When you think of sustainability, chances are that young adult novels and comic books are not the first things to come to mind. But getting kids to read new narratives may be the thing that piques their interest in the world's well-being. The green novel for adults is nothing new (Edward Abbey’s 1975 The Monkey Wrench Gang), and the earth-conscious read for kids and teens has been rapidly evolving (Carl Hiaasen’s 2002 Hoot). The hyper-popular YA dystopian novel is even incorporating elements of eco-awareness: from the coal mines of The Hunger Games’ District 12 to the desolate wasteland outside the walls of the Divergent series, environmental devastation is taking up more space in young adult literature. The newest wave of YA fiction is breaking away from the dystopia and focusing on the reality of the present, addressing green issues like fracking and environmental justice while keeping the focus on teen life.
Lori Ann Stephens’ new novel Some Act of Vision, for example, is a fast-paced read with a sci-fi lens. Currently a finalist for the National Reader’s Choice Awards in the YA category, Stephens’ novel centers around a young ballerina whose life is disrupted when fracking-induced earthquakes rip her town apart on the eve of her big debut. The geological disturbance destroys a nearby chemical plant, which releases a compound that has a, shall we say, interesting effect on her (that's where the sci-fi comes in--no spoilers here!). The political intrigue that follows the disaster is thrilling, and the splash of first romance balances out the whole book perfectly.
Stephens says she was listening to a piece on NPR about fracking when she thought of the premise for the novel. It hit her that her teenage son, and many young people his age, probably had no idea what was going on with the fracking industry in their home state of Texas—things like geological instability and water pollution so bad residents could light their tap water on fire. “The first step” she says in reference to eco-awareness, “is being aware and educating [yourself] about the reality of the situation.” She admits that including environmental catastrophe in her novel felt like a bit of a risk, adding that “youth already feel like their world is falling apart”. But despite the seriousness of the subject matter, Stephens hopes readers will see themselves in her protagonist and feel more empowered to engage with their environment and take part in activism on their own.
The comic book world is also taking a turn for the green. Like young adult novels, the material is engaging and colorful, with characters so vivid you feel like you could reach out and touch them. Comics like Mayah's Lot, about a young girl's fight to keep her inner city community from being exploited by a corporation that wants to dump toxic waste in an empty lot where she’s growing a garden, showcase teen heroes bringing people together to fight for the good of the city. Rebecca Bratspies is one of the authors of the comic (along with Charlie La Greca), and is also the founder of the Center for Urban Environmental Reform.
The main goal of comics like Mayah’s Lot and YA novels like Some Act of Vision is to reach young people with the messages they may be accustomed to tuning out. As part of a narrative, environmental issues become personal and tangible for teens, ultimately using fiction to deepen their awareness of the real world around them.
-Photos courtesy of Lori Ann Stephens and Charlie La Greca & Rebecca Bratspies, respectively
MAREN HUNSBERGER is an editorial intern at Sierra. She is a rising senior studying biology and environmental science at the College of William and Mary. She loves hiking, running, animals of all shapes and sizes, and wants to be David Attenborough when she grows up.