Reflections of Reality: Foster Teens and Orphans in Young Adult Science Fiction, a guest post by Kerry Sutherland
In 2013, there were 510,000 American children in foster care. 40% of foster children are between the ages of 13 and 21 years old. 9% of foster care teens will age out of the foster care system and are more likely to experience homelessness. You can find more Foster Care Statitics and follow a link to find your state statistics here. See also the Child Welfare Information Gateway. I have often felt that foster teens were very under-represented in YA literature. If you expand the definition to include teens who are being raised by relatives or family friends, like grandparents for example, than what I see happening in my local communities is not being reflected in YA literature at all. Today guest poster and librarian Kerry Sutherland discusses foster care in YA science fiction.
As a science fiction fan, I don’t usually seek out realistic fiction for pleasure reading. As a School Library Journal reviewer, I often receive realistic fiction to review, and my work on the In the Margins Book Award and Selection Committee revolves almost entirely on realistic stories that would appeal to young people in marginalized situations, so most of what I read that is contemporary and true-to-life comes from these two sources. A big part of adolescent development revolves around learning that the world doesn’t revolve around “me,” and that the “others” around us need our attention, concern, and empathy, so as I have been reading the many disturbing stories (some nonfiction) for my In the Margins work over the past year and a half, I began to wonder how young adult readers with my reading preferences might connect to these “others” if the situations in the stories they read are fantastic and outrageous. This question lurked in the back of my mind during my recreational reading, and I noticed that authors of some recent young adult science fiction not only include orphaned or foster teen characters but they integrate those characters’ vulnerability into the plot itself, so readers can’t help but make the connection between the characters’ orphaned or foster care status and the difficulties they face, even though the storylines themselves are spectacularly and entertainingly unrealistic. A line from the title story in one of my favorite short story collections of the past year, Jean Thompson’s The Witch, jumped out at me as I was thinking on this: “There is no greater powerlessness than being a child.” These three books absolutely enforce that sad reality, and in doing so, show many teen readers an alternate reality they might not otherwise understand or even care about: a reality where young people are without supervision, without care, and as such, vulnerable to exploitation for adult gain.
Using vulnerable children is the focus of medical researchers in Kristen Lippert-Martin’s Tabula Rasa, where inmates of juvenile detention centers, most of whom are wards of the state and without an adult who has an emotional interest in them, are targets for experiments that involve erasing their memories. Not surprisingly, most of these kids “jumped at the chance” to participate in these experiments, knowing that the opportunity might be their only hope to have a future as an adult without their painful pasts as emotional baggage. How many of these children, like so many in reality, are in custody for no other reason than their status as orphans or foster children who have acted out their frustration, depression, and confusion in attempts to take control over their lives? A nurse at the research facility tells Sarah, the main character, that she is “a girl with a violent past, a bad attitude, and no future. Just like the rest of them.” What little she knows of Sarah, who has, at this point, difficulty with her memory, is what the authorities have told her, and her last statement is very telling of her general judgment of all her teenage patients who have been culled from detention. No future – so the present treatment of these neglected children is of no consequence, as they have no value except as experimental material. Hopeless and expendable, and as Sarah discovers of the woman who killed her mother and now targets Sarah: “I am a thing to her. Nothing more.”
The disturbing experimentation in Caragh O’Brien’s The Vault of Dreamers involves indigent children as well, who are mined of their dreams which are then sold to the rich for their entertainment. Students at a high school for the arts promoted as a reality television show are monitored, without their knowledge or consent, for seeds of dreams that expand in the brains of a group of comatose children who belong to no one and are kept locked away, alive in a dream state, cared for physically by those who only do so in order to use them. How different is this than the fate of the main character Ruby’s love interest, Linus, who donates blood on a monthly basis to pay his rent? Linus chooses to donate in an effort to save his friend Otis’s partner, Parker, who has Alzheimer’s Disease, but the doctor at the school infirmary insists that Linus doesn’t “have to let them tap you. I can’t see that it’s making any difference for him. I’ve told Otis that many times.” Linus is seventeen now, and nearly an adult who can make such a decision on his own, but his donations started when he was thirteen, just after running away from foster care, when “nobody looked too hard for me when I cut out on my own.” An orphan, he had nowhere to go, and fell prey first to a photographer looking for a swimsuit model and then to Otis, who may mean well and treat Linus kindly, but by the time Ruby meets Linus, the balance of power is becoming more level and the vampiric nature of the relationship is coming to light. As an orphan and then a forgotten foster child, Linus was an easy target for Otis, who finds nothing wrong with trading parental concern for blood, and a young Linus was willing to take a chance, because really, how many choices did he have at the time?
Taking chances is what Billy the Kid in one of my favorite series, Michael Grant’s BZRK, is all about. Billy the Kid, as he calls himself, enjoys the freedom that his disinterested foster parent allows, as he comes and goes as he pleases and spends enough time gaming online that his scores, posted in a forum, draw the attention of the insane and anonymous leader of the guerrilla group BZRK. Billy uses this opportunity to throw himself into the exciting and adventurous life BZRK offers. At thirteen years old, he takes ridiculous chances with his life with the encouragement of his compatriots (which include other teens) who do the same, and ultimately, this “scrawny mixed-race kid” ends up nearly decapitated in the name of the cause, his life a sacrifice in the harsh reality of battle. Ignored and then used, Billy, who refers to himself online as “unconnected, sick of where he was, looking for . . . well, looking” finds a home and a purpose, losing his life in his quest to fit into a group led by someone who looks at the participants, including this thirteen year old child, as expendable weapons in her fight. Does he make friends? Does he feel accepted? Absolutely. He is mourned and missed by his partners, but this, of course, doesn’t compensate for a young life lost. Without parents who care for him, he makes choices that lead to his death, choices no thirteen year old should be expected to make. Throwing one’s self into the line of fire for any reason is clearly a decision meant for an adult mind, but Billy chooses the purpose and excitement this real-life game offers, along with the companionship of others who are misfits for a variety of reasons, brought together for a cause that is greater than their leader’s – acceptance.
The teen characters in these three science fiction thrillers may be sad mirrors of the ugly truth that foster care is a broken system, but their stories also offer hope in the form of teen and adult allies who help the teens take control of their lives and insist on respect from their peers and adults, as well as assert their right to personal dignity, regardless of the outcome. For readers in custodial situations, the concept is empowering; for readers fortunate enough to appreciate a family of their own, these characters shed light on the emotional lives of peers who otherwise may go unnoticed. Empathy for fictional characters may lead to connections to real children in need of a friend who is open to understanding, an advocate who will not judge them or their situation, a teen like themselves who will accept them as an individual regardless of their home (or lack thereof) situation. Sometimes it just takes one person to reach out and make a difference in someone’s life, and I am hopeful that with the influence of young adult fiction that honestly represents the emotional difficulties and vulnerabilities of orphaned and foster children, the young adult reader of even the most unrealistic of fiction may be the someone who makes that difference.
Meet Our Guest Blogger, Kerry Sutherland
I am the teen librarian at the Ellet Branch of the Akron-Summit County Public Library in Akron, Ohio, and have a PhD in American literature from Kent State University, along with a MLIS from the same. I am a book reviewer for School Library Journal and RT Book Reviews magazine, as well as a published author of fiction, poetry, professional and academic work. I love cats, Henry James, NASCAR, and anime. I read everything, because you only live once.
About the Books
Publisher’s Description for TABULA RASA
The Bourne Identity meets Divergent in this heart-pounding debut.
Sixteen-year-old Sarah has a rare chance at a new life. Or so the doctors tell her. She’s been undergoing a cutting-edge procedure that will render her a tabula rasa—a blank slate. Memory by memory her troubled past is being taken away.
But when her final surgery is interrupted and a team of elite soldiers invades the isolated hospital under cover of a massive blizzard, her fresh start could be her end.
Navigating familiar halls that have become a dangerous maze with the help of a teen computer hacker who’s trying to bring the hospital down for his own reasons, Sarah starts to piece together who she is and why someone would want her erased. And she won’t be silenced again.
A high-stakes thriller featuring a non-stop race for survival and a smart heroine who will risk everything, Tabula Rasa is, in short, unforgettable. (Egmont)
Publisher’s Description for THE VAULT OF DREAMERS:
From the author of the Birthmarked trilogy comes a fast-paced, psychologically thrilling novel about what happens when your dreams are not your own.
The Forge School is the most prestigious arts school in the country. The secret to its success: every moment of the students’ lives is televised as part of the insanely popular Forge Show, and the students’ schedule includes twelve hours of induced sleep meant to enhance creativity. But when first year student Rosie Sinclair skips her sleeping pill, she discovers there is something off about Forge. In fact, she suspects that there are sinister things going on deep below the reaches of the cameras in the school. What’s worse is, she starts to notice that the edges of her consciousness do not feel quite right. And soon, she unearths the ghastly secret that the Forge School is hiding—and what it truly means to dream there. (Roaring Brook Press)
Publisher’s Description for BZRK:
Love The Hunger Games? Action-adventure thrillers with a dystopian twist? BZRK (Berserk) by Michael Grant, New York Times best-selling author of the GONE series, ramps up the action and suspense to a whole new level of excitement.
Set in the near future, BZRK is the story of a war for control of the human mind. Charles and Benjamin Armstrong, conjoined twins and owners of the Armstrong Fancy Gifts Corporation, have a goal: to turn the world into their vision of utopia. No wars, no conflict, no hunger. And no free will. Opposing them is a guerrilla group of teens, code name BZRK, who are fighting to protect the right to be messed up, to be human. This is no ordinary war, though. Weapons are deployed on the nano-level. The battleground is the human brain. And there are no stalemates here: It’s victory . . . or madness.
BZRK unfolds with hurricane force around core themes of conspiracy and mystery, insanity and changing realities, engagement and empowerment, and the larger impact of personal choice. Which side would you choose? How far would you go to win? (Egmont)
Filed under: Teen Issues
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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