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Social justice leaders in YA fiction

Hannah Kennelly  |  13 February 2020

In a world where governing bodies are often consumed by conflict and disagreement, the principles of Catholic Social Teaching actually provide a good blueprint for a different way to lead. But how can we help the next generation better understand and follow these principles? One of our young writers looks at some popular Young Adult (YA) novels to find some examples of fictional leaders who – whether they know it or not – bring the teachings of the Catholic Church to life.

Stewardship of the Earth
Fern Gully – The Last Rainforest
by Diana Young
Age group: 10+ years 

Originally intended for a young audience, Fern Gully-The Last Rainforest is a worthwhile read for any Catholic who wishes to learn about the importance of protecting our precious environment.

The story follows the journey of Crysta, a curious fairy who lives in an Australian rainforest free of human intervention. When loggers accidently cut down a tree containing Hexxus, an evil manifestation of pollution, Crysta and her new friends must fight to save Fern Gully and prevent the destruction of their home.

It’s a story that highlights not just the importance of our stewardship of our natural habitats and the animals that live there, but also how our modern way of life has a more far-reaching impact than we might think.

Dignity of the Human Person
by R.J. Palacio
Age group: 10+ years

Winner of many awards, Wonder is a heart-warming story that follows the adventures of August ‘Auggie’ Pullman, a young boy born with a facial deformity.

Having never been able to go to school before, Auggie’s life changes when his mother enrols him in a local middle school. However, his new classmates struggle to accept him. Despite many obstacles, Auggie becomes an unlikely hero and inspiring young leader proving that you can’t blend in when you were born to stand out.

A debut novel by Raquel Jaramillo Palacio, Wonder is a significant tale that explores the importance of tolerance and compassion and implores its readers to look beyond physical appearances and see the innate dignity of each person.

The Hate U Give
by Angie Thomas
Age group: 15+ years

Inspired by real events, The Hate U Give revolves around the perspective of Starr Carter, a young girl whose world is suddenly shattered when she witnesses the fatal shooting of her unarmed black childhood friend by police. Starr’s story highlights how all people are called to make a stand for people suffering prejudice and marginalisation.

Exploring issues such as racism, prejudice, activism and police brutality, Angie Thomas’ debut novel does not shy away from the difficult questions that plague our society, but also emphasises the importance of empathy and forgiveness.

Preferential Option for the Poor
No and Me
by Delphine de Vignan
Age group: 12+ years

With more than 1.1 million Australians currently living in poverty, No and Me is a startling reminder of the great economic imbalance in our world.

This French novel’s main character is Lou Bertignac, a young girl who as part of a school project befriends No, a homeless girl living on the streets of Paris. As their friendship blossoms, Lou persuades her reluctant parents to invite No to live with them, transforming all of their lives permanently.

A thought-provoking read, No and Me acts as a lens into the dark underbelly of poverty and homelessness around the globe.

 The Common Good
The Book Thief
by Markus Zusak
Age group: 16+ years

An international bestseller by Australian author Mark Zusak, The Book Thief is a heartbreakingly powerful story about love and loss and the power of the written word.

Set in the midst of World War II the novel is narrated by Death, who follows the life of Liesel Meminger, a girl whose foster family agrees to protect Max, a Jewish man. The book highlights the horrors of Nazi Germany, and the small acts of rebellion through which the human spirit resists such evil. The Book Thief is a must-read book for anyone wishing to explore the complexity of human nature and what it means to serve the common good.

 Subsidiarity and Participation
Princess Academy
by Shannon Hale
Age group: 13+ years

A fantasy novel by Shannon Hale, Princess Academy explores the themes of family, love and the importance of education.

The main character, Miri, is a girl from a mountain village who is prevented, because of her size, from contributing to the community’s work in the quarry. But then a prophecy emerges that the prince will marry a girl from the mountains, and Miri is forced to attend school
to determine who wins the hand of the prince.

Miri learns about diplomacy, literature and commerce, and uses her knowledge to improve the lives of people in her family and community. The story can be used to highlight subsidiarity and participation – showing the importance of people being allowed to use their gifts for the good of the community, as well as how those who live closest to the community are best place to determine what’s best for them. 

Image: Getty Images

For questions and activities relating to this article, see Social justice leaders in YA fiction: questions and activities.


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