As I write this, I wonder how I–a YA fantasy reader and writer who is white–can possibly have anything worth saying at a time when my country’s streets are filled with Black Lives Matter protesters being fired upon with teargas and flash bombs, thrown down, choked, clubbed. Well, you’ve seen the news. You know.
But today I will share three things with you: two of my favorite YA fantasy books and an image from the Black Lives Matter movement that I can’t get out of my head.
Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes and Marie Lu’s Legend are (in my humble opinion) perfect YA fantasy books with noble characters and tight, compelling plots. Like so many YA fantasy books, protagonists fight against a powerful oppressor. Both books also feature main characters from opposing forces: one is from the oppressed class, the other from the oppressor.
Laia from An Ember in the Ashes works with the Resistance and will do anything to save her brother, even work as a slave for an evil commander. Elias is a member of the elite. As a “Mask” for the Martial Empire, Elias is an assassin trained at the highest level. Despite Laia’s misgivings, she and Elias form a relationship, and we learn that Elias never wanted to be a Mask. He is a good person who uses his privileged status to help Laia—though even he must be careful to avoid severe punishment.
In Marie Lu’s Legend, June is the brilliant, logical military cadet from an elite family. While seeking her brother’s murderer–whom she is told is a member of the oppressed class–June encounters Day, the Republic’s most wanted criminal. Cocky and compassionate Day is about as different from June as can be. The two characters begin the story at cross purposes but, like Elias in Ember, June has compassion. She is not inherently a bad person, just indoctrinated by the oppressor.
As the pairs of opposing characters in each novel build a personal connection, characters from the privileged class (Elias and June) open their eyes to who the oppressed really are as people. June learns that Day is not the person the Republic portrayed him to be. Elias learns that his training as a Mask can make him a great help to the Resistance.
“Hate, it has caused a lot of problems in this world, but it has not solved one yet.” —Maya Angelou
This brings us to the powerful image I mentioned earlier. During this time of Black Lives Matter protests there are many moving and disturbing images, but today I will write about this one.
On the right is Samantha Francine, an African American woman faced with an angry white man in Whitefish, Montana. Samantha Francine stood with her sign near town hall with sixty other protesters when this burly white man, well over six feet tall, stormed the group, yelling epithets and knocking signs from protesters’ hands. He got into the protesters’ faces, one after another, clearly looking for a fight. When he got to Samantha Francine, she planted her feet, pulled her glasses up, and looked the man square in the eye.
Samantha Francine said she was not afraid. Her single white dad had taught her and her siblings that life would be different for them because of the color of their skin. She said he constantly reminded them that “No matter the threat, always look them in the eye so they have to acknowledge you’re human.”
Samantha Francine remembered.
Judging by the man’s threatening posture and actions, he was full of anger and hate. When he looked into Samantha Francine’s wide open eyes, did he really see her? Might there come a day when the man feels remorse for evoking such fear in peaceful people?
In fictional worlds, members of the oppressive class are able to find redemption to the point where they decide to work to end oppression.
I pray this is possible in the real world too.
“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” —James Baldwin