Burned the Books by Nancy Garden (1999)
While some aspects of the story may seem dated, and books that deal with sexual identity and expression are becoming wonderfully more and more abundant, the narrative presented in Nancy Garden’s story of a high school newspaper reporting on changes to the sex-ed curriculum still feels relevant. Access to information about sexual identity is important to the central characters of this story, as they begin to self-identify as gay and lesbian. Their efforts to preserve this access are reminders of the importance of providing timely, nuanced, and unfettered resources to all people, and are a strong example for students who are advocating in their own communities for their right to access the information they need.

Hero Type by Barry Lyga (2009)
This novel about an unlikely teen hero explores issues of patriotism, free speech, religion, and political engagement. Kevin, the protagonist, is thrust into the limelight when he saves a local girl from a terrible fate. However, his community’s adoration soon turns to anger when a local reporter photographs him throwing away some “Support the Troops” magnets. Kevin wrestles with what it means to be “American” and how to authentically live out his beliefs in a story that should make teen readers examine their own feelings about democracy and activism.

What other books would you recommend for teens interested in getting an inside look at First Amendment issues and activism? Please share your recommendations in the comments section.

–Trent McLees and Casey Rawson


This post is part of the YALSA Presidential Theme: Youth Activism through Community Engagement